Eight Ways Turkey and Chicago are Alike

I grew up in a suburb close to Chicago, right under the takeoff patterns of O’Hare airport. As an adult my wife and I lived in the city in which my parents were born and raised. I’ve lived in two other places (Los Angeles and Michigan) and visited quite a few others. Never before have I had the shock of recognition that I experienced after living a few months in Istanbul.

There are many differences between my hometown of Chicago and the country of Turkey, be they historical, religious, linguistic, or geographic.

But politically, they are eerily similar in ways I find amusing, funny, and downright appalling. So here is my list of the top seven ways Turkey and Chicago are alike.

8) Leaders Who Like to Plant Trees.

Mayor Richard the Second was big on planting trees. His father, Mayor Richard the First, was also fond of responding to critics with the phrase, “What trees do you plant?” This has also become a somewhat common Chicago maxim, as if to say, “What are you doing to fix and improve things?”

Prime Minister Erdoğan, despite the Gezi protests, would have you all know that he loves to plant trees.


And he even said, “The Gezi people are those who have no thought. They never planted a tree.”

This hasn’t stopped Erdoğan from demolishing a large part of a forest to build a third bridge over the Bosphorus.

7) Building stuff, Especially Big Things, Is Very Important.

From a third bridge over the Bosphorus, to a new enormous third airport, to digging another Bosphorus, Erdoğan wants Big Projects as his legacy. So did many Chicago mayors, whether it was a showcase lakefront park that cost $450 million to build, or several city-wide expressways, or a major airport, or very tall high-rise buildings. Big projects bring pride and, most importantly to politicians, keep voters working. Working voters are happy voters.

6) A Complete Disregard for Historical Heritage.

Chicago has improved on this in the past few decades. But nothing is allowed to get in the way of building big stuff, whether it’s an entire neighborhood for a new university campus (UIC) or ancient ruins for a tunnel underneath the Bosphorus, or buildings designed by Louis Sullivan to make way for new ugly skyscrapers.

Erdoğan vowed he wouldn’t let pots and pans get in the way of “progress.”

5) Votes are More Important than Efficiency.

Many roads in Istanbul are made of stone or concrete pavers. It’s very labor-intensive to build these kinds of roads. It requires many people (men) to personally lift and place each brick and put it into place. That isn’t tolerated as much anymore in Chicago or the U.S.A., what with the bare coffers of municipal governments.

But how many votes does an asphalt paving machine bring in?

4) Voting Is a Sport.

Chicago has a history of allowing dead people to vote, which has given rise to the saying, “The dead always rise on Election Day.” There has also been funny business with excessive numbers of absentee ballots in some parts of the city. It’s accepted as fact that Kennedy beat Nixon in Illinois thanks to some funny business with the votes in Cook County.

In the most recent election in Turkey, ballots for opposition candidates were put in the trash.

3) Corruption is Normal.

In Turkey, it’s shoeboxes full of money, found in the library of the general manager of the country’s state-run lender Halkbank.

In Chicago it’s been everything from bribery to tax evasion, to fixing criminal cases.

Why aren’t Erdogan’s supporters appalled at the corruption? Because they either don’t believe the reports coming from the press, or they don’t see it as corruption. The latter has allowed corruption to continue to thrive in Chicago despite numerous Federal investigations, resulting in hundreds (thousands?) of convictions through many decades.

2) Leaders Who Don’t Take Any Crap from Anyone.

Every word of criticism must be answered, every complaint must be disproved, every insult must be returned in kind. He doesn’t take anything from anybody.
– Mike Royko, Boss, about mayor Richard J. Daley


Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has labeled a corruption probe involving former ministers of his government as nothing but a “treacherous plot” to sabotage Turkey’s international standing and has ordered Turkish ambassadors serving abroad to “tell the truth” to their foreign interlocutors.

1) Leaders Who Hold the Press in Complete and Utter Contempt.

If he feels that he has been criticized unfairly, and he considers most criticism unfair, he doesn’t hesitate to pick up a phone and complain to an editor….[B]ut in general, he views the paper as his enemy. The reporters, specifically. They want to know things that are none of their business, because they are little men. Editors, at least, have power, but he doesn’t understand why they let reporters exercise it.
– Mike Royko, Boss, about mayor Richard J. Daley

Erdoğan says things like this, “Revealing state privacy is not called freedom, it is sheer treason.”

Plus, Erdoğan has power over the press that Chicago mayors can only dream of getting.

Number of journalists in jail in Turkey: 40
Number of journalists in jail in China: 32

Those numbers are according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.


Of course, one of the biggest differences between the two is that, unlike in Chicago, there is absolutely no check on Erdogan’s power in Turkey. With Chicago, the Feds have been kept busy investigating corruption. In Turkey, Erdogan just reassigns those police officers, prosecutors, and judges who investigate corruption.


Who Is Boss Kane?

One of the few TV shows I watch with any regularity is Boss on the Starz cable channel. I’ve seen both seasons now. I was interested from the very beginning, both as a former Chicagoan and lover of good TV shows.

What I hoped would eventually develop into an insightful look at urban politics with complex characters, centered around a powerful man’s descent into madness and enfeeblement, has never risen above melodrama. No cast or director, no matter how talented (and the cast of this show is great, along with the direction), can rise too far above the material handed to them.

Kelsey Grammer as Mayor Tom Kane is riveting to watch. But I can see why he didn’t get nominated for an Emmy. It’s not his performance. It’s the writing. Beyond a desire for acquiring, keeping, and using power, I don’t know who Mayor Thomas Kane is.

I have no sense of why the people of Chicago vote for Kane every four years. What has he accomplished for the city?

Too much elementary information about Kane has been left unprovided. Where is Kane from? If Chicago, which neighborhood did he grow up in? What are his ties to that neighborhood? If not, what brought him to Chicago? Where does his base of power reside? What about his parents and family? Does he have any sisters or brothers? Cousins?

If Kane is the hollow center of the show, then the supporting characters are the thin shell. They share certain degrees of power-hungriness, but we never really see what’s in it for them. There is only the grim serious business of using power to solidify power. No one, not even Kane, seems to relish the power they have. The drudgery about it all is relentless.

The melodramatic twists (“a casino development!” “a councilman is buried six feet under!” “a bastard son!” “Mrs. Kane fucks a powerful man not her husband!” “Ezra Stone murdered!” “dude gets his ear cut off!” “a phony assassination attempt gone bad!” “the lover of the GOP gubernatorial candidate murdered!” “Kitty shows her titties!”) only seems to underline the desperation of the writers to juice the series. This is what happens when you don’t have full-bodied characters: you use plot twists to keep the viewers’ interest. The twists would be more credible if the political machinations were allowed to simmer a bit more (thus providing a bigger impact) while the characters are allowed to grow with their struggles to survive in this milieu.

Oh, and could someone maybe crack a joke? Just once?

There are exceptions to all this grim power-hunger in the characters of Emma Kane, Sam Miller, and Mona Fredricks. But Emma is either looking for a fix, emotionally over-wrought, or emotionally over-wrought looking for a fix. Sam’s desire to get to the hidden truth about Kane’s corruption has led him on frantic trips around Chicago, to Canada and back. But then we got sidetracked with an implausible “relationship” with Kitty, the mayor’s former aide.

Mona has by far the most depth of any character on the show, gambling her years-built, well-respected reputation in the community that Kane would do something good for that community. Only she got burned. (Meanwhile, Kane’s sudden, perverted fascination with her is developed and then suddenly dropped.)

If you take the time to watch all 18 episodes you will have learned nothing more than that politicians can be greedy and power-hungry. You can see that in the news every day.

To understand how a particular city like Chicago can come to be ruled by one extraordinary man, you need to read Mike Royko’s classic, the original Boss. Royko accomplished in a little over 200 pages what Boss the TV show has so far failed to do in 18 hours: bring to life a glorious, troubled city, it’s power structures, and the man who rules it all.

When the Bribe Isn’t Big Enough to Matter

Only in Illinois can your conviction for corruption be overturned for not accepting big enough bribes. From the Chicago Sun-Times,

Dominick Owens, 46, twice took bribes of $600 to issue certifications of occupancy for four newly constructed homes he hadn’t inspected, a jury found following a trial in November. Originally suspected of taking more than $20,000 in bribes in 2005 and 2006, he was sentenced in March by Judge Blanche M. Manning to a year and a day in federal prison.

But the sentence was reversed Thursday in a ruling issued by the Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. Justices ruled that Owens should not have been convicted because prosecutors didn’t prove the bribes he took were worth more than $5,000, as the law requires.

That’s a pretty nifty requirement. In other words, accepting two bribes of $600 each isn’t really much of a bother. It’s like jaywalking. Sure, it’s against the law, but it’s not worth going to prison over. What’s several hundred dollars between a developer and a building inspector?

Owens was convicted as part of a much larger federal investigation called, “Operation Crooked Code,” which has resulted in the convictions of 21 people. Of the 21, 15 were Chicago building and zoning inspectors.

Six of the 15 crooked inspectors apparently used connections to get their city jobs, according to a hiring “clout list” that was kept by Mayor Daley’s former patronage director, Robert Sorich, who, in an outgrowth of the Hired Truck investigation, was convicted in June 2006 of overseeing an illegal-hiring system that gave city jobs and promotions to politically connected people.

You got that? The Hired Trucking scandal (more details on that can be found here and here) led to its own investigations, which in turn led to Operation Crooked Code. Operation Crooked Code showed empirically what most people in Chicago already knew: that city inspectors are open to bribes.

For Federal investigators, Chicago is a place where there’s plenty of corruption to investigate, which means there’s plenty of job security for them.

For writers, corruption is just one of the many inexhaustible sources of inspiration in Chicago. It’s a city that appalls, repulses, fascinates, seduces, and charms. It never bores. I never tire of it.