One man’s “community organizer” is another man’s “outside agitator”

Throughout this political season, Barack Obama has touted his time as “a community organizer” in Chicago. Doing so served two purposes. First, it was a wonderful buzz phrase during the Democratic primary because, to the liberal ear, “community organizer” sounds romantically radical in a respectable sort of way. Second, once he made it to the general election, Obama shifted focus, bragging that he had “turned down Wall Street” to serve the community, and spinning that service away from its radical roots (see below) in the direction of helping laid off workers. In this way, the radical content was drained, our economic problems were saluted, and the narrative became selflessness on behalf of the working man.

During the Republican convention several speakers, notably Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin, countered by ridiculing Obama’s role as a community organizer. Their approach was to question whether there was any substance to the job. This approach worked because, outside of the radical context that Obama had stripped away, a community organizer can be almost anything (e.g., an organizer of square dances), and because Obama had made such a big deal out this seemingly nebulous job.

Politically, the Republicans played it right. Almost nothing in politics beats deftly handled ridicule. And once suitably belittled, the community organizer persona is hardly a match for shooting a moose and being a hockey mom, never mind being tortured.

But the more intellectually legitimate (and telling) critique centers on the radical nature of the community organizer role Obama took on. In the neighborhoods of Chicago, there’s nothing nebulous about this job. In that context, “community organizer” has a very specific meaning, one set forth almost 40 years ago by the Marxist agitator Saul Alinsky in a work called “Rules for Radicals.”

In his book about Obama, David Fredosso connects the dots between Alinsky, who died in 1972, and Obama. A friend of Alinsky’s, Jerry Kellman recruited Obama into community organizing. Kellman spoke at the Democratic convention. As a community organizer, Obama studied the principles set forth by Alinsky in “Rules for Radicals.” In essence, Alinsky preached that class hatred, which had worked so well in radicalizing the European working class, was not well-suited for the U.S. The idea, therefore, was to create and fuel resentment in more subtle ways based on specific local grievances presented in less overtly ideological terms. Alinsky, who sought to dress up the revolution in suits and ties, wanted to use the idioms, legends, and anecdotes of the masses, rather than relying on a foreign ideology.

Alinsky’s influence on Obama is most plainly demonstrated by a key quotation from “Rules for Radicals,” in which the old lefty explained why the European model for radicalization won’t work with the masses in the U.S.:

Seeking some meaning in life, they turn to an extreme chauvinism and become defenders of the ‘American faith’….Insecure in this fast-changing world they cling to illusory fixed points….The ‘silent majority’, now, are hurt, bitter, suspicious, feeling rejected and at bay.

Obama, of course, said virtually the same thing in his famous comment about how bitter people in small towns “cling to their guns and religion.” I’ve also read, though I haven’t confirmed, that Michelle Obama borrowed a quote from Alinsky in her speech to the convention. (Hillary Clinton too was influenced by Alinsky and, in fact, wrote her college thesis about him).

Barack Obama’s supporters have not been amused by the fun Giuliani and Palin had with the candidate’s time as a community organizer. But in a sense, Obama got off easy.

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