Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Saul Alinsky Walks into A Synagogue Eating a BLT

As the father of modern community organizing, Saul Alinsky is notable for a variety of things, but first and foremost among them is a mind as sharp as a tack. His writing shows evidence of wit and edge, and a deep storyteller's knowledge of some of the more pungent moments in history.

He's also deeply aware of the need to connect with communities. If you're intending to radicalize and rile up a complacent population, you need to first be very careful not to offend them. It might on the surface seem a strange thing for a self-professed radical to say. Radicals, as we popularly understand them, are supposed to come in spewing froth and venom. They are supposed to be wild-eyed. They are supposed to not care if they make any enemies.

Alinsky, though, is a relentless pragmatist. In order to bring about change, you have to convince a community that 1) change is necessary and 2) change is not a threat. To do this, you need to be very careful not to have the community view you as dangerous. You need to be innocuous. You need to be quickly identified as "one of us." You need not to say anything that might put people on guard against you. As he puts it:
If I were organizing in an orthodox Jewish community, I would not walk in there eating a ham sandwich, unless I wanted to be rejected so I could have an excuse to cop out.
Those are wise words from a very worldly wise soul. You can see how they've formed our current president.

But here's a funny thing. The organizing movement Alinsky founded now has perhaps its deepest roots in churches. Organizations like the Industrial Areas Foundation and (in my neck of the woods) the Washington Interfaith Network quickly realized that congregations were fertile ground for organizing in communities that lacked any other significant social glue. It's a logical step. A wise tactic.

In that context, though, the opening of "Rules for Radicals" seems a bit clueless. Alinsky sets the stage for his book with three quotes. First, one from Rabbi Hillel encouraging boldness. Second, from Thomas Paine encouraging commitment to rebellion. Fine so far.

But then Alinsky quotes himself acknowledging the very first radical:
...the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom--Lucifer.
Yeah, he's just trying to be cute. But suddenly, it smells a whole lot like bacon.