kenny hodgart

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Faking it in Chicago

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald magazine

Five letters, starting with a big old O, proclaim Chicago’s most exalted living scion. The very name warms hearts from pole to melting pole, kindles faith in improvement and leaves millions of Americans moist about their peepers.

Saviour of the world though he may be, we’re not talking about President Obama here. No no. Chicago is Oprah’s town. Somewhere along the line she wrestled Al Capone’s heirs off the throne, and nowadays she gets to do what she wants, with Mayor Richard M Daley’s blessing: on our visit half of Michigan Avenue, one of the city’s main arteries, was closed off for two days while Oprah partied with her celebrity friends to mark the start of her 24th “season” on television. Most Chicagoans, shuddering to think what she has planned for her 25th, went about their business; a teeming minority lapped it up, happy to hold aloft polystyrene clappy hands, ogle the slebs and stuff their faces.

Oprah, queen of empathy and psychobabble, “made it” in Chicago. The city, we are told, “made” Obama. There is, I’m sure of it, something about the place that revels in the containment of such dual narratives: tabloid talk host and self-help wet nurse on the one hand, cerebral politician and civil rights attorney on the other. Indeed, the president may have drawn up his ideological map living and working in Chicago’s South Side, a place steeped in social activism and blue collar pride, but where would his campaign have been without its populism, its implacable showbiz optimism and the saccharine “yes we can”? Oprah’s endorsement of Obama, incidentally, is estimated to have delivered him over a million votes.

There isn’t, as yet, an official Obama-lover’s tour of Chicago, although guides will point out the president’s mock-Georgian mansion (surrounded by Secret Service goons), the church he used to attend before his pastor said unhelpful things about whites and the basketball court on which he won permission to date Michelle after impressing her brother with his dribbling. Much more visible around town is the insignia of Mayor Daley, who famously responded to Chicago topping the US murder league table in 2001 by insisting that the 9/11 deaths should have been included in New York’s figures.

Given the historic scourges of gangsterism and corruption in Chicago, you can just about follow the PR logic. But Daley, whose father – also mayor – died in office in 1976 having served just a bit longer than the current incumbent’s two decades, has never been entirely free from the suspicion of corruption himself, a suspicion that is wont to linger around most political dynasties but particularly around those in cities where politics, big business and the unions have always been close.

The upside of such fellowship is, perhaps, that, in Chicago, things get done: buildings go up, people get paid, the streets are clean and civic-mindedness thrives. The city’s parks cover a total of 30 km²; one of them, Grant Park, hosts an excellent free Jazz Festival every year; and the Art Institute of Chicago houses some of the finest collections of art – European, American, Asian – anywhere in the world. The vibrancy and positivity that helps young Senators into the White House is not, indeed, hard to seek: it is there in the built environment, in the sports-mad citizenry whose baseball team never wins and in the nightlife that, according to Sinatra, not even the preacher Billy Sunday could shackle.

Chicago is, absolutely, the prototype of the modern metropolis. Razed to the ground by fire in 1871, it was rebuilt, skywards, round about the same time that it found itself at the intersection of the railroads from California to the North Atlantic and a shipping route that connected the cities of the north to New Orleans in the south. In 1900 the city’s engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River, a feat that made the Mississippi navigable from Lake Michigan. And so a town built on swampland became a major industrial player, not least – courtesy of the Refrigerated Railcart – as the nation’s meatpacking hub. Yes we can, indeed.

Today, the vertical building styles of the last century and a half collide and caress on Chicago’s street grid, a checkerboard designed by Daniel Burnham, the great American architect and urban planner who tried to put his vision of “the city beautiful” into practice in The Plan of Chicago. The neo-classical and the neo-Gothic are everywhere at street level; stretch your neck and you’ll find elegant art deco skyscrapers, among the oldest in the world, and the bombastic modernist creations, all steel and glass, of Mies van der Rohe and his acolytes. Van der Rohe wanted to strip architecture of all historical peculiarities, but his buildings have a theatricality about them in-keeping with the majesty of the 20th Century American cityscape, which is to say a skyline suggestive of endless possibilities rather than of social engineering.

Chicago’s buildings are also more visionary than those of New York, the city to which Chicagoans most frequently compare their own and occasionally find it wanting. In reality, there is little reason for them to feel in any way second best: Chicago doesn’t share Manhattan’s anger or its snobbery, it’s cleaner and less frantic, and just about everything that’s world-class in New York is as good in Chicago. Its theatre audiences can stomach more than just musicals, it gave the blues a home and invented house music and it sits right bang on a freshwater lake that’s bigger than Wales.

The city that reversed a river also gave the world McDonald’s, Playboy, rollerskates and Wrigley’s, and, courtesy of the Chicago School of Economics, the free-market ideology some reckon brought last year’s crash. Were he alive Milton Friedman might have stuck up for himself by pointing the finger at those who encouraged banks to make credit so easily available, ie governments. But as laissez-faire capitalists and Democratic Party machine politicians alike know, it’ll take something more than the laws of boom and bust to bring Chicago down.

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The pardoning of Jack Johnson

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

Kansas Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins’ timing really couldn’t have been any worse when, in August, she called on a “great white hope” to emerge from Republican ranks and challenge Barack Obama. She hadn’t been aware, she subsequently claimed, of the origins of a phrase that was first used by the writer Jack London in 1908 willing the restoration of white ascendancy after Jack Johnson had had the audacity to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Her gaffe was made all the worse, though, for the fact she’d not long before voted in favour of a resolution calling for Johnson – who was sent to prison on somewhat equivocal charges after putting several “great white hopes” in the shade – to be given a presidential pardon.

Spurred on by the campaigning of film-maker Ken Burns, whose 2005 documentary Unforgiveable Blackness charts the boxer’s life, and the sponsorship of Senator John McCain, a boxing aficionado, that end now looks to be within reach, Senate and Congress both having given their seal of approval. Fevered debate in cyberspace in the wake of President Obama’s silence on the matter to date, coupled with reactions to Jenkins’ blunder, have served as a reminder, however, of just how deeply Johnson’s career divided America, and how issues of race continue to map onto boxing to this day.

By the time London – a man of the political left – was citing the white man’s “30 centuries of traditions … all the supreme efforts, the inventions and the conquests” as evidence of his racial supremacy, Johnson, the son of freed Texan slaves, had won dozens of fights against both black and white opponents. Already World Coloured Heavyweight Champion, in 1908 he took the belt that mattered, from Canada’s Tommy Burns. Revelling in his status as America’s first black superstar, he then laid waste to several challengers before James J Jeffries, who’d refused to fight Johnson and retired undefeated in 1904, agreed to a comeback “for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”

When they eventually fought, in Reno, Nevada, in 1910, the ringside band played a song called “all coons look alike to me” and an all-white crowd chanted “kill the nigger.” But Johnson, faster, stronger and smarter than his opponent, knocked him down twice before Jeffries’ minders called time, after 15 rounds, in order to avoid a knock-out. His title now undisputed, Johnson walked off with $225,000 and black America erupted in spontaneous rejoicing. In more than 50 cities, however, there were riots, as the celebrations drew a violent response from white mobs. At least 20 men were killed in what was the most widespread racial turbulence the US would see until after the 1968 assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.

The day after the fight the Los Angeles Times intoned: “A word to the Black Man… No man will think a bit higher of you because your complexion is the same as that of your victor at Reno.” Johnson, meanwhile, refused to condemn his fellow blacks for having “provoked” whites and was not forgiven: two years later he became the first person to be prosecuted under the Mann Act, which forbade the transportation of women across state lines “for immoral purposes” and was designed to stop the “white slave” trade in prostitutes. The charge involved a young white prostitute, Lucille Cameron, whom Johnson subsequently married. She refused to co-operate and the case fell apart, but another prostitute with whom he’d been involved four years previously testified against him and the authorities got their man: he was sentenced to a year and a day in jail but chose to flee, first to Europe and then to Mexico, before eventually surrendering seven years later and serving 10 months.

While in exile Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard in Havana after being knocked out in the 26th round. He tried to resurrect his fighting career on his release from jail but Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion from 1919 until 1926, refused to fight him, and in 1928 he retired, aged 50, having lost seven of his last nine bouts but with an overall record of 91-14-12. In 1946, he died in a car crash after racing away from a diner in which he’d been refused service.

The recent resolution on Capitol Hill stated that “the racially motivated conviction in 1913… unduly tarnished his [Johnson’s] reputation.” Others, though, deny this version of events. In April the Chicago Daily Observer noted that Johnson certainly violated the spirit, if not the letter of the law, “as he openly consorted with prostitutes” and even bankrolled a brothel madam.

Like Muhammad Ali half a century later, Johnson made boxing an act of defiance and he was loved and hated for it in equal measure. He refused to know his place in white man’s America, lived his life as he saw fit and courted controversy by marrying three white women. The first, a Brooklyn socialite named Etta Duryea, he beat up several times. The second, Cameron, he wed less than three months after Duryea’s suicide. Johnson’s career unfolded against the backdrop of religious revival in America but there are few yardsticks by which he could be judged a saint.

Some have argued that a pardon in this context would amount to an empty gesture and that it is too late to do “the right thing.” Others go further, resenting the impugnation of the whole of white society at the time and pointing to Bernard Hopkins’ outburst before he fought Joe Calzaghe in 2007 (“I would never let a white boy beat me… I would never lose to a white person”) as evidence that boxing is a sport in which race seems still to count and in which racism cuts in various directions.

Johnson wrote in his autobiography that he had been determined to “act as if prejudice does not exist.” Obama has been clear that it did, and does. Whether that’s enough for him to see a pardon as meaningful remains to be seen.

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Review: The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria

This article appeared in The Herald

A certain shock value attends the title of this book. John McCain’s friends might think twice, at any rate, about buying him it as a Thanksgiving present, although both he and Barack Obama would do well to read it. Any divining of anti-American sentiment would be wide of the mark, however. The American imperium has been bitterly savaged by authors in recent years, but in Fareed Zakaria’s work there is, sensibly, nary a hint of glee at its convulsions. Zakaria grapples with the impending shift away from American dominance in the world as new, emerging powers – China, India, Russia, Brazil, Mexico – begin to assert their interests with greater confidence, but, crucially, he does so without resort to scaremongering or hyperbole and with a keen understanding of his adopted country’s real strengths and real interests.

An Indian emigre, he believes America’s openness remains key among those strengths. That he arrived in the States as an 18-year-old student in 1982 and was last year named as one of the world’s 100 leading public intellectuals by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines, is perhaps as good an illustration as any of his point that immigration is part of what gives the country its edge. Equally his Indian childhood and adolescence burnish his account of the “rise of the rest” with an authority forbidden a more Waspish scholar.

The new reality is that while, for the time being, America remains the world’s only politico-military superpower, in almost every other sphere – industrial, financial, educational, cultural – the global distribution of power is shifting. By 2040, the five emerging powers mentioned are expected to have a larger combined economic output than the G7 countries. Zakaria devotes chapters of his book to the two fastest-growing of these new powers, China and India; by his reckoning the former is already “the second most important country in the world.”

Over the last two decades the Chinese Communist Party has, he says, flouted the general rule that autocratic governments are “insular, corrupt and stupid.” Not having to respond to an electorate has helped Beijing carry out reforms on a scale unimaginable in the west and while suspicion of widespread corruption lingers, the country now has one of the most open economies in the world.

While many industries in China are still under state control, the backbone of the Indian economy, expected to be the world’s third-largest by 2040, is its private sector. India has emerged a clear winner from globalisation: its exports include software and services as well as cars and steel. Consumer spending, meanwhile, makes up a massive 67 per cent of GDP. The country’s extant political class, suspicious of change, muddles along improvidently – nearly a fifth of Indian members of parliament have been accused of crimes, including embezzlement and corruption as well as murder and rape – but in its favour India has sound democratic institutions, bequeathed to it by the British, and “a vibrant model of secularism and tolerance.”

Many in the west are scared witless at the prospect of rivals to America’s might deciding to flex their muscles – a serious US-Chinese rivalry would doubtless set back growth, trade and globalisation – but Zakaria argues there is little to suggest this will happen, and certainly not imminently. As he notes, “Indians are extremely comfortable with and well disposed toward America,” while “Beijing tends to avoid picking a fight with other governments,” preferring to focus on growing its economy.

His rationalisation of Chinese involvement in Africa is not wholly convincing, however. Beijing’s policies of selling arms to Robert Mugabe, in return for platinum and ore, and Sudan, for oil, in addition to its general disinterest in anything to do with human rights around the world, are, Zakaria postulates, the result of a foreign policy based on pragmatism rather than idealism. China is not a Protestant, proselytising power, he says; Confucianism doesn’t hold to “universal commandments or the need to spread the faith.” Far worse behaviour than that of the Chinese has been explained away with religion, but the idea that they’ve been getting up to no good because they didn’t go to Sunday school requires quite some leap of faith.

Zakaria’s contention that the threat of Islamist terrorism is overhyped is more compelling, although his claim that much of the Muslim world is “modernising” does seem a jot counter-intuitive. He does not seek to deny that the threat exists, but argues we may be winning the war on terror with greater ease than we are led to believe: “since 2001 governments everywhere have been aggressive in bursting terrorist networks, following their money, and tracking their recruits – with almost immediate results.” He adds that sectarian conflict within Islam itself and the desire in many Muslim societies for stability has made jihad increasingly unpopular.

This book, indeed, does rather a nice job of allaying a number of other fears about the “post-American world” it is supposed we are entering. Zakaria’s outlook is fundamentally optimistic: as he points out, while the last ten years are perceived as having been ridden with wars and global strife, in actual fact organised violence has declined dramatically since the 1980s and by the end of 2004 was at its lowest level since the late 1950s. It may be simply that the immediacy and intensity of the 24-hour news cycle makes us believe the world is a more dangerous place than it actually is. Moreover, these years have seen most economies experience unprecedented growth. Due in large part to capitalism, poverty is falling in countries housing 80 per cent of the world’s population; China’s growth alone has already lifted more than 400 million out of poverty. In all but the world’s 50 or so poorest countries, “basket cases that need urgent attention”, the poor are being absorbed into open, productive and growing economies. And while growth may now be slowing somewhat, “the diverse new sources of growth and massive quantities of capital have given the global economic system as a whole greater resilience.”

More exclusively American fears are allayed too. The American economy has its problems – the loss of key industries, the credit crunch – but it remains the most competitive in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. America has most of the very best universities in the world, while American companies are better than anyone else at turning ideas into marketable and lucrative products. The country’s relative economic weight may fall, says Zakaria, but if it resists the temptation to become insular and it does not turn its back on free trade, it can respond to the new reality.

“For all its abuses of power,” he writes, “the United States has been the creator and sustainer of the current order of open trade and democratic government – an order that has been benign and beneficial for the vast majority of humankind.” After Iraq, that reputation is “sullied”, but Zakaria believes Washington can be the world’s honest broker once more, provided it can also reacquaint itself with bi-partisanship and multilateralism, and assert itself against ideological attack groups, vested interests and a sensationalist media. His book – measured, erudite, thrilling in its breadth of reference – is a timely reminder of why the world needs a strong, engaged America.