One Sunday, I must have been 12 or 13, I decided to ask what I thought was an intelligent question that was something like this:Asking why is often a dangerous business. Kass explains:
We talk politics every Sunday, we fight about this and that, so why aren't you politically active outside?
Why don't you get involved in politics?
There was an immediate silence. The older cousins looked away. The aunts and uncles stared at me in horror, as if I'd just announced I was selling heroin after school.
This is America, I said.This is the milieu in which Barack Obama learned politics. He brought a team of operatives from Chicago and put them in key positions in his administration. He knew that he could find plenty of workers in the massive bureaucracy of Washington who would be willing, even eager, to get with the program -- Lois Lerner of the Internal Revenue Service is just one example. The reason Chicago "works" is that the system has been in place for so long that people like Kass's father understand that they can't become an irritant. Silencing your foes is a big part of what makes Chicago work.
"Are you in your good senses?" said my father. "We have lives here. We have businesses. If we get involved in politics, they will ruin us."
And no one, not the Roosevelt Democrats or the Reagan Republicans, disagreed. The socialists, the communists, the royalists, everyone nodded their heads.
This was Chicago. And for a business owner to get involved meant one thing: It would cost you money and somebody from government could destroy you.
The health inspectors would come, and the revenue department, the building inspectors, the fire inspectors, on and on. The city code books aren't thick because politicians like to write new laws and regulations. The codes are thick because when government swings them at a citizen, they hurt.
And who swings the codes and regulations at those who'd open their mouths? A government worker. That government worker owes his or her job to the political boss. And that boss has a boss.
The worker doesn't have to be told. The worker wants a promotion. If an irritant rises, it is erased. The hack gets a promotion. This is government.
So everybody kept their mouths shut, and Chicago was hailed by national political reporters as the city that works.
You can impose a system like that in a concentrated area and get by with it. Imposing it on an entire nation is another matter, especially in a nation where dissent is patriotic, as I am assured whenever the Right is in power. So if you want to understand why the IRS would single out Tea Party groups for abuse, or why a reporter for Fox News would be labeled a "co-conspirator" for reporting something the government finds inconvenient, you need to think back to the lesson that John Kass learned a long time ago. You need to keep your mouth shut.