Saturday, January 31, 2009

Limbagh Reads Alinsky

I normally ignore Rush Limbagh's rants as the garbage that they are. But here is something he said last Monday in response to Obama calling him out that I found intriguing.

This is a political play and a lot of people I think are misunderstanding this. ‘He's frightened of Limbaugh.' I don't think he's afraid of anybody. He's the president of the United States. This is a political play to marginalize me so that Republicans are afraid to associate with my ideas or any of us. He wants conservatism, mainstream conservatism to be thought of the way you and I think of communism. He wants it thought of as the most foreign, the most offensive, the most extreme manner of belief possible... This is a Saul Alinsky radical rule number 13: Pick the target, me, isolate it, polarize it... That's what's happening here. This is a purposeful effort to get rid of conservatism as a mainstream way of thinking forever in this country, make no mistake about it.

So Rush is paying attention to the community organizing tactics espoused by Saul Alinsky...interesting. It piqued my curiosity enough that I decided to look into the "Radical Rules"to see what I could learn as well as to consider whether or not Obama is using them as a playbook.

First, a little background on Alinsky from wikipedia.

He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing in America, the political practice of organizing communities to act in common self-interest...

In the 1930s, Alinsky organized the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago (made infamous by Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle" for the horrific working conditions in the Union Stock Yards)... In "Rules for Radicals" (his final work, published in 1971 one year before his death), he addressed the 1960s generation of radicals, outlining his views on organizing for mass power. In the first chapter, opening paragraph of the book Alinsky writes, "What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. "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".

Two of Alinsky's founding principles are about "power" and "self-interest." Ryan Lizza lays out how Obama was schooled in these principles in an article titled The Agitator.

Alinsky's contribution to community organizing was to create a set of rules, a clear-eyed and systemic approach that ordinary citizens can use to gain public power. The first and most fundamental lesson Obama learned was to reassess his understanding of power. Horwitt says that, when Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: "You want to organize for power!"...

The other fundamental lesson Obama was taught is Alinsky's maxim that self-interest is the only principle around which to organize people. (Galluzzo's manual goes so far as to advise trainees in block letters: "get rid of do-gooders in your church and your organization.") Obama was a fan of Alinsky's realistic streak. "The key to creating successful organizations was making sure people's self-interest was met," he told me, "and not just basing it on pie-in-the-sky idealism."

So, what are these Rules for Radicals?

1 ) Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.

2 ) Never go outside the experience of your people. It may result in confusion, fear and retreat.

3 ) Wherever possible go outside the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear and retreat.

4 ) Make the enemy live up to his/her own book of rules.

5 ) Ridicule is man's most potent weapon.

6 ) A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.

7 ) A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

8 ) Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.

9 ) The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

10 ) The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

11 ) If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into it's counterside.

12 ) The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.

13 ) Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.

That's some pretty hard-knuckled stuff!! For any of you who wondered how Obama came up through the machine of Chicago politics, perhaps there are some answers there.

But apparently, Obama has never been a complete disciple of Alinsky. Here's how Lizza describes it.

But, although he was a first-class student of Alinsky's method, Obama also saw its limits. It appealed to his head but not his heart...

In our last conversation...I asked Obama if his reputation for purity is a little overblown. He chuckled. "I wouldn't be a U.S. senator or out of Chicago or a presidential candidate from Illinois if I didn't have some sense of the world as it actually works," he said...

But being clear-eyed about power also means understanding its limits.

"What I am constantly trying to do," he added, "is balance a hard head with a big heart."

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Journey in Song

Pink - Conversations With My 13 Year-Old Self

Joss Stone - Right To Be Wrong

Shania Twain - Juanita

KT Tunstall - Suddenly I See

Mary Chapin Carpenter - I Take My Chances

Bonnie Raitt - I Will Not Be Broken

Tracy Chapman - Be And Be Not Afraid

Norah Jones - One Flight Down

Friday, January 23, 2009

Releasing the grief

Over years of watching and listening, I've learned just a bit about the many large and small ways that people of color in this country have to swallow the rage they feel and experience on a daily basis. It seems to lay there just below the surface. But as Clarence Paige wrote, people of color are taught from a young age to not show their color when they're out and about in the world at large.

If you listen, sometimes you can get hints of the emotional burden people of color bear. Like the time a few months ago when an African American mother told me that she made her son cut his dreadlocks when he turned 13...she was afraid of the attention they might draw. Or the young African American man who still has his dreadlocks and tells me that he gets pulled over by the cops about once a week for "driving while black." The burden of rage and pain is built one brick at a time and must be managed in order to survive in this culture.

But recently, I've been trying to listen about something else I'm sensing. I know that many of us are relieved at the election of Barack Obama. But people of color, and especially African Americans, are feeling something special. While its easy to intellectually understand what that might be, this evening I heard a commentary on Minnesota Public Radio that helped me understand it a bit better in my heart. The commentary was by Rev. Gordon Stewart, who marched with King in Chicago and experienced race riots in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Throughout the next morning I wondered why I was so unmoved by the ceremony of the inauguration. I was watching, but it wasn't touching me. I was a distant observer…until… until Yitzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma begin to play that sweet Shaker hymn "'Tis a Gift to Be Simple" … and the camera zooms in on the smiling face of Yo-Yo Ma with his cello. His face is beaming with joy! And now the camera moves to the President-elect sitting serenely, his posture erect, his head bowed, his eyes closed, the look of a man at prayer and peace. And I lose it. Tears and vocal sobs gush up in me like a geyser of tears blocked up for years.

They are strange tears, like none other I have ever felt. It confuses me. I wonder what they're about. It feels like joy. A joy I have not felt for a long time. Joy… and hope… that something really new is happening. Joy that all the struggles and all the marches that wore holes in my generation's shoes on behalf of civil rights and peace have brought us to this indescribably holy moment that transcends the old divisions.

For sure, the tears that rise up in me are tears of joy. But they're also about something else. They feel like the convulsing sobs of a prisoner released from prison. They come from a hidden well of poison -- the well of deep grief stuffed away over all the years because of all the marches, all the beatings, all the blood, the well of buried anger -- the silent tears of grief over the America we had almost lost.

Then I realize: Only the appearance of joy and hope can release such deep grief. It was the joy on Yo-Yo Ma's face that finally released the poison locked inside my soul. It is the joy and hope of a new generation that's able to take us where my generation cannot -- free of the taint of sore feet and scars and old grudges the new President says we must move past.

The inauguration felt like that moment -- a kind of ritual cleansing where grief gives way to joy and hope for a better tomorrow…where, in the words of Dr. Joseph Lowery's benediction, the silenced voice of his dear friend Martin once again rang out across the Washington Mall: "God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on our way, Thou who hast by Thy might led us into the light: Keep us forever in the path."

Thank you Rev. Stewart.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Organizer-in-Chief, 2.0

A couple of months ago I wrote about Obama as the Organizer-in-Chief, noting how he incorporated his experience as a community organizer in mobilizing millions of people all over the country into a grassroots movement to win the election.

Many have been speculating since the electrion about what Obama will do with this movement once he got into office and how being an organizer will affect the way he governs. On Saturday, we got some initial word on that.

The details of what this means have not been laid out yet - this is just an introduction. But the whole idea raises very interesting possibilities and challenges.

From Peter Wallsten at the LA Times:

The being designed to sustain a grass-roots network of millions that was mobilized last year to elect Obama and now is widely considered the country's most potent political machine.

Organizers and even Republicans say the scope of this permanent campaign structure is unprecedented for a president. People familiar with the plan say Obama's team would use the network in part to pressure lawmakers -- particularly wavering Democrats -- to help him pass complex legislation on the economy, healthcare and energy...

Strategists in both parties said the ideas being discussed would create an on-the-ground weapon for policy battles far more powerful than the speeches, news conferences and donor-targeting techniques traditionally used by presidents.

"No one's ever had these kinds of resources," said Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who led political operations under President Reagan. "This would be the greatest political organization ever put together, if it works."

And here's Kevin Drum from Mother Jones:

This is something that Mark Kleiman more or less predicted many months ago...His conjecture was that Obama's organization had fundamentally redefined presidential politics thanks to its huge pool of dedicated volunteers and its ability to quickly raise unheard-of sums of money. After all, what congressman is likely to buck the boss if the boss can offer — or withhold — hundreds of thousands of dollars without batting an eye and mobilize — or withhold — hundreds of thousands of phone calls and telegrams depending on how closely you toe the presidential line? Every president has a certain amount of power he can bring to bear against holdout legislators, but Obama's organization brings this to a whole new level.

If this turns out to be right, Congress is going to learn pretty quickly that the ballgame has changed. Should be fun to watch.

But, noting the impact of Bob Fertik's question on about appointing a Special Prosecutor, Henry at Crooked Timber indicates that they might get more than they bargained for.

This goes to the heart of the contradictions that the Obama people successfully managed to straddle during the campaign, but are (I think) going to have increasing difficulty in dealing with going forward. The Obama people combined very tight top-down message control and campaign coordination with a fair degree of openness at the bottom to independent initiatives by volunteers. As long as everyone agreed on the same underlying goal (beating the Republicans), this worked. But as that overwhelming imperative recedes, people are going to start pursuing their own objectives – and the ‘open’ architecture that the Obama people have constructed provides them with plenty of opportunities to do this.

emphasis mine

My thoughts are that while some progressives are worried about the lack of substantial change they're seeing in Obama's policies and "bi-partisan" gestures, we're very often missing the forest for the trees. The ground is about to shift right under our feet. Obama might be building up for a bigger kind of change than we have imagined.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Finding wisdom and inspiration

Some days, you just don't have much to share. This is one of those days for me. I've been facing some challenges in the "meat world" as they say, that are related to this awful mess that's known as our economy. So rather than have anything useful to say myself, I've been reading and watching around the tubes.

I know alot of what we read is hard and sometimes negative. But what has struck me in my recent wanderings is the depth of wisdom that's also out there. So I thought I'd share a little of that with you today. It comes from an interesting mix of sources.

First of all, here's some truth and perspective from one of our elders. Friday night, Bill Moyers commented on the situation in the Middle East. But its mostly a reminder of who it is that pays the price when "life and death become abstractions of policy."

For those of you who can't watch a video, here is a partial transcript (scroll down to the last few paragraphs from Moyers), but it will be hard to get the impact without the visuals.

Next, lets look to a couple of young people for some inspiration. Here's Andrew Gillum and Alisha Morgan from the Young Elected Officials Network, an organization started by Gillum, the youngest person to ever hold elected office in Tallahassee, Florida.

These young people have faced overwhelming odds. But to me, their message is one of persistence. As one of them said on a video at the YEON site, one of the advantages of being young is that you haven't been schooled in the odds of the impossible.

And finally, how about an "awe-shucks" moment from our friends in the animal kingdom? Do we have something to learn from them? Youbettcha!!!!

Our teachers are everywhere...young, old, human, animal.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


The term blowback was initially brought into political discussions by the CIA in predicting the results of US involvement in the 1953 coup in Iran that deposed Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq and his cabinet. Although the neo-cons are loath to admit it, US involvement with the coup and our subsequent support of the Shah, led to the blowback of the Iranian (or Islamic) Revolution in 1978.

But blowback isn't just about Iran. The more we use force (either overt or covert) in the world to gain access to the resources we want, the more blowback we'll see in the future. In his book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, Chalmers Johnson discusses the ways in which our country's misguided policies are planting the seeds of future disaster.

Blowback is obviously something Bush and the neocons didn't take seriously when they invaded 2 countries and utilized things like torture and rendition in their war of terror. But my guess is that the blowback from these crimes will be in evidence for decades if not centuries to come. That's one of the reasons the petition for a Special Prosecutor is so important...holding them accountable might help limit the blowback.

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I find the notion of blowback fascinating when placed up against the views of someone like Cheney. From what I can tell, he thinks that terrorizing and killing people will persuade them to do what we want them to do. I guess you could call it motivation by intimidation. And it can be the short-term. Its the long-term consequences that can be a bitch. The anger, rage and resentment that builds from that kind of treatment seem to always find a means of expression, even if it takes generations.

But its not just Bush and Cheney that believe in motivation by intimidation. You see it all the time in our "survival of the fittest" approach to power and money. How it usually works is that you declare an enemy, polarize, and do everything in your power to destroy them, leaving you at the "top of the heap" defending yourself against the blowback.

As Democrats/progressives/liberals (no matter which word you prefer), we've been on the receiving end of that intimidation for almost 30 years now. We've been shouted down, called traitors, and generally demonized for a long time. And the folks who have been doing so are experiencing a little bit of blowback right about now. They may not want to admit it - but they're scared. In their authoritarian mindset, they're projecting that we'll do the same thing to them that they've done to us.

And so I wonder what we're going to do with all of that now. Are politics in this country destined to be two warring factions that live from one blowback cycle to another? Perhaps. But I wonder if its the best we can do.

It all reminds me of years ago when I was a family therapist. The most difficult cases to work with were those I labeled "divorce wars." I saw families that lived for years with the cycle of one side taking a swipe at the other (too often through the children) leading to retaliation. It was always addictive to both sides. The only hope for change was if one person finally had the maturity to take a blow and not send one back.

Taking a blow and not returning it does not mean appeasement. It just means leading with our heads instead of our rage, what Nightprowlkitty referred to as responding rather than reacting. And I wonder if that's not exactly what Obama is working on when he talks about changing the culture of DC. Like with this - one of my favorite moments of this past election cycle.

Is it possible that we can ever get to the place where we talk about our differences and work towards our ideals without letting our rage lead us to try and "kill" the other side, only to find ourselves eventually on the receiving end of blowback?

It will certainly be difficult. We're dealing with a media that acts like 2 year olds in their addiction to this kind of thing and too many elected officials that don't seem to know another way at this point. But if we want permanent change rather than just another blowback cycle, we're going to have to figure this one out I think.

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