Saul Alinsky wasn't a socialist and has no ties to Obama. He was a populist patriot who fought for workers' rights
And now, a word about a good American being demonized, despite being long dead. Saul Alinsky is not around to defend himself, but that hasn’t kept Newt Gingrich from using his name to whip up the froth and frenzy of his followers, whose ignorance of the man is no deterrence to their eagerness, at Gingrich’s behest, to tar and feather him posthumously.
In his speeches, Gingrich pounds away at variations on the theme like the piano player in a cheap Western saloon. He declares, “The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky,” or, “I believe in the Constitution, I believe in the Federalist Papers. Obama believes in Saul Alinsky and secular European socialist bureaucracy.”
It’s all quite clever and insidious, a classic lesson in how to slander someone who cannot answer from the grave, reminiscent of the tactics Gingrich used in those GOPAC memos back in 1996, when he suggested buzzwords and phrases to demonize opponents: corrupt, decay, pathetic, permissive attitude, self-serving and, of course, radical.
In the case of Saul Alinsky, most of the crowd knows nothing about the target except that they’re supposed to hate him. And why not? There’s the strange foreign name – obviously an alien. One of them. And a socialist at that. What’s a socialist? Don’t know — but Obama’s one, isn’t he? Barack Hussein Obama, Saul Alinsky – bingo! Two peas in a pod, and a sinister, subversive pod at that.
But just who was Alinsky, really? Born in 1909, in the ghetto of Chicago’s South Side, he saw the worst of poverty and felt the ethnic prejudices that fester, then blast into violence when people are crowded into tenements and have too little to eat. He came to believe that working people, poor people, put down and stepped upon, had to organize if they were going to clean up the slums, fight the corruption that exploited them, and get a handhold on the first rung of the ladder up and out.
He became a protégé of labor leader John L. Lewis and took the principles of organizing into the streets, first in his hometown of Chicago, then across the country, showing citizens how to band together and non-violently fight for their rights, then training others to follow in his shoes. Along the way, Alinsky faced down the hatred of establishment politicians, attacks both verbal and physical, and jail time. He was a gutsy guy. Outspoken, confrontational, profane with a caustic wit, one journalist said he looked like an accountant and talked like a stevedore. He had a flair for the dramatic, once sending a neighborhood to dump its trash on the front step of an alderman who was allowing the garbage to pile up. Or immobilizing city hall, a department store or a stockholders meeting with a flood of demonstrators demanding justice.
One thing Newt has right — Saul Alinsky was a proud, self-professed radical. Just look at the titles of two of his books – “Reveille for Radicals” and “Rules for Radicals.” But a communist or socialist he was not. He worked with them on behalf of social justice, just as he worked alongside the Catholic archdiocese in Chicago. When he went to Rochester, N.Y., to help organize the African-American community there after a fatal race riot, he was first invited by the local Council of Churches. It was conscience they all had in common, not ideology.
As far as his connection with Barack Obama, the president was just a kid in Hawaii when Alinsky died, something you would expect a good historian, as Gingrich claims to be, to know. The two men never met, although when Obama arrived on the South Side of Chicago as a community organizer, some of his grass-roots work with the poor was with an Alinsky-affiliated organization.
But that’s how it goes in the fight for basic human rights. Alinsky’s influence crops up all across the spectrum, even in the Tea Party. Get this: According to the Wall Street Journal, the conservative holy of holies, the one-time Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives, Dick Armey, whose Freedomworks organization helps bankroll the Tea Party, gives copies of Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” to Tea Party leaders.
Watch out Dick – you could be next on Newt’s list, although, curiously, in his fight against the wealthy Mitt Romney, Gingrich himself has stolen a page from Alinsky’s populist playbook. After Romney beat him in the Florida primary, Newt insisted he would continue the fight for the nomination and shouted, “We’re going to have people power defeat money power,” a sentiment that was Saul Alinsky through and through.
Alinsky died, suddenly, in 1972. At the time, he was planning to mount a campaign to organize white, middle-class Americans into a national movement for progressive change, a movement he vowed to take into the halls of Congress and – his words — “the boardrooms of the megacorporations.”
Maybe that’s why Newt Gingrich has been slandering Alinsky’s name. Maybe he’s afraid, afraid that the very white folks he’s been rousing to frenzy will discover who Saul Alinsky was – a patriot in a long line of patriots, who scorned the malignant narcissism of duplicitous politicians and taught everyday Americans to think for themselves and fight together for a better life. That’s the American way, and any good historian would know it.
Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos and a senior writer of the new series, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. More Michael Winship.
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