Friday, May 22, 2020

Does Community Organizing Work?

Saul Alinsky.jpg

Does community organizing create real social change, or merely the appearance of it?

I was reading about Saul Alinsky, who was an early "Community Organizer" who was later denounced by the radical Left of the 1960's (for not being radical enough).   He was the subject of Hillary Clinton's master's thesis, which she had "sealed" while her husband was President (cue: hoo-doo music).  Some say he was the model for Barack Obama's role as "Community Organizer".

Does Community Organizing work?   An interesting question.  Alinsky himself seemed to agree that his efforts had only short-term effects - about five years or so, by his estimation -  as the organized communities become bourgeois in short order.  His "Back of the Yards" organization that organized the neighborhoods behind Chicago's infamous stock yards, quickly turned somewhat racist.  Rather than a gathering of community groups, it quickly devolved into efforts to exclude blacks, once it became middle-class.

His efforts to help blacks in Rochester, New York sort of came to a similar end.  In both instances, the industries he was accusing of exploiting the poor, largely disappeared.  The Chicago stockyards and slaughterhouses are long gone, a victim of refrigerated transport.   Meatpacking houses are scattered across the United States.   Cattle cars - transporting live cattle to be slaughtered, are largely a thing of the past.  Meat is processed locally, in rural areas, and the packaged products shipped to stores in refrigerated transport.

Similarly, Kodak is no more, along with its influence in Rochester.  Alinsky attacked Rochester as a "company town" but today, without the company, is a mere shell of itself.  In fact, most of Central and Western New York is that way.   Again, as with the meatpacking district, most of this industry has fled to sparser regions of the country.   Automobile factories are built in former cornfields in rural States like Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and so on - places where labor is cheap and labor organizing is non-existent and viewed with distrust.  Seems like Mr. Capitalist Moneybags found an end-run on your organizing.

This leaves rust-belt cities like Chicago or Rochester to increasingly be fighting over who gets a remaining slice of an ever-smaller pie.  Sometimes you have to be careful of what you wish for.

The funny thing about Alinsky is how he has, at various times, be viewed as both hero and villain by both the Left and Right.  While an early "community organizer" his tactics were later denounced by the radical left, and he returned the favor by denouncing them as "mere street theater" which had to sting, as at the time, well, my hippie brother was literally  performing street theater with big puppets.  It worked, too, as evidenced by the election of Reagan, two Bushes, and now a Trump.

Keep organizing, keep protesting - change is bound to come soon!

Oddly enough, the teaparty movement embraced Alinsky's methods, if not his politics, and passed around copies of his book - or abridged versions which embraced the radical protest methods, but not his leftist politics.  Again, did any of this work - or just make tri-corn hat teaparty protesters look ridiculous?   I tend to think the latter.

Later on, the far-Right turned on Alinsky - using him to paint various Democratic candidates such as Hillary and Obama with the same brush of red paint.   Alinsky became a bogey-man used to frighten small children and the alt.right (I repeat myself).  He was painted as a godless Communist who was going to take over America and replace it with a Stalinist state.   As a bonus to the far-right, he was Jewish.   You couldn't ask for a better punching-bag.

Alinsky tactics seem to be on the decline these days, although some organizations still embrace them.  PETA, for example, has embraced his idea of ridiculous protest actions, such as his proposed "pee-in" at Chicago's O'hare airport, or the "fart-in" at the Rochester Symphony.  I think he would have approved of PETA's "Sea Kittens" campaign, just because it was idiosyncratic (or idiotic).  How ironic that the man who invented the "fart-in" would dismiss the new Left as "street theater".

But Alinsky was on to something - movements can be co-opted.  He realized this when, looking at the plans for a new office building for a defense contractor, the architect gleefully showed him were the "sit-in room" was located, so that protests could be organized, scheduled, and controlled.  Sounds far-fetched, but corporate America has adapted to this, long ago.

I mentioned before how we had, at Syracuse University, a "community organizer" who ran the Black Student Union.  He was going to make a name for himself, and he would protest the most trivial of offenses (today called "micro-aggressions").   He would do things like denounce the serving of black-eyed peas in the cafeteria as racist (today, "cultural appropriation").  He was constantly in the paper with one outrage or another, leading protests (with only the few people outside of his immediate circle).

I asked one of the Deans about this and wasn't it a pain-in-the-ass to the school.   She explained to me that the Universties of America realized one thing after the 1960's - "students graduate - every four years," as she put it.   They could wait out any protest, simply by appearing to meet the demands of the protesters and doing a photo op.  The protesters declare victory (and the leader now has something to put on his resume) and they all go home and life goes on as before.

At Cornell, for example, they proposed bulldozing a woods where kids liked to go and smoke pot.  And get this - they were going to put in a parking lotPaging Joni Mitchell!  I mean the thing has legs, right?  Well, kids chained themselves to trees and one enterprising young woman climbed up a tree and lived there, in her sleeping bag, during the cold Central New York nights.   The University patiently waited, and then informed the students that unless they called off the protest, none would receive their diplomas, nor would their transcripts be released - so they could not even transfer to another college.   The whole protest collapsed in a matter of hours.

What a change from the 1960's when the Black Student Union occupied the Dean's office and wrung concession after concession from the University, including an all-black dormitory (so much for integration) and a Black Studies program (we didn't have African-Americans back then).  Funny thing, the far-right likes to call Ithaca and Cornell a hotbed of liberalism, yet when Cornell employs almost fascist tactics, Ithicans were largely silent.  Rush Limbaugh would be proud.  He's up there in heaven, smiling down at us, and I think he'd be pleased.

In most of these protest movements, there is a lot of noise and commotion, and the powers-that-be, not being stupid, get out in front of these movements and then claim to lead them.   When you see a parade going by, get out in front of it - any politician knows this.   You make a few nominal concessions to the movement - naming the worst street in town after Dr. King, for example (as Chris Rock noted) and you call this "progress" and move on.

Has our world changed radically in the last 50-200 years?  Well, yes.  And no.   Yes, we abolished slavery, and since then, it has been a hard uphill slog to eliminate discrimination and racism.  Women won the right to vote - and not be treated as their husband's property - but misogyny and job discrimination still exist, and spousal abuse still occurs - with women bearing the brunt of it.  Today we have gay marriage - that still doesn't mean a lot of people are happy about it.

Did the protests of the 1960's end the Vietnam war?  Not really.  It was only when the middle-class turned against the war that Nixon moved to end it.   Exactly what did the protest movements of the 1960's accomplish?   People point to Woodstock as some defining moment of "their generation" and yet, most of that generation didn't go to Woodstock or even get involved in protests.  Even those who did, often ended up being co-opted by the siren song of commerce and wealth. Yippies became Yuppies, and ended up moving into the very system they denounced, of course, after re-arranging the furniture a bit.

Economically, though, today we still have the very rich and the very poor, and lately, the very rich seem to be getting very richer, particularly as each periodic economic collapse seems to make the very poor very poorer.   Of course, in absolute terms, we are a wealthier country today than in Alinsky's time - the "very poor" of today are far better off than those living in the slums of Chicago back in 1926 when Alinsky was hanging with Al Capone.

For example, demands for public housing were met - and today, the same public housing is being torn down - viewed as little more than warehousing of people, fostering crime and criminality, and holding back the very people they were designed to help.  Public assistance has increased greatly since Alinsky's day, and yet the very same people these programs were designed to help, end up staying stubbornly at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Maybe, as Jesus said, "the poor will always be with us."

Perhaps we could have a system where people would get together once a year and select one of their own to represent them before a national congress, which could then work out various grievances and policies to everyone's benefit.  This "congress" could then meet in some centralized location, say, Washington DC, since it is the nation's capital.   Just a thought, but I doubt it would work.  People wouldn't even bother to vote for this mythical "congress" so it is probably a bad idea, anyway.

One critique of the Alinsky method, is that he was an outsider trying to organize and lead "communities" from without, when the communities themselves should be controlling their own destiny.   But of course, expecting people to organize themselves is futile.  As Alinsky noted, once a community is organized, the various factions turn on each other (just like real Communism!) and the whole thing either falls apart, or becomes insular, as he put it, within about five years.

Many deride the term "community" as an aspect of identity politics, and indeed, there is some truth to this.  We are all part of a greater community, and slicing and dicing us up into demographic cubby-holes isn't progress, it is a way of controlling us.  Besides, these "communities" largely don't exist anymore.  As I noted sardonically, today we talk about the consensus of the "Scientific Community" as if there were a Gary Larson-like neighborhood where everyone wears white lab coats.  Such a community doesn't exist.

Yes, in the past, there were cultural ghettos in America - and still some today.  My Polish friends, who were born in a Nazi work camp, came to America as "displaced persons" and scattered to communities across America.  Many found their way to Polish neighborhoods in places like Chicago or Hartford, where they found common language, culture, foods, and whatnot.  Once they became successful in America, well, they moved out of the cultural ghetto.  My friends sold their parents' house in Hartford after their parents died.   It is now a Puerto Rican neighborhood.

My Cuban friend, who swam to America in 1968, was settled by the government in Alabama. They quickly coalesced into Cuban neighborhoods in Miami and Atlanta - but once they integrated into American society, they moved out to the suburbs and prosperity.  Living in a cultural ghetto isn't advantageous in the long run. Each immigrant wave tends to settle in such neighborhoods and then moves into the mainstream, once getting a foothold in America.  Those who remain in cultural ghettos do not thrive.

These are often the folks resistant to organizing - the ones who don't vote and when they do, often vote against their own best interests. The black barber in Milwaukee, for example, who said he wasn't voting for Hillary, as after eight years of Obama, "He didn't get me a 401(k) or anything."   How can you fix that level of stupid?   Or the redneck in the trailer park voting for Trump because he is going to make the trailer park great "again" - when it never was to begin with.

I think that is the fundamental flaw in Alinsky's thinking - that the folks he is trying to organize and help are smart enough to lead their own movement.   And you can't have outside forces constantly trying to "help" people who are not smart enough to help themselves - they will resent the help!  And maybe - just maybe - if someone is too stupid to act in their own interests that maybe they shouldn't have a voice in how things are run.  Or conversely, maybe folks like that will never have a voice because they are too stupid.  The person who shouts down and denigrates education and embraces ignorance - is he being exploited by the powers that be, or just defiling himself?

Is protesting and community organizing completely pointless?  No, I'm not saying that, only that it may in fact, be over-rated.  Voting makes more of an impact, and money and power make the most. The reason why today we have gay rights, while black people are still being shot by the police and kept in ghettos, is that gays have accumulated wealth, and also made allies among the wealthy, and thus can influence elections, while blacks, being disproportionately poor, are correspondingly powerless.  One group has money and reliably votes, the other does neither.

Putting on a street protest with giant puppets might make the evening news, but I am not sure it will end up making policy.   Historically, this seems to be the case.