Chicago Tribune columnist: "What I was thinking"


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Original online title: ""In Chicago, Wishing For A Hurricane Katrina."
  • Original online title: ""In Chicago, Wishing For A Hurricane Katrina."

Kristen McQueary, the Chicago Tribune editorialist who pissed off vast swaths of New Orleans, Chicago, and the Internet yesterday with her wish that a "Hurricane Katrina" would strike Chicago and clean up that city's "rot," has come back 24 hours later with a "what I meant to say" piece.

Here's what McQueary meant to say, according to her:
I used the hurricane as a metaphor for the urgent and dramatic change needed in Chicago: at City Hall, at the Chicago City Council, at Chicago Public Schools. Our school system is about to go bankrupt, and the city’s pension costs and other massive debts have squeezed out money for basic services.

I wrote what I did not out of lack of empathy, or racism, but out of long-standing frustration with Chicago’s poorly managed finances.
The original column, McQueary wrote, came after a Trib editorial board meeting with Mayor MItch Landrieu, who was in Chicago to talk about the city's recovery — and, presumably, the Katrina10 commemoration, which is designed to both memorialize the tragedy and put forward the city's best face at a time when we once again have the world's gaze.

In that sense, it's a PR campaign, which is fine; that's what a traveling mayor is for. But one hopes an editorial board at one of the country's most powerful newspapers would dig deeper than an elected official's political spin, and all McQueary seemed to carry away from the meeting was this:
Residents overthrew a corrupt government. A new mayor slashed the city budget, forced unpaid furloughs, cut positions, detonated labor contracts. New Orleans' City Hall got leaner and more efficient. Dilapidated buildings were torn down. Public housing got rebuilt. Governments were consolidated.

An underperforming public school system saw a complete makeover. A new schools chief, Paul Vallas, designed a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur. No restrictive mandates from the city or the state. No demands from teacher unions to abide. Instead, he created the nation's first free-market education system.

Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth.
Unmentioned: billions of dollars in federal recovery money and insurance payouts, which had a lot to do with what progress we've made; bootstraps and volunteerism only goes so far. Dumping that kind of money into Chicago, even without a tragedy, would probably perk up things there as well.

But here's where it really doesn't scan; here's what I'd like to ask McQueary:
Many readers thought my premise — through my use of metaphor and hyperbole — was out of line. I certainly hear you. I am reading your tweets and emails. And I am horrified and sickened at how that column was read to mean I would be gunning for actual death and destruction.
But that's precisely what she did say; there was no confusion on the part of her readers. Original column:
I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago — an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops. ...  I can relate, metaphorically, to the residents of New Orleans climbing onto their rooftops and begging for help and waving their arms and lurching toward rescue helicopters.
Geysers through manholes, people begging on rooftops: That language makes it clear McQueary saw the images on TV and in print; this was no abstraction. She saw the pain. She saw the desperation and the death and the lives ruined and the lives lost.

And what she saw was ... a metaphor. A metaphor for her own desires: sacking teachers, cutting budgets and creating a "free market education system" on some sort of tabula rasa created from the collapse of the levees. Because it's all about "long-standing frustration with Chicago’s poorly managed finances." 

Anyway, I will be in Chicago the first week of September, and have emailed McQueary with the offer of a cup of coffee (I'll buy) and a sit-down. She can ask all the questions she wants about the floods, the recovery and where we are now and I'll do my best to answer impartially. If McQueary really wants to know about change, we can talk about it — for better, for worse and for real, unencumbered by the Jay Cutler of metaphors.



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