Sunday, March 25


Sam Smith

PETER SLEVIN of the Washington Post deserves some sort of award in media mythmaking for his piece recreating Clinton and Obama as disciples of the great activist Saul Alinsky. They have in fact followed the teachings of Alinsky about as well as George Bush has followed those of Jesus Christ.

To be sure, they both went to the church and prayed. But life moves on and as Alinsky pointed out, "When the poor get power they'll be shits like everyone else." The same goes for Wellesley and Harvard Law School idealists.

Clinton, in fact, put her thesis on Alinsky under lock and key once her husband began running for president, something that Slevin buried in his long encomium. And it is hard to think of anything in recent years more certain to have gotten Alinsky angry than HRC's deceitful, confusing and insurance company-pandering health plan.

The Obama story is different. He actually worked for several years on Alinsky oriented projects. But that was a long time ago and to present him as a present day disciple of Alinsky is just plain false. He is today your run of the mill liberal politician who doesn't want anybody mad at him and wouldn't even be a card in the race if he didn't hold the race card.

I mentioned to a black friend that Obama reminded me a lot of the sort of black lawyers you meet at top Washington law firms. "Yeah," he replied, "the Negro at the front door."

They are fine to handle your mergers or litigation, but if you are trying to save a country going down the tubes, you're probably better off with someone who hasn't spent his whole life trying to position himself safely in a hostile white America. This is not in the slightest to his discredit personally; it's just not the job description on the table.

There can be in these glass-ceiling breakers a self-protective caution that enables them to survive but also makes them less likely to break ceilings for others.

I know something about Alinsky because I wouldn't being doing what I'm doing if it weren't for an Alinsky organizer who hit our Capitol Hill neighborhood in the 1960s and strongly urged me to start an activist neighborhood newspaper.

For the next few years I was immersed in Alinsky style populism while many of my white friends were engaged in something far closer to the classical stereotype of the 1960s. If there is one theme that has set my subsequent journalism apart from the more typical left media it has been an Alinsky-encouraged approach rooted in community, populism and suspicion of power in all its forms.

Reading Slevin's article I was tempted to assume that this was another cynical Washington Post effort to spin America's story, in this case to steal the populist thunder from John Edwards, the candidate closest to the Alinsky spirit and the man with whom Alinsky would feel most comfortable. But perhaps this is unfair, because I know how little understood the Alinsky style and values are anymore. It is not surprising that either Clinton and Obama are so removed from these; they are, in fact, typical liberals in this regard.

Still you can't have it both ways and no one should think of either as practitioners in the model of a man who once said, "Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict."



At 4:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Superb and lengthy interview with Alinksy at

At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Mairead said...

Sam, I can't *begin* to imagine what leads you to liken Alinsky and, for godssake, Edwards. Edwards has never, to my knowledge, done community organising or put his butt on the line for any cause no matter how noble or needed. He's a wealthy lawyer and failed polititian who lies about his natal family background.

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boy!!! Things have changed since this stuff was written. Long live the Republic!!!!!

At 9:42 PM, Blogger RogerDBybee said...

Slevin's slimy attempt to link Obama to the Left via Saul Alinsky is reminiscent of the effort to tie Obama to Bill Ayers. However, I think Sam goes way overboard in claiming that Obama has gotten this far because of the "race card."

While I have been highly critical of Obama's equivocating-- especially on the outsourcing of jobs as witnessed by my articles in ZNet, Foreign Policy in Focus, Extra!, and Z--he has achieved the nomination and a commanding lead without resorting to racial appeals. Unlike Jesse Jackson's 1988 campaign which tapped into the angry populism of white workers and farmers from Wisconsin to West Virginia, Obama has had to use a much more restrained approach which has emphatically neutralized the racial issue as much as possible. much to the Right's frustration.

In other words, both Sam and I are frustrated that Barack Obama is listening too much to neo-liberal Wall Streeters like Robert Rubin. We would both rather seem Obama preparing to unveil an updated version of the New Deal that radically re-wrote the $700 billion bank bailout.

But the charge that Obama has played the "race card"--an accusation much more properly addressed to Hillary Clinton and her very ugly comments about "hard-working white people"--has no basis in reality.

Finally, a few words on Saul Alinsky are called for. As the son of democratic socialists and unionists, I grew up idealizing Saul Alinsky and read everything he wrote and attended every Alinsky speech I could.

But the more I studied and reflected on Alinsky's "rules for radicals," the more I concluded that his focus was entirely tactical and pragmatic. For all his immense achievements and all the people he inspired, he underestimated, even disparaged, the role of moral values in activating people and was consistently unwilling to outline his strategy for structural change or his concept of a new America based on economic and social democracy.

Yes, the inimitable Saul Alinsky still has much to teach us, but we must also be aware of the limits of his vision as well. Roger Bybee, Milwaukee.

At 8:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the reason Alinsky and his 'teachings' are so dangerous is because of where he draws his inspiration as noted in the dedication of his own book "Rules for Radicals"...

Alinsky dedicated his book to a highly unusual figure. Here is the dedication:

"Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — and which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer."

even Satan can appear as an angel of light, hiding in what sounds good, and looks good, but in the end is no good. That is why any link of him to Obama is frowned upon,


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