One of the real unsung social commentators/public intellectuals here in Philadelphia is University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas J. Sugrue, who's done some fantastic work over the years on issues from civil rights to current affairs. He recently did a must-read piece for Salon on why conservatives are right to be afraid of Saul Alinsky:
In the truest sense of the term, Alinsky was a populist, who sided with those whom he called “the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores.” Alinsky’s small-d democracy shaped his strategy. He argued that leaders had to start by listening to ordinary people, not directing them from the top down. In Chicago, Alinsky launched organizing efforts among the ethnic workers in Chicago’s meatpacking plants, whose plight had been made infamous by Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle.” In the early 1960s, he launched a campaign to improve the quality of life for the black residents of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood whose housing stock had been gutted by absentee landlords and whose jobs had disappeared because of the corporate search for cheap labor and high profits. And just before his death, he called for a campaign to tap the disaffected lower middle class and turn their anger away from minorities and toward “specific issues — taxes, jobs, consumer problems, pollution — and from there move on to the larger issues: pollution in the Pentagon and the Congress and the board rooms of the megacorporations.”
It's fascinating that a character who died more than 40 years ago is generating so much interest today. And it's a shame that he's not here now, because there's no doubt that Alinsky would have been in Barack Obama's face, pressuring him to make good on more of the progressive changes that he promised voters in 2008.
The other takeaway from the Sugrue piece is something that seemed clear the moment back in 2008 that Sarah Palin belittled Obama for his past as a community organizer. A community organizer such as Alinsky (or Obama in what feels like his very distant, distant past) tries to help disadvantaged folks take full advantage of the rights and opportunities they already have -- registering to vote, for example. The idea of Americans from different communities exercising their rights is terrifying to conservatives. They should be ashamed.
Saul Alinsky was an American hero.