What Rahm says/What Chicago hears

I once saw a cartoon entitled “What You Say/What Your Dog Hears.”  In the first panel we see the owner shrieking: “You’re a very bad dog, Ginger!  Look how you broke my favorite lamp, Ginger!  Bad, bad Ginger!”  In the second panel we see the dog wagging its tail with glee as it hears, “Ooooooo, Ginger! Oooooooo, Ginger! Oooo, oooo Ginger!”

This came to mind as I read the latest chin-strokers about the impact of Rahm Emanuel’s personality on the likelihood that he’ll hold onto Chicago’s mayoralty.  Journalists have emptied their thesauri searching for the closest analogue to the unprintable “asshole;” but most of their accounts suggest that the entire topic is unworthy of discussion.

That’s probably because many journalists have backgrounds like mine.  When Rahm speaks, I hear the boys I went to high school with, or the guys with whom I practiced law: loud and obnoxious, blunt and profane.  Plenty of those guys were assholes—but just as many weren’t.  Their swearing and yelling was pretty much beside the point, just a matter of style.  And a familiar style, at that: the style of urban Jews from loud-mouthed families where you had to shout to be heard.

So when the mayor is rude, I don’t take it personally.  But it seems likely that what African-Americans hear is disrespect, and they do take it personally.  Nor would I claim that they shouldn’t.  I suspect to many black people Rahm’s profanity and flippancy register as ways of saying, “You’re so unimportant I can’t even bother to be polite to you.”  It comes across as one of the thousands of variations on addressing adults as “boy.”

So the issue isn’t whether Chicagoans are too thin-skinned to handle a tough-talking mayor; it’s whether what they hear is tough talk, or disdain.  And given Rahm’s determination to do things his own way and his reluctance to listen to other people’s points of view, the ones whose reaction is that the mayor doesn’t care what they think or even believe them qualified to have opinions—those people cannot be held to be wrong.

Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

10 thoughts on “What Rahm says/What Chicago hears”

    1. The cartoon is by the great Gary Larson. Google "Gary Larson Far Side" for more. Larson is alive but retired in 1995.

  1. For more fascinating stuff on how context and culture alters meaning and interpretation: Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language, The Hidden Dimension, and more.

  2. Why has Rahm Emanuel chosen politics for his profession? Emotional antennae are a prerequisite for the trade. His deficiency of empathy, along with drive and intelligence, would have made him more suited to the law, management or the military.

  3. The truly great politicians (and I think Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are the greatest politicians of our era) are masters at making members of their own political coalitions who they don;t especially agree with feel loved and respected.

    Reagan cared very little for the concerns of the religious right in practice. He was much more focused on foreign policy and domestic tax and regulatory policy. But he treated the religious right with deep respect and affection. He came across as being "on their side" despite putting very little energy into pushing their agenda.

    Bill Clinton governed as the most pro-business, centrist Democrat since the Depression. But when he spoke to the most politically liberal blocs within the Democratic coalition, including but not exclusively urban minorities, he did so with deep respect and affection. He came across as being "on their side" despite putting very little energy into pushing their agenda.

    In neither case do I think it was an "act." Nobody can fake it for 10 years (which horrifyingly enough is the time from launching a Presidential campaign to finishing a second term).

    Political pundits often push the cliche that to win in American politics you need to move to the fringes in the primaries and then move to the center in the general election. I'm not sure that's quite right. I think that the biggest winners govern from the center, but treat the fringes, genuinely and materially, as trusted, valued, beloved allies. The losers try to govern from the center while treating their own party's flank as being a bunch of useful idiots. Al Gore always seemed uncomfortable with his own party's highly liberal wing, as John McCain and Mitt Romney did with their own party's highly conservative wing. Now substantively, Al Gore was no different from Bill Clinton and John McCain and Mitt Romney no different from Ronald Reagan. But the heart matters as much as the head, and all three men never became President at least in part because their own party's turnout in the general election was very poor.

  4. Excellent point, Kelly. Reminds me of the way that my inability to remember faces except with many, many repetitions used to get me in trouble with members of minority groups who assumed, not unreasonably, that I'd just forgotten their faces. Now in my seminars I have to note explicitly that I have a problem, that I work hard to remember everyone's names, and that it's not a slur against any group when I often fail. I'm not sure that there's an equivalent solution for Rahm. ("I'm sorry: I have a personality disorder but it's nothing personal; I'm an a**hole to blacks and whites alike"?)

    By the way, UC Irvine Professor Aaron James has written a book Assholes: A Theory that, at least half-seriously, attempts to explicate the concept from a philosophical and sociological perspective. "Emanuel, Rahm" indeed has an entry (p. 48, note 21) but his status as an asshole is apparently, in James' view, equivocal. James cites for further reading Matt Tabibi, "Supreme Court of Assholedom: Rahm Emanuel et al.," March 4, 2011: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/supreme… There a panel of experts rules that Emanuel is indeed an asshole, by a vote of 8-1. The no vote didn't really deny the charge but rather excused it: “Emanuel has used his powers for good rather than evil. As the saying goes, ‘Asshole like a fox!’”

    James: had Rahm joined the military, insulting people for more reason (I hear he does it upwards and sideways too, rather than being strategically "kiss up, kick down") would have landed him in a stockade, or at least dishonorably discharged. But business might indeed have suited him–or even better, being a Hollywood agent like his brother, the model for Ari Gold on *Entourage.* On the other hand, being a Chicago mayor right now may require elements of what would normally suit one for one of those jobs but not for (sane) politics. At least, I think that's why many people continue to support him in spite of his personality; he seems very much odds-on for reelection.

  5. I think if people in Chicago think he's doing a good enough job, they will overlook bad behavior.

    But let's not pretend this is anything but white male privilege we're discussing. Only *certain* people get to yell in a workplace. Bullies are often tolerated if they bring in enough bacon, but I for one regard that as a bug, not a feature, of humanity. Especially once you consider the huge role that hype plays in "success." Nothing that came out of the Clinton administration was worth this kind of thing, imo. (Except globally, for the wars the Republican never-president didn't get to start. Frankly that's kind of the only thing going for centrist Dems these days, and unfortunately, it's effing huge.)

    1. Oh muchisimas gracias for pointing out this Elephant In The Living Room. Women (except on Fox & Friends) and POC simply ARE NOT PERMITTED to behave this way.

      They are two different phenomena. A company in Boston that had just hired me was acquired by a Minneapolis-based company during the hiring process, and just "as a formality", I was flown out to Minnesota to meet the new poobahs. Evidently I came off as "too New York" (read, Jewish, even though I'm Irish Catholic), and my boss had to not hire me, red-faced in shame at her own inability to trump her new overlords. I once dated a woman from the Midwest who would hide her head in her hands or curl up in a foetal position on the couch when the Boston and New York crew debated Williams vs. DiMaggio or Godfather vs. Godfather II. The way urban Easterners gleefully exchange opinions over dinner and drinks is something people from other parts of the country find confrontational and abrasive. Fiat, fiat, amen.

      And Rahm might be perfect as a minority whip. "If you don't line up with us on this vote, you can kiss your state's highways and bridges goodbye for the next half decade."

      But when you are a public figurehead in an executive position, and you bully the bejesus out of everyone around you (hello, Chris Christie!), you are simply exercising rich white male privilege. Period. Every other demographic on the planet needs to build psycho-social coalitions. It has nothing to do with your urban style of argumentation, and everything to do with your shitty-assed arrogance.

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