|Great blue heron, Chicago Botanical Garden, 5/4/14
While the temptation is to deflect that with a quip — something like, “And after this past winter, who can blame them?”— it does seem a moment that calls for, if not soul-searching, then at least critical thought. We live in a hellhole, apparently, and didn’t even know it.
My first instinct was to see if the poll was commissioned by Bruce Rauner. He’s staking his political future on convincing the electorate that our home state is a lousy place to live. Maybe he’s behind this.
|Great blue heron
What’s going on here?
The Gallup folks wonder if it’s not due to the corruption that is uncovered here (oh sure, blame the media...) I don’t buy that. While we do miss the money siphoned into the pockets of these crooks, is it a reason to move? Blagojevich was embarrassing but did he really make you want to leave? I mean, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California and being shamed in the media for fathering a child out of wedlock with his maid, did people start fleeing California? And we in Illinois have to be tougher than Californians, annealed as we are by our annual five-month plunge into the subzero icy blast furnace that is winter.
Illinois isn’t the poorest state, by far. It’s flat, yes, but has a nice lake adjacent to the part where most of the people live, plus several significant rivers. I don’t want to start slagging other states, but the number of people “extremely likely to move” is 10 percentage points lower in Indiana than in Illinois: 19 percent here, 10 percent there. Really? Almost half? Have you ever been to Indiana? From the post-apocalyptic moonscape of Gary, where tearing down a single eyesore high-rise shell downtown is hailed as an elephant step toward renewal, to the anodyne nowhere of Indianapolis and everywhere in between. Start listing the cities in Indiana: Fort Wayne, South Bend, Muncie, Evansville. . . . How far do you get before you rush outside and kiss the ground?
Maybe it isn’t that Illinois is so bad, but people here are simply ambitious. Part of ambition is dissatisfaction, yearning for something better, and that often involves vague desire to go somewhere else. We’re like the heroes in a Bruce Springsteen song — one from 30 years ago, I mean, when he was still good. Restless, with our tricked-out ’51 Mercury in the driveway, some babe draped over the bench seat, tapping our feet, sick of home, wanting to go . . . anywhere. I’d rather live hungry in Illinois and be restless, dreaming of a better life, than grow fat with contentment in Indiana.
My theory? Two things at work. I still blame Rauner, no matter who did the poll. If you turn on a television during the past three months, you see what? Commercials from Bruce Rauner telling us how lousy Illinois is. That has to have some effect — people drive Kias and drink cotton candy-flavored vodka. They believe TV ads, no matter how dumb. Call it the Rauner Effect.
Second is the Mountain Effect. The most popular states in the poll—Wyoming, Alaska, Colorado—have mountains, which Illinois certainly does not, and egos inflate at elevation. Maybe it’s the thin air. My folks live in Colorado, and I could be living in Colorado, too, but the people there are so filled with self-satisfaction it’s like they’re ready to pop. They sit at their outdoor cafes guzzling chai and adjusting their ragwool socks, talking about their last colonic cleanse and how great it was to do yoga at dawn at Burning Man. They give happiness a bad name. I would rather be miserably trudging through the killing wind of Chicago on the worst day of last winter, eyes cast down on my steel-toe Red Wing boots, than some sandal-clad Boulder barista blissed out and playing the pan flute on the Pearl Street Mall.
Just 1,000 feet difference between the highest and lowest spot in Illinois. Four of our last eight governors went to jail; one is still there. Our next governor might be a sneering half-billionaire who believes complete lack of experience qualifies a man for a difficult job. So what? We’re a tough state for tough people. Those who count love it.