I keep hearing, over and over, from all quarters of the conservative biosphere, that Saul Alinsky is evil. A monster. A freaked-out radical Goya-esque nightmare creature, with the power to disturb conservative sleep just by the whisper of his name: “Aliiiiiiin-sky! ALIIIIINS-SKY!”
Oh, please. Let’s get real.
Saul Alinsky was born in 1909 to Russian Jewish immigrants. Hometown: Chicago. Went to the U. of Chicago and got a degree in archaeology, except that during the Depression there wasn’t a big demand for archaeologists, so he went to work for the state while moonlighting as a labor organizer.
Labor organizing-wise, he started with Back of the Yards, a completely impoverished slum where workers from the slaughterhouses were concentrated in abject misery, and incidentally, held prisoner there by now-illegal company-store practices of Armour and other meat packing corporations. Alinsky then expanded into community organizing, using some unconventional methods to bring people together: Kansas City, Detroit, the barrios of Southern California, and the African American ghettos of Chicago, He even traveled to California to help organize the black ghetto in Oakland, but upon hearing about it “the panic-stricken Oakland City Council promptly introduced a resolution banning him from the city.”
Alinsky wrote a book that was published in 1971, called “Rules for Radicals”, which talks about organizing power for the people, to “change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be.” He was an outspoken advocate of the “have-nots” wrestling power from the “haves”.
He was not a Communist and not a Marxist. “Philosophically,” he claimed, ” I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology… One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as ‘that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you’re right.’ If you don’t have that, if you think you’ve got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics.”
Hmmmm.. ” … an inside track to absolute truth … humorless and intellectually constipated … religious and political and racial fanatics.” Ring a right-winger bell, anyone?
Back to work. Okay, what’s so bad about Alinsky so far? I can’t really spot anything, except that he isn’t controllable. Fox News can’t load him up with heavy spew and have him “catapult the propaganda”, in George W. Bush’s immortal phrasing. In fact, leaders of the Tea Party movement have distributed copies of “Rules for Radicals” to their members because Alinsky’s techniques are very, very effective. So, Alinsky is used by both the right and the left, because his methods cannot be confined to a particular ideology.
So what’s the Alinsky problem? There are still workshops all over the country, and his methods of organizing are as effective as ever, but what’s the fundamental issue for conservatives here?
Well, one is ignorance. If you are a conservative reading this, it is probably way more information about this guy that you have ever absorbed before, and possibly a lot more than you ever wanted to know, because it messes up your echo chamber.
But the main issue is one of unintended consequences. One of Alinsky’s core concepts is that if you know other human beings – that is, KNOW them, their family history, their circumstances, their hopes, dreams, desires, wishes, what they love and what they hate – then you can actually begin to communicate. So an Alinsky workshop is made up in large part of getting to know other people on a deep level. And, everyone soon realizes, there is much more that unites them than that which divides them. Beyond that, you become much more than strangers, and more than acquaintances: you become natural allies.
This is the LAST thing our polarized, separatist, right-wing control-freak corporations and their paid politicians want to have happen. Their mission over the 30 years since Reagan was elected has been to keep everybody isolated, Mountain-Man style, which has the effect of sticking the nation into a static state. Our congresspeople don’t mingle across party lines anymore. My House representative, Cathy McTurniphead Rodgers, never bothered to return my numerous polite Emails, I assume because I wanted to talk about things she hoped she’d never have to consider. Brad Benson, former Washington State congressman, was under the mistaken impression that everybody who was a liberal was a committed Communist, despite having “a degree in economics”. Neither Boehner or McConnell, our national right-wing figureheads, seem to have even the slightest interest in talking to progressive Democrats, and demonstrate it every day. Comment boards are stuffed with right wingers yelling names, curses, and threats against anyone who has the temerity to question the wisdom of writing off the progressive half the electorate. My neighbors across the street haven’t spoken to me since Obama was elected the first time because I had an Obama sign in my yard.
Alinsky was a very smart guy. When did deliberate ignorance, calculated stupidity, and navigating life by “feelings” become virtuous in this country? If Alinsky were here now, he’d lock us all in a Rules for Radicals workshop together for a week, and believe me, we would all be different when we came out. Maybe then we could start uniting as a nation of human beings, instead of a pack of dogs fighting over a single bone.
I look forward to that day.