Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Wheaton College stones its students

    The Bible is filled with acts that horrify us today, morally. Disrespectful children being stoned to death, a vengeful God smiting people for trifles—look back over your shoulder when the Big Guy tells you not to and you find yourself a pillar of salt. 
     In that tradition, Wheaton College on Friday will stop providing health insurance, affecting about a quarter of its 3,000 students, because the Affordable Care Act mandates birth control coverage for those who want it.
    This is the key thing to keep in mind: Obamacare doesn't force anyone to use birth control. It just makes it available, like any Walgreen's. If you want to manifest your religious beliefs and not use birth control, you are completely free to do so. 
    Just as those who feel no moral qualm about using birth control can use it. 
    That isn't how Wheaton College spins the situation of course. They make it a matter of their freedom being trampled on by the government. So rather than participate in a system of health care that might allow students to make a moral choice of which they don't approve, Wheaton College is yanking health care away from everyone, over a thousand students, giving them just a few weeks to scramble and find insurance coverage on their own. 
    That's the 2015 version of stoning a whore. 
    Religion should be voluntary. I don't know anybody who disagrees with that, at least publicly. That's why the government should be religion neutral: provide the full health care system and let individuals decide what part they avail themselves to, based on their individual moral beliefs. That's the only way a pluralistic society can work.
     Wheaton College doesn't buy into that because, at heart, they lack the courage of their convictions. They can't tolerate a system where their students don't use birth control because they believe it's morally wrong and avoid it. They have to make it unavailable to them. If they were secure that their students would make the decisions they believe their faith demands, they wouldn't care what the government offered. Because they know that young people actually want access to birth control, their supposed dogma be damned, the school tries to reach over their heads and swat it away. The risk that students, caught without health care, could suffer and die, well, Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. 

Rapmaster Rahm spins his favorite hits at Chief Keef

     So in a month that, so far, has seen 274 Chicagoans shot, 45 fatally, Mayor Rahm Emanuel snapped into action and blocked a hologram appearance by rapper Chief Keef because he worried it might be dangerous?
     “An unacceptable role model,” in the words of the mayor's spokesperson.
     That's a joke, right?
     No, it seems real. The mayor is now vetting the role models for black youth in Chicago. Following Rahm's lead, in Hammond, Indiana, police burst in and closed down a music festival Saturday night when the aforementioned Keef appeared, in hologram form.
     “Even though I was told no Chief Keef by the promoters, they tried it anyway. So we shut it down. We turned the power off, we’re closing the park down,” Hammond Police Lt. Patrick Vicari said at the time.
     Yes, Keef, who once upon a time went by Keith Cozart, is vile, his persona an image of black manhood as crafted by the Klan, his songs soporific, a bunch of gyrating toughs flashing guns and wads of cash while flinging their fingers around.
     So what? Since when does that matter? Since when does the mayor get to decide what is performed in the city? When did he earn that right? Did we give it to him, or did he just take it? And what makes any of us confident he'll use that power for good?
     Hasn't Rahm gotten burned by censorship already? Didn't he learn anything after his handpicked Chicago Public Schools chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, paused from canoodling her former employers with no-bid contracts, allegedly, long enough to cravenly pull acclaimed graphic novel "Persepolis" from CPS libraries after one complaint, then lied about it?
     How'd that one work for the reputation of the city? "Chiraq" is a compliment compared to the oppressive Midwestern cowardice conjured up by "Persepolis."
     Does Rahm Emanuel have any idea of Chicago's long history of shameful mayoral censorship? We're the city that wouldn't show newsreels criticizing the Nazis because they might foster anti-German feelings. Rahm's predecessor, Mayor Edward Kelly, banned Nelson Algren's "Never Come Morning" because the Polish National Alliance didn't like it. In 1948, Mayor Martin Kennelly banned Jean Paul Sartre's "The Respectful Prostitute," based on its name alone.
     Sis Daley, Richard J. Daley's wife, was able to get Mike Royko's "Boss" pulled from store shelves before a national howl got them put back.
     More? Sadly, there's much more.
     We're the city that banned the movie "Georgie Girl" as obscene, that arrested Lenny Bruce for holding up a photo of a breast at the Gate of Horn in 1962.
     Richard J. Daley blocked the production of movies he felt did not reflect well on the city, and as a result movies weren't filmed here for years. Did that hurt the movies? No, they went to Toronto. It hurt Chicago. Censorship always, always, always blows back in your face.
     Richard M. Daley condemned the movie "Hard Ball" because the kids in it swore. Maybe the kids swore because they knew Daley was planting a fiscal bomb that would blow up the city.
     And the swarm of low-rent buffoons on the City Council is still working up their courage to yank tax incentives from Spike Lee because they don't like the name of "Chiraq." The same august body that condemned Richard Wright's "Native Son." I'd bet you $20 that if Spike Lee called the aldermen decrying his movie and offered them a cameo, not one would turn him down.
     Not one.
     The mayor's office said a Keef concert "posed a public safety risk." So does the St. Patrick's Day Parade. So does traffic. So does Lollapalooza, but that's a bunch of white kids, so the risk is acceptable.
     Everything is a public safety risk. All the oppressions of Communist China are done in the name of security, protests and concerts and books banned because they might disturb domestic harmony. Given that the Chicago police kill more civilians than any other big city force in the country, I'd say a little musical pushback is to be expected.
     You want to know the worst part of this? This elevates Chief Keef, a flash-in-the-pan with cognac dribbling down his chin like pablum. I never had a charitable thought about Keef before. Not exactly the brightest bulb, Keef was the guy tweeting photos of himself smoking an enormous blunt in what was clearly his Northbrook home while simultaneously claiming not to be living there. And now he's Patrick Henry. Anyone going to a Chief Keef concert at least has to be aware of the chance of trouble. Why doesn't the mayor help kids whose only risky behavior is sitting in their bedroom when the bullets come through the wall?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Children of immigrants pitiless to others

Yesterday's column on Donald Trump and immigration drew the expected response of readers waving the fig leaf of legality. No one dislikes Hispanic immigrants, it's only illegal Hispanic immigrants who are the trouble.
   Great, then lets reform the system so that they can immigrate here legally...
   Somehow, that suggestion doesn't comfort them. They want a big wall. And deportations. A stunning 64 percent of Republicans in a CNN poll released Monday would prefer deporting illegal immigrants to putting them on a path to citizenship, which is just insane, morally, economically, logistically and politically. 
     What kind of people are these Republicans? In 2012 I spoke to one; rather, one spoke to me: 

     "Yes, I wish to leave a comment for Mr. Steinberg—Mr. Steinberg, for somebody that went to school for journalism, it seems to me you obviously don't know how to get your facts straight and put them out there. Because the only type of journalism that you know is biased journalism . . ."
     God bless voicemail. The perfect listener. A digital buddy, with all the time in the world. I try to listen too, but often just waiting for a point can tax the limits of patience.
     "Let me also state, for the record, before I go on, I used to be a member of your party that you obviously support. It's so evident, you're a liberal and a Democrat. A bleeding heart liberal . . ."
     Picked up on that one, eh? He eventually reveals why he's calling: immigration.
     "Since I am the product of immigrant parents, and I have the authority to speak out on this issue, because my parents immigrated to this country years ago, back in the '40s, right after World War II, from Europe, I think I have the right to speak out on this. Because my parents, who are still with me to this day, on occasion tell me how things were when they came over . . . because obviously immigration is in the news.
     That it is. Especially since the Supreme Court, while generally reaffirming that the federal government sets immigration policy, in theory, ruled Monday that cops in Arizona can keep demanding papers from anybody they suspect of being an illegal immigrant.
     "Knowing that they basically earned everything they've gotten in their life, whether it's citizenship, jobs, Social Security card, benefits."
     The common refrain: my sufferings ennoble me, while you're being given a free ride. No question previous immigrants had it tough. Anyone coming over in the 1940s faced bias even worse than that of today. In December 1945, a Gallup poll asked Americans whether more immigrants should be admitted into the U.S.: 5 percent said yes, more should be allowed in; 37 percent said fewer should be admitted; 14 percent said the number let in should be reduced to zero.
     "It seems to me you on the Left don't get it; these people need to earn their citizenship."
     "These people" being . . . illegal immigrants, right? I'm with you - we agree! They should earn their citizenship. The question is: how?
     "They shouldn't be granted amnesty, they shouldn't be given anything on a silver platter..."
     I'm not sure how crawling across the desert to end up - if they're lucky - washing dishes at a Denny's, devoid of most legal rights, is being handed anything on a silver platter. And isn't "amnesty" what you call any plan that lets them earn citizenship?
     "These people came here, first of all, without being invited. It's not like we said 'c'mon over.' They came here, they broke the law and knew they were breaking the law . . ."
     Nobody gets invited. Nobody invited the Italians or Greeks either ­- the homeland my caller cited for his parents and relatives, all of whom, he claimed, played by the rules and paid their dues. Maybe so. That sure wasn't the impression at the time - Italians historically suffered worse xenophobia than almost any group. "These sneaky and cowardly Sicilians," the New York Times once editorialized, "the descendants of bandits and assassins . . . are to us a pest without mitigation."
     "We bend over backwards to accommodate one group. We have their language on our driver's exam s. You can get election ballots not only in English, but in Hispanic."
     And in Chinese. And in Hindi. But those never seem to bother people. Why is that?
     Immigrants build our country. They always have. And they always face the same self-righteous scorn. Sometimes, ironically, even from their more established brethren - or their children - who feel entitled to gripe, worrying these less assimilated newcomers will draw unwanted attention to themselves.
     "As I was saying Mr. Steinberg, I'm not done yet. You obviously have the power of the pen and a column in which you can spout your biased ideology. It's so faulty, it's ridiculous."
     He spoke for 20 minutes, and I listened to every word, obscenities and all, just to make sure there was not a single moment when he viewed recent immigrants with a drop of the human sympathy he lavished on himself, or a fraction of the pity he slathered over his own family and whatever bootstrap fairy tale they fed him and he believed. Not a word. Then he paused to praise the sense of faith that turned him into such an unfeeling person.
     "I have the right to say what I said because I am the product of immigrants. My parents, aunts and uncles, my cousins, my relatives my neighbors... These people all went through the same things. They came here, got off at Ellis Island, which obviously was still functioning, and followed everything told to them . . ."
     And the new immigrants don't. I wonder why? Maybe they seldom get the chance. In the 19th century, our nation reacted to an influx of immigrants by constructing Ellis Island, as a port of entry. Our generation met a smaller surge by building a big wall, not just on the border, but in our hearts and minds.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jiune 27, 2012

Monday, July 27, 2015

Trump on the border

Donald Trump

     A baseball cap has many uses. It soaks up sweat, it blocks the sun.
     If you're Donald Trump, campaigning in Laredo last week, a baseball cap also protects your fragile superstructure of carefully stage-managed hair from the unforgiving Texas wind.
     And it expresses your campaign philosophy, "Make America Great Again."
     Let's think about that phrase—someone should—because it encapsulates not only how Trump, but also the 15 other Republican presidential candidates he's shredding, view the world.
     "Make America Great Again."
     What does that mean?
     Well, it certainly implies that America isn't great now. It once was. And can be. Again. Our lost greatness regained, by....electing Donald Trump, I suppose.
     And once elected, Trump will help us find our missing greatness ... how?
     By cracking down on immigration, apparently. That has been the main, practically the only thrust of his campaign, from his announcement, tarring Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists (plus, he grudgingly added, a few non-criminals and non-rapists). The immigrants have stolen our greatness. Destroyed our country, really. People who aren't right wing nutjobs may have difficulty understanding just how thoroughly the GOP thinks Hispanics ruin America.
     "We are entered upon the final act of our civilization," writes GOP elder statesman Pat Buchanan, in "State of Emergency," his 2006 call to end all immigration completely. Hispanic immigrants not only steal our jobs and commit crimes, but carry diseases, "diseases that never before afflicted us," Buchanan writes. Like leprosy.
     Trump, echoing Buchanan, focused on the physical threat, citing the "the great danger" that he, Donald Trump, faced by just being near the border for a few hours.
     We are going to have to endure months of this, and so should grasp the underlying mindset, which I call "Lost Eden." It goes like this:
     Once America was Eden. The country was filled with white Protestant pilgrims and they ran the show and everything was fine. Then came The Fall, the arrival of the people who didn't belong and who wrecked everything. First the Irish. Italians. Jews. Slavs. Each in his turn was held up exactly as Mexicans are being held up now, as disease-ridden criminals and slackers. Buchanan manfully tries to explain the difference—"the Italians wanted to be part of our family, millions of Mexicans are determined to retain their language and loyalty to Mexico. They prefer to remain outsiders."
      So saith Pat Buchanan. When people talk of making American great again, I ask which year of greatness, specifically, they'd like to recapture. When was the American zenith? A popular choice is 1945; we had defeated the Germans and the Japanese, and thought the world was our oyster.
     Only it wasn't. Being top dog, in our estimation, did not prevent Communism from overtaking China and all of Eastern Europe over the next several years.. The following decade at home was a miserable, shameful nadir of loyalty oaths and red baiting. Anyone who misses the 1950s wasn't paying attention.
      The truth is always nuanced. The country is always changing, a prospect Buchanan views with horror. "America is being transformed," he moans.
      Two facts about Hispanic immigration you won't hear from either Patrick Buchanan or Donald Trump:
     1) It's done. There are 54 million Hispanics living in the United States, or 17 percent of the population. By 2060, that will double, to 128 million. One in three Americans will be of Hispanic origin. They aren't going home; they are home. How do you think they'll view the current GOP passion to somehow rip them out of the American story and sent them yelping back to their lands of origin?
     2) The Republicans are toast, nationally. They can win white bread Congressional districts, and plenty of big, empty, conservative states like Wyoming to keep them powerful in the Senate. But once you toss out the 17 percent of the electorate who are either Hispanic immigrants or their descendants, you just can't win the White House. The Republicans pause after each defeat, vow to court the Hispanic vote, then return to desperately clawing at the ashes of their imagined past, blubbering in terror and trying to press handfuls of scorched fantasy into something they recognize.
      A great country doesn't crawl whimpering toward an imagined past. A great country stands up and walks determinedly into the future. Even a future with brown people in it. That's America's only hope for continued greatness. Where is the leader willing to take us there?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Bob Abt created a sprawling world of wonder

Bob Abt was an iconic Chicago businessman. He died last Thursday, and I thought I'd share the afternoon we spent together five years ago, touring his family's magnificent store. 

     A company does not generally want to catch the attention of Consumer Reports. If the scrappy monthly watchdog singles out your business, that typically means your product tends to catch fire, or has been found shoddy, shabby, or insufficient.
     So you have to smile -- I sure smiled -- seeing the magazine's trademark tough scrutiny dissolve into applause in the August issue, where a survey of 21,068 subscribers crowns our own Abt Electronics as the best store of its type in the country.
     "Abt Electronics, in the Chicago area, and [other] independent local stores garnered high praise from shoppers who bought a major appliance in the past year," the magazine notes, running a shopper-satisfaction chart showing Abt, with a score of 92, far outpacing also-rans such as Home Depot, Sears (both 83) and Best Buy (82).
Many customers don't realize that
"Abt" is a name, not an acronym. 

     Celebrating a store is unusual for me, but then Abt is no usual store. The place is a sprawling world of wonder, and I respect Abt just for doing what it does so well.
     The stats amaze. Some 1,100 employees in 350,000 square feet at its one and only location. Platoons of salespeople guiding an army of customers -- up to 10,000 a day -- through Abt's jungle of products, and as amazing as that is, in these pared-down times, even more incredible that 80 percent work away from the sales floor, handling service calls and online orders (the Internet accounts for 20 percent of business). Not in Delhi, but in Glenview.
     "We do everything ourselves," said Bob Abt, 72, neatly summing up the secret of the success of the 74-year-old store, which rings up more than $300 million a year in sales.
     And he means "everything." The store generates its own electrical power, with a pair of 850 kilowatt natural gas generators. It has its own wood shop, its own fleet of trucks, serviced in its own garage and gassed up at its own pumps.
     Many stores recycle; Abt takes the Styrofoam packing its delivery people remove after setting up appliances, then melts it down into a sweetish-smelling white paste Abt sells back to manufacturers in Asia. Currently, they're shipping 40,000 pounds a week at 20 cents a pound.
     If I had to point to just one aspect of the store to explain Abt, it would be the fish tank -- an enormous, 7,500-gallon saltwater tank. It isn't just decoration -- the camera department rings it, and the tank was installed so people fiddling with video cameras would have something colorful to look at through their viewfinders.
     Most stores wouldn't worry about a detail like that, never mind solve the problem with 100 tropical fish and an on-staff fish feeder who goes into the tank in a wet suit.
     But Abt is a spend-money-to-make-money kind of place. In the bathrooms, the granite goes all the way to the ceiling -- no painting, easier to clean -- and there are fresh flowers. Scattered around the store are not just glass jars of candy, but glass jars of Hershey's miniatures -- good, expensive candy.
     Candy helps keep kids occupied while their parents are buying electronics, and there are a number of other kid-centric activities -- the big spinning granite globe, for instance, a booth allowing you to raise an enormous bubble around yourself, video games, fountains, cooking demonstrations.
     "My idol in business is Steve Wynn," Abt said of the casino tycoon. "He puts a show on."
     Did I mention the restaurant? If you never get to the nearby design center -- Kohler wanted to display bathroom fixtures, but there wasn't room, so Abt built a facility across the parking lot -- you might not realize Abt runs a restaurant, Jolane's Cafe, with a polished wood interior, a glass-ceiling bar, Julius Meinl coffee, soy glazed salmon and Hungarian ribeye on the menu. The restaurant is two years old, and not yet as successful as they'd like.
     "It's much easier to sell a television than sell a sandwich," Abt says.
     I suppose, to preserve my reputation, I should find something critical to say: There is a whole lot of choice. I counted 110 types of televisions before I gave up, defeated. The place can be overwhelming.
     But that's the best I can do, too much selection if you have decision anxiety.
     The scope of Abt busts the confines of this column, and rather than turn it into a weeklong series, I'd better wind up now. Despite being in the business his entire life, Bob Abt seems to take nothing for granted -- every night, he walks the store at closing, scrutinizing the place.
     He surprised me by expressing reservations about my even mentioning the Consumer Reports praise.
     "I don't know if you can really write about it," he said. "They're so touchy."
     Who isn't nowadays? But not so touchy that we've voided the First Amendment. Anyway, in summary: Abt, a great place and under-appreciated local treasure, and if Consumer Reports wants to come and get me for spilling the beans, well, they know where I am.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 6, 2010


   In my idealist youth, I tried to help a family of Russian immigrants adjust to life in Chicago. Intending to show off the bounty in this great country of ours, I unthinkingly took this poor Igor to Cub Foods, a pioneering 24-hour-a-day mega warehouse supermarket.
     To my surprise, he froze on the threshold, and would not go in.
    "Is too much," he said.
     His frame of reference was whatever small, shabby, bare-shelved, white-tile Leningrad corner grocery he was used to, cuing up for hours to get his bunch of turnips and package of mystery meat wrapped in paper and twine. 
     But his words often come back to me, while navigating the profusion of food emporiums all around me: Sunset Foods and Jewel, Garden Fresh, Heinen's, Caputo Brothers, plus TWO Whole Foods and TWO Trader Joes.
     And those are just the ones my wife frequents. 
    Plus this place at the corner of Waukegan and Lake Cook, Fresh Thyme, which I had never noticed, but we popped in Saturday after walking at the Botanic Garden. The store was nearly deserted, even though it had a cheery, well-scrubbed, natural-goods purveyor vibe, sort of a Whole Foods without the hauteur. 
     Well, maybe a little hauteur. My attention was caught by this line of potato chips, "REAL SLICED POTATOES." My first thought was, "Aren't all potato chips 'real sliced potatoes?'" Except of course for Pringles, made of some kind of pre-digested potato mash. But Pringles are pretty much intended for toddlers, correct? 
      The Real Sliced Potatoes are sold by the Kettle brand, which also has regularly labeled potato chips, and, not wanting to delay the wife, I didn't have time to stop and try to figure out the difference, if any, but I imagine it's pretty much confined to nomenclature. 
     It does seem to point toward a new path of labeling products to mesh with the self-deceptive delusions of the consumer. Avoiding ice cream? Enjoy some "FROZEN COW NECTAR"? Trying not to eat bread? Try a "FARMLAND WHEAT SLICE."  
    Will people who are reluctant to pork out on potato chips happily dig their hands into bags of "Real Sliced Potatoes." Maybe.
     To me, it's a product without a market, making a distinction lost on the average customer.
     "Real Sliced Potatoes." Who will that fool? Who will be drawn in? These are customers, remember, who are already eating potato chips, their bar for healthfulness is already pretty low. "REAL SLICED POTATOES." The name's too generic. We could think of a better one right now, in a second. Mmmm ... "Genuine Spud Shavings."  "Authentic Tater Crisps."
      Being the guy who dismissed cell phones as a fad, I probably shouldn't mock any new product. And as for the superabundance of supermarkets, until a few go belly up, that's only good for customers. It means they're fighting for your business. I was ordering bologna (soon to be "HIGH PROTEIN ROUNDS") at the Jewel and the guy at the deli counter reached over and offered me a slice. Immediately I was back in Berea, Ohio, four years old, being handed a slice of bologna by the butcher in the Parkway Shops. I almost vowed on the spot to only shop at Jewel, in gratitude for my free bologna, even while musing on the fickle infidelity of customers. But the Sunset is really close to my house and, all things equal, I'm committed to trying to keep them afloat. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     Now this is a curious tableau. What exactly are these two men doing? And why is that third man watching? Okay, you don't really need to answer that. But it might help you figure out where these people are. As might those flowers strewn on the floor. Anyway, this struck me as just oblique enough to pose a challenge without being impossible to solve. Heck, if the right person sees it, it'll be downright easy. Either way, where is this? The winner gets one of my by-now-just-plain-worthless blog posters. Good luck. Remember to post your guesses below.