Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Agitator

My position is that most people don't begin to understand President Obama. That's why we get stupid questions like this one from Gloria Borger...Obama: Clark Kent or Superman? We're trying so hard to put him in a box we already know and can define, that we miss looking at what is actually there.

Recently I went back to read something Ryan Lizza wrote about Obama back in early 2007 - long before anyone really thought he could be President. Lizza dove in deep to Obama's roots as a community organizer. He tells this story about one of his first encounters in Chicago.

Not long after Obama arrived, he sat down for a cup of coffee in Hyde Park with a fellow organizer named Mike Kruglik. Obama's work focused on helping poor blacks on Chicago's South Side fight the city for things like job banks and asbestos removal. His teachers were schooled in a style of organizing devised by Saul Alinsky, the radical University of Chicago trained social scientist. At the heart of the Alinsky method is the concept of "agitation"--making someone angry enough about the rotten state of his life that he agrees to take action to change it; or, as Alinsky himself described the job, to "rub raw the sores of discontent."

On this particular evening, Kruglik was debriefing Obama about his work when a panhandler approached. Instead of ignoring the man, Obama confronted him. "Now, young man, is that really what you want be about?" Obama demanded. "I mean, come on, don't you want to be better than that? Let's get yourself together."

Kruglik remembers this episode as an example of why, in ten years of training organizers, Obama was the best student he ever had. He was a natural, the undisputed master of agitation, who could engage a room full of recruiting targets in a rapid-fire Socratic dialogue, nudging them to admit that they were not living up to their own standards. As with the panhandler, he could be aggressive and confrontational. With probing, sometimes personal questions, he would pinpoint the source of pain in their lives, tearing down their egos just enough before dangling a carrot of hope that they could make things better.

The Saul Alinsky agitator relies on discontent to fuel the energy of hope.

So I thought of what Obama said to that panhandler. And what if we changed the audience to whom he is speaking:

Now, America, is that really what you want be about?" Obama demanded. "I mean, come on, don't you want to be better than that? Let's get yourself together."

Isn't that the question he's been asking us for 3 years? Rather than give a hand-out to the panhandler and enable his state of being a victim, he's saying "Come on, don't you want to be better than that?"

3 comments:

  1. Smartypants, I love, love, love your blog and visit every day. I have so much appreciation for President Obama and you illuminate what I have only been feeling as a truth -- you let me know how it fits in the nuts and bolts of politics and making change. I had an experience several months ago watching one of his speeches where I realized I felt included. I wasn't watching from afar, I realized I was part of his team. I think he's an absolutely amazing man.

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  2. Thanks so much Suzanne.

    You really captured it all with your story about inclusion!

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  3. Now we need to learn how to 'include' the political panhandlers and ask them if that's what they really want to be about. At the root of all this is the mindset of a victim. Maybe that's what we're doing on all these pragmatic blogs: confronting the victims and challenging them to be better than they are.

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