Simpson Says: Bad Times Are Coming

American politics has no language of pessimism. We want to be told that there’s nothing to fear but fear itself, especially when we know it isn’t true. Former alderman Dick Simpson published a book this week that will do his political career no good. It despairs.

“Because we live in dangerous times,” Simpson predicts in The Politics of Compassion and Transformation, “there is no escaping interlocking international crises, which already have brought misery and death and which will lead to a series of catastrophes before the century is completed.”

These crises are war, overpopulation and starvation, environmental destruction, inflation and joblessness, and the death of democracy. The good news is that Simpson thinks the first one or two catastrophes might rouse the human race to head off the others and pull through much diminished but undestroyed. “The Bible says that if even a remnant leans upon God, they shall be saved, flourish, and fear no more,” Simpson notes. The better news is that a remnant-to-be is already forming itself, here in Chicago and around the world. “They already house the homeless, feed the hungry, provide sanctuary for refugees, fight against nuclear weapon proliferation, protect the environment, and seek more compassionate policies from existing institutions.”

“I think there is a real prospect that the next civilization will be genuinely better,” Simpson told us. His book is a political and spiritual guidebook of value to anyone determined to survive long enough to see the next civilization and contribute to it.

The book is also a look inside the mind and soul of one of the more important and intriguing figures in post-’68 Chicago politics–Simpson himself. In a lengthy autobiographical afterword, Simpson describes himself as someone who “tried to make political movements my religion because Christian churches didn’t seem to fit my needs.”

After running Eugene McCarthy’s Illinois campaign in 1968, Simpson founded the Independent Precinct Organization, “which was far more participatory than existing political parties and was the very antithesis of the Chicago machine.” As the 44th Ward alderman from ’71 to ’79, Simpson was the moral center of Richard J. Daley’s small City Council opposition and a dogged advocate of council reform, a cause that possesses him today. In his ward, he created such grass-roots bodies as the 44th Ward Assembly and the Community Zoning Board. “Neighborhood government,” he writes tartly, “was completely destroyed two years after my retirement [when] a Democratic machine alderman [Bernie Hansen] was elected to represent the ward.”

The end of the 70s was a bad time for him. His marriage fell apart, and the administration of the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was and is a professor of political science, overturned a faculty vote to make him chairman of his department. “I was politically too controversial.”

But a brief second marriage led him to yoga, meditation, and the cause-oriented Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ. He enrolled at McCormick Theological Seminary, received a master of divinity degree in 1984, and was ordained minister of urban mission at Wellington Avenue Church. He continues to teach, while taking on such tasks as cochairman of Harold Washington’s transition team (1983) and executive director of Metro Chicago Clergy and Laity Concerned (’87).

Simpson concedes that his book will cost him standing in his academic field. “I can’t get political scientists to pay any attention to the main arguments,” he told us. “Political scientists sort of know there’s something out there, but this stuff doesn’t fit the main lines–political philosophy on one end or behavioral number crunching on the other.”

“This stuff” is a new politics distilled from Jesus, Meister Eckehart, Gandhi, and the contemporary Indian avatar Sathya Sai Baba. He’s gone down a path that will not only stupefy his poli-sci colleagues but get him into hot water in the church. “I break nearly all the creeds by the very fact I treat other teachers of compassion as important in the same sense Jesus is. Most Christians wouldn’t be willing to concede anyone having the enlightenment of Jesus.”

Simpson has long had the idea of running for Congress in the back of his mind. But he supposes that if he’s ever a candidate, “someone will quote the wrong passage out of context.” Actually, he could be quoted in context and ruined. As he says of today’s America, “No previous civilization has reached this stage of disintegration and survived.” This is not the bright side we expect of our leaders.

Simpson does try to rouse us to our best selves. He writes, “We can prepare ourselves, through the disciplines of body, emotions, mind, and spirit, to become warriors of compassionate politics and transformation. We can use our strength to oppose the prevailing trends, to lessen the suffering, to survive the coming crises. . . . Give thanks for the . . . opportunity to live in these perilous times, for a long age of human history is ending and a new age is birthing.” But the tens of millions of deaths apt to precede this new age make it difficult to anticipate with any joy.

Simpson told us, “I guess it should be remembered that as a practical politician I’ve been right a whole bunch of times the last 20 years and I haven’t lost the ability to look at the real social forces and judge what their effects will be.”

You’re going to hope he has.

Salsa Static

“Do you think this is an explosive situation?” asked Jose Lamas. Probably not, we said. Despite a crank call or two hinting at violence, we suppose that if the Cuban band Orquesta Aragon comes to Grant Park in June, offended Cuban-Americans will picket peacefully, and that will be that.

It was the wrong answer. “If they are crank calls,” said Lamas. “Do you think the city should have the common sense to avoid things that might not wind up being a crank call?”

He was hinting opportunistically at trouble, and putting it all on the city’s head. The Cuban-born Lamas, 48, is general manager of WSNS TV, Channel 44. If he fears trouble, he has ways to try to head it off. He can go before his own cameras and say “The contract is signed. They have a legal right to come. Cubans insulted by this symbol of 30 years of Communism must prepare a peaceful demonstration that will make our feelings known.”

“That’s not what I want to happen,” he said. “I want the city not to embarrass the city. I don’t want to create public opinion on this issue.”

Last January 25, Lamas closed his office door and examined a list of performers chosen for the Latino music festival Viva Chicago. The name of the storied Cuban cha-cha band Orquesta Aragon leaped out at him. That means trouble, he told his visitors from the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. If that band comes, my station can’t be a festival sponsor. We can’t be a part of this.

Today, Special Events and such organizations as the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce and the Cuban-American National Foundation are at such loggerheads that the entire festival is threatened. One compromise after another has been floated–adding a second, politically acceptable, Cuban band to the program; shifting Aragon to Taste of Chicago; setting up some sort of anti-Communist educational booth. But the dignity of the anguished Cuban-Americans is unnegotiable.

Lamas is intractable on this issue, and his critics on the other side of it say it is shameful to see one of the Latino community’s most powerful journalists supporting censorship. “This is not a problem of rights or censorship,” Lamas responds. “I am not a freedom censor.” He does not understand how an attack on the symbols of tyranny can be called an attack on freedom.

As a journalist, Lamas is supposed to be encouraging the free flow of ideas, and he hasn’t done that. It’s true, he’s in an awkward position. The majority owner of WSNS is Irving Harris, whose, wife, Joan, is Chicago’s commissioner of cultural affairs. Special Events reports to her. But on second thought, Irving Harris’s position is the sticky one, and Lamas swears that Harris has put no pressure on him to keep a low profile on the Cuban band.

Yet WSNS has not done some obvious things. Lamas broadcasts his editorials on other subjects, but there’s been no editorial–high-minded or otherwise–on Orquesta Aragon. He says, “I am trying to defend the image of this station by staying away from the center of controversy.”

Lamas is not the first TV executive to avoid a center of controversy. But the usual reason is fecklessness, and Lamas is bursting with passion. He explains that there is one way to settle the dispute and the city knows what it is. So why go on the air?

Besides, said Lamas, “Don’t enough people already know about this?” Politically aware Cubans know. Who else needs to? Raising more voices and tempers, said Lamas, will just aggravate a difficult situation.

“I have asked myself, what else can I do?” said Lamas. “I as a person would maybe like to go on many forums and try to explain to people why Cubans feel offended and why I think the city should be responsive and sensitive to the situation inside and outside Cuba. But my role as general manager of 44 is not that one.”

No, his role as general manager is to put his own forum on the air. And a little late in the day, that idea did occur to him. Lamas tells us that his news director is trying to set up a roundtable discussion next week that will bring all sides together.

He’s entitled to his opinion; and the million Latinos who tune in his station are entitled to journalism.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.