Thursday, July 1, 2010

Alinsky, The Truth, The Tea Party, and Jesus

One of the more significant things that Saul Alinsky pitches out for those who want to start a radical movement is how to approach one's opponents. It isn't enough to disagree, and to work for consensus.

Alinsky, being a deeply realistic critter, argues that respectful disagreement is absolutely useless when you're trying to motivate a group of folks. People don't get fired up to march and shout slogans if you present them with an honest and balanced appraisal of the opposing position. If you have sympathy for the opposing party, if you see some of the merits of what they're saying and are willing to present their position with all of it's nuances and possibilities, then you're a crappy organizer.

Not because what you're saying would be materially incorrect. Alinsky acknowledges that human systems are complex and interwoven things, and that even opposing positions likely have positive aspects. In fact, he banks on it, as ultimately his goal is to have his mobilized communities negotiate with his opponents for whatever gains can be made.

But when you're rousin' the rabble, you don't say those things, even if you know they're true. The rhetoric of Alinsky's community organizing is apocalyptic, meaning it is radically binary. Once you've identified your enemy, you define them as 100% evil, and your own position as the ne plus ultra of virtue and all things good and right and true. When things are pitched out in those binary terms, it becomes much easier to get people motivated.

Three things strike me about this approach.

First, it requires organizers to do what Alinsky describes as being "schizoid." Meaning, saying and arguing and passionately shouting about how The Man is the source of all oppression and monstrousness and evil, while deep down inside you know that isn't accurate. As Alinsky was writing before we knew that schizophrenia wasn't the same as multiple personality disorder, let me suggest a more accurate description of that state of being.

It requires that you be a liar. You hold a truth in yourself about your opponent, and you knowingly misrepresent their nature to your own people to stir up passions. Hmmm. Perhaps that little shout out to Lucifer at the beginning of Rules for Radicals is more apropos than I thought.

Second, this approach works great. It's wonderfully successful in the political arena. What it is not, however, is limited to the political left. If you honestly compare the Obama's leadership style and the Tea Party against this metric of successful organizing practice, it is the Tea Party that comes across as more Alinskian. Obama always had this pesky habit of being moderate and circumspect, of noting that McCain was a war hero and a patriot and the like. But folks like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have no such compunction. Obama is Hitler. DemocRats are Nazis. Or communists. They will take your guns and kill your babies and make you drive a tiny little car and eat tofu and broccoli. They know how to rile Americans up.

Alinsky's methodology has won some significant admirers on the American right. When I read smart conservatives...meaning, ones who are talking openly about Alinsky with one another for purposes other than faux anti-communist polemic...they like what he has to say. They glom onto his methods. They see how useful he can be. They are now, in fact, using his methods in their training. So far, it seems to be working.

Third, this way of approaching one's enemies just ain't Christian. Yeah, I know, Jesus cleansed the temple and took on the powers that be and yadda yadda yadda. But what made Yeshua Ben YHWH such a powerfully different presence was not that he taught us to love and honor our friends and demonize our enemies. That's always been the way of the world.

It was that he pressed that love ethic out to include opponents. Yeah, they might be messed up. Yeah, they might be cause of much hurt and oppression and brokenness. But real transforming revolution only occurs when you can look at Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin or Nancy Pelosi or the CEO of BP and realize that you've got to love 'em.

It doesn't feel as good, sure. It doesn't fill you with righteous glazed-eye partisan fire. But that's not why Jesus lived and taught and died and rose.