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I read Neil Steinberg's column in the Sun-Times because genuine thinking goes on there. But once in a while even the best minds shut down.
Steinberg explained Wednesday morning why he hadn't already contributed to Bayonet Watch, the rollicking coverage of Mayor Daley's stick-this-where-the-sun-don't-shine response last week when the Reader's Mick Dumke questioned the effectiveness of Chicago's gun ban, given the availability of guns despite it. Steinberg's reasons made sense. As someone with a history of calling the mayor "a charmless, ill-spoken bully, I don't feel obligated to feign surprise" every time the mayor shows his colors. Besides, he'd have been "piling on — the story was everywhere, all the pertinent information on display."
So why was he writing now? "There is one overlooked loose thread," Steinberg went on: "It was a dumb question."
Right then Steinberg sounded like some other kind of columnist — unthinking and carelessly provocative. It wasn't a dumb question, and Steinberg immediately demonstrated why it wasn't by telling us what a shrewd response Daley could have given it. Under the impression he was explaining what made Dumke's question so dumb, Steinberg went on:
"Experts are confounded as to why crime rates fluctuate. They toss out explanations from the aging population to the legality of abortion and end up doing what everybody does — grabbing each new development and pretending their pet beliefs explain the cause.
"If Chicago's gun ban didn't get the credit when the city's murder rate was sliding from 943 homicides in 1992 to 442 in 2007, why blame it now that crime has ticked back up, slightly? A nimble, articulate mayor might have pointed that out when asked."
When parsed, the reply Steinberg proposed is less to the point than the bayoneted rifle Daley picked up instead, telling Dumke, "“If I put this up your—ha!—your butt—ha ha!—you’ll find out how effective this is!” Dumke had been asking, not blaming, and as Chicago's murder rate plummeted I'm sure the gun ban came in for plenty of credit, certainly inside City Hall.
But yes, a response along those lines would have made Daley sound nimble and articulate — though in that case, what would Steinberg have had to write about six days later to sound nimble and articulate, a tone of voice a lot more precious to Chicago newspaper columnists than to Chicago mayors?
Judge a question by its answer. Dumke's question — measured by either the spectacular answer it got or the witty answer Steinberg says it might have got — was excellent.
And Steinberg, I'm happy to say, immediately regained his stride. The balance of his column is a long, smart tribute to the late Martin Gardner — who else in Chicago could write about him with so much appreciation? I have a feeling an editor told Steinberg, "Gardner? That guy who did math puzzles for Scientific American? Geez! Well, if you have to, at least lead off with something with a news hook." Maybe Steinberg told that to himself. At any rate, he took a quick pot shot at Dumke without bothering to aim.