From our “What was she thinking” file, Chicago Tribune columnist Kristen McQueary really put her foot in it on Thursday when she wrote a column saying that she wished a storm like Katrina would hit Chicago because of how the disaster forced the city of New Orleans to reform:
Envy isn’t a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
But with Aug. 29 fast approaching and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu making media rounds, including at the Tribune Editorial Board, 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.
That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.
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.
Just for the record, New Orleans is still no bed of roses. Note that she didn’t mention the city’s corrupt, violent, and yes, racist police department. And it’s a little naive to believe that the corrupt government there has been “overthrown” — more like, submerged.
But her nightmare daydream was interrupted by an avalanche of white-hot criticism from residents of the Gulf Coast, which was devastated by Katrina. Twitter blew up with outrage:
To demean the lives lost in the flood of Katrina to promote a political view is blasphemous evil. Disgrace http://t.co/Z2URtGhSv7
— Wendell Pierce (@WendellPierce) August 14, 2015
I got two sentences into that Chicago Tribune Katrina piece before going “no no no no no no no no”
— Oliver Sava (@OliverSava) August 14, 2015
McQueary was trying to make a point summed up by her waxing wonderful about the annual Air and Water Show that will be in town this weekend. “Chicago is so good at hiding its rot,” she writes. And then, she proceeds to tick off the massive problems in the city that are simply not being addressed, especially the budget and debt problems that threaten the city’s future.
So there was a certain kind of morbid logic to her writing, although a better venue for spouting off like that might have been a corner bar shooting the crap with friends rather than the pages of an internationally recognized newspaper.
Today, McQueary tried to explain herself:
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. It’s a theme on our editorial page — we see how wasteful spending and inefficient government hurt people, hurt economic growth and hurt job creation. In Chicago, and throughout Illinois, the people who need government the most are the ones who are left behind because of poor financial management. My last column was about the need to equalize the state’s school funding formula so that poor kids would not keep getting trapped by a system that funds education based on property wealth.
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.
Chicago needs urgent, revolutionary change. We can’t keep borrowing our way into bankruptcy. That’s what was in my heart.
I thought the column went too far, but the reaction to it is beyond belief. To be offended by it, you have to want to be offended by it. To be “outraged” by what she wrote, you have to deliberately subsume logic and reason and react in an emotionally immature way.
But this is what we’ve come to in our civic dialogue. Content and intent don’t matter as much as how words and sentiments can be twisted to try to make them mean something entirely different. And it’s only getting worse.
McQueary’s points were entirely valid. It’s just too bad she chose an inappropriate metaphor to illustrate them.