Water Man Spouts

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Reveille for Radicals

{1} Mere Tolerance is NOT Enough
"The American people were, in the beginning, Revolutionaries and Tories. The American people ever since have been Revolutionaries and Tories regardless of the labels of the passed and present. Regardless of whether they were Federalists, Democrat-Republicans, Whigs, Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, Unionists or Confederates, Populists, Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Communists, or Progressives. They have been and are profiteers and patriots. They have been and are conservatives, liberals, and radicals.

"The class of radicals, conservatives, and liberals which makes up America's political history opens the door to the most fundamental question of what is America? How do the people of America feel? It is in the feeling that the real story of America is written. There were and are a number of Americans -- few, to be sure -- filled with deep feeling for people. They know that people are the stuff that makes up the dream of democracy. These few were and are the American radicals and the only way that we can understand the American radicals is to understand what we mean by this feeling for and with people. Psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, and other learned students call this feeling "identification" and have elaborate and complicated explanations about what it means. For our purposes it boils down to the simple question, How do you feel about people? …..

"America's radicals are to be found wherever and whenever America moves close to the fulfillment of its democratic dream. Whenever America's hearts are breaking, there American radicals were and are. America was begun by its radicals. America was built by its radicals. The hope and future of America lies with its radicals.

"What is the American radical? The radical is that unique person to whom the common good is the greatest personal value. He is that person who genuinely and completely believes in mankind. The radical is so completely identified with mankind that he personally shares the pain, the injustices, and the sufferings of all his fellow men."
--Saul Alinsky; Reveille for Radicals

The March 25, 2007 edition of the Washington Post had an interesting article by Peter Slevin, titled "For Clinton and Obama, A Common Ideological Touchstone." The article discusses the connection that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had with Saul D. Alinsky, the legendary community activist. Alinsky is recognized as one of the most successful grass-roots organizers in modern political history.

He was born in 1909 in Chicago, and studied archaeology and then criminal justice, before becoming a grass roots activist. He got his start in the Back of the Yards neighborhood that Upton Sinclair made famous in "The Jungle." He believed that power flowed upward, and that individuals could best access power by being part of a group. Groups, he said, had two types of power: money and numbers. Because poor people had relatively little money, he believed that their power came in joining into groups that represented their combined strength.

Alinsky believed that the poor could obtain results through direct action, more than in voting. He did not advocate violence; quite the opposite, he knew that would be a self-defeating course. Rather, he favored using street theater, sit-ins, and constantly up-grading tactics to capture the public’s attention.

His students include Edward Chambers, the Executive Director of the Industrial Area Foundation; labor activist Patrick Crowley; East Brooklyn community organizer Michael Gecan; and the great labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez.

Along with Dolores Huerta, Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which became the United Farm Workers. Cesar Chavez When a U.S. Subcommittee examined issues involved in the "grape strike," Chavez became closely associated with Senator Robert Kennedy.

{2} Rules for Radicals
"There's another reason for working inside the system. Dostoevsky said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and change the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution. To bring on this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but the 40 per cent of American families - more than seventy million people - whose income range from $5,000 to $10,000 a year [in 1971]. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat. They will not continue to be relatively passive and slightly challenging. If we fail to communicate with them, if we don't encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right. Maybe they will anyway, but let's not let it happen by default.."
--Saul Alinsky; The Latter Rain

Hillary Clinton has called 1968 a significant year in her "personal and political evolution." When she began her senior year at Wellesey College, a number of historic events had taken place: there was the Tet Offensive and major escalation in the Vietnam War; President Johnson’s decision to retire; the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy; and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

For her senior thesis, she wrote a 92-page paper on war and poverty, titled, "There is Only the Fight….:An Analysis of the Alinsky Model." She interviewed Saul Alinsky three times, and wrote that he "does not sound radical," that his tactics were "non-radical, even ‘anti-radical’," and that they represented the values found in the schools and churches of the communities he worked in.

On October 25, 1968, Saul Alinsky offered Hillary Rodham a job. She declined to accept the offer, and her career went in a different direction. In the 1990s, when republicans attempted to use Alinsky’s name to discredit her, the White House requested Wellesey College to seal their copy of Hillary’s thesis.

Although she had attempted to disassociate herself from Alinsky, as First Lady, Clinton did meet with some of the community organizers who were Alinsky students. Michael Gecan noted, "She would always say, ‘I did my senior thesis on Alinsky’."

In her 2003 "Living History," Clinton included but one paragraph on Saul Alinsky. She calls him "a colorful and controversial figure who managed to offend almost everyone." It is this approach that has convinced the majority of Alinsky students to conclude, in the words of Greg Galluzzo, that "Hillary leans toward the elites."

{3}The Democratic Promise
Alinsky: "Conservative? That's a crock of crap. Right now they're nowhere. But they can and will go either of two ways in the coming years -- to a native American fascism or toward radical social change. Right now they're frozen, festering in apathy, leading what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation:" They're oppressed by taxation and inflation, poisoned by pollution, terrorized by urban crime, frightened by the new youth culture, baffled by the computerized world around them. They've worked all their lives to get their own little house in the suburbs, their color TV, their two cars, and now the good life seems to have turned to ashes in their mouths. Their personal lives are generally unfulfilling, their jobs unsatisfying, they've succumbed to tranquilizers and pep pills, they drown their anxieties in alcohol, they feel trapped in longterm endurance marriages or escape into guilt-ridden divorces. They're losing their kids and they're losing their dreams. They're alienated, depersonalized, without any feeling of participation in the political process, and they feel rejected and hopeless. Their utopia of status and security has become a tacky-tacky suburb, their split-levels have sprouted prison bars and their disillusionment is becoming terminal.

"They're the first to live in a total mass-media-oriented world, and every night when they turn on the TV and the news comes on, they see the almost unbelievable hypocrisy and deceit and even outright idiocy of our national leaders and the corruption and disintegration of all our institutions, from the police and courts to the White House itself. Their society appears to be crumbling and they see themselves as no more than small failures within the larger failure. All their old values seem to have deserted them, leaving them rudderless in a sea of social chaos. Believe me, this is good organizational material.

"The despair is there; now it's up to us to go in and rub raw the sores of discontent, galvanize them for radical social change. We'll give them a way to participate in the democratic process, a way to exercise their rights as citizens and strike back at the establishment that oppresses them, instead of giving in to apathy. We'll start with specific issues -- taxes, jobs, consumer problems, pollution -- and from there move on to the larger issues: pollution in the Pentagon and the Congress and the board rooms of the megacorporations. Once you organize people, they'll keep advancing from issue to issue toward the ultimate objective: people power. We'll not only give them a cause, we'll make life goddamn exciting for them again -- life instead of existence. We'll turn them on."
--Saul Alinsky; Playboy Interview; 1972

In 1985, 21-year old Barack Obama accepted a job as a community organizer in Chicago. Although Saul Alinsky had died in ’72, Obama would work for the Developing Communities Project, which was connected to the Alinsky programs. It was there that Obama learned the Alinsky tactic of listening closely to the people at the community level, and helping to develop a program that met their needs.

After working at this level, Obama decided that in order to do more, he had to get his law degree. When he finished his education at Harvard, he returned to Chicago, where along with teaching Constitutional Law, he continued to to advocate for community-based groups. Obama never felt the need to distance himself from the Alinsky theory that the wisdom of democracy is found at the grass roots level.

During the democratic presidential primary, Barack Obama has called his work with the Developing Communities Project as "the best education I ever had."

Towards the end of his life, Saul Alinsky recognized the importance of grass roots organizing among the middle class in communities across America. He saw that the nation was moving in a direction that would pose similar problems for both the lower- and middle income families. He also knew that the grass-roots could combine to have both types of power: money and people. We see evidence of that in the internet campaigns of Howard Dean in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2008.

I strongly recommend that people interested in organizing people in their area, including for the November elections, to take the time to study Saul Alinsky’s works.


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