By jimgris on Feb 23, 2009
I`ve been catching up on my Saul Alinsky now that we have a community organizer in the White House. I was never much inspired with Alinksy, although I certainly appreciate his place in American history. When I read his stuff I just feel dirty, sort of like plodding through Eddie Bernays and his propaganda or Machiavelli and his lessons for princes. But all that is reality in power politics, and many of those guys articulate some wonderfully evil and practical tactics to gut a variety of opponents in just about any situation you`d find yourself in. If that`s the sort of thing you want to do, anyway.
It`s interesting, though. We oftentimes hear that you have to fight fire with fire, and that`s probably true in some cases. But what about the exceptions? For instance, I never get that dirty Alinsky feeling all over when reading Ghandi or King, and those guys were certainly grand community organizers fighting bad guys too. In fact, they were probably the two most effective community builders in modern history. I wouldn`t put Alinsky in their league. Ghandi and King inspire. Alinsky manipulates. Ghandi and King transcend and transform. Alinsky fights. Both views are probably necessary at various points in a great struggle, but I prefer to focus a tad more on the positive and not so much on an Al Capone street fight in a dark and dirty Chicago alley. But that`s just me.
Sanford D. Horwitt, an Alinsky biographer, writes nice piece about what the so-called father of community organizing would say to President Obama today (Alinsky would be 100 this year). I guess Obama studied under some of Alinsky`s guys for a bit. So, what`s the fatherly advice on building community? "Barack, remember what got you here ... Keep your eyes on the prize and keep organizing, organizing, organizing!" That`s not surprising. And it`s good advice. But it will be interesting to see if Obama can follow it, if he can keep his obviously well honed community organizing skills up to date from the perspective of living among the power establishment that Alinsky was always fighting. That`s where Obama sits now, after all. Will it work from way up there? To me, this is what makes the Obama presidency fascinating.
Also of note is Obama`s view of Alinsky himself. It`s far more expansive view than the narrow minded Alinsky pitched. Check out The Agitator: Barack Obama's unlikely political education for a lot of Obama`s views of Alinsky. I like this bit right here:
"Alinsky understated the degree to which people's hopes and dreams and
their ideals and their values were just as important in organizing as
people's self-interest. Sometimes the tendency in community organizing
of the sort done by Alinsky was to downplay the power of words and of
ideas when in fact ideas and words are pretty powerful. 'We hold these
truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal.' Those are just
words. 'I have a dream.' Just words. But they help move things. And I
think it was partly that understanding that probably led me to try to
do something similar in different arenas." -- Obama, 2007
In other words, community organizing isn`t always about going head to head. It`s not always about cutting people down. It`s not always about taking power away from the powerful (after all, what do you do with the power you get? Will it corrupt you as it did them?). Sometimes community building is about, well, building. It`s about inspiring. Liberating. Leading. And it`s about distributing power, not centralizing it. It goes far beyond words, too.