February 9th, 2012
In his younger and more optimistic years, Barack Obama was a community organizer. Republican clods, unable to articulate why uniting neighborhoods, churches and business associations for the common good is a sin against the white man, will nonetheless try and tar Obama with this pedigree whenever they want to cast him in the role of a bolshevik (and you haven’t heard funny until you’ve watched some coot on Fox News accuse Obama of trying to “community organize the government”). And haunting Obama’s footsteps like the shade of Obi Wan Kenobi is the father of modern community organizing, Saul Alinsky.
Alinsky, dead since 1972, has gotten a lot of play in the media lately courtesy of Newt Gingrich, who calls the president a “Saul Alinksy radical” at the drop of a hat. Why his audience should care, especially those under 40 who probably think that Alinsky is the prime minister of Poland, is never explained. Republicans familiar with Alinsky are doubtless glad that Newt doesn’t press his case, since any vetting of Saul Alinsky or his people’s organizations would reveal a radical far more in the tradition of Thomas Paine than Marx or Engels.
It was Glenn Beck who first brought Alinsky-bashing into fashion during the Tea Party’s heyday as a smear against Obama. Newt is simply scraping the bowl for what’s left of that movement’s true believers. He raises Alinsky’s ghost for the same reason he inveighs against secularism: it is a dog whistle to his supporters, nothing more. Like Newt’s bogus piety, painting Alinsky as some notorious red is sheer opportunism, and he is no more fearful of community organizers jump-starting the ComIntern than he is interested in letting God’s Word within 1000 meters of his personal habits.
But it wouldn’t be a Republican presidential race if someone wasn’t puting those naughty 60s on trial! Alinsky seems to have the makings of a reliable straw man; another Bill Ayers or Reverend Wright to hang around Obama’s neck. Trouble is, Alinsky, when taken in context, sounds an awful lot like Ronald Reagan. Whether it is his fierce belief in individual initiative, his disdain for authoritarians or his faith in community solutions as opposed to Federal largesse (in language that would make Spiro Agnew swoon he called the Johnson-era “War on Poverty” a “prize piece of political pornography”), Alinsky proves to be the kind of leftist only a conservative could love.
But they dare not, and have always tried mightily to misinterpret him. Once, on William F. Buckley”s program Firing Line, Saul staggered Bill by stating that he would rather steal than accept charity. Never have two poles reversed so quickly, with Buckley falling over himself pleading the case of the the welfare provider, and Alinsky championing (in only the most hypothetical language) the virtue of brute force.
Unlike Bill Buckley, sputtering reactionaries like Newt and Glenn Beck are not interested in giving Alinsky a hearing. And yet, queerly, they love what he has to say! Listen to any conservative talk at length about Alinsky and you will invariably hear them pledge allegiance to his work subverting powerful interests. One YouTube video I found even featured a young campus conservative leading a workshop where he extolled the villainy of Alinsky while simultaneously trumpeting his techniques, before claiming that he could never, in good conscience, endorse them.
The paradox of conservative thought is that they hate Alinsky for rubbing elbows with the poor but see in him the type of politician they admire most: the dirty trickster. They wish to paint him as a Karl Rove of the left, a Plumber planting microphones and penning canuck letters and the other felonious scumbaggery that the right holds as the high water mark of their own subversive history. That Alinsky has nothing in common with G. Gordon Liddy or Roger Ailes, and that his methods, far from being insidious, are simply means to ends that any leader with half a neuron would endorse, is just one more reason why today’s conservative movement is swirling the drain in a motorboat.