Explore the South Side or suffer the consequences

By Emily Alpert

Most of us are willfully, pathologically blind to the South Side. The blinders originate sometime during O-Week, or maybe earlier, as we begin to set our boundaries. For some, they extend to Cottage Grove Aveneue and Hyde Park Boulevard; for others, even closer, at 53rd Street and Drexel Avenue. The O-book even provides a map with a handy red rectangle, delineating Hyde Park as distinct from the city, a pristine bit of safe space within which to muse on Hobbes and Locke, insulated from the distractions of the wild gray world. Even on the #55 bus or the Red Line, waiting to be spirited off to Belmont or Chinatown, we cluster together, barely glancing at the vacant factories or the kids grouped around in the parking lots. We affect blindness, because a good look might tell us things we don’t like.

It’s much the same attitude that planted us in Iraq, under-prepared, but well-stocked with rhetoric.

The Bush Administration, like many a Chicago student, has a propensity for exquisite theories, theories so exquisite that solid facts crush them. To get us to war, a swaggering ‘W’ dismissed United Nations and CIA skeptics as obstructionist, Wolfowitz pooh-poohed the high troop estimates set by the Army Chief of Staff as unrealistic, and Rumsfeld scoffed at “armchair generals” like Wesley Clark, whose extensive experience in kicking Slobodan Milosevic’s ass was clearly just cover for his inner peacenik.

Yet as Bush’s ideological hubris takes its toll, it’s paid in the lives of overtaxed G.I.s and remote Iraqis, far from this administration’s neo-conservative cabal. Revelations of the White House’s brash evasion of messy truths never come to bear on the White House itself, be they expert opinions on Iraq, or EPA warnings of post-September 11 health risks. The latter was quashed by the White House, endangering the health of thousands of New Yorkers. Meanwhile, Bush continued to invoke September 11, using fear to drive bloated pet policies like the Patriot Act through Congress, so that while our library records can be searched for the good of the country, Bush blacks out mention of Saudi cronies in Congressional reports about how to make us safer.

U of C students like to theorize, too – and I’m no exception. We like to play with ideas, knock them against each other to hear their jingle, argument against argument – and that’s fine. But when Maroons like Wolfowitz take their ideas off this campus, their ivory-towers-in-the-air often crumble. Whether that gives them pause is questionable. Who’s paying most dearly for the blind optimism of Rumsfeld and Cheney now? Not them. Likewise, bright U of C kids tend to forget that ideas matter, because they usually matter for somebody else.

To know the interrelation of this university, the South Side’s largest employer, with its surroundings, and perhaps its responsibilities to it, is an education also, and Marx and Smith matter when you’re talking about the kids down the street. Take a walk outside of the fabled red rectangle. Maybe we don’t chart this nation’s course – but 30-odd years ago, Wolfowitz didn’t, either.