Rachel Shteir—cat's-paw of New York's cunning plot to make the world despise us?

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Rachel Shteir
On Monday I posted a commentary on the Bleader that drew an unusual amount of response—most of it favorable. My editor wrote to congratulate me on my fine words.

Naturally, this reaction distresses me. As I wrote a few years ago in the Reader: "Dissatisfaction is the columnist's lot . . . . Praise a columnist and you stir up trouble." For columnist, you may now also read blogger. Approval is our enemy. It turns our heads. Worse, it metastasizes. It turns into applause for something you didn't actually write, wouldn't have written, and don't agree with. Of course, it's tempting to shut up and ride the wave.

The subject of my commentary was a Sunday essay in the New York Times Book Review by Rachel Shteir on three Chicago-related books. Shteir took the occasion to give Chicago a thumping that I considered poorly thought out and argued to the point of zaniness. But it's not as if nothing she wrote was true. And it's not that she was simply indulging New York readers who required frequent assurances that the cow town by the lake is uninhabitable. According to reports I receive, New Yorkers don't mind thinking of us favorably because they rarely think of us at all.

Here's my commentary. Read the comments that follow it, which—holy mackerel!—are already up to 67. (Monday night I thought they'd plateaued in the mid-20s.) The most interesting thing to me about these comments is the tug-of-war that was quickly organized between Chicagoans denigrating New York and Chicagoans denigrating Chicagoans for denigrating New York. Even though New York wasn't the stick Shteir picked up to beat Chicago, it was the stick seized both to beat her off and to defend her. Maybe Chicago should forget about Shteir and tell it to a shrink.

One of the books Shteir dissed was Neil Steinberg's You Were Never in Chicago. Steinberg has spearheaded his own defense, and on Tuesday I found him on my Facebook page championing one of his allies: "My friend (and editor) Bill Savage nails it: Why does Chicago care about New York Times' dope-slap?" Steinberg posted, and linked to Savage's piece on the website of Crain's Chicago Business.

Savage (who edited Steinberg's book for the University of Chicago Press) is my friend too, and he's nailed a fair number of subjects writing for the Reader. But bringing the hammer down on Shteir, his aim is less than true. "This dust-up serves one good purpose," he writes: "It raises the question, Why do Chicagoans care what New Yorkers think? We care because we're Americans, and New York is another great American city. We care because Chicago was built by boosters, many of whom came from New York and made their fortunes by bragging (rightly and wrongly) about this place. We care because New York media shapes how people worldwide understand our nation and our city. No one from anyplace wants to have their home trashed. Yet at the same time, it's disheartening to see this tired script play out again: New York writer dismisses Chicago as second rate. Chicagoans smack back. New York writer sighs, What do you expect from such rubes but to take umbrage at my deeper understanding of their second-rate town?"

True, Shteir has lived in New York, but she went to college in Chicago and for the past 13 years she's lived and worked here. If the Times paid her a decent buck to read and review three books on Chicago—well, she's a working stiff like the rest of us, and isn't it enough to critique the job she did on its merits? I don't think the world read her essay and reassessed us. I don't think the battle stations Chicago mans every time New York clears its throat bespeak eternal vigilance. They bespeak a place with issues.

Shteir's essay has turned into one of those moments when everyone feels a need to respond—especially those of us who are also working stiffs. My friend Carol Felsenthal, a Chicago magazine blogger, was a second-day respondent. "One would think that DePaul theater prof Rachel Shteir had lined up our city's cutest kitties and assassinated them St. Valentine’s Day style—or committed some other heinous crime—so great is the anger directed at her over a front-page New York Times Book Review piece on Chicago," Felsenthal's Tuesday post began. "For the last couple of days, Facebook and Twitter have pulsed with Shteir-related vitriol. Last night, local TV got into it as well, with Carol Marin on NBC 5 and Robin Robinson and Bob Sirott at Fox News 32 expressing their outrage. But all the fiery reactions have happened without any response from Shteir—until now."

Felsenthal posted a Q&A with Shteir, who told her, "The reaction here proves my point. Can Chicago not take criticism? Is there only one conversation to be had in the city as in 'Go Chicago?' That was the point of my piece."

"Do you want to leave Chicago?" Felsenthal asked her.

Shteir said she hoped to, one day.

And go where?

"I fantasize about moving back to New York," said Shteir.

A good question. An honest answer. An answer that could convince Bill Savage and a lot of other people that they were onto her all along.

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