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Letters on the John Kass / George Soros / Chicago Tribune Guild controversy

In the March 31, 2022 issue of the Picayune Sentinel — about halfway down — I offered a different narrative to my former colleague John Kass’ account of his differences with the leaders of the Tribune’s newsroom union.  If you read that first, these letters, first published in the paid-subscribers’ edition on April 5, 2022,  will make more sense: 

Robert P. — I read the controversial column by John Kass —“Something grows in the big cities run by Democrats: An overwhelming sense of lawlessness” — when it was published in July, 2020. And I was struck how many times he felt the need to repeat the name “Soros.” To me it just smelled to high heaven of anti-Semitism, as though he had to pound into the reader’s brain that this notable Jewish financier was behind so much of the giving. So I’m a bit skeptical of your contention that Kass didn’t know he was repeating anti-Semitic tropes. Had it later come as a revelation to him, don’t you think he would have said something in the aftermath like “I didn’t know”? His defense of his column would have been much more persuasive if he had.

As I wrote last Thursday, I don’t think Kass intended to sound anti-Semitic notes, in part because I don’t think he is anti-Semitic and in part because I believe he’s smart enough to know that to do so would have distracted from and badly weakened any argument or point he wanted to make. His response to the subsequent controversy, however, has amounted to “repeatedly invoking Soros is not an anti-Semitic dog whistle (even though many people say they hear it that way).”

I’ve long argued that intent does matter in such instances, and that’s gotten lost in many similar situations. And because I don’t think Kass had anti-Semitic intent here, I think forgiveness would have been in order.

Here’s an analogy: Say you’re busily shopping at the supermarket, scanning the shelves for the best prices, and you accidentally ram your cart into another shopper. You were careless but your heart was not in the wrong place. So you apologize, say you didn’t mean it, and the other person says OK, please be more careful and everyone goes about their day.

But we live in a world now where intent doesn’t matter, apologies are not accepted (and often not offered) and inadvertent clashes or misunderstandings escalate into festivals of umbrage and recrimination. The other shopper flies into a rage, in other words, and you lash back defensively.

Kass was the distracted shopper in my analogy. But he was treated like some grocery store sociopath.

Jerry B. — The most logical conclusion is that the leaders of the Tribune’s newsroom union were bigtime angered by Kass’s refusal to support it and merely used the anti-Semitic charge as a pretext.

The union wasn’t “angered” by Kass’ refusal to support the union movement. They — we — didn’t need him when 85% of the eligible journalists supported the initiative to form the union. His lack of support for the union was purely symbolic. And his colleagues were by no means the only people who felt the Soros-Soros-Soros-Soros drone evoked anti-Semitic tropes. It was, in fact, a national controversy.

Dave O. — I still don’t understand how, if some people who rail against Soros are anti-Semitic that means that anyone who speaks negatively of Soros is anti-Semitic. Heck, there are a lot of Jewish people who speak negatively of Soros.

I don’t contend that anyone who invokes Soros is anti-Semitic. I contend only that anti-Semitic people have so frequently invoked his name to advance anti-Semitism that invoking his name over and over in a column gives rise to the appearance of advancing anti-Semitic tropes.

I’ll repeat myself: I don’t agree politically with Kass on much of anything, but I don’t think he intended to give that appearance and I don’t think he’s a bigot or an anti-Semite. I think he was surprised and then hurt and then angry at the insinuations, and I can certainly understand those emotions.

But why invoke Soros at all? To suggest that Kim Foxx is a tool of a rich, liberal, foreign ideologue and is following marching orders, not her own judgment, to institute policies that deliberately result in greater threats to public safety. It’s a lazy argument, as are arguments on the left that because Charles Koch, the surviving member of the dreaded Koch Brothers, helps fund a program, it’s automatically bad.

Steve R. — The idea that once a union is established everyone has to join denies an individual’s right to free speech and the right to be left alone. The forcible extraction of “dues” amounts to extortion. (“Those are some nice benefits. It’d be a shame if anything happened to them.”) What you see as benefits may not be what others see. Unions have a sordid history of high-pressure tactics, mob actions and corruption. That’s reason enough not to force unwilling employees to become members. They should be allowed to tell their union colleagues, “Don’t do me any favors” without financial or other penalties.

The idea is that if you get the pay raises and benefits and job protections of the union — which, again, by law, you do — then you have to pay union dues. There is a carve out in Illinois law for the portion of dues that go to supporting union political activity, which members don’t have to support.

There are “right to freeload” states where you can enjoy all the benefits of being in the union without having to pay union dues (conservatives and pliant, credulous journalists use the term “right to work,” which is why I prefer the former if equally tendentious term) and it tends to weaken the union movement and union protections.

One could envision a company where unionized employees would get union benefits and non-unionized employees would not, but one can also see how employers would use the split to weaken the union by offering non-union people the same or even, temporarily, better salaries and benefits in order to get people to quit and kill the union.

Newspaper unions don’t have a particularly ugly history and you need to remember why unions were formed– not to “extort” companies but to win fair wages and decent working conditions.

The power of organized labor is meant as a counterweight to the power employers have and it’s by and large been good for the country and good for the middle class. I would never say they have totally clean hands and excesses are easy to find, but so are depredations of employers.

I don’t know why Kass didn’t want to join the union and he was entitled to refuse, though to my knowledge he’s never explained his reasons to his readers or his former colleagues. Maybe he felt that he, personally, as the highest paid columnist, had no need of any union protections or benefits — which was almost certainly accurate.

But it was his attempt at a secret workaround to avoid union membership that brought shame to him and to the managers who engineered it. And he’s continued to misrepresent the story to his readers going forward.

I kept quiet about it for more than two years. But I decided after reading his latest false retelling of the story that enough was enough.

David L. — It’s very easy to see that the far leftist prosecutors that Soros backed are refusing to appropriately charge, prosecute and incarcerate criminals in the name of social justice, thereby increasing danger to all law abiding citizens. (And it is very noteworthy that Black city residents are disportionately the victims of the increased city crime.)

To assert that connecting the dots between Soros backing Kim Foxx and her failure to do her job in the name of social justice constitutes an anti-Semitic trope is the same cancel culture rubbish as immediately branding anyone who dared criticize Obama as racist. Disagree with Kass and his positions all you wish and find fault with his reasoning if you desire, but do not accuse him of anti-Semitism, even unintentionally, simply because an individual he wrote about happens to be Jewish.

It’s not as “easy to see” as you blithely assert. Criminologists who study cause and effect when it comes to incarceration, bail and prosecutorial priorities don’t draw these conclusions when they control for as many variables as possible. Anecdotes are easy to find, but data is much harder.

The implication of Kass’ column was not just that Foxx is pursuing policies that make us less safe — and I’m more than open to the idea that data could be marshalled to prove that — but that she’s doing so deliberately and at the behest of a Hungarian billionaire who, for some demented reason, wants to see low-income communities ravaged by crime.

The emphasis on personality rather than policy and data obfuscates rather than clarifies. Seven gratuitous references to Soros invokes a foreign boogey man whom some — many people? — see as a symbol for “Jewish puppet master.”

Again, I am not accusing Kass of anti-Semitism and I don’t believe in “unintentional anti-Semitism.” If, for example, your Peepaw calls Black people “colored” because that’s the term he grew up using, that’s not racism of any sort, even if someone who hears him misinterprets it as racism. It’s only racism if he continues to use the term knowing that others, particularly Black people, hear it as racist.

My stance here is the opposite of “cancel culture” in that I’m arguing that what I see as Kass’ lack of intent to disparage Jews absolves him of any infamous charges. Note, though, that the newsroom union didn’t call for him to be “cancelled” in its letter to management, it asked only that “the paper, and Kass separately, apologize for his indefensible invocation of the Soros tropes” and said it would “welcome the opportunity to speak with him and with newsroom management about the matter.”

No one ever apologized or convened such a meeting. Kass left the paper along with a whole raft of us a little less than a year later.

Marc M. — George Soros is a high-profile public figure, author, and is actively involved in politics. Establishing a barrier to referencing him by name because some may hear it as an anti-Semitic dog whistle doesn’t seem right, as it presumes that everyone that uses his name has agreed to the secret code and evil ulterior motives.

No, but it argues for care and context when you want to reference him. It’s certainly fair game to ask: Who is Soros? What is he supporting? Does it work? Can we glean his motives?

But salting his name into commentaries is a bit like repeatedly mentioning the race of a criminal defendant — it may be a true statement, but it damn well better be relevant if you want to bring it up with impunity.

Bob E. — Have you given Kass an opportunity to respond to your allegations [or your version of the facts]?

Did he give the union leaders the chance to respond before slagging them? Did he get a comment from Colin McMahon, the executive editor he dismissed as “weak”? Did he check with George Soros or Kim Foxx before writing the column that got everyone so hopped up?

No. Columnists and pundits in other forums tend to analyze events as they see them and as they’ve been reported, with the idea being that they are advancing and provoking conversations, not composing he-said/she-said articles, and that the subjects of their commentaries have ample access to platforms to respond.

In this case, Kass has his own platform which, to hear him tell it, is quite a bit larger than mine, so he can certainly challenge my “version of the facts” if he’d like. I’ll even link to it!