Community Organizing: More than 15 Minutes of Fame
Posted by John Atlas on September 16, 2008
For months, I’ve been leading kind of a single-minded existence, writing a book about the little known and little understood field of community organizing through the lens of ACORN, the largest grass-roots organizing group in the country.
Imagine my amazement when I looked up from my computer screen about two weeks ago and noticed that community organizing had taken center stage in the presidential campaign contratemps.
Although I could hardly believe my eyes and ears, there were the Republicans’ featured speakers at their national convention, lacing into community organizing as a fringy, freaky, suspect, navel-gazing, Sixties-inspired form of self-indulgent radicalism. Or, as Mike Huckabee insinuated, the brainchild of “European ideas.”
The GOP has unleashed such a barrage of bogus claims since the convention that you could be forgiven for feeling like the orchestrated series of smears against community organizing in St. Paul has been bypassed by talk of wolves, pit bulls, barracudas, and lipstick on pigs.
But I’m here to tell you why it’s imperative that we keep the phony attacks against organizers in the public debate.
McCain’s supporters ridiculed Obama’s community organizing work. Remember that Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, and George Pataki claim to represent real Americans and to paint Barack Obama as an elitist who held a bogus job called community organizer. In making that equation, they showed ignorance and contempt for the kinds of actions that bind our democracy together and for the everyday people the Republicans claim to represent.
In fact, as Alice Chasan and Peter Dreier have argued in recent Rooflines posts, the Republican strategy of smearing community organizing has backfired, unleashing an unprecedented run of sustained media interest in the role of community organizing in American life and a torrent of impassioned essays by organizers and their supporters explaining what the work has meant to them and their communities.
At the ServiceNation forum at Columbia University on Sept. 11, McCain backpedaled in his response to Judy Woodruff’s question about whether he agreed with the attacks on organizers, declaring, “Of course I respect people who serve their communities. Senator Obama’s service in that area is outstanding.”
But he did not miss an opportunity to take a shot at Obama, seeming to blame him for the ugliness of the campaigns’ exchanges in recent days.
“I think what happened was it was a reaction to the Obama campaign saying — and denigrating the fact that she [Palin] had been mayor of a small town,” McCain said, referring to Sarah Palin’s caustic remarks at the Republican convention that unfavorably compared community organizers with small-town mayors like her.
The candidate of the personal responsibility party doesn’t believe his vice presidential candidate should take any responsibility for her actions.
Woodruff just let it go. She should have asked, “Are you saying that Sen. Obama made Palin, Giuliani, Pataki, and Romney lie? Don’t they bear any responsibility for misleading the public?”
And by the way, where was Obama on this? While McCain remained in campaign mode, Obama’s response to Woodruff was surprise about the comments on community organizers. Obama should have given a more impassioned response, pointing out the Republican lies.
McCain may want to distance himself from his surrogates’ ugly rhetoric, but he can’t have it both ways. If he wants to praise organizers for their service to the nation, he’s got to step up to the plate and admit that the attempt to marginalize community organizing as effete and un-American was a big mistake. As it stands, his response to Woodruff speaks disturbing volumes about the kind of leadership he would bring to our country.
I may be finished writing my book, but I’ve just begun to push back at this pernicious conservative strategy in the latest round of the culture wars. So I’ll be here at Rooflines between now and the election to talk with you about why community organizing is as American as apple pie.
About the author more Â»
John Atlas is president and one of the founders of NHI. Atlas is the author of Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group (Vanderbilt University Press, 2010), a story about one groupâ€™s efforts to reduce inequality. Atlas lives in Montclair, NJ, and is working on an upcoming theatrical documentary funded by the Sundance Institute, Tribeca Film Institute, and PBS.