Last week, a video surfaced showing Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, making inflammatory -- and inaccurate -- comments about "the gazillionaires" during a keynote address in December at the Illinois Labor History Society's Union Hall of Honor dinner.
As she characterized the tension during last fall's teacher strike in Chicago, Lewis hearkened back to the labor leaders of the past who, she said, "were ready to kill. They were. They were just 'Off with their heads.'"
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The remark was greeted with mild applause and laughter. Lewis, with some tongue in cheek, went on to dismiss that approach: "I don't think we're at that point." But, she maintained, the wealthy "think nothing of killing us," think nothing of imposing "lethal working conditions."
Is this the sort of public discourse we've come to? Gross overstatement? Incendiary rhetoric in an age of sudden unprovoked violence? Language that seeks to divide and dehumanize rather than to find common ground?
Lewis' comments have become a lightning rod for conservatives, who rightly criticized her allusions to violence.
In context, it is plain that Lewis was not seriously calling for violence, but her choice of imagery and language was misguided and reckless all the same. We refer to them here not to single her out, but to hold her comments up as an example of the type of destructive rhetoric that seems commonplace these days -- from elements of both the left and the right. We all recall, as another example, Mitt Romney's loose closed-door references to the "47 percent" who, he suggested, choose to be dependent on government handouts.
There is nothing constructive in these exaggerated characterizations, only destructiveness.
Illinois and the nation face some great problems, and it's clear they will not be solved easily. It's natural to be frustrated by the lack of resolution, natural to be angered by wrongheadedness. It's also essential to demand accountability from lawmakers and stakeholders and vested interests; that's a necessary component in the process.
But, for example, as we look at public pensions and their related issues, can we all at least agree on two things? One, it is not unreasonable for public employees to expect past promises to be fulfilled. Anyone in that position would, just as private sector employees reasonably expect Social Security obligations to be paid. Two, it is not unreasonable for taxpayers who have to foot the bills and for anyone who is concerned about the public welfare to worry about how Illinois' deep and mounting debt will be paid. The state's pension obligations are racing to the edge of a cliff, and anyone who can do math would rightly want to find a way to avert disaster.
In both cases, these are reasonable expectations. Such is the case with most contentious issues. That there is a debate and one that is at times heated is a good and healthy thing. But let's embrace a constructive tone. Let's try to work together for the common good.