Friday, July 8, 2011

Giordano predicted the divide over two years ago: activists vs organizers

Over the last year or so - the progressive blogosphere has begun to break up into two parts. Sometimes I refer to the two as poutragers vs pragmatists. Its true that the poutragers tend to run all of the big sites, but what I see happening is that the pragmatists are developing what George HW Bush called "a thousand points of light." We're more dispersed, but are connecting and building a whole different model.

But of course there's more that differentiates us than our blogging model. As we watch the poutragers heat up over the current negotiations on the deficit deal, many of us pragmatists are responding with "been there...done that." We've seen it all before.

So today I went back to read something Al Giordano wrote over 2 years ago. Its fascinating for many reasons. One is that it was so predictive of what was to come. Secondly, he wrote it during the very first negotiations process of the Obama administration - over the stimulus bill. Its interesting to see the deja vu all over again. Finally, he went a bit deeper than many have gone in understanding where the differences lie.

With that, I'm going to quote a large bit of Giordano's post.

I am not an activist.

I don't believe in activism.

I think activism, as it is generally practiced in the United States, is more often than not a cop out and an excuse by some to avoid doing the heavy lifting of organizing.

What is the difference, you might ask, between activism and organizing?

To me, it's this:

Activism is the practice of preaching to the choir, rallying the already converted, and trying to convince other "activists" to do your work for you (say, call your Congressman, or write your Senator for or against a piece of legislation). Activists like to make declaratory "statements," hold "meetings," invite other activists (usually fairly hegemonic of the same socio-economic demographics as them), engage in group "process," make "decisions," veto (or attempt to do so) others from taking initiative outside of the groupthink that too often happens in activist projects, declare "party lines," enforce them, and claim that one is part of a "movement" even when there is no evidence that one really is.

Activism seeks media attention through protests and other means, errantly thinking it will draw others to its cause by doing so. This dominant tendency in "activism" becomes a circular, self-reinforcing, self-marginalizing, chest-thumping, bureaucratic and anally-retentive activity and a big waste of time with little impact on the issues or policies it seeks to change or defend.

Organizing is something completely different: It is based on attainable and quantifiable goals (be they small, as in, "put a stop sign in the neighborhood," or be they large, as occurred last year: elect an underdog as president of the United States). Here's a simple yardstick by which to measure: If it doesn't involve knocking on doors, making phone calls or otherwise proactively communicating with people demographically different than you, it's not organizing. If it doesn't involve face-to-face building of relationships, teams, chains of command, and, day-by-day, clear goals to measure its progress and effectiveness, it's not organizing. If it happens only on the Internet, that's not organizing either...

What's happening now is that, with the ringing in of 2009, the Community Organizing Renaissance is so clearly established that many dogmatic activists are in a kind of panic and some are even lashing out at the organizers (including the Community Organizer in Chief) to lecture us that we must do things their way. Some even go so far as to condescend to us, imply that we're Kool Aid drinkers, blind fanatics, or lockstep brownshirts, because we are calmer and more optimistic - although not less busy - than they are at this point in history. To which I can only say: Fuck them.

On some level, they must notice, if even unconsciously, that the organizers won, in 2008, so many of the battles that the activists paid lip service to for 30 years but had failed to achieve: constructing a multi-racial and multi-generational progressive movement in the United States, attracting millions of generally apolitical or apathetic people - regular folks that had rejected and shunned the activists and their ways for so many years - to take part in it, organizing neighborhoods and towns down to the precinct level, and changing American history in the process.

The current manifestation of this tension is, for activists, as always, the current "big conflict" in the media. Today it's the Stimulus Bill. Tomorrow it will be something else. Activists generally take the queues from the mass media and its conflicts-du-jour. Some seem to have grown addicted, in a way, to the adrenaline rush of the daily poutrage: the tantrum as aerobic exercise. They then go through the same routines over and over again: Insist that "this is the most important thing," that everybody else must recognize that and drop everything else to protest with them, and often with a recommendation for "action." Today it's to call members of Congress over a hodgepodge of concerns regarding the Stimulus Bill: Throw out the tax cuts! Keep this or that worthy program in it! Don't compromise not one inch with Republicans!

I just yawn...

On a certain level, they must be at least subconsciously aware of their own incompetence, which is why they call on Obama or others to do their work for them, often with macho posturing to infer that if he doesn't do as he's told he somehow lacks backbone. (Actually, the opposite is more true: backing down to pressure is precisely what reveals lack of a backbone!) And if we don't jump on their makeshift bandwagons, we're portrayed as somehow afraid to challenge the man, too. Well, fuck them twice, then...

I think there's a realignment of forces going on right now in the progressive blogosphere and I think the differences will likely grow greater and clearer, and reasonably should. The organizer and the activist tendencies on the Netroots are increasingly oil and water. Any suggestion that some of its B-Listers and I, for example, would be able to collaborate on anything at present do not seem reality based to me, because we don't share even basic concepts of how things get done. And I'm not quite convinced that many of them care that much about winning anyway. It's easier to pout, to be perpetually hysterical and indignant, and to hook up the mass media adrenaline IV to their veins for one more fix...

For those who want to organize, I'm always ready to collaborate.

For those who want to merely do "activism" but somehow call it organizing... Nah.

This is exactly the distinction Van Jones was making when he talked about his own personal journey.

And as the years went on, I learned that angry rhetoric might feel good to people like me, but it didn't make a difference in the neighborhoods I was trying to move forward. I learned that education and real opportunity is what makes a real difference. Protest signs are important - they can't stop a bullet. Nothing stops a bullet like a job. That's what I learned working in the toughest communities in our country.

Its also why my own involvement in my local community is so important to me - it grounds me in understanding how real change happens (although, to be true to Giordano, I should have titled that piece "Local Organizing" instead of "Local Activism." Oh well, LOL)

It's the roots of the tree that allow the branches to grow to the heights that create an expansive vision. When we forget that (or never knew it in the first place) - we loose our way.


  1. Thanks for sharing this.

    I've always been involved in progressive issues, but through my career (working for youth development CBOs) and volunteering, and I never paid much attention to politics, other than voting and signing the occasional petition. I only started to really pay attention with the 2008 election cycle.

    But now I feel a real need to learn more about organizing and its importance in politics. I know part of my reluctance stems from a personal history as a member of a very intensive proselytizing church. Since I've left that church, I've been very reluctant to try to persuade anybody about what they should or shouldn't believe, so the thought of trying to do so politically causes me to break out in sweats.

  2. Monala,

    It was people like Obama and Giordano that got me thinking more deeply about organizing. That took me to reading all I could from Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz. Here's an example:

    Now I see that organizing is almost the opposite of proselytizing.

  3. You illuminate the issues I feel, but don't understand. Like Monala, I was involved in making life better for others and had an interest in politics which extended to petitions and voting. Now I'm working with OFA while still signing petitions and voting.

    I don't remember when it happened, but I had an experience with President Obama some months ago when he was speaking. For the first time I felt included by a President. He wants to empower all of us and I felt empowered. I was walking with him on this path we have before us.

    I watch the poutage and hair on fire outrage on the far left with bewilderment and appreciate the understanding I have after reading this post. Thank you! I am definitely with the organizers and those are the blogs I like to visit -- The Obama Diary, The only adult in the room, Smartypants and a few others. The commenters are coming together. They are supporting and empowering each other to come up with ideas and to follow through. It's really beautiful to watch the spirit of love and appreciation we have for this President blossom into this community. Thank you for all that you do.

  4. Just found you through a link in the comments at Blackwaterdog's place...Great piece!

    I had some friendly debates with Mr. Giordano back around this time and earlier, where I used to defend "true progressive" sites back then as having at least SOME value for raising issues and applying pressure and so on. Al was having nothing of it, and said there is no value in helping them or aligning with them. They will destroy any real movement from within. Always have. Always will. He told me literally, "Just wait. You'll see..."

    Damn, was he correct! And thanks for the Van Jones reference too. You know who else talked about a long time ago? Barack Hussein Obama in his "Dreams..." book, which he wrote when he was in his early-30s.

    He told the story of seeing, and being involved in, protesting at his college at the time...I think it was Occidental in Los Angeles. He describes in the book how he started to feel the protesting he was seeing wasn't helping the various causes at all, and could be hurting them. He started to study ways to be more effective. I remember this part well since I had a very similar transformation myself at the same age.

    So thanks for highlighting this again, since it's such an important message to spread far and wide. -bonkers

  5. bonkers

    Thanks so much for that reference to "Dreams..." I read it so long ago (right after the 2004 speech). At the time I knew nothing of all this so it didn't register. Now I'll go back and find it.


    Thanks for that beautiful comment...especially this line:

    "For the first time I felt included by a President."

    WOW!!!!!!! If you could ever unpack how that happened - I'd love to hear about it.

  6. Thank you so much for this.

    And I gotta agree--Al definitely made the right call, even if it was two years ago.

    Why do so many forget that President Obama was a community organizer? That he's had the experience of organizing, building, shaping....and that many of the pouters do not have a lick of these things?

    Is the President perfect? No. But the incremental changes he has begun will benefit us all in the long long as we make sure that he's allowed a second term in 2012.

    After all, the saying does go, "Don't get mad, organize!" not, "Get man and scream and call yourself an 'activist'."

  7. I'm amazed at how Al predicted this would happen. I remember 2008 and how we liberal/progressive/Democrats came together when Obama was elected. It was beautiful. I would have never thought we could be so divided. To be frank, I don't even want to be associated with a lot of leftist groups. I no longer have interest in listening to the supposed "Professional Left" pundits (Cenk, Ed, Lawrence, Rachel), as I feel they are helping to water the seed of discord.

    Thank goodness we have people on the ground, organizing. The fauxgressive online activists don't seem to be helping at all and seem to relish dividing us. In fact, I'm convinced many of the people who purport to be "Obama's base" are really people who only have an interest in making money off of trashing the president or are in cahoots with Republicans to help them win the next election.

    Al was right. Rahm was right. And Gibbs was right, too.

    Thanks for this article. I enjoyed reading it.


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