Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dos and Don’ts of Community Organizing

Agitate. That’s the key word to understanding what I’ll call classical community organizing. “Community Organizing” is a relatively generic term and can mean a plethora of different things to different people. It’s also a term that has bounced around quite a bit in the past few months, now that Barrack Obama’s history as a community organizer has come to light and become evidence of his leadership experience. But while the term is relatively generic, Obama comes from a peculiar school of community organizing, one I’ve been somewhat exposed to firsthand.

By now, the Saul Alinsky method of community organizing has come to the surface, and his book, “Rules for Radicals” has been re-explored. I was unfortunate enough to be educated in this method for a short time as a continuing education class. (Yes, my denomination is so liberal that it has adopted communist community organizing skills as worthwhile techniques for pastors to learn.) Hey it worked on the South side of Chicago, it could work here too! But what are the techniques exactly?

First, the basic philosophy is one based in contrasting the ideal world with the real world. You’ve heard Michelle and Barack Obama reference it: whenever they've talked about the way the world is versus the way the world should be, this is straight from Alinsky. The goal of community organizing is to meet people where they are and transition the community, one person at a time, into the world as it should be: a world that demands fairness, equality, justice, and peace. Never mind that all of these terms are subjective to the communist mind, and virtually impossible to pin down. What’s fair to one person or just for one person is often not fair or just to another when a central planner decides. (It is true that perfect fairness and justice is not to be found in a free society, either, but then, a free society doesn’t promise fairness or even define it, just the right to attain it as a basic human right.)

The technique itself is simple: build a cadre of support through one-on-one contacts, then exploit that cadre when the masses are needed. These contacts can and should be anyone and everyone. From the person who bags your groceries, serves you coffee, lives next door or runs your city, anyone is fair game for these one-on-one conversations. And these conversations are not to be small talk, but a rather in-depth and personal conversation about what drives the person, what motivates them, what they’re upset about in their community. To talk about the weather would be a waste of time. These conversations with relative strangers are all about making contacts that can be used in future rabble-rousing demonstrations.

So when the time comes, when the grocery baggers wages are deemed too low, when racism is deemed to be plaguing public schools, or when the factory smokestack’s pollution level is deemed to high, the community organizer acts. The cadre he has worked to build is called into action and the agitation begins. Pickets, marches, phone calls, letter campaigns…whatever it takes. But the goal is absolutely not to try to persuade the powers that be: the goal is to agitate them.

Certainly, there is a time and place for agitating the powers-that-be. Power is almost always the enemy of those who espouse a love for limited government and liberty. However, it is absolutely worth asking whether the community organizer is actually a friend of the poor or not. Driving corporations away and inviting more government regulation has always led to an increase in poverty, not the other way around.

James Taranto has a wonderful summary of Obama’s experience as a community organizer here. I've also pasted some below:

"These efforts at economic development having failed, Obama "began to focus on providing social services for Altgeld Gardens," a government-owned and -operated apartment
complex.

"'We didn't yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools,' [Obama] wrote. 'But what we could do was begin to improve basic services at Altgeld--get the toilets fixed, the heaters working, the windows repaired.' Obama helped the residents wage a successful campaign to get the Chicago Housing Authority to promise to remove asbestos from the units; but, after an initial burst of activity, the city failed to keep its promise. (As of last year, some residences still had not been cleared of asbestos.)

"It is both funny and scary that one of America's major political parties would offer this record of sheer futility as its nominee's chief qualification to be president of the United States. Even more striking, though, is how alien the world in which Obama operated was by comparison with the world in which normal Americans live.

"Reader, when your toilet breaks, do you wait around for some Ivy League hotshot to show up and organize a meeting so that you can use your collective strength to wring concessions from the powers that be?

"Or do you call a plumber?"

Let me offer a model for community organizing I have found rather beneficial to all involved, be it citizens, corporations, or cities. If you’ve never heard of the Barnett Shale, it’s a massive natural gas reservoir that will bring billions of dollars into the Dallas/Fort Worth area. When “land men” began cruising the area to get land for cheap, they offered as low as hundreds or even $1,000/mineral acre. But the neighborhoods were pretty sure their mineral rites were worth more than that. So community organizers, working for the good of the environment, the community, and the pocketbooks of homeowners, negotiated as neighborhoods and have gotten as much as $27,500/mineral acre and substantial royalties once the oil companies begin to make a profit.

No central figure demanded this organization. Volunteers (as opposed to paid community organizers) rounded up the community with church meetings, front yard signs, and homespun websites. Instead of working against the corporations, the community worked with them. It was not the government that enabled these enormous paydays; rather, it was often local governments that worked to slow down the oil companies.

So here’s an idea for all the communist-leaning community organizers: instead of agitating, how about offering a message of progress and embracing companies that produce jobs? How about speaking against the very government that has failed you so many times instead of stubbornly relying on its grant money to fix deeper problems? And communities, instead of anointing agitators from the Ivy League to lead you, how about you work with those who actually live in your neighborhood, and have for some time? Community organizers are all-too-often class warfare experts stoking the flames. But they can do enormous good when they defend the right to free enterprise and profit.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Do Ideas Matter in an Age of Personality?

The fact that “reality television” has taken over primetime airwaves isn’t a comment on how much television has changed, but a reflection on our growing interest in personalities. We no longer need to gossip about others in our neighborhood or church to get our nosy fix. Cable television has given us permission to be as nosy as we want, all from the comfort and safety of our living room. We can look as deeply as we like into a vast array of personalities. And not just a bunch of Everyman or Everywoman’s on an island anymore, either. Now we can delve into the personalities of glue sniffers, adulterers, the rich and aloof in Orange County, bounty hunters, former WWF stars (pretty much anything from the 80s is cool again), and of course, your average working stiffs like me who manage to get on television for about 10 of their 15 minutes before executives realize how boring we are.

This form of entertainment is so popular networks struggle to keep up with personality inflation. In an effort to keep the fragile attention of its viewers, new and bright and unique personalities are always sought after, probably more now than highly trained actors or writers skilled in the art of subtlety. Or the seedy side of “real life” is sought out, and tattoo artists, drug addicts, and porn stars fill our TV screens. My empirical evidence for this is that cameras actually follow around the Kardashian family…a family whose claim to fame is a lawyer patriarch and some Playboy spreads.

All of this is to say we are fascinated by personalities and we seem to befriend these people in a way that we never did with fictional characters. Fictional characters are the portrait of types, of ideas. They are the vehicle that a writer uses to express his point-of-view, ideas about conflict and resolution, and commentary on the issues of the day. A show like ER is often weighed down by commentary on the Iraq war, available healthcare and the way our society neglects the homeless. These are ideas, where problems are presented and solutions are offered, spoken by characters. Reality television offers us few, if any ideas, anything to chew on, any complexity.

The tie-in to matters of substance is, of course, the political races of our day. Much has already been made of the fact that this is the TV age, and the old adage that Nixon won his debate with Kennedy on radio but lost it on TV is a perfect example of this. But it’s beyond just appearances now. Now, we demand personality and energy to fill the screen. We seem to have less patience for ideas, for problems and solutions, much less complexity. For all of Barack Obama’s faults, he has a personality made for television and an “Aw shucks” persona so spot on it should be trademarked. Even more amazing, it’s his personality that is being demanded in a pinch: as political times get tighter, he must rely on his natural grace under pressure and motivating enthusiasm to resell his image as a personality worth trusting even if his ideas are rarely articulated and certainly nothing new. A hodgepodge of left-leaning ideas won’t bring about any bump in the polls. But a fiery speech just might.

On the other side is also a personality, a stubborn, loyal, and temperamental personality. But, while McCain won’t be confused with the head of a think tank any time soon, he is the product of a generation of ideas. Barry Goldwater and William Buckley built their careers around ideas, not charisma, and important, complex books were regularly offered by publishers. Now, Internet articles and blogs have replaced these books, and most political books are often short-sighted, politically expedient, and geared towards discrediting the person more than their ideas. With the notable exception of George Will, a lot of the op-ed articles I read are comprised of “paragraphs” that are one or two sentences in length. Can you really get to the nugget of ideas with so little depth?

At the same time, I am confident that ideas tend to win the day. Personalities are fickle, and most consumers tire of flash with no substance. It’s nice to eat at a 4-star restaurant for your anniversary once a year, but most of the time you want prime rib and mashed potatoes, not art deco on a plate. And as is usually the case throughout history, people pay the most attention when their pocketbooks are in the crosshairs. Complex issues like energy development, taxation and the role of government will likely rule the day this year more than race, gender, or charisma, because its simply where most Americans are feeling the pinch.

It is certainly a shame that much of the national discourse has been reduced to jabs, sound bites, and media spin. It is a shame that the truly breathtaking task before the founding fathers and the foundational questions they had to answer are now rolled up into campaign slogans and accusations. It is a shame that as Americans we don’t grapple with complex problems and prefer to talk about candidates as celebrities and not the harbingers of ideals. But it’s not impossible to imagine when all is said and done, ideas will win out, no matter the media. Books with complex ideas will continue to influence, if not sell millions of copies. And at the top of our institutions, businesses and governments, there will be more leaders who are average speakers with good ideas than great speakers with bad ideas.

Update: More thoughts on this here.