Blogging Rules for Radicals: Chapters Four and Five

"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: