Sunday, July 26, 2020

Statue of limitations

     A reader wrote in Friday complaining that my column had offended him. Specifically, The Economist's Adam Roberts comparing segregation in Chicago to apartheid in South Africa had offended him. Apparently, it trivialized the latter.
     This is the classic passive-aggressive tango. By saying something or doing something, you somehow step on a toe of mine, and ouch, it hurts. It can be done with literally anything. Watering your flowers is a slap in the face of drought-stricken subsaharan Africa. Kissing your child in public is a mockery of parents whose children have died...
     Ignoring that the supposedly harmed party is actually slipping his toe under the descending foot.  Someone is shot somewhere and they clutch at their chest and fall down. 
     The thing to do would have been to shrug, thank him for writing, and move on. But I must have been feeling feisty, on a Friday afternoon, so I wrote back with my standard line when people are offended over something I've written—I tell them, it is you, not me, who are responsible for deciding to be offended about something. There's really not much I can do about it. And in this guy's case, I added words to the effect of, "Besides, Adam Roberts, the author of the piece, spent four and a half years in South Africa; how long were you there?"
      "Two weeks," he replied. There was more, and he might still be replying yet—I don't know, I dumped him behind the filter and moved on, my superpower, reminding myself: Never respond to people. Never never never. There's no upside. I have to remember that.
       People who are offended are like young children trying to buy a sports car with Monopoly money. They don't realize just how undervalued is the thing they're trying to spend.  I read a few of the cris du coeur—I guess that should be grida di cuore—from Italian American friends on Facebook and in the official correspondence of old line Italian American anti-defamation organizations about how Lori Lightfoot taking down two statues of Christopher Columbus is an icepick at their heart.
     There there. Change is hard. I would feel bad if Northbrook took down the water tower by my house—it's an original Horton Waterspheroid from 1955!—and my forebears were not gathering around it in 1924, garlanding it with flowers, and whatever.  And Southerners feel bad about Robert E. Lee going to the scrapyard.  We all feel bad, we're all complaining, in chorus, 24 hours a day on Twitter. 
    Not so bad that I would try to stop the water tower from coming down, mind you. It's their tower. A nuance lost on the statue complainers: the statues belong to the city. They can decide what stays, what goes. Not getting more cops hurt, letting overheated passions cool, both seem excellent reasons for tucking away a pair of bothersome edifices. 
    That flies by people who are hot to feel hurt. The taking down of Columbus statues is about a lot of things, but Italian Americans are not one of them. Hence the offense, slipping into a birthday party you weren't invited to and sticking your fingers in the cake. Me me me. Using their bodies as a shield, writing injured letters about "The Godfather" movies. You can do it. It's your right. But it is worse than a losing battle. It's fighting a battle you've already won. To put it in my own wheelhouse, it's like Jews who complained that the Penguin character in one of the Batman remakes is some deeply-veiled anti-Semitic trope. Really? That's what you've got? What, no picket line outside Marshall Field's State Street store this week, demanding the name be changed back from Macy's? I don't dictate what bothers people, but really, how can they not see that some gripes indict the complainer worse than the thing being griped about. The most embarrassing stereotype of an Italian-American I've ever seen heads up the FOP.
      Three thoughts...
Massacre Monument
      1) Do you realize how many statues in Chicago get moved, removed, relocated, put in storage? They dissolve in the harsh Chicago weather, or are stolen, or just plain lost?  Carl Rohl-Smith's "Massacre Monument" terrified generations of Chicago school children, first at Prairie and 18th, then at the Chicago Historical Society, then back on Prairie, and now is in some warehouse somewhere, assuming that isn't a euphemism for being melted down for scrap.  I can't pretend the city is the poorer.  All the weeping over the Columbus statues being removed from Grant and Arrigo parks, the mustachioed ancestored venerated, tend to overlook that the latter was moved there in 1966, its third location, at least. 
      2) Statues are not signs of social acceptance, or general reverence or really an indication of anything other than the ability of a certain group at a certain time to scrape together the money to put a statue up. I mean God bless Irv Kupcinet, I knew the man, respected and admired him. And at one point he certainly was the greased axle upon which Chicago span. But it's been a while, and I can't imagine his statue sends many visitors running to Amazon to order "Kup: A man. An era. A city." 
     Which is too bad; I've read it. A rollicking memoir. On page two, he is showing Veronica Lake and Gary Cooper around on a war bond drive in 1943 and the platinum blonde bombshell turns to Coop, looks him straight in the eye and says, "Do you want to fuck me?"
     On page two. If I had to pick one tribute to represent Kup through the ages, I'd choose that passage, hands down, over the statue. And I actually really like the statue that his friends and descendants commissioned, as a rendition of the human form: it has a comforting smoothness, as did Kup, at least until the last few years. 
     But does anybody think it needs to stay across the river from Trump Tower until the end of time? (Besides Jerry* and David Kupcinet and a few others I no doubt will hear from, though I'm hoping that, by putting this on my blog and not in the paper, I can avoid that). 
     If a mob decided to hurl the Jack Brickhouse statue into the river, as some kind of daft protest against how Cubs games were broadcast back in the day, I can't say I'd weep too much for the loss to the city's patrimony, and I had lunch with the man. (And I'm sorry Jerry, sorry Pat. I factored in the hurt I thought you were our pal emails. But Kup wouldn't care at all and Jack would just laugh. You know that. Besides, the Brickhouse statue is almost pharaonic in its wordiness, approaching Roland Burris tombstone level verbiage. I knew Jack, and like to think he'd be embarrassed at that).
     3) Immigrant groups of every stripe remember the wrongs done to them, and lovingly sort and categorize every hurt against them, every button of suffering, kept in a little box, without the thought ever crossing their minds that they are now in a better position on the slippery pole of society, and might, instead of fighting to the death every outmoded bit of sculpture, instead use their status to alleviate the very same suffering their grandfathers felt, now being inflicted upon new categories of people. 
     So they wave the bloody shirt of self-assigned wrongs, oblivious, claiming a hurt that most people just don't feel, completely ignorant that the fuss they're making about themselves engenders more ill-will than the supposed slight they're complaining about. It's the curse of expending all your emotional energy on your own precious self. History is supposed to enlarge you, not make you tinier. Yet too many from groups who have suffered, probably because they themselves are doing so well, turn around, sharpen that history into a pointed stick, and use it to become some of the most energetic, oblivious bigots I've ever encountered. This is true for every nationality, race and religion. It can't be said enough. Sympathizing with yourself is no accomplishment. It is common as dirt and means almost nothing. The Columbus struggle is lost, done, finito. He was the life ring that Italians, drowning in a toxic sea of nativist hate, grabbed at in the 1890s to float themselves toward respectability. It worked. But 130 years have passed—sorry to be the one to tell you. The Great Navigator turned into a stone now dragging them down. Those statues won't get put back because the social milieu that saw them put up is completely changed. I'd think that would be a good thing, but I guess it's not.

* Turns out that Jerry Kupcinet passed away last year. Condolences. And apparently David Kupcinet DOES read the blog, or did. His Facebook response deserves posting here: 

     I should point out that I've never met David Kupcinet, so my being an asshole to him is no doubt a creation of his mind, the lunge toward victimhood that so drives public conversation. Honestly, I'm in his debt. David Kupcinet unwittingly illustrates my point better than I do. Look at what I actually say in the post above that so sets him off: I like and respect Kup. I cite his book, which I've read. I like the statue. But point out that doesn't mean it has to be in that spot forever. And boom! David lets loose his bladder into this incontinent puddle of anger, spraying me with all he's got, never pausing for a second to imagine that just maybe the statue being OF HIS OWN GRANDFATHER might affect his judgment, or lack of which. He's the poster boy for all this statue idiocy we see. I should send him a cheesecake.


  1. I think a statue of Enrico Fermi, an Italian who left Mussolini's Italy & then came to Chicago to build the world's first nuclear reactor, would be a far better representation of Italians, than Columbus. Fermi left Italy to protect his Jewish wife, despite the fact that Mussolini personally said he would keep her from being harmed by the Nazis.
    And I still want Balbo Dr. renamed for Fermi, as nothing is named after him here, except a physics institute at the University of Chicago.

    1. If you count the Fox Valley as "here", there's Fermilab--the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, located just outside Batavia. It's a huge U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory, specializing in high-energy particle physics.

      One of my high school buddies, after earning his credentials at Chicago and Stanford, worked out there. The long winter commutes from the inner-ring western suburbs may have influenced his decision to move to Seattle.

  2. Black lives matter.

    We are not currently witnessing as powerful a movement towards a similar understanding that indigenous peoples lives matter . The demand by protesters involved in the BLM actions to put some energy into demanding the removal of statues celebrating the vanguard of European imperialism that started the genocide in the Americas is noble. I'm of Italian heritage I'm not butt hurt about it.

  3. To the minor point: Count me as someone who thinks our fondness for statuary overall is excessive.

    To the major point: We, all of us, human beings, look too much to the past, and not enough to the future. Yes, yes, precedent and prologue, still, project the trend line out and it could use some course correction. And soon.

  4. I don't know if it is because I almost always agree with your viewpoint but I totally agree with what you've written. Plus, I always admire your style. Keep up the great work. You are an amazing writer but most importantly you think things through.

  5. "Sympathizing with yourself is no accomplishment." Words to live by.

    You referred to the Veronica Lake/Gary Cooper incident reported by Kup in one of your books, and I recall feeling it somewhat objectionable. Not that it didn't happen, or she didn't mean it -- he was a good looking guy. But some mention might have been made of her difficult life, bedeviled by alcoholism and possible schizophrenia.


  6. One of the nice things about history is that our understanding of things can improve- we can better understand what happened and who did it.

    We don't need to be stuck with the dumb understandings of the past. Columbus was a genocidal maniac. We can acknowledge that, and act accordingly, regarding the monuments we have to him.

  7. At least one of those "You know you're from Chicago when..." lists probably includes:

    "You get pissed at some guy and you call him a jagoff."

    That's an insult that's pure Chicagoese. I grew up using it, everybody I knew used it, and you know right away that somebody was from Chicago when they used it.

    I lived in a dorm for a year with guys from Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, the Eastern seaboard, and New England. None of them said it. Or had ever heard it. Only two other guys were the exceptions, and they were both from the North Shore suburbs. Everybody else said jackoff or jerkoff, which is what I always hear in Cleveland.

    Way to go, David! Ya gotta be a Sha-caw-go native! Cuzz ya tawk the tawk!

  8. Unless David Kupcinet is from Pittsburgh, he should really refrain from using the word jagoff, as his use of it might be considered cultural appropriation.

    Of course since Neil Steinberg is from Cleveland he does have an excellent claim to the epithet, it's just that Kupcinet shouldn't be the one throwing it.

  9. As far as I'm concerned, all monuments - at least those to individual persons - should be removed. I can understand memorials to specific wars or historic events, but do we need a statue of every obscure general that no one has heard of and doesn't really care about? Just put some plaques up in the newspaper buildings memorializing Kup or Royko and at Sox Park and Wrigley showcasing Jack Brickhouse or whatever (maybe they already do) and leave it at that.

  10. "The most embarrassing stereotype of an Italian-American I've ever seen heads up the FOP."
    nicely played.

  11. One of the more obscure TV outlets is running an Untouchables marathon tonight. Italian Americans beware!


  12. I still remember when Alderman Roman Pucinski refused throw his block's support for a MLK holiday in Chicago unless Casimir Pulaski got one as well. And the brouhaha over the Polish jokes told in the movie Flashdance. Ah, those were the days. Makes me want to get my buddies over to help me change some lightbulbs.

  13. Neil,
    1) I called you an asshole because you’ve never been nice to me. You always treated me as an afterthought when we’ve spoken and I guess my point is made by the fact that you don’t know we’ve ever met, which is ridiculous.
    2) I called you ignorant due to the main thrusts of both your article and this reply. I say it because the article you wrote takes absolutely nothing of todays context into consideration and reads as a list of statues we can get rid of because Neil Steinberg doesn’t care about them. Well some people care, obviously not you, but some people. What you ignore is that there is no current movement to get rid of statues that are old and that YOU don’t care about. The movement is to get rid of statues of slave owners and confederate traitors but your article frames it as just a nationwide push to get rid of old statues because eh, who cares? Well here’s my issue with this; it’s not the statue. The statue was already removed for months for an unknown reason and none of us threw a fit. But what you fail to recognize is that during this time of racial strife, during this climate where statues of slave owners are being torn down, you advocate for the elimination of the statue of a man who was one of the first to give Martin Luther King Jr a televised platform, who sat down on TV with Elijah Muhammad to discuss his new book in 1964, and who broke the story that MLK and Dick Gregory had been arrested in Alabama. You advocate removing Kups statue, a man who was referenced in Malcolm Xs autobiography as being one of the few respectable white journalists at the time who valued civil rights, and who was written a letter by MLK thanking him profusely for the opportunities provided. In this climate of racial strife, this is when you can callously and nonchalantly suggest we get rid of the statue of a man who spent the second half of the twentieth century fighting for and advocating for civil rights because eh, you don’t care? I find that shockingly ignorant and in no way cognizant of the climate in which we currently exist.
    3) Finally, I called you a jagoff because it was extremely offensive and insulting that you’d make assumptions of and write about my father in your article without even stopping to remember that he was already dead. You can say you didn’t know, but I emailed you after he passed. Never got a reply.
    4). Keep your cheesecake.

    1. Hell hath no fury like an outraged son and grandson, venting his holy wrath at one of the dead grandfather's journalistic CO-WORKERS. Sounds like David is being the jagoff here. Maybe he's even progressed to the assholistic category.

      Best thing you could have done to royally piss David off, Mr. S, would have been to ignore and delete his tirade, like you do with all those Storm Trumpers, especially the one who writes in longhand on his wife's stationery.

      But instead, since you're the proprietor here, you published it at your own discretion, and now the world, or at least those of us in this little corner of it, can readily see what a total shmuck Kup's grandson must be.

      Can you imagine someone still bragging that he's Irv Kupcinet's grandson? The guy with statue by the river? Imagine how he must feel when he hears: "Uh, who? A kuppa what?"

      I betcha, after reading this blog post, and David's responses to it, both his father and grandfather would be laughing their asses off. Not with him, but at him. Thanks for the day-brightener, Mr. S...

    2. Normally, I adhere strictly to Mike Royko's edict about never taking a bazooka to a flea. But in David's case, I decided to make an exception.

  14. Grizz and Ed P.,

    Neil's friend, Northwestern English professor Bill Savage, is a fan and proponent of the word "jagoff." While Pittsburgh gets full credit for the term in Wikipedia, here is some background about it, accompanying an in-depth analysis of Chicago exemplars co-written by Mr. Savage. "The Lumpen Field Guide to Chicago Jagoffs."

  15. At first I thought David was a royal jerk for saying the things he did, but after reading his explanation I see he had his reasons. Nice of you to print them NS.


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