A couple of years ago, in a “Tim’s Light Reading” entry, I mentioned Saul Alinsky. At the time I expressed some surprise upon learning that Alinsky maintained a thirty-year correspondence with the French Catholic neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain. I have three subsequent observations: (1) Have I really been putting up “light reading” posts that long? Wow. Then again, yesterday was this blog’s fifth birthday. (2) I’m _still_ amazed that Alinsky and Maritain kept in touch that long. (3) That post is the _only_ mention before today of Alinsky here at USIH. Today I am going to blow out (3) in a big way.
Why? Newt Gingrich, of course! He’s our recent bete noire, between the weblog and our USIH Facebook page. I can give you three guesses, but you’ll see Gingrich-Alinsky link in the following passages from this story (bolds mine):
Nearly 40 years after his death, Saul Alinsky’s name is back in the news, peppered throughout presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich’s speeches.
A native Chicagoan, Alinsky was “the father of community organizing,” said Sanford D. Horwitt, author of Let Them Call Me Rebel: A Biography of Saul Alinsky.”
“He invented community organizing … this very unique form of political action,” Horwitt said, adding that Alinsky believed the goal of organizing people was to give them power.
It’s that “community organizer” moniker that Gingrich is attempting to use in comparing Alinsky to President Barack Obama, who first came to Chicago as a community organizer practicing Alinsky’s model, according to historians.
After winning the South Carolina Republican primary Saturday, Gingrich referenced Obama’s “Saul Alinsky radicalism,” painting it in a negative light. …
“Newt realizes this is just an act, saying Alinsky is a dangerous radical. Gingrich is enough of a historian to know what Alinsky was about,” Horwitt said. “This is something that he is feeding to a part of the conservative right.”
And the article goes on to recount the parallel between this and Tea Party enthusiasts continually reminding us of the links between Obama and another piece of radical living history, Bill Ayers. Politicians really are good at the guilt-by-association game.
But who IS Saul Alinsky? Here’s your introduction to him from the rest of the article above (links that follow are mine):
Born in January 1909, Alinsky grew up on [Chicago’s] West Side, studied criminology at the University of Chicago and worked in state prisons before deciding he could make a bigger difference at the community level, said former Washington Post reporter Nicholas von Hoffman, who wrote Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky.
Von Hoffman, who before becoming a journalist worked alongside Alinsky from 1953 to 1962, said Alinsky fought for fair working conditions, affordable housing and any cause that “boiled down to one thing: organizing people so they have a decent shake.”
Alinsky’s tactics included tying up bank teller lines with volunteers repeatedly exchanging a $100 bill for pennies and vice versa as a way to protest banking institutions, said John Kretzmann, professor at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. Another involved Alinsky’s followers threatening to occupy all the bathrooms atO’Hare International Airportfor an entire day. The threat alone granted Alinsky a meeting with then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, Kretzmann said.
And here’s more from “Professor Wikipedia.”
A significant portion of the entry derives from a 1972 Playboy magazine article (24, 403 words!), conducted a few months before Alinsky’s death and reproduced here. Here are a few nuggets from the Wikipedia entry, mostly from that interview*, with brief commentary, both humorous and serious:
1. Time magazine once wrote that “American democracy is being altered by Alinsky’s ideas,” and conservative author William F. Buckley said he was “very close to being an organizational genius.”
You’d think that Gingrich would appreciate Alinsky’s focus on ideas. Then again, as Ben Alpers reminded us via two funny quotes from Frank and Krugman, the rigor behind Newt’s ideas are often suspect. [BTW: Check out this post by long-time USIH blog friend and S-USIH founding member, Julian Nemeth, on Buckley, Gingrich, and Republican victimhood.]
2. Because of his strict Jewish upbringing, he was asked whether he ever encountered antisemitism while growing up in Chicago. He replied, “it was so pervasive you didn’t really even think about it; you just accepted it as a fact of life.” He considered himself to be a devout Jew until the age of 12, after which time he began to fear that his parents would force him to become a rabbi. “I went through some pretty rapid withdrawal symptoms and kicked the habit … But I’ll tell you one thing about religious identity,” he added. “Whenever anyone asks me my religion, I always say—and always will say—Jewish.”
It appears Alinksy had a Tony Judt-ish-type relationship with his religious/ethnic identity. [BTW #2 related to PhD Octopus: Check out this post by David Weinfeld on Judt.]
3. Contrary to the Chicago Tribune article above, Alinsky was an undergraduate major in archaeology. But then there’s this confusing passage from Wikipedia, apparently derived from the Playboy interview: After attending two years of graduate school he dropped out to accept work as a community organizer for the state of Illinois as a criminologist. Hmm…
4. Alinsky’s work as a community organizer attracted the attention of Adlai Stevenson: His early efforts to “turn scattered, voiceless discontent into a united protest aroused the admiration of Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who said Alinsky’s aims ‘most faithfully reflect our ideals of brotherhood, tolerance, charity and dignity of the individual.'”
Getting praised by Stevenson in the Forties probably wasn’t the kiss of death in relation to anti-intellectual/anti-Egghead associations. That wouldn’t occur until the 1950s, I believe.
5. When asked during an interview whether he ever considered becoming a Communist party member, he replied: “Not at any time. I’ve never joined any organization—not even the ones I’ve organized myself. I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it’s Christianity or Marxism. One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as ‘that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you’re right.’ If you don’t have that, if you think you’ve got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide.”
So isn’t it ironic that Gingrich, whom Alinsky would’ve no doubt called “intellectually constipated,” is holding up Obama as a president that follows the ideology of a figure who despised ideology to the point of avoiding organizations he himself organized? Isn’t it interesting to see the Culture Wars conducted transtemporally, or is this Gingrich living history in ideas? Consult with LD’s recent post on “Big Ideas,” particularly the parts on David Armitage, to make whatever sense you want of my last question.
6. And this: Alinsky described his plans in 1972 to begin to organize the white middle class across America, and the necessity of that project. He believed that what President Richard Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew called “The Silent Majority” was living in frustration and despair, worried about their future,
and ripe for a turn to radical social change, to become politically-active citizens. He feared the middle class could be driven to a right-wing viewpoint, “making them ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday.” His stated motive: “I love this goddamn country, and we’re going to take it back.”
Was Alinsky unknowingly forecasting the arrival, on the wings of the New Right, of that famous presidential hero of American Western films, Ronald Reagan? – TL
*I don’t have the time, right now, to read the whole