“Power makes the world go round.” “Ethics are elastic.” “The end justifies the means.” “Morality is a useful disguise.” “Altruism is a myth.” Just a few of the Tilt-a-Whirl moments in the second and third chapters of Rules for Radicals.
In the fourth chapter, Saul Alinsky leads us off the ricocheting ride of radical “truths” and on to the application — a sort of grainy textured 8mm movie on the birth of a community organizer and the rebirth of those whose lives he touches.
He begins by describing his “full time, fifteen-month program” where he worked tirelessly “as an organizer of every member of my staff.”
Alinsky’s wide range of students — including “middle-class women activists,” clergymen, militant Indians and Hispanics, “blacks from all parts of the black power spectrum,” campus activists and SDS. members — shows the power of his blueprint for radicalization. Alinsky’s effectiveness — while he lived — lay in his harnessing whatever hang-ups, guilt, gripes, or neuroses individuals had and applying that energy to his cause.
Which hearkens forward to a couple of his most prominent disciples, Rahm Emanuel and Hillary Clinton: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
The basic premise is that our country is evil. The “have-nots,” whose hopeless lives have rendered them incapable of understanding anything, need to be awakened, enlightened, and reborn. Alinsky is the one who brings the good news, the one who begins the apostolic succession, the one whose true believers will fan in every direction, embedding themselves in communities to awaken the downtrodden, organize them around issues, and mobilize them into action.
Did Alinsky ever dream one of his disciples would use his training and early experience as a pattern for a national campaign? And then as the basis for a new kind of presidency — as community organizer in chief — playing on those defined as “have-nots” (even if they have plasma TVs, cell phones, and weekly manicures) with appeals for their support against an array of enemies: car companies, banks, insurance companies, doctors (not lawyers, though), Fox News, and ordinary citizens who haven’t yet come into the fold.
This explains why every Obama speech reads like a shopping list of grievances. It’s not that he’s campaigning. It’s that he’s playing the role of the organizer, using the same old Alinsky communication style, but at a national level, And now it’s not just about organizing the grassroots, but about using politically militant Alinsky-style groups like ACORN and SEIU to silence the opposition.
But though Obama postures as the community organizer in chief, I doubt that Alinsky would be proud of this disciple today:
This is the basic difference between the leader and the organizer. The leader goes on to build power to fulfill his desires, to hold and wield the power for purposes both social and personal. He wants power himself. The organizer finds his goal in creation of power for others to use (p. 80).
But the success rate for community organizers isn’t really that high: Alinsky readily admits his training produced “more failures than successes.” But what seems notable is his dispassion when evaluating specific disappointments. His analysis of why labor union organizers failed as community organizers (p. 66) reads like a USDA inspector grading meat. The warmth one might expect form a teacher/idealist is just not there.
Alinsky seems to sense that there is something missing. He spends 14 pages (66-80) navel-gazing and comes up with the following list of qualities which define a good organizer:
Curiosity — “He … suspects there are no answers, only further questions.”
Irreverence — “To the questioner, nothing is sacred.”
Imagination — “ He suffers with them and becomes angry at the injustice.”
A sense of humor — which is “incompatible with the complete acceptance of any dogma, any religious, political, or economic prescription for salvation.”
“A bit of a blurred vision for a better world” — “It is though as an artist he is painting a tiny leaf.”
An organized personality — “He should be able, with skill and calculation, to use irrationality in his attempts to progress toward a rational world.” Say what?
“A well-integrated political schizoid” — 100% committed to a polarized issue, yet able to compromise when the time comes.
Ego — “The thought of copping out never stays with him for more than a fleeting moment; life is action.”
“A free and open mind, and political relativity” — “For him hell would be doing the same thing over and over again.”
While an organizer might get away with lacking a couple of the above nine qualities, Alinsky is so adamant about the tenth — communication — that he devotes an entire chapter to it, noting, “It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate it to your people.”
Your people. Alinsky’s use of the possessive is telling — particularly in light of countless speeches by our 44th president/first community organizer in chief. These speeches are most often addressed more to his supporters than to the entire American citizenry. Obama’s iconography, replacing the traditional presidential seal with his campaign logo and websites aimed at organizing “his people,” also reveal him as a leader fixated only on recognizing his true believers rather than his responsibility to the nation as a whole.
After a couple heavy-handed swipes at Christianity, Alinsky uses the story of Moses as a platform:
It isn’t just that Moses couldn’t tell God what God should do; no organizer can tell a community, either, what to do. Much of the time, though, the organizer will have a pretty good idea of what the community should be doing and he will want to suggest, maneuver, and persuade the community toward that action. He will not ever seem to tell the community what to do; instead he will use loaded questions (p. 91).
Alinsky’s lack of respect for humanity can’t help but bleed through every now and then:
Many times, contact with lower income groups does not fire one with enthusiasm for the political gospel of democracy. This disillusionment cmes partly because we romanticize the poor (p. 104).
And it is a painful reality that Obama’s most loyal base rests at the bottom of the social ladder, that he is adept at working it, and that he would be utterly uncomfortable spending more than a handshake or photo op with those who adore him.
Alinsky also addresses the human tendency to resent those on whom they become dependent — and cautions that the effective organizer “never wears his four stars, never is addressed as nor acts as a general” — which explains Obama’s goofy casualness in his speech and often inappropriately informal wardrobe (see the Great Wall).
Also notable: Alinsky’s boast of lying by omission to the Catholic population he organized in Chicago, waiting until he had established a trusting relationship to reveal his support for birth control and abortion. His cameo self-portraits — used as teaching illustrations — are often vulgar (involving profanity for shock value) or downright creepy, as when he points to five priests disliked by the chancellor and says, “Can you look at them and tell me you oppose birth control?”
At moments like this, Alinsky cracks himself up — while clearly seeking to inspire his followers with his blend of irreverence, humor, and ego (remember the nine qualities). In Obama, one can see this incipient narcissism writ large.
The acorn didn’t fall far from this tree.