Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas

David Seaton's News Links
"Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas", is a self-explanatory, Spanish proverb, which teaches that, although we may not even belong to the same species, too much intimate contact with lesser beings can have disagreeable consequences for us.

That saying is, in essence, the national and international significance of the Blagojevich scandal: Chicago politics are as corrupt as it gets and no matter how clean you are -- and I don't think Obama has ever even fixed a friend's traffic ticket -- there is no way you can lie down with those dogs without developing at least a mild rash.

I grew up about five blocks from Lake Michigan on Chicago's North Shore; and as someone who as a small child used to stand on a windy street corner in below zero snow storms, with frozen, chocolate colored, sooty, slush, up to my galoshes tops... waiting for a bus to school to appear out of the dark... As someone who lived through that, I have trouble understanding why anyone from a sunny paradise like Hawaii would ever want to live in such a horrible place as the urbs in hortis.

In my opinion the answer to that question is the key to both the strengths and weaknesses of our president-elect.

The motto of Chicago is "The City that Works", with its obvious play on the meaning of the word "work", which contains both labor and function: as in "my watch works, but my brother in law doesn't".

Chicago works in both senses: there are usually lots of jobs and people work hard and the city clears the snow and picks up the garbage in exemplary fashion. Labor and function. Chicago "works" in every sense.

This laborious functionality touches all elements of the city culture down to the most humble individual and even its corruption.

It was one of Chicago's most glamorous exports, Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, better known as "Bricktop" a redbone saloon keeper, owner of Paris's legendary Chez Bricktop, mentor of Duke Ellington and Mabel Mercer, close friend of Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway, who expertly described Chicago's peculiar ethic. "In Chicago" she said, "if you pay your two dollars to get laid, you get laid, but in New York you may just end up with a sore head and your wallet stolen": "Chicago the City that Works".

This obsession with laborious functionality at the expense of almost any other value even gives Chicago's legendary corruption it's special flavor:
“Government in Illinois isn’t about political ideology or helping people,” said Christopher Mooney, who teaches political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield. “It’s about which idiot brother-in-law are you going to get a job on a road crew because he helped you get into office.” Bloomberg
Now it is obvious that Barack Obama didn't go to live in Chicago because he liked the weather, or because, as a Harvard graduate, he had trouble getting a job anywhere in the world. I can only imagine it was the functionality part of the word "work" that, as an aspiring politician, took him there. And I am sure that his aspirations were always political, because he could just as easily have made piles of money as a lawyer in Manhattan.

To see what he needed to work for him in Chicago it would be useful to review his obvious weaknesses: a funny name that sounds Muslim, no local, clan, family or ethnic identity anywhere in the world to give him any political context. Half white, raised by whites in a place like Hawaii, where there are practically no African-Americans, educated in white private schools and elite universities. He was an aspiring politician with no identifiable constituency.

Aside from his name, Chicago solved all of those things for him and very quickly.

Of his own free will he moved to the north's most segregated city, where skin color is a political badge. Chicago is a city of strong ethnic identities and clearly defined neighborhoods. It was the smartest move he ever made in his whole life... like when Elvis left Tupelo Mississippi and moved to Memphis.

The segregation of Chicago makes its organization by a political machine much easier. Each area is a well "fortified" barony and the barons are responsible for delivering the peasants vote on election day: a vote from whom all blessings flow.

In exchange for their fealty the loyal peasants are rewarded with city jobs for their dimmer relatives, thus all have a stake in the machine's success. This has gone for many decades and power is as entrenched as in any feudal aristocracy.

Among the most useful, important and essential "knights" that the barons and their king have to fight their election battles are the "Precinct Captains", here is how Wikipedia describes their role:
A precinct captain is the individual who acts as the direct link between a political party's machine and the voters in an election precinct. A precinct captain helps with voter registration, and helps voters get absentee ballots or get to the voting booths on election day.
Here we should note that when Barack Obama married Michelle Robinson, he not only married a beautiful, intelligent and highly educated woman, he also married the daughter of a precinct captain, Fraser Robinson III who, naturally, was a municipal employee. Although, Michelle's father died before they got married, with their marriage Obama became "family" of the legendary Daley machine, where membership is often passed charismatically from father to son. Richard M. Daley is the son of Richard J. Daley, who was first elected mayor when I was ten years old. It makes me feel young merely to write the words, "Mayor Daley is".

Here might be a good place to underline that no Democrat in Chicago can have a successful career without the blessings of Richard M. Daley. Since no politician in America's history has had such a successful and meteoric career as Barack Obama has with Chicago as its base, it might be safe to surmise that in Obama's case, the fickle finger of fate has taken the small but feisty form of Richard M. Daley.

This is not to in any way slight the intelligence, good luck, talent, charisma and temperament of Barack Obama, but for anyone, even as brilliant as Obama is, to rise so fast as he has, influential patrons are essential. As another Spanish proverb has it, "without a godfather you can't get baptized".

Bing Crosby once said that, "there is probably a guy singing in saloons in New Orleans that can sing 'Stardust' better than I can, I have been very lucky". America's then most famous bandleader, Paul Whiteman, discovered the young Crosby and made him a star and it is safe to say that Chicago's Mayor Daley is Obama's Whiteman.

Here it is important for me to interject that I don't think that Barack Obama has ever taken a bribe or sold influence or ever done anything in the least shady... I don't think Daley would let his prize pupil get spoiled like that. Chicago and its political organization have nurtured and groomed Obama with great care and now have placed two of Mayor Daley's favorite proteges, David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel at his elbow to see that he comes to no harm.

The real question has to be.... what will Daley want in exchange for handing Barack Obama a political career? Maybe he'll be satisfied with just a summer Olympics for Chicago or maybe he'll want more and when he asks for it he will ask in a soft voice and if the president of the United States says no, then the mayor of Chicago will hand him his head on a plate, because you can be sure that he has built into all of this the mechanisms to control his creature.

I'm still a Chicagoan enough to think that this isn't necessarily all that terrible. Over the last years the rest of America seems to have become hopelessly corrupt too, maybe now it will "work". DS


Stephanie said...

As good a summary of Obama and Chicago as I have read. Thank you.

During the primaries there was a lot of talk about Clinton’s baggage, of which God knows she had plenty, but not many Democrats seemed unduly concerned about the amount of Samsonite Obama would be toting in from Chicago.

RC said...

Having grown up in Brooklyn and later the North Jersey suburbs, I know what the ward bosses do and how the Mafia really works, they own the mayor and the town. Having also lived the last 30 years in a charmingly corrupt island in the stream, Puerto Rico, I have to say, I wouldn't know clean government if it bit me. I have actually grown to love corruption. I do understand your attitude in my bones.
However, could it be that you are now, finally, finding a little love in your heart for the O Man?
I'm surprised, David, but anyway, carry on and keep up the Spanish proverbs. The two you quoted today are among my favorites and are heard daily in PR, too.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

I don't know about "love for the O man".... I'd rather be a lamp post in Madrid with the dogs pissing on me then the mayor of Chicago.

lanikai said...

So do you really think his house deal, and his wifes big salary increases are indicative of not taking bribes, and being clean? Why?

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

I don't think they will ever catch Obama in anything as broad and crude as the governor's thing. I think his way has been smoothed for him, but in Chicago corruption is usually more like selling a Senate seat than just getting somebody's wife a cushy job... that is simply business as usual.

Stephanie said...

Lanikai, it would be a stretch indeed to call Michelle Obama’s rise in pay (which, if her employer was telling the truth, was also part bonus and one time payout) and the Rezko business ‘bribes.’ Naturally Michelle does better at work and gets on a board or two when her husband makes it into the big time. Politics as usual and not specific to Chicago or the Obamas by any means.

And unless there’s something we don’t yet know about, the Rezko business was nothing big from the accounts I’ve read and only the most desperate Obama-haters seem to be flogging it. My guess is Obama is about as clean as any politician with his degree of ambition can be. Maybe someone like Russ Feingold is cleaner and more likely to have principles and stick to them, but a Feingold will get no further than the Senate.

Joel said...

David, when it comes to Chicago, you are, as my mother would say, about half smart.

bay/malta.... said...

Your writing has been so uniquely interesting as of late, so adroitly manufactured, comprehensive, yet somewhat esoteric...then this post, boh! it's simply explains away sinister city infrastructure at its finest.

I always thought I knew who the 'capo' was in Trastevere when we lived in Rome, alas, just when I thought I had him pegged he proved elusive. Roma....