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.
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 Jerry Kupcinet passed away last year. Condolences. It turns out 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.