It’s been a whole week, I know. But in that week why hasn’t Barack Obama turned on his heel and chased his enemies under a rock?
“He worked as a community organizer,” said Rudolph Giuliani at the GOP convention last week, then grinned to make it clear the comment was meant to be risible. The crowd tittered. Giuliani chuckled. “He worked — What!” Hooting. Chanting. Waving of cowboy hats. “I said – I said – ‘OK. OK. Maybe this is the first problem on the resume.'”
Later in the evening Sarah Palin spoke. “Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska I was mayor of my hometown,” she said. “And, since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves.” Pause. Laughter. People standing and waving. Celebrating the zinger before they’d even heard it. “I guess – I guess a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer except that you have actual responsibilities.”
Good times at the Xcel Center. (Here’s an early reaction from my colleague Whet Moser to the GOP hijinks.)
The Sun-Times got to the point in an editorial: “Republicans insist that people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Communities should take care of their own and not depend on big government to do the job. And the folks who do make it should give back. We agree wholeheartedly. But on what is the job of community organizer premised, if not those very principles?”
And blogger Robert Reed, who used to be editor of Crain’s Chicago Business, kicked butt: “Yeah, that Jane Addams was a funny gal. Who wouldn’t laugh at a community organizer who spent her adult life feeding hungry, homeless children and fighting for social reform? Founder of Hull House? Nobel Peace Prize winner? Please, enough with the jokes.”
But I’m beginning to wonder if Obama himself is so fearful of sounding arch he’s forgotten how to do contempt. I mean, the GOP has left itself wide open for ridicule from any Democrat with the chops to bring it on. As the bumper sticker says, Jesus Christ was a community organizer. And if you don’t want the Lord’s name exploited for partisan purposes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a community organizer too. Another Nobel winner, in fact. Not that the GOP wouldn’t pounce if Obama’s name got put in their company.
If Republicans don’t know what community organizers are they must not know what communities are. Is there a bumper sticker yet that says “Even gated communities need organizing.”?
Admittedly, Obama has a lot on his plate. Here am I telling him to snort disdainfully, while from another precinct comes a demand for an entirely different demeanor. John Neffinger at the Huffington Post is making it known that “if Obama wants Americans to respect him, they must be allowed to see him react with the kind of anger – controlled, but still palpable – that they would feel if somebody did that to them.”
What McCain did to Obama, in Neffinger’s view, was release an ad Tuesday “that basically paints Obama as a pedophile.” Here’s the ad. It’s rancid and dishonest — as Neffinger explains — and Obama most definitely has to take it on before he concerns himself with the TP’d public image of community organizers. So I guess I have to stand in line. Neffinger notes that “in the last few days, it seems about a dozen communications experts have written pieces on HuffPo calling on the Obama campaign to get tougher with their messages.” Nobody thinks he’s campaigning right.
But even if the community organizing assault is so buried under more recent libels that the Democrats never get around to digging it out, I won’t forget. This is Chicago. Community organizing is what we do. Our Saul Alinsky was probably the most influential urban community organizer in American history. The history of the Catholic Church in Chicago is a history of community organizing — City Hall didn’t build those churches. There’s no way to write about the chronic unrest between central Chicago and its unruly neighborhoods without an understanding of how communities organize to take on City Hall. I was hoping one of the wry wits on the Tribune editorial page would dress down the paper’s favorite party for its contempt of history. But, no, the Tribune must be thinking it’s the wrong time for that.
Here’s a link to a Democracy Now! interview between Amy Goodman and John Raskin, a community organizer in New York City with steel in his back. His response was to launch the website OrganizersFightBack.wordpress.com. “It’s frustrating,” said Raskin, after watching videos of the Giuliani and Palin speeches, “that, on the one hand, they would extol the virtues of national service and say this is—you know, in America we want people to be involved in their communities, we want people to do something productive. And then, when a bunch of folks, I mean, you know, my colleagues and people around the country, go out and do that and actually work as community organizers, they mock it.”
Raskin is a product of Chicago (he went through school with my daughter Joanna) who’s true to its traditions. Raskin may be too young and courtly to be properly derisive, but someone needs to stick his tongue out. Another reason why Obama hasn’t could be that he’s less committed to the principles of community organizing than Raskin is. Creation Myth, a long piece in the latest New Republic by John Judis, argues that Obama got disenchanted during his three years of community organizing in Chicago, in particular with the fundamental Alinsky tenet that organizers should steer clear of politicians. This eventually made no sense to Obama, and he went to law school.