Saturday, February 4, 2012

Saul Alinsky

Last night on Bill Moyers & Company (PBS), after his interview with Jonathan Haidt (see below), Bill's closing essay was about Saul Alinsky (see below).

Years ago, I met Saul Alinsky while working on a federally funded research and demonstration grant for a five county community action agency in Southern Arizona. One of the central elements of the project was to produced radio and television broadcasting material for the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) that would air on stations throughout the state of Arizona.

During the winter of 1970 a colleague and I drove up from Tucson to Phoenix to interview Gustavo (GUS) Gutierrez, the head of the Arizona United Farm Workers Union.

    Gus Gutierrez (by Dee Newman)

We were to meet Gus at the Santa Rita Center on East Hadley in Phoenix – the same historic meeting hall where Cesar Chavez would later have his 24-day 'Fast for Justice' in 1972.

After being escorted through the hall to the back of the one-story rudimentary concrete-block building, we entered a small dark room. Seated behind a desk was a large Chicano man with an affable smile. He immediately rose extending his hand and said, "Gus Gutierrez."

Emerging from the shadows to his left the figure of another man appeared. At first, all I could see was the light reflecting off his thick translucent horn-rimmed-glasses. Extending his hand, he introduced himself as Saul Alinsky.

What an incredible experience. I was actually shaking the hand of the greatest community organizer of the twenty-century – the man that William F. Buckley had called a genius.

A year later, I and every young activist in the nation would be reading his book, “Rules For Radicals”, the primer on how to effectively, constructively, and non-violently bring about meaningful social change. He once said:
"The ‘Prince’ was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. ‘Rules for Radicals’ is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."
Alinsky was not a Marxist or a Socialist. He was a Radical. He belonged to no organized groups, even those he helped organize. He loved American democracy. He spent his entire adult life trying to help others to organize in order to bring about social and political justice for all. On page 12 of  "Rules for Radicals" he wrote:
"Believing in people, the radical has the job of organizing them so that they will have the power and opportunity to best meet each unforeseeable future crisis as they move ahead in their eternal search for those values of equality, justice, freedom, peace, a deep concern for the preciousness of human life, and all those rights and values propounded by Judeo-Christianity and the democratic political tradition. Democracy is not an end but the best means toward achieving these values. This is my credo for which I live and, if need be, die."
On June 12, 1972, eight days after Cesar ended his ‘Fast For Justice’ Alinsky died of a sudden, massive heart attack, on a street corner in Carmel, California, at the age of 63.

Bill Moyers Essay: Newt's Obesession with Saul Alinsky from on Vimeo.


BILL MOYERS: Time, now, for a word about a good American being demonized, despite being long dead. Saul Alinsky is not around to defend himself, but that hasn’t kept Newt Gingrich from using his name to whip up the froth and frenzy of followers whose ignorance of the man is no deterrence to their eagerness, at Gingrich’s behest, to tar and feather him posthumously.

Here’s how you slander someone who can’t answer from the grave:

NEWT GINGRICH: If you believe as we do in the Declaration of Independence and you think that’s a better source than Saul Alinsky, welcome to the team […] The president believes in a kind of Saul Alinsky radicalism which would lead to a secular European socialist model […] If you have a Reagan conservative versus a Saul Alinsky radical, it’s a pretty easy debate.

BILL MOYERS: So clever, so insidious. The same tactic Newt Gingrich invoked with those radioactive words he used in the GOPAC memos to demonize his opponents. The crowd knows nothing about the target except that they are supposed to hate him.

And why not? There’s the strange foreign name. Obviously an alien. One of them. And a socialist at that. What’s a socialist? Don’t know. But Obama’s one, isn't he? Barack-Hussein-Obama-slash-Saul-Alinsky. Bingo! Two peas in a pod -- a sinister, subversive pod at that.

Just who was Alinsky? Born in the ghetto of Chicago’s South Side, he saw the worst of poverty and felt the ethnic prejudices that fester, then blast into violence when people are crowded into tenements and have too little to eat. He came to believe that working people, poor people, people put down and stepped upon, had to organize if they were going to clean up the slums, fight the corruption that exploited them, and get a hand-hold on the first rung of the ladder.

He became a protégé of the labor leader John L. Lewis and took the principles of organizing onto the streets, first in his home town, then across the country. He was one gutsy guy.

SAUL ALINSKY: The first rule of change is controversy. You can’t get away from it for the simple reason: all issues are controversial. Change means movement, movement means friction, friction means heat, and heat means controversy.

BILL MOYERS: Alinsky, one journalist said, looked like an accountant and talked like a stevedore. He had a flair for the dramatic, once sending a neighborhood to dump its trash on the front step of a local alderman who was allowing the garbage to go uncollected. Or immobilizing City Hall, a department store or a stockholders meeting with a flood of demonstrators demanding justice. Saul Alinsky was a self-professed radical -- just look at the titles of two of his books. But he wasn’t a socialist or communist. He worked with them on behalf of social justice, just as he worked alongside the Catholic Archdiocese in Chicago. It was conscience they had in common, not ideology.

Barack Obama was just a kid in Hawaii when Alinsky died - something you would expect a good historian to know. The two never met, although when Obama arrived on the South Side of Chicago as a community organizer, some of his grassroots work with the poor was with an Alinsky-affiliated organization. But that’s how it goes in the fight for basic human rights, and Alinsky’s influence crops up all across the spectrum, even in the Tea Party. Get this: the one-time Republican Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, Dick Armey, whose FreedomWorks organization helps bankroll the Tea Party, gives copies of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals to Tea Party leaders. Watch out, brother, you could be next on Newt’s list. Although curiously, in his fight against wealthy Mitt Romney, Gingrich himself has stolen a page from Alinsky's populist playbook.

SAUL ALINSKY: Now power’s always gone into two areas: those who have money and those who have people. We have nothing but people.

NEWT GINGRICH: Now we’re going to have people power defeat money power in the next six months.

BILL MOYERS: Alinsky died suddenly in 1972. At the time he was planning to mount a campaign to organize white middle-class Americans into a national movement for progressive change. Maybe that’s why Newt Gingrich has been slandering Alinsky’s name. Maybe he’s afraid. Afraid the very white folks he’s been rousing to a frenzy will discover who Saul Alinsky really was. A patriot, in a long line of patriots, who scorned the malignant narcisism of duplicitous politicians and taught every day Americans to think for themselves and to fight together for a better life. That's the American way, and any good historian would know it.

If you would like to watch the entire Bill Moyers & Company program last night with Jonathan Haidt click here.


Stickup Artist said...

How odd. It seems to me the GOP would champion this Saul Alinsky for his individualism, for taking matters into his own hands rather than waiting for the government to improve his lot. I can't figure out what the GOP frontrunners are even saying half the time. I fluctuate between outrage and complete confusion so I have pretty much tuned them out. Your personal history with these people is so cool. What a life you have led...

mythopolis said...

Alinsky was an important advocate for 'the people' back then. His spirit shaped much student activism and social protest in the 60s. This was a fascinating read and it reminded me also of why I have such an intense disregard for Gingrich!!