Saturday, September 6, 2008

II Understanding the GOP's Attack on Community Organizers

Read with a grain of salt
this is clearly a Republican author
Part II

Before outlining Gamaliel's techniques of political stealth, we need to identify the views that they are camouflaging. These can be found ! in Dennis Jacobsen's book Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing. Jacobsen is the pastor of Incarnation Lutheran Church in Milwaukee and director of the Gamaliel National Clergy Caucus. Jacobsen's book, which is part of the first-year reading list for new Gamaliel organizers, lays out the underlying theology of Gamaliel's activities. While Jacobsen's book was published in 2001, it is based on presentations Jacobsen has been making at Gamaliel's clergy-training center since 1992 and clearly has Galluzzo's endorsement. So while we cannot be sure that Obama has read or taught Doing Justice, the book certainly embodies a political perspective to which Obama's more than 20 years of friendship with Galluzzo, and his stint as a Gamaliel instructor, would surely have exposed him.

In Jacobsen's conception, America is a sinful and fallen nation whose pervasive classism, racism, and militarism authentic Christians! must constantly resist. Drawing on the Book of Revelation, Jacobsen e xhorts, "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! . . . Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins." The United States, Jacobsen maintains, employs nationalism, propaganda, racism, bogus "civil religion," and class enmity to bolster its entrenched and oppressive corporate system. Authentic Christians forced to live in such a nation can "come out of Babylon," says Jacobsen, only by entering into "a perpetual state of internal exile."

Of course, many believers do feel at home in the United States, but according to Jacobsen, these inauthentic and misguided Christians have been lulled into the false belief that the United States is somehow different from other countries -- that it stands as a genuine defender of freedom and democracy. According to Jacobsen, the desire of most Americans to create a safe, secure life for themselves and their families constitutes an unacceptable emotional distancing from the suffe! rings of the urban poor. Jacobsen says that whenever he feels himself seduced by the American dream of personal security -- this "unconscionable removal from the lives of those who suffer" -- he rejects its pull as the deplorable "encroachment of America on my soul." To "feel at home in the United States," maintains Jacobsen, is not only to fall victim to a scarcely disguised form of political despotism; it is to betray Christianity itself.

Although Jacobsen acknowledges that the sufferings of the poor in America do not quite rise to the level of the Nazi Holocaust, he nonetheless finds a similarity: "The accommodation and silence of the church amidst Nazi atrocities are paralleled by the accommodation and silence of the church in this country amidst a calculated war against the poor." He recounts being present at the Pentagon "to fast and vigil with a group of religious resisters against the madness of nuclear build-up an! d militarism generated in that place" and is horrified when he se es that many in the American military actually think of themselves as Christians. For Jacobsen, this means that the church has "aligned itself with oppressive forces and crucified its Lord anew."

Jacobsen has a low opinion of the food pantries, homeless shelters, and walk-a-thons that make up so much religious charitable activity in the United States. All that charity, says Jacobsen, tends to suppress the truth that the system itself is designed to benefit the prosperous and keep the poor down. He complains: "The Christians who are so generous with food baskets at Thanksgiving or with presents for the poor at Christmas often vote into office politicians whose policies ignore or crush those living in poverty." "Most churches do not operate on the basis of healthy agitation," he says, but instead "on the basis of manipulation, authoritarianism, or guilt-tripping."

The solution, says Jacobsen, is community organizing: "! Metropolitan organizing offers a chance to end the warfare against the poor and to heal the divisions of class and race that separate this sick society." "Militant mass action . . . fueled by righteous anger," he maintains, offers authentic community, and therefore "the possibility of fulfillment in a vacuous society." He continues: "If the pain and human degradation all around us doesn't stir up within us sufficient anger to want to shake the foundations of this society, then it's probably best for us to go back to playing church."

Other than the sense of community that is generated by militant struggle, what does Jacobsen offer as the cure for America's ills? He is short on detail here, but there are tantalizing hints. Jacobsen invokes the communal property and absence of private ownership that prevailed among early Christians as a possible model. Despite his initial skepticism regarding such selflessness, says Jacobse! n, he has seen this sort of "radical sharing of limited resources " on a trip to a poor African church in Tanzania. Unfortunately, says Jacobsen, "the church in the United States lacks community. The American church by and large is privatistic, insular, and individualistic. It reflects American culture."

These, then, are the beliefs at the spiritual heart of the Gamaliel Foundation's community-organizing efforts. They show clear echoes of Jeremiah Wright's and James Cone's black-liberation theology, and it's evident that Obama has an affinity for organizations that embody this point of view. But a question arises. Gamaliel's goal is to build church-based coalitions capable of wielding power on behalf of the poor. These congregation-based organizations are supposed to counterbalance and undercut America's oppressive power structures. Yet if most American Christians are deluded servants of a sinful and oppressive system, how can they be molded into a majority coalition for change? Given the priva! tistic, insular, and individualistic character of American culture, theological frankness might backfire and drive away potential allies, exactly as happened with Reverend Wright. Thus arises the need for stealth.

It might have been all but impossible to penetrate the strategic thinking of Obama's cohorts if not for the fortuitous 2008 publication of Organizing Urban America: Secular and Faith-based Progressive Movements, by Rutgers political scientist Heidi Swarts. This is the first book-length study of the organizing tactics and political ideologies of Gamaliel and ACORN, the two groups to which Obama's community-organizing ties are closest. Swarts's study focuses on Gamaliel and ACORN in St. Louis, but given the degree of national coordination by both groups, the carry-over of her findings to Chicago is bound to be substantial. Because Swarts is highly sympathetic to the community-organizing groups sh! e studies, she was granted an unusual degree of access to strategic di scussions during her period of fieldwork.

Swarts calls groups like ACORN and (especially) Gamaliel "invisible actors," hidden from public view because they often prefer to downplay their efforts, because they work locally, and because scholars and journalists pay greater attention to movements with national profiles (like the Sierra Club or the Christian Coalition). Congregation-based community organizations like Gamaliel, by contrast, are often invisible even at the local level. A newspaper might report on a demonstration led by a local minister or priest, for example, without noticing that the clergyman in question is part of the Gamaliel network. "Though often hidden from view," says Swarts, "leaders have intentionally and strategically organized these movements that appear to well up and erupt from below."

Although Gamaliel and ACORN have significantly different tactics and styles, Swarts notes that their political goals and id! eologies are broadly similar. Both groups press the state for economic redistribution. The tactics of Gamaliel and ACORN have been shaped in a "post-Alinsky" era of welfare reform and conservative resurgence, posing a severe challenge to those who wish to expand the welfare state. The answer these activists have hit upon, says Swarts, is to work incrementally in urban areas, while deliberately downplaying the far-Left ideology that stands behind their carefully targeted campaigns.

While ACORN's membership is fairly homogeneous, consisting chiefly of inner-city blacks and Hispanics, congregation-based community organizations like the Gamaliel Foundation tend to have more racially, culturally, and politically mixed constituencies. The need to overcome these divisions and gather a broad coalition behind its hard-Left agenda has pushed Gamaliel to develop what Swarts calls an "innovative cultural strategy." Because of the suspicions that blue-coll! ar members might harbor toward its elite, liberal leaders, Gamaliel 9;s main "ideological tactic," says Swarts, is to present its organizers as the opposite of radical, elite, or ideological. As Swarts explains, they deliberately refrain from using leftist jargon like "racism," "sexism," "classism," "homophobia," "oppression," or "multiple oppressions" in front of ordinary members -- even though, amongst themselves, Gamaliel's organizers toss around this sort of lingo with abandon, just as Jacobsen does in his book.

Swarts supplies a chart listing "common working-class perceptions of liberal social movements" on one side, while displaying on the other side Gamaliel organizers' tricky tactics for getting around them. To avoid seeming like radicals or "hippies left over from the sixties," Gamaliel organizers are careful to wear conventional clothing and conduct themselves with dignity, even formality. Since liberal social movements tend to ! come off as naïve and idealistic, Gamaliel organizers make a point of presenting their ideas as practical, pragmatic, and down-to-earth. When no one else is listening, Gamaliel organizers may rail at "racism," "sexism," and "oppressive corporate systems," but when speaking to their blue-collar followers, they describe their plans as "common sense solutions for working families."

Although the Gamaliel agenda is deeply collectivist and redistributionist, organizers are schooled to frame their program in traditional American, individualist terms. As Swarts puts it:

What makes [Gamaliel's] ideology liberal rather than conservative is that it advocates not private or voluntary solutions but collective public programs. They seek action from the state: social welfare programs, redistribution, or regulation. . . . But publicly [Gamaliel and other congregation-based groups] usually emphasize individual responsibility on ! the part of authorities.

What Gamaliel really wants, in other wo rds, is for the public as a whole to fork over funds to the government, but they're careful to frame this demand as a call for "personal responsibility" by particular government officials.

The relative homogeneity of ACORN's membership allows it to display its radicalism more openly. According to Swarts, ACORN members think of themselves as "oppositional outlaws" and "militants unafraid to confront the powers that be." Yet even ACORN has a deeper, hidden ideological dimension. "Long-term ACORN organizers . . . tend to see the organization as a solitary vanguard of principled leftists," says Swarts, while ordinary members rarely think in these overtly ideological terms; for them, it's more about attacking specific problems. In general, ACORN avoids programmatic statements. During a 1980 effort to purge conservatives from its ranks, however, the organization did release a detailed political platform -- which Swarts cal! ls "a veritable laundry list of progressive positions."

Although ACORN's radicalism is somewhat more frank than Gamaliel's, ACORN has an "innovative cultural strategy" of its own. ACORN's radicalism is incremental; it's happy to work toward ambitious long-term goals through a series of baby steps. For example, although ACORN has fought for "living wage" laws in several American cities, these affect only the small fraction of the workforce employed directly by city governments. The real purpose of ACORN's urban living-wage campaigns, says Swarts, is not economic but political. ACORN's long-term goal is an across-the-board minimum-wage increase at the state and federal levels. The public debate spurred by local campaigns is meant to prepare the political ground for ACORN's more ambitious political goals, and to build up membership in the meantime...

No comments: