Chicago: Cursed by the Conservative Cause

On Tuesday night the president tweeted this: “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, I will send in the Feds!”

A typical conservative jibe against gun control measures is to mention the high murder rate of Chicago. After all, Chicago is a gun-restricting city in a gun-restricting county in a gun-restricting state, so any attempt to suggest that gun-control measures have any success in preventing violent crimes is, so the reasoning goes, demonstrably false. The typical liberal repose is to point out that plenty of firearms still make their way into the city from the surrounding suburbs as well as from neighboring Indiana (which has relatively lax gun laws—in fact, the state just recently passed an amendment to its constitution that made hunting and fishing an inalienable right).

Conservatives will also mention Chicago’s high murder rate anytime a police officer is caught on camera killing one of his (or her) fellow citizens. “Black-on-black” crime is inevitably rolled out and emphasized as being a much greater threat to the black youth of America than a jittery police officer. And when horrific mass killings occur like the ones in Newtown, Orlando and Charleston? Well, there’s always worse. There’s always Chicago.

Actually, the latter isn’t entirely true. The young and the bold reactionaries at Breitbart News, for example, didn’t feel the need to invoke the murder victims of Chicago after the Orlando nightclub shooting. And the reason why is probably obvious enough. After the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, however, talk-radio host Dana Loesch reminded her audience that “many Sandy Hooks take place every month in Chicago.” Unless it was a listener’s first time in the conservative media matrix, they doubtlessly didn’t need the refresher. The Drudge Report has an ongoing “series” entitled “CHICAGOLAND,” that combs local Chicago news looking for particularly sordid incidents of crime. These vary from the genuinely repulsive (children caught in the crossfire of shootouts) to the remarkably mundane (AC units being stolen off the sides of houses). After George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Bill O’Reilly referred to the “many Holocausts in Chicago,” and in response to the failed indictment of the police officer who killed Eric Garner, Glenn Beck—in an odd spectacle of moral turbidity even for him—read off a list of black men who had recently been murdered in Chicago.

And then there’s President Trump, who in addition to pushing for “federal help” in the city, has also called for the implementation of “stop-and-frisk” as a potential solution to its problems. (Here it’s worth pointing out that the city’s murder rate is lower than other US cities not normally associated with societal collapse, such as Cincinnati, Ohio, and Richmond, Virginia.)

Since the modern era of US politics, “Chicago” has been used as a rhetorical shorthand for all sorts of political depravities, actual or imagined. In the latter cases, union militancy and local activism are frequently lumped together with corruption, bribery, and nepotism, as if the first necessitates the second.

After the presidential election of then-Senator Barack Obama, this incantation of Chicago as bad politics increased. The city was at the time bidding to host the 2016 Olympics and many conservatives (Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, et al.) deemed it unfit for the job. The chaos of Chicago was already audible and visible to the world. It would’ve been, to their minds, a national humiliation to draw more attention to the urban lawlessness.

How did it get so bad? According to Joel Pollack of Breitbart, even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (who the site paints as a righteous bastion of left-wing radicalism) can admit the problem. “We have allowed our police department to get fetal and it is having a direct consequence,” Emanuel said in October 2015. “They have pulled back from the ability to interdict…they don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.” Add to this timidity by law enforcement a liberal political establishment that, according to conservatives, is somehow both feckless and sinister, as well as an educational bureaucracy filled with tenured teachers more interested in stipends than students and one gets the full, horrible, right-tilting picture of a city under siege from the inside.

Of course, there are facts that could be brought up to refute these manias masquerading as arguments. Mayor Emanuel has closed public schools and mental-health clinics almost as fast as he’s hired more police officers. The gun laws in Chicago are arbitrarily enforced, with both widespread acquiescence and collusion by the police. And if an American police officer is considering doing something that could possibly get him fired, then he must have something truly sadistic in mind, as it’s nearly impossible for an officer to lose his job for performing “extreme anti-crime measures.”

Just reciting these talking points won’t do, however. True, the devil’s in the details. But that’s also where he wants you to stay. Besides, the force behind these law-and-order grievances doesn’t come from their factual merits but from their ability to synchronize seemingly unrelated prejudices and emotions. Simply falsifying a proposition or two therefore won’t do any good since none of them are essential or even very important.

By putting Chicago’s problems in such fixed terms, conservatives have been able to offer apparent and concrete solutions which have attracted the unwitting sympathy of a lot of ordinary people to right-wing causes on more general issues. What’s required, then, is more than just the relevant facts and a clear ideological understanding of one’s opponents. Without viable alternatives to the status quo, conservatives can still get away with pretending they care about what happens on Chicago’s South Side. Supporting and encouraging a local citizen’s militia (rather than “sending in the Feds”) might be a good first step to calling that bluff.

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