Thursday Quick Hits: Charlotte and Expressways; The Balance of Capitalism; and the US vs. Saudi Arabia (but only a little)


A neighborhood set to be destroyed to make the 290 in Chicago. Image from WBEZ

We’re talking about the building of highways is one of the hidden racial histories in the US, and much more.

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The Duties of the Press in a Truthless Campaign


You don’t actually need a paradox to understand Trump’s lies.

In an essay yesterday for The Atlantic, Connor Friedersdorf tackles the question of media bias against Trump, particularly in light of his “Obama founded ISIS” claims. The thrust is that some people are upset that the media was deliberately twisting his words to be their most literal, and therefore their most easily disprovable. I’ll readily admit that when I saw the headline last week during a brief moment of internet connectivity, I rolled my eyes a bit, assuming (oddly, I know) that this was an obvious bit of rhetoric and the palpitations were of the clickbait variety.

Friedersdorf does a good job demolishing that, showing how Trump doubled and tripled down on it, and, most importantly, how he’ll say anything at any given time, to inflame some audiences and then claim he was doing no such thing, and it’s frankly disgusting of you to think otherwise, ok? The basic thrust is that Trump says so many outrageous and insane things (Ted Cruz’s loathsome father killed JFK) that the media has to evaluate everything like a policy statement, and debunk it as such.

It’s an interesting question about the role of the press, and to dig into it, I think it is helpful to look at Chicago politics in the 60s and 70s, at another straight-shooting authoritarian who frequently made no sense: Da Mare, Richard Daley.

Earl Bush, the long-serving press secretary for Richard J. Daley, wasn’t like most of the people surrounding the old man. He wasn’t a Bridgeport crony brought up in the rough-and-tumble world of South Side Irish politics, where loyalty and cunning were prized over book smarts. He was well-educated, and was considered to be “Daley’s translator.” He’s probably best remembered for chiding reporters who covered the mayor to play fair, in a way: “Don’t print what he said. Print what he meant.”

It is a line that’s easy to mock, but it actually raises some interesting questions. Daley was far from dumb, and was himself educated (putting himself through law school while climbing the machine ranks and raising a brood), but he had a tortured relationship with the language. What he meant to say often came out garbled, and nonsensical. So, for reporters covering him, what was there to do? On the one hand, they had a duty to convey the policies and politics of City Hall, and not just get a cheap laugh over a syntactical slip, the kind we all make when speaking, some more so than others. Reading the unedited transcript of nearly anyone can be cringeworthy. On the other hand, seeing the unvarnished mind of our political leaders is a service.

On the other hand, seeing the unvarnished mind of our political leaders is a service. We get to see how their minds work, or don’t, and how much they struggle to connect their talking points with any actual thought (think Marco Rubio here). Sometimes, you get a great quote out of it, one that seems more Freudian than Kinseyian. The best example of this is when Daley said of reports of police brutality in the city: “The policeman is not here to create disorder; he’s here to preserve disorder.” That seemed to encapsulate the role of the police in the racial powderkegs of the 1960s.

On the other hand…you know what he meant. Should reporters gleefully transcribe something that is the opposite of what he meant? The above quote seems to reveal a hidden truth, but that is metaphorical, and not legalistic. If Daley had said “I ordered the police to beat the hell out of the Negro” and then Earl Bush said “no no- he clearly meant to say ‘treat them well, the Negro'”, you print the former, for sure. But when it is just a slipup?  Is making it clear what a subject means a distortion, or is it observance of the truth?

I personally think it is the duty of any reporter to make sure that they print what is meant, even if they report what is said. But what happens when you have a man like Trump? To say he’s a liar is far too faint. All politicians lie (especially when they say they will never lie to you). It’s part of the job. By definition, you have to please far too many competing constituencies to always tell the truth 100% of the time. It’s impossible. And to an extent, we all know that’s acceptable.

But with Trump is is a different thing altogether. He isn’t so much lying as running an entirely 100% truthless campaign. The entire campaign is a fake, of course, an attempt to make someone who couldn’t pass a basic civics test and who can’t be bothered to learn anything about the world into a President. He himself is entirely truthless, as he sees everything in the world in relationship to himself, and interprets it to how it will benefit him and how he can use it as self-aggrandizement. That’s why he can’t go two sentences without bringing it back to himself; his own empty ego is the sole basis of his knowledge.

So the media should do what Connor was getting at: print what he says, and ignore what he pretends to mean. Or, report that too, and show how it is in direct contradiction with what he just said, and repeated. Trump is a man who thinks that being rich alchemizes his idiot proclamations into truth, so run with that. If he says “Obama probably killed MLK”, investigate it, and show how wrong and idiotic Donald Trump is. Don’t let him get away with saying “I never said that, and anyway, when I said it, it was a joke, ok, but I never said it.”  He thinks his off-the-cuff lies are correct when he says them (because he says them) as much as he believes it is correct when he later claims to have never said anything. He gets away with this because he’s been surrounded by flunkies his entire adult life. Every statement is timeless and unalterable truth, until he decides to alter it, and then it was never said. Evaluate them like that. Don’t give him any room. Don’t treat this like normal. Print everything the way it was meant.




Good Books Friday: The Rivers of America Series

Note: I’ll be out of town between the 4th and the 15th, in a wilderness repast, with little to absolutely zero connection to the internet or my phone. Posts during this time, written in advance, will be bigger-picture, or more idiosyncratic, rather than directly pegged to the news. If events happen that supersede or negate anything I say, think of these as a more innocent time capsule. Try not to let the country burn down while I’m gone.

A few years ago I was doing a periodic dive into Chicago history, as will frequently happen, and was perusing the relevant section at the local library. Over the preceding few years, I had gotten more and more interested in Chicago as a city built on a lake and river, which we all know, but tend to take for granted. While Chicago is a major port city, for most residents, that takes places completely out of sight. The river and the jawdropping lakefront are for recreation and beauty; they are no longer the economic engine.

So an old book called “The Chicago” caught my eye. It was plain blue, no jacket, but you could tell it was going to have that musty and delicious old book smell, with pages that hadn’t taken a breath in years, if not decades. It was by an author named Harry Hansen, and not knowing too much about it, I put it on the pile. How bad could it be?

It turned out to be a thing of wonder. Hansen was an old-time Chicago journalist, originally from Iowa, who loved the city but looked at it skeptically. The book blended history and the present- or, rather, Hansen’s present, as it came out in 1942, but was clearly written before the outbreak of war. He took us up and down the still dirty and gritty river, which still had grimy industrial buildings and warehouses and factories on most of its grim banks.

But he also took the reader through time. He had the history of exploration, the Kinzies and Du Sable, and the earlier French explorers who found the portage. It was amazing to read, as he’d talk about a place at, say the 31st and Western, on the south branch, and talk about what was there when he had come to the city some 40 years beforehand, when the smoke from the fire could still be detected in memory and the city had yet to celebrate its first century. And, reading it some 80 years later, both waves of history have been lapped, but both are still present in any given spot.

This journey, it turned out, was part of the Rivers of America series, a huge, sprawling, ambitious piece of Americana that spanned nearly 40 years and three publishers. The idea was to tell the history of America through its rivers, those first highways, along which all cities were built. It is a 50-book series, with the first being The Kennebec in 1937, and the final one The American  in 1974. It’s also instructive to think of how much America itself changed over the years. The series takes you from Panama to Alaska, and from Maine to California. It is, fully, American. (Towns End Books and Wikipedia have complete lists)

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