Please forgive yet another invocation of this overused Dickensian device, but the last few weeks in Louisville really have been the best of times and the worst of times. It is a tale of two cities, but both are Louisville.
While Louisvillians obsessed over two basketball teams made up mostly of African-American youths beating their opponents on the court, two other such groups were, in separate incidents, brutally beating innocent bystanders and an unruly man on a bus. Call it March Mob Madness.
As referees painstakingly reviewed video to decide whether to put a tenth of a second back on the clock, Louisville's citizens reviewed video of a mob rampaging across the city's downtown in an orgy of indiscriminate destruction and violence, and an assault in which a boy was stabbed to death in an ugly and unnecessary confrontation on public transit.
This bitterly ironic contrast and misplaced priorities bring to mind decadent Rome's "bread and circuses." Nielsen ratings may make Louisville the capital of the big time college basketball's billion dollar empire, but its downtown parks and streets are unsafe as another generation of its citizens stares into an abyss already full of pointless deaths and wasted lives.
Louisvillians are simultaneously transfixed by the NCAA tournament and the near anarchy on display in its much ballyhooed business and recreation district. The city surely cannot like what it sees when it turns off the television and looks into the mirror.
Everyone except perhaps the perpetrators agrees that these episodes of urban terrorism are unacceptable. Many sincere people of goodwill are once again debating what to do about it, but avoiding hard facts or denying unpleasant realities does nobody any good.
Unfortunately, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and police chief Steve Conrad lost credibility at the outset by asserting that the weekend's vicious wilding was something isolated and unusual. Their claim reeked of "CYA" and quickly proved false. The most recent mob may have been the biggest episode of social media-fueled mayhem yet, but was by no means a one-off.
A blistering blog post by radio personality Terry Meiners, one of Louisville's most influential voices, said, "That reaction is based on ignorance of local history, or is an intentional lie to mask a colossal local problem." Everyone now knows that mobs have been terrorizing some downtown businesses for years with impunity.
Fischer compounded that error by trying too hard to be cool. "It's not the way we roll in the city," the mayor said. His attempt to be "hip to the jive" was embarrassing and inappropriate. Conrad also had to admit that the city's online crime map was inaccurate.
Having failed in his fundamental responsibility to ensure public safety, Fischer lashed out at law-abiding citizens who merely pay their taxes and mind their own business. "It's easy to be a critic from the couch," said the mayor. "If you are one of those people you can keep your thoughts to yourself because we have too much work to do."
The mayor could not have been clearer. If you just play by the rules your input is unwelcome. So either become a community activist or shut up.
Fischer would clearly prefer to keep his focus on bike lanes, Scandinavian-style long-range planning, and, of course, the local option sales tax. After this frightening outbreak of ugly mob violence, however, he is fortunate not to face credible Republican opposition for reelection.
Most media and government spokespeople simply referred to the marauding band as "teens" although videos showed the mob to be made up of African-American youths. Nobody seemed willing to say this in a public statement.
Such reluctance results from an understandable fear of being branded a racist for merely stating an objective fact. That's the way we really roll these days.
The police appeared relieved that some African-Americans were among the assault victims. This supported their narrative that the mayhem was not racially motivated. That is good because this awful situation would otherwise be even more dangerous and divisive.
But when someone so adamantly insists on telling you, "This is not about race," it probably is about race, at least to some extent. And so it is here.
There is a lot of white crime in Louisville, and much of it is even more reprehensible than these incidents were. And the vast majority of African-Americans in Louisville are exemplary citizens and fine people. But there is simply no denying that the city has a huge crime problem in the African-American community.
The litany of letters and lamentations from liberals blaming everyone but the actually responsible parties has already begun. Many will demand more money to do more of the same things that have proved so ineffective after spending billions on them over the past half-century.
From Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the mid-1960s to Paul Ryan this month, those who dare to say what the data show or offer new approaches will be demonized and denounced no matter how admirable their intentions or excellent their ideas. This never-ending national tragedy has already begun to play out again in Louisville.
Long and painfully oppressed, African-Americans have historically suffered more severely from maladies like high rates of out-of-wedlock births, persistently poor education, disproportionate incarceration especially among young males, random neighborhood violence, and lack of employment opportunities and work skills. But these social pathologies are not confined to one race and seem to be increasing across all races in America.
The races also now largely share common, coarse, and degrading entertainments, too. They glorify violence, objectify women, promote base crudity, ridicule self-restraint, subvert religion, and undermine almost every attribute essential for healthy relationships and productive lives. Mobile devices and social media make popular games, movies, music, and television more accessible than ever, but so much of the depraved content is moral cancer to impressionable young minds.
So race remains relevant, but we had better beware of the broader breakdown of vital social virtues occurring across the races and socio-economic strata. Increased social separation between the lowermost and the elites regardless of race will make our problems even more difficult to solve.
Law and order must come first, of course. Fischer, Conrad, and the Metro Council (itself still riven by race issues) must firmly follow through to restore public confidence and Louisville's reputation, both of which are now badly battered like the unfortunate victims of the recent violence. Fortunately, Fischer seems to be finding his leadership footing after his faltering start.
Enjoy the basketball, but be aware that our fanaticism and fixations on one-and-done freshmen, starting fives, and Final Fours reflect some radically misplaced priorities. Louisville is losing in matters much more important than any game.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com.