I was away last week, in Cape Cod, where I indulged in my usual crazy-go-nuts Scrabble marathon, learned that I could live on lobster salad and want for nothing, and was reminded of the law of the universe that says if you sally forth in 70 SPF sunscreen and a shirt you wouldn't wear to the Safeway, you will run into your college boyfriend. If you are what you read, do I want to know what it means that hubby brought along a novel translated from the Swedish about a world in which women over 50 are recycled for parts -- I think Sarah Palin might have brought this to the beach this year also -- and a second one in which a divorcing couple goes on one last camping trip with fatal results? (The wife lives, though. I checked.) My own ink-on-paper companion was a Saul Alinsky bio published 20 years ago – and plenty pertinent today, since as noted all the way from here to here, Alinsky was an early role model for our community-organizer-in-chief in their always-exciting hometown of Chicago.
Even before Palin mocked Obama's days as an organizer in her Republican National Convention speech last summer, conservatives saw his tutelage in the rabble-rousing methods pioneered by Alinsky, who died when Obama was 11, as damning and therefore delightful: Of the – count em! -- 511 "official Obama administration scandals'' listed on ConservativeAmerican.org, one of top-rated outrages – Scandal #10, right ahead of Obama's connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- is "Obama Saul Alinsky Training Scandal.''
The "scandal'' in question is so measly it did make me wonder about the lesser-ranked trespasses -- # 510 is "Little Girl at Obama Town Hall comes from family of Obama Supporters!'' – but as laid out in a January '08 piece in American Thinker, the charge involving Alinsky is that "it must bother [Hillary Clinton] that Obama also appears to have mastered the playbook used by her own political teacher, the legendary amoral guru of left wing activism, Saul Alinksy. Hillary has met not only her match in Alinsky tactics, she has met the master of bloodless socialist revolution.'' As a young organizer, the piece goes on to explain, Obama must have "learned how to 'rub raw the sores of discontent,' in Alinsky's words...The agitator's job, according to Alinsky, is first to bring folks to the 'realization' that they are indeed miserable, that their misery is the fault of unresponsive governments or greedy corporations, then help them to bond together to demand what they deserve, and to make such an almighty stink that the dastardly governments and corporations will see imminent 'self-interest' in granting whatever it is that will cause the harassment to cease.''
Maybe that does sound a tad sinister, but when it comes to stink-stirring and rubbing raw, our cautious and conciliatory president is chopped liver to Rush Limbaugh's foie gras drizzled over a nice juicy Ruth's Chris steak tartare. Like Alinsky, Obama is an intensely pragmatic change agent of imprecise – or is it mutable? -- priorities. (And if you think Obama has been treated like The One, you should see some of Alinsky's press, like the 1940 editorial in the New York HeraldTribune that said if his work bringing people together to improve their own neighborhood in Chicago's notorious Back of the Yards meatpacking district could be replicated across the country "it may well mean the salvation of our way of life.'')
But Obama is also worlds more careful, and has way more faith in the political process than did the raucous and outrageous author of "Rules for Radicals." Alinsky enjoyed cozying up to Al Capone's gang for his research as a criminologist and reveled in attention-grabbing stunts like dumping a mountain of garbage in front of an establishment owned by a city official who'd been unresponsive to complaints about trash pick-up. (Alinsky's Rule #6: A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.)
In both temperament and tactics, it's Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Matt Kibbe of Freedomworks who are channeling Alinksy these days. On Thursday, Limbaugh told his radio audience, "I am happy. I am honored. I am proud, ladies and gentlemen, to be considered the Mobfather here leading the unruly mobs protesting at all these town hall meetings.'' And how again did he whip them up? By just casually mentioning "my reaction to the Obama health care logo'' – even though there isn't one – "the other day. I mentioned something about it reminded me of Germany in 1942, the shape of the logo, the people. If you go and look at this you will find that the Obama health care logo is damn close to a Nazi swastika logo.'' (Alinsky's Rule #13: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.)
Over at Fox News, meanwhile, Sean Hannity is similarly taking a bow for the political theatre performed nightly at town halls across the country: "It's extraordinary,'' he said of the protests. "And the fact that we are – the audience out there is doing their job. They're going to those town-hall meetings of those politicians and they're confronting them. They're embarrassing them.'' (Alinsky's Rule # 5: Ridicule is man's most potent weapon.)
Between the guy who showed up at an Obama town hall in Portsmouth, N.H. with a loaded gun strapped to his thigh, the North Carolina congressman who received a health-care death threat and the Maryland representative hanged in effigy, the prospect of violence seems real enough. (Alinsky's Rule # 9: The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.)
Yet it's harder than you might think to say how Alinsky himself would feel about all this – well, except for the swastika part; he was, after all, a Jew enraged by American complacency about the menace posed by Hitler. But as Alinsky's biographer Sanford Horwitt wrote in the fascinating "Let Them Call Me Rebel": "Throughout Alinsky's life there was confusion about where to place him and his concepts on the political spectrum, and more confusion than one would have expected of a man who had been a friend and supporter of the great labor leader John L. Lewis and the industrial labor movement in the 1930s, a self-professed radical in the 1940s, and an outspoken advocate of racial integration and civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s."
And what are we to think of his latest conservative heirs and imitators? As infuriating as their scare tactics are, and as desperately as we need health care reform, is it hypocritical for liberals to suddenly discover the dangers of fanning social discontent now that the grassroots are growing in conservative ground? Are tactics that were OK for Code Pink not OK for Freedomworks? For me, the bottom line is that in different ways, the latter-day Alinskys on both the left and the right are demonstrating not the strength but the weakness of his tactics – weakness that, as a matter of fact, Hillary Clinton pointed out in her Wellesley senior honors thesis on Alinsky; for one thing, she wrote, an awful lot hinged on his personal appeal.
My own first brush with community organizing was as a young lefty do-gooder who nonetheless shared some of Palin's skepticism about what the heck kind of work that was: Right after graduating from Notre Dame, as a Holy Cross Associate in San Francisco's Mission District, I worked in a nun-run program for women coming out of abusive relationships and shared a house with four other volunteers -- two women who taught low-income kids in a Catholic school, and two guys whose assignment was community organizing -- which to the untrained eye looked a lot like hanging out, speaking Spanish with the neighbors, and dreaming up topics for philosophical discussions the rest of us were too tired for at day's end.
In the years since then, I have seen organizers gain recognition of a problem, but never its solution: As a reporter for New York Newsday in the early '90s, I spent many Saturday mornings covering the marches Al Sharpton organized in Brooklyn's Bensonhurst after a young black guy, Yusuf Hawkins, was killed by a white mob there. Week after week, his group would march through the heavily Italian neighborhood shouting, "No justice, no peace.'' And week after week, residents would yell the ugliest racist invective you can imagine at the marchers. I would not say I was Sharpton's biggest fan – the Tawana Brawley hoax he was involved in was inexcusable – but he was making a point, provoking a reaction, forcing recognition that that was how things stood then and there, and there was no denying it.
Even the most effective such action I can remember – involving the "Brooks Brothers" protesters from D.C. who stormed the room where Miami-Dade election officials were working and got them to stop the Bush-Gore Florida recount in November of 2000 -- can't claim credit for Bush's victory. Gore didn't lose the White House because he got out-organized, though that was also true; he lost because he got out-lawyered. And Barack Obama certainly didn't become president because of ACORN, but in spite of it.
Today, the Code Pink ladies still shout anti-war slogans at hearings on the Hill – in seeming violation of Alinsky's Rule # 7: A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag. And the more enraged members of the mobs marching on town halls don't even seem to know what their goals are – to the point that their tactics are very likely to backfire.
Poor Craig Miller, who screamed in Sen. Arlen Specter's face before being ejected from a recent health care town hall in Lebanon, Pa., said later on MSNBC that he was yelling in order to be heard – but then, when accorded his 15 minutes on cable TV, had no idea what he wanted to say. ("I wanted to discuss how the president has broken his oath of office,'' he said, but then couldn't really explain further, other than to complain that Obama had appointed "31 czars'' – or heads of various government offices.) The much-interviewed Katy Abram, who'd quiveringly told Specter, "This is the dismantling of our country,'' and "You have awakened a sleeping giant,'' had a similarly hard time expressing her specific objections, either to health care reform or Obama policies in general. William Kostric, the man who brought a loaded gun with him to protest Obama's health care reform town hall in Portsmouth, told Chris Matthews on "Hardball" that his gripe not only went beyond the health care issue but beyond his entire lifetime, with a slide towards socialism that in his view began with the Wilson administration: "One party wants to take our money and bail out corporations, the other one wants to take our money and bail out welfare cases; neither party wants to listen to the people who believe they own our property and what we earn is ours.'' Not every foot soldier, of course, has to be a strategist. But the more irrational and out of control protesters are, and the more their organizers rant about imaginary "death panels," the more damage they do their case and their cause.
According to a USA Today/Gallup Poll released Wednesday, the angry mob tactic may be having some initial impact: 34 percent of respondents say the protests have made them more sympathetic to the protesters' views, compared to 21 percent of the 1,000 adults surveyed who are now less sympathetic. But in the end, I refuse to believe that the American public will conclude that the president they elected less than a year ago is lying when he says there are no death panels coming to liquidate grandma. I refuse to believe they will say no, they quite like the way they are treated by insurance companies and want to be able to hang on to coverage that can be cancelled mid-chemo. And while I too feel more and more sympathy for the protesters, it's not in a way either they or their organizers would like.
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