Hogan's Alley

Friday, March 02, 2007

Hillary Hunters Ponder Forty Year Old Wellesley Thesis

The silly season in presidential politics is upon us. MSNBC has published its "uncovering" of Hillary Clinton's 1965 senior thesis at Wellesley. The thesis is a paper on the then "sexy" community organizer, Saul Alinsky. Anyone paying attention to American politics at that time came across Alinsky and many of us were intrigued by his frank disavowal of almost everything held sacred by all the political orthodoxies of both left and right.

I know I was. Does that post-adolescent interest label me forever a radical or am I capable, as is Hillary, of evolving one's view of the American political process. MSNBC would have us believe that this ancient paper will be the basis of another "Swiftboat" campaign by the right. How foolish.

Alinsky was essentially an organizer of the disgruntled in Chicago, for which Federal funds were available at the time. He made a nice living running those community organizations and from lecture fees, an irony that was not lost on him. He died 35 years ago in 1972.

In an interview in Playboy before his death, he laid out the core of his philosophy. Talking about the vast middle class of the time he said:

Right now they're frozen, festering in apathy, leading what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation:" They're oppressed by taxation and inflation, poisoned by pollution, terrorized by urban crime, frightened by the new youth culture, baffled by the computerized world around them. They've worked all their lives to get their own little house in the suburbs, their color TV, their two cars, and now the good life seems to have turned to ashes in their mouths. Their personal lives are generally unfulfilling, their jobs unsatisfying, they've succumbed to tranquilizers and pep pills, they drown their anxieties in alcohol, they feel trapped in longterm endurance marriages or escape into guilt-ridden divorces. They're losing their kids and they're losing their dreams. They're alienated, depersonalized, without any feeling of participation in the political process, and they feel rejected and hopeless. Their utopia of status and security has become a tacky-tacky suburb, their split-levels have sprouted prison bars and their disillusionment is becoming terminal.

He continued:

The despair is there; now it's up to us to go in and rub raw the sores of discontent, galvanize them for radical social change. We'll give them a way to participate in the democratic process, a way to exercise their rights as citizens and strike back at the establishment that oppresses them, instead of giving in to apathy. We'll start with 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. Once you organize people, they'll keep advancing from issue to issue toward the ultimate objective: people power. We'll not only give them a cause, we'll make life goddamn exciting for them again -- life instead of existence. We'll turn them on.

"Rub raw the sores of discontent" was the core phrase of Alinsky's organizing technique. He had some success on the local level in his home town, but was never able to expand his approach into a national movement.

But don't the above quotes sound very much like a blueprint for the "progressive" movement of the current day? The problem with Alinsky's view is and was that the American people hold on relentlessly to the dream. No matter what their disappointments, the majority continue to believe that life in America will allow them to obtain a level of happiness, material and otherwise, that leads to a contented life. Discontented radical leaders of any age will never grasp the fact that their own dissatisfactions are not shared by their fellow citizens in any sizable number.

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