Thursday, January 29, 2015

What we talk about when we talk about Selma

I went through three stages of reaction to the debate surrounding LBJ’s portrayal in the otherwise-awesome Selma. First, before I’d even seen the movie, it seemed strange to be centering the discussion about the first civil rights-era movie made by black people on a minor white character. If there are inaccuracies, I figured, that’s because the movie is fictional and aiming at some larger truth, and it seemed petty to get so upset about the one white character in a film made by an industry overwhelmingly dominated by white people. Not to mention, the larger story of civil rights in America really is about the resistance of powerful white people to the emancipation of black people, so it’s hardly unreasonable to portray a President hesitantly embracing the movement.

Then I saw the movie. During the Johnson scenes, I couldn’t help but think about the criticisms I’d read and, not being a Johnson scholar (or any kind of scholar, for that matter), I fixated on the moments that seemed to ring false. I wasn’t trying to, it just happened. The rest of the movie was great, but during the Johnson scenes I cringed. Afterward, as I thought about it, all manner of alternate approaches suggested themselves - Johnson’s hardly the only white foil in the movie, so it seemed gratuitous to me to take liberties with the historical record when the critiques of white society that any civil-rights movie has to make can easily rest on the truly loathsome figures of Gov. Wallace and Sheriff Clark.

In the last day or two, though, I’ve started to reconsider. I’ve read and listened to a number of black critics discuss Johnson’s portrayal as rather moderate in their eyes. The white critics I’ve read have seen Johnson in the movie the same way I did - as pretty alarmingly racist. And that difference has been what’s caused me to rethink.

If black people hear Johnson as a moderate, and white people hear him as a flaming racist, well, that says something pretty interesting about what we’re bringing to the film as individuals. It strikes me that for white people, this is a movie with relatively few figures to identify with - certainly there are the solidarity marchers who come to Selma, and martyrs like James Reeb who die there. But they’re not really individual characters in the movie; they’re more like a concept, a mass of people standing in for a mass of people.

There are only a handful of white characters in the movie with enough screen time to subconsciously identify with. And they’re all awful, but Johnson is the least awful, and unlike all the rest, he’s not vilified today. So naturally, modern white people identify with him (at least on some level; I’ve never been a ridiculously tall Texan President, but I think you know what I mean). And when he then goes on to, in the movie, endorse really despicable acts like the FBI’s surveillance of King’s private life and their manipulation of his marriage; and when we learn, after the movie if we didn’t already know it, that LBJ (apparently) never actually did that, it feels a bit like a betrayal. Like an unnecessary savaging of an otherwise-ok white person who I had been identifying with subconsciously for a few hours.

All of which is to say, it’s about time. American culture has been inaccurately and gratuitously misportraying non-white people for as long as there has been American culture. The sensation of, “There’s only one person in this movie I can relate to, and they kinda made him a jackass” is not a new sensation for black people, or asian people, or hispanic people, but it is for white people. So this is something we’ve just got to get used to.

But there’s something else. This is a movie by a black woman, about one of the most important black figures of the 20th century. This is not a movie made by committee, or screen-tested to appeal to every demographic. This is a piece of art, made by a specific person with a specific vision. Like all art, liberties are taken in service of a larger truth, but more specifically, this is the world seen through a lens in which LBJ’s portrayal really is pretty accurate. Maybe there’s no tape of him endorsing Hoover’s ugly spying on King, and maybe he was marginally more sympathetic to civil rights for black people than it felt like the movie portrayed. But the movie is about King, and about the struggle for equality, and in the context of that struggle it is no inaccuracy at all to say that the white power structure was reticent to extend equal rights to black people.

This is what happens when you let people who aren’t white men make movies: they tell stories from their point of view, and the whole point is that their view is different from mine. Why watch, otherwise?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


I walked to work today, about 7 miles. It took an hour and a half, roughly twice as long as it would take on the train or bike, but far more pleasureable (at least than the former). And I love trains, but being outside and seeing random beautiful things like a light snow dusting Oz Park or the sun catching some buildings (all things you can see on the train too, it should be said) are really nice rewards.

I think just being outside is really what I love. Running around, walking, biking, strolling, listening to podcasts or music, whatever it is, it just feels good and breaks me out of my own head. I spend far too much time there.

I find it to be a great reminder that I may have no idea what I’m going to do today, or I may be upset by some trivial bullshit, but none of that matters because the world is bigger than I could ever be, and it’s always interesting to just watch it. Life is better than any one person’s best or worst day.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Infamous S-Curve

If you’ve lived or driven in Chicago, you’ve probably spent some time cruising down one of the country’s most beautiful roadways: Lake Shore Drive. If you’ve only done that driving in the last thirty years, however, you were fortunate enough to avoid one of the most notoriously dumb civil-engineering debacles of the American 20th Century: the S-Curve.
To get a sense of how dumb this structure was, consider the nature of LSD, as we call it: a beautifully scenic lakefront expressway that runs most of the length of the city, often with relatively little traffic. These days, the speed limit is 45 miles per hour (40 during the winter), and the Illinois Department of Transportation estimates that 78-95% of drivers exceed it. It’s pretty hard not to; the Drive feels designed for moving at speed, and the buildings and parks and lakefront whipping by reward it.

So you’re going 50, 60, even 70 miles an hour (as nearly 10% of drivers do in one section) and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you hit a curve. But not just any curve. Look up above.

Immediately you have to turn 90 degrees, and then as soon as you’re done not-crashing and not-flying-off-the-side-of-the-highway, you have to do it again. Over a river, next to a lake, immediately before or after a drawbridge (depending on direction), all the while careering through a pair of turns with NASCAR-style raised outside edges.

Amazingly, the good citizens of Chicago almost never crashed their cars on this monstrosity.

Oh wait, they did, all the time. My uncle Jeff remembers crashing at night in the middle of an empty and deserted S-curve and having to walk back to Hyde Park, 8 miles south (some parts of this story might be apocryphal). Other friends and relatives who lived in the city at the time have their own stories of accidents, near-misses and impossibly slow traffic caused by people who didn’t want their own memorable stories to tell.

The S-Curve is gone now, demolished in 1985, but the legend lives on: poor public works planning isn’t an abstraction but an obstacle for the residents of a place to overcome, or suffer under. The lessons of the S-curve are with us in Chicago every time we pay a dumbly-privatized parking meter, drive on the dumbly-privatized Skyway, or attend a basketball game at the unnecessary and outrageously expensive Catholic-school basketball stadium our tax dollars are inexplicably paying for. Public policy matters.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Everything looks different from the outside

A depressed person can be depressed for reasons that don't make any sense to outside observers. A society can decide that stonewashed jeans and permed hair look really cool, for reasons that fail any rational test of logic. And an economist can look at a set of facts about a place and draw conclusions from them that are simultaneously correct and absurd.

Near the end of his discussion of the history of economic growth since the year 1700, in his so-far-excellent book Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty makes an observation based on data that made my jaw drop. In North America, apparently, "there is no nostalgia for the [post-World War II] period," because North America never saw levels of growth comparable to the miraculous expansions in postwar Europe, the so-called Trente Glorieuses. The graph at the top of the page illustrates the argument, and indeed, economic growth in North America post-World War II was dramatically lower than in Western Europe.

And yet. Anyone who's lived in the US at some point in the last twenty years and has watched our political debates unfurl would never for a second believe that we have "no nostalgia" for the most overly-hagiographized decades of the 20th century. The 1950s are an iconically great time in America's self-image, at least for straight white men, and an entire political party exists in order to return us to that era.

Piketty goes on to hedge this statement slightly, treating the malaise of the 1970s and the conservative renaissance in the 1980s as evidence that any expansion in the decades prior didn't go far enough towards increasing overall prosperity. But he doesn't back away from the central premise of that paragraph, and it's instructive to think about the broader significance of his...I don't want to call it an error, exactly, since I'm not interested in throwing down an econ debate against one of the most impressive economists writing in the 21st century. So let's say that it's interesting to discuss his mischaracterization of our national lack of nostalgia.

To begin with, it obviously demonstrates the limitations of statistical and economic analysis in understanding a society of complex human beings. He's not wrong about the numbers, but he is wrong about our collective societal memory of that era, and the latter really isn't reducible to any mathematical statement. As human beings existing in the physical world, our horizons are governed by math but our behavior is not predicted by it.

It's also worth thinking about what Piketty's mischaracterization tells us about our own powers of assessment. Americans, myself included, love to make judgements about other societies with relatively little information. A handful of terrorist attacks by a tiny number of individuals cause us to condemn broader aspects of "the Muslim world," whatever that is. We think we know something about Europe because they have strong social-welfare laws and charming old-world accents. Even at home, high crime rates in inner cities lead white people to condemn the societal dysfunctions of Black America.

In this case, a person with deep ties to the United States - Piketty was an assistant professor at MIT for a few years - and an overwhelming volume of econometric data, nevertheless drew a conclusion about what Americans think that is wildly different from what I think we commonly believe (or at least, what I think we commonly believe about what we commonly believe). It should give us pause before we rush off to condemn another society about which we know almost nothing beyond a single data point.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Following the wrong money

I'm pretty proud of the little Twitter bot I wrote to auto-tweet large Illinois campaign contributions, but this morning I realized its true insignificance. Campaign finance is simply not where the story about money and politics really is, and all of the sound and fury over its minutiae signify nothing. In 2012, estimates vary but about $2.6 billion was spent on the Presidential race; around $6 billion was spent on all federal races (including House and Senate elections).

In 2014, the White House budget projects spending $3.78 trillion dollars. In other words, the most expensive set of elections in American history - by far - accounts for about 0.16% of the federal budget for 2014. The government will spend the equivalent of one of the most expensive Presidential races America has ever seen in 4.5 hours. As a percentage of the federal budget, the 2012 Presidential election cost less than the percentage of health care spending we allot to circumcision.

The question isn't, "Why is there so much money in American politics?" but rather, "Why is there so little?" And more importantly, "Where is the real money going, and where's the real quid-pro-quo?"

Those are tough questions to answer, so I won't. A lot of people are already working on them, and entire careers can be devoted to understanding where the federal dollar is spent. What's interesting to me is why campaign finance data gets so much more attention in journalismland.

I started wondering about this this morning at an overflowing NICAR panel on mining FEC data - one of about 4 explicitly devoted to campaign finance, with another half-dozen panels using campaign finance as one topic among others under discussion. Legions of nonprofits and open-source projects and websites are devoted to analyzing and dissecting campaign finance -, the Sunlight Foundation's Influence Explorer,, and pretty much every major and minor newspaper has some sort of campaign finance project.

There's nothing wrong with all this activity, to an extent - great, valuable, important stories remain to be found in campaign finance data, at both the state and federal level. But I think the real reasons for this surfeit of attention paid to such a tiny chunk of money are structural, and troubling.

For one thing, it's just easier to analyze and write stories about this data. Disclosure laws are admirably firm(ish), so there's a ready source of easily-understood data about who's giving money to campaigns and who's getting money from them. Dates, contribution amounts, names, addresses, occupations - it's all there, it's all obvious and straightforward, and your only headaches are in parsing file formats and matching up misspelled names.

It's also much easier to make an assertion on the basis of this evidence alone. Did someone give $20,000 to a politician who then appointed them to an office? That's all you need to know in order to raise an eyebrow, and it's all public record, so it's totally defensible. Was a contract awarded to someone's brother, when another firm was better-equipped to do the job? That's vastly harder to prove, and a lot of that evidence isn't already public, requiring even more effort.

Ultimately, my fear is that campaign finance has had a spotlight trained on it for so long that the real malfeasance has migrated. If you're a shady character looking to exert undue influence on a system, or looking to profit from that system, are you going to commit your shady acts in the one place you know reporters are constantly looking for stories? The one place you know everything will be made public, scrutinized by bots and concerned citizens and hungry journalists looking to find you? Or are you going to start sleazing around the government contracts that are so much larger, and so much more opaque, and already so sleazy to begin with?

In short, if you're trying to exert undue influence or scrape some cash off the top of a fat government contract, are you going to go where the sunlight is, or where the money is?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Midnight in the Mayor Bilandic Memorial Dibs Garden

It's the only memorial to Mike Bilandic I've ever seen, a festive celebration of two great Chicago traditions that nobody outside the city really understands, while those inside it only pretend to: Chicago celebrates its political corruption with a zeal normally reserved for the defense of parking spaces, and now some great genius has twinned the two.

In a side alley near 53rd and Woodlawn - those of you who know the city know instinctively where this is, another grand City tradition, marking territory and therefore the teller of a tale by implicit association with intersections - the memory of Chicago's snowed-in hopeless seat-warmer lives on, eternal flame tended by irony and nostalgia in unequal measure.

He let us drown in snow, the elders tell us, reminding us of a day when the provision (or lack thereof) of city services would drive even a Machine Mayor from office. Woe betide the public official who fails to salt the streets, a lesson burned into the memory of anyone who wants to see their name in Chicago's version of flashing lights, on thin cardboard placed just outside the statutorily-mandated 100 feet from a polling place.

The machine gave us Bilandic, just like it gave us Daley before him and Daley after him and on down through the generations, past Cermak and Kelly and Nash and Brennan - dig those first-generation names that adorn our street signs still - all the way back to Ogden. But the machine, back when it was the Machine, gave us Bilandic right out of the fingertips of Chicago's real first Black Mayor, Wilson Frost - now there's a name you don't see on street signs - when it decided that the city charter didn't really mean it when it said that the (black) President Pro Temp of the City Council became Mayor when the Mayor died.

So they locked him out of the office, because of course they did, "can't find the keys," they actually told poor Wilson. One of those conversations in which you imagine everyone knows what's really going on whether or not anybody says it out loud, speaking in a code so transparent it might as well not be a code at all but appearances, even in Chicago, must be kept.

So yeah, Acting Mayor Frost tried to park in that space. It was clear of snow, no obstacles in sight, but the rusted-out chair was merely invisible. Don't you know it, Bilandic had shoveled that space out this morning and it was really his after all. He just forgot to put the chair out, but it was there, don't you worry about that. They should have called him Mayor Dibs; I hope they did.

The snow did him in. That's the legend, anyway; I wasn't around, or born. He didn't get Snow Command out on the roads fast enough, I guess, though I'm not sure what he could have done. January 14th, 1979, left Chicago buried under a still-record 29 inches of snow. This has definitely been a historically brutal winter, but we've only seen 62.9" of snow so far; in 1978-79, they got 80.6", which remains the snowiest winter since records were kept in this city.

The other thing that happened in these early February weeks 35 years ago was, as Mayor Dibs' luck would have it, a mayoral primary, and grumpy Chicagoans expressed their displeasure by voting for Jane Byrne. She ran as a reformer but she was solidly of Machine stock. Byrne was appointed to Daley's cabinet and fired from Bilandic's, and would, as Mayor, replace the head of the most important Machine institution, the Cook County Democratic Party, with a guy nicknamed Fast Eddie who somehow managed to be an even sleazier character than you might expect. At one point, ostensibly to curb the violence in the neighborhood, she moved into the (now largely demolished) Cabrini-Green projects, planning to stay for "as long as it takes," according to her press secretary. She stayed for three weeks.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A night in Chicago

In Wicker Park on this Friday night, lights flashed against the fieldhouse as police cars sat parked in unfamiliar positions, guarding the scene of a double shooting as a house party raged on and pockets of stylish young people walked past, bemused and intrigued. At one point, a Chief Keef song blasted out of the house party's speakers in what seemed like an ironic commentary on the rarity of the shooting that had taken place across the street - unless, as is equally possible, they had no idea anything bad had happened outside the flashing colored lights and sweaty gyrating youth ensconced in their hip, rich enclave.

Shootings happen in Wicker Park, just like they do all over Chicago, but they're different there - much less frequent, more unusual spectacle than depressing daily occurrence. Gangs fight in the park from time to time, but in Wicker Park it seems more like the exception than something common enough to warn your kids about. And the reaction of passers-by to the scene we saw tonight was emblematic of that difference: some gawking, some nervous laughter, some curiosity. But nothing like the tired anger in one woman's voice in Woodlawn, as she loudly railed against the police for just standing around, seeming to do nothing but draw paychecks and shoot the breeze.

She was angry for a lot of reasons, not least of which being that - unlike in Wicker Park - the shooter this time was a police officer. Justified or not, it's not for me to say, but she saw it as part of a pattern: "They're always shooting black people," she said, or something to that effect. She was mad at the police, for being ineffective, for being violent, for treating her neighborhood differently than they treated rich white neighborhoods.

The cops probably do treat her neighborhood very differently. At another scene on the West Side, a carful of police rolled past us and called out - seemingly to us, the only people in the vicinity and certainly the only white civilians - "Another day with the savages!" They don't say shit like that on the North Side, because they don't think like that about the populations they're policing.

But the cops aren't the only ones who change their attitudes when they cross certain borders. I felt pretty ridiculous wearing a bulletproof vest in Wicker Park, a neighborhood I've hung out in hundreds of times with no armor, but I was glad to have the vest on the West Side. Nothing really happened - a bit of a public brawl, mostly verbal, in front of dozens of heavily-armed officers following a shooting - but the scene felt different and I felt different. The surprised curiosity of Wicker Park had given way, just a short trip down Western, to tension and provocation. Throngs of teenagers yelled and massed and stared each other down and scattered and regrouped, on the periphery of the police presence. For their part, the cops let them be, at one point encouraging them jokingly to take their fight across the street, where it would be in another district and another sergeant's problem.

I was spending the night riding along with Pete Nickeas, the Tribune's overnight crime reporter, as he headed from scene to scene, gathering details and color to run down the night's mayhem and tell some personal stories where he could. He's been doing it for long enough to know more than the cops do about their own crime scenes, at least sometimes - pointing out a flat tire on a squad car that nobody, including the officer sitting in the car, had noticed; filling an arriving sergeant in on what had happened and how things were going elsewhere in the district; even waking up the FOP representative after an officer-involved shooting, apparently before anyone else whose actual responsibility that was had gotten around to it.

We saw a side of Chicago that is at once nationally-known and yet largely invisible to many residents of this city, particularly those who don't live in certain neighborhoods or stay up late. To focus on shootings is to miss the point, probably - the statistics tell the tale, crime is down. And yet. "Crime is down," joked the FOP rep once the cameras stopped rolling and all the nighthawks started filling each other in on stories, incidents, tragedies missed over the scanners while photographing another scene. "Crime is they tell me, anyway."