Thursday, August 12, 2010

Saul Alinsky, Martha Nussbaum, Martin Amis etal

Saul Alinsky was the great community organizer whose several volumes including Rules for Radicals were the inspiration for Barack Obama's community organizer mentors in Chicago, and thus provided the base learning for the bottom-up social media campaign Obama waged in 2008.Alinsky, who died in 1969, is now the subject of a new anecdotal biography by Nicholas von Hoffman,entitled"Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky" and published by Nation Books.
Alinsky was also, curiously the subject of a major paper written at Wellesley by Hillary Clinton; his texts are now being studied and applied by the tea Partiers as well.

Von Hoffman, who served as a top community organizer for Alinsky,is a journalist whose early work included the wonderfully titled late 60's book-"We are the People Our Parents warned Us Against."
This is a warm and revealing biography with a plethora of juicy anecdotes. In addition to speaking of Alinsky's service with John L Lewis and the CIO,and his pioneering of successful community organizing in Chicago and across the country for blacks and latinos( he was the mentor for Cesar Chavez, among others),von Hoffman repeats the heart (or perhaps another organ)warming story of how Alinsky was asked to help integrate black people into the labor force in Rochester NY at a time when Kodak and Xerox were virtually all white communities of employees. In a story, whose precept is that the threat of action is often more successful than the implementation thereof, the author tells us that Alinsky immediately spotted the vulnerability of Rochesterians in their frequent attendance of Philharmonic concerts. He advised the parties with whom he would do battle that his virtually all black clients had purchased a block of seats and would attend the next major weekend recital after eating an all baked beans dinner shortly before the music played.
The implicit threat of a "fart-in" was all he needed to begin the negotiation process.
Alinsky was a genius at practical, no nonsense organizing who could turn on a dime and who was not above making alliances with the liberal antifacsists in the pre 1940's Catholic Church in Chicago who were dedicated to the improvement of society through charity to advance his goals.
A wonderful read and most entertaining as well.

Martha Nussbaum, distinguished professor of law and Ethics at the Univ of Chicago Law School and the author of numerous important books, has just had published by Princeton University Press a critically important thin volume-"Not for Profit":Why Democracy Needs the Humanities". The thesis in a nutshell is that the shortsighted focus on profit and utilitarianism,without the liberal arts ,and particularly the Socratic method of engaging the mind to understand the complexities of the world and see the other side of lives on the planet in a sympathetic light, diminishes our ability to criticize leadership and damages our ability to resolve complex global problems.
I amtold that right before the 2008 market crash 75 %or so of the graduating class of Yale headed for investment banking as did many lawyers seeking to max out on money.

And this in a country that had such a fine tradition of forward-looking education influenced by John Dewey and others,like Nobel prize winning polymath Rabindranath Tagore, who believed that we make progress as a society and advance only by cultivating a more inclusive sympathy and understanding of others.In addition, that this capacity can only be brought forward by education that empahsizes global learning, the arts and Socratic self- criticism.

It reminds me of an essay by the childrens' and adult storyteller Russell Hoban,from a collection entitled "The Moment Under the Moment", in which, discussing the house that childhood builds in the mind,he says:
"[Such a house in the mind]is a safe house, a learning place where we test words and images and ideas to find out what rings true.It's like a safe house in a spy story-in it the secret agent that is the child's mind can stay hidden until ready to venture into the hostile city ...But it isn't the world that beckons that is hostile- "
"it's the grey city of the failed children of the world, the dry thinkers, the juiceless minds, the poison skulls that dream in numbers and megadeaths.They run the world, these failed children;they speak in all languages and in all languages their speech is vile. In bemedalled uniforms, in costly business suits and ties they mouth pompous words printed out by grey machines. Each one thinks the other is the enemy while the enemy, the monster they have called up together, sings to itself outside the window.The grey city is why the safe house of childhood is needed , and long after the child is grown this safe house is still needed in the shadows and the narrow alleys by the waterfront in the grey city of terror.

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