Monday, January 30, 2012

Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky, the great Chicago community organizer who died in 1972, was required reading for people involved in or sympathetic to the student and anti-war protests of the 1960's and 1970's. I remember buying my copy of Rules for Radicals sometime when I was in college. The book store manager, who was also an Alinsky fan, suggested that I also buy Reveille for Radicals, and read that before tackling Rules. That's ok, I told him, I'll just take Rules for Radicals. That was the book that was written specifically as an instruction book from an old 1930's radical to the generation that came of age in the 1960's. The book contains a lot of stories about Alinsky's decades of agitating for the labor movement, poor people and other disaffected groups, and serves as a handbook for anyone planning any kind of protest. It's a counterpoint to Machiavelli's The Prince, which was a rulebook for rulers. Rules for Radicals is designed instead to help those out of power agitate for social justice. It contains much practical advice on such subjects as how to make protests fun and interesting enough to get people out to join them; or how to get the attention of the media.

How amazing that 40 years later, such an original American character as Saul Alinsky has become a central figure in the current political campaign. An article in this morning's LA Times talks about how the Republican candidates have been forced to find new scare tactics to replace their 2008 attempts to invoke the contradictory fears that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim, or that he was in thrall to a radical black Christian preacher, or that he was in league with the former Weather Underground. So they have turned to invoking fear of European-style socialism, or 1930's-style American radicalism, as represented by someone like Saul Alinsky. As the article points out, most of Newt Gingrich's audience has probably never heard of Saul Alinsky, but he serves as a useful bogeyman for the Republicans because he is described as a Chicago radical who trained Barack Obama as a community organizer. His name is also suspiciously Jewish and foreign-sounding.

Bill Maher also did a funny bit on this topic this week, mocking the Republicans for creating a character who bears no resemblance to the real Barack Obama, and acting as though he'd never heard of Saul Alinsky. But Maher should, and probably does, know a little bit better. It's too simple a response to point out that Saul Alinsky died when Barack Obama was ten years old, because Barack Obama did work for several years as a community organizer in Chicago, where he was unquestionably influenced by the legacy of Saul Alinsky, the South Side's community organizer extraordinaire, the guy who wrote the book, in fact several books, on how to be a community organizer. Obama was also trained by another Alinsky-influenced community organizer named Jerry Kellman. (And Hillary Clinton, by the way, was also greatly influenced by Saul Alinsky, and wrote a thesis paper on his life and work.) So it is not unfair to claim that Saul Alinsky has had a strong influence on the current administration. And there is no reason for Obama to deny Alinsky's influence, the way he walked away from Jeremiah Wright. The president should be proud of his (indirect) connection to this American icon. But the connection only goes so far. Barack Obama, unlike Alinsky, decided after a relatively short time as a community organizer, that he could accomplish more on the inside than on the outside, and decided to work within the system as a state legislator, where he employed much more conventional methods of consensus-building to achieve political goals. That makes Obama a much different kind of change agent than Alinsky.

Another irony about someone like Newt Gingrich running against Saul Alinsky in his presidential campaign is that Newt's audience should actually be fairly sympathetic to Alinsky's methods. This is not 1968, when Richard Nixon successfully wooed the "silent majority" by campaigning on a law and order theme, playing to the average person's fears of rowdy campus radicals, and race riots in major cities. In 2012, the people who are responding to Newt Gingrich's campaign include many of the disaffected and the downtrodden. They are distrustful of government as well as corporate power. They are natural Alinsky material.  If anybody were to  take the trouble to read Rules for Radicals or some of Alinsky's other works, they would see that they contain advice that could be useful to any protest movement regardless of ideology. Alinsky's rules are of as much benefit to the Tea Party as to the Occupy movement. And if the leaders of both of those movements are not already reading Alinsky, they should be.

It makes no sense to run an outsider's campaign, as most of the Republican candidates are, by playing to fears of another outsider. Holding up somebody like Saul Alinsky as a bogeyman is also at odds with Gingrich's advertisements playing to popular resentment of Wall Street money and power. Gingrich should be channeling Alinsky, not demonizing him. For Gingrich to be stirring up fears of a 1930's radical shows that Gingrich is living in the past, appealing to the wrong audience, and sending out an incoherent message.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if Saul had come out of some place other than Chicago if he might have more support than 15% of Americans. It’s hard for most of us to take any part of Chicago politics seriously. I am going to purchase Rules For Radicals on your recommendation.