Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Get rid of do-gooders"

I suspect that I'm in the midst of learning some lessons about the power games of politics. We "do-gooders" often have a hard time with that one. I'm not sure I'm at the end of learning those lessons, but today I'm reviewing some things I've heard from people who know a thing or two about actually getting things done.

Recently I wrote something referring back to the prescience Al Giordano had about the split he saw in the netroots between activists and organizers. Today I'm looking at it in a little different context. Perhaps my highlights in the quotes below will indicate where I'm going with that.

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...

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...

Yes, Giordano said it in his typical rough language. But the message was that he was leaving these folks behind and heading to more productive places of engagement. He even wrote a a GBCW diary at Daily Kos and, as far as I know, never looked back.

It sounds like something right out of the pages of a Saul Alinsky book.

But, while Alinsky is often viewed as an ideological figure--toward the end of his life, New Left radicals tried to claim him as one of their own--to place Alinsky within a taxonomy of left-wing politics is to miss the point. His legacy is less ideological than methodological. 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!"

Galluzzo shared with me the manual he uses to train new organizers, which is little different from the version he used to train Obama in the '80s. It is filled with workshops and chapter headings on understanding power: "power analysis," "elements of a power organization," "the path to power." Galluzzo told me that many new trainees have an aversion to Alinsky's gritty approach because they come to organizing as idealists rather than realists. But Galluzzo's manual instructs them to get over these hang-ups. "We are not virtuous by not wanting power," it says. "We are really cowards for not wanting power," because "power is good" and "powerlessness is evil."

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 there were some basic principles that remained powerful then, and in fact I still believe in."

These lessons challenge a lot of the pitfalls us do-gooders on the left seem to be vulnerable to. We either enable the victim (and thereby open the door to that kind of toxicity) or get hooked by them into endless fights because we haven't completely excoriated the victim in ourselves.

What Giordano and Alinsky seemed to know is that in order to claim power, we have to be willing to rid ourselves of this enabling and engagement with the toxic do-gooders and get real about the work that awaits us.

I'm still working on that one.


  1. 'Afternoon, Ms. Pants

    Hmmmm.....methinks this is a both/and instead of an either/or matter.

    Right now, to me, PBO has achieved what he has because he's a Realist. Yet, the Idealists say: "What about us"? As they have continually.

    As I see it, he is starting to address what the Idealists would like. It'll sound GREAT. PM - who wasn't doin' this mess but is now - and any number of people will say: "THIS is the Obama I voted for!".

    Will it get through Congress? As you point out in your most recent post, Mr. Cantor, because of PBO's "very WEAK negotiating and messaging ablilities" (sigh) says it might.

    The Idealists will probably believe that they made him do it. Oh, well...

    Governing the COUNTRY, girlfriend.

    Governing the COUNTRY.

  2. I'm fascinated by your posts about Giordano. Although I protested the Vietnam war, I did it peacefully. I saw the whole Love and Light cultural movement of the 60's taken over by young activists who looked to me like they manipulated emotions in the crowd for their own power. I see that same manipulation for power happening at places like DKos too. But what I think is powerful is the growth of blogs like yours, The People's View, Obama Diary and others and the community that is growing with them. That's where I see progressive thinking.

    I'm learning so much. I love Giordano's blunt language. He's saying what I would love to say -- and well I might some day.

  3. Blackman

    Governing the country as an adult, I guess. You take it and move on. That's part of the trick I'm working on.


    I love Al too. There's that confidence about knowing where you're going and not being afraid to say so.


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