It was a classic Bill Maher riposte. In a recent episode of his HBO show the comedian quipped: "Before the next Republican accuses President Obama of taking his cues from Saul Alinsky, he has to answer two questions. One, why would you invite my outrage by suggesting such a specious link between our president and Saul Alinsky? And, two, who the f--- is Saul Alinsky?" (Yes, it's HBO.)
Maher noted that Newt Gingrich likes to throw Alinsky's name around with lines like: "The centerpiece of this campaign is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky."
To which Maher joked, "(This) still doesn't tell me who Saul Alinsky is. But, if Newt hates him, he's probably a divorce lawyer."
What people know about Alinsky, if they know anything at all, is that he was a community organizer in Chicago, just like Obama was before going to law school. Alinsky died in 1972, when Obama was a child. But conservative commentators and politicians like to insinuate that Obama is an acolyte of Alinsky. For many Republicans, merely uttering Alinsky's name conjures images of leftist rabble storming the barricades of heroic capitalism.
That would be true if the rabble were workers consigned to stinking, decrepit slums behind the Chicago stockyards. And if the heroic capitalists were their landlords, the meat-packing companies that contributed to those unlivable conditions and the local political machine that refused to do anything about it. In 1939, Alinsky helped form the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council and through picketing, rent strikes and boycotts got the place transformed into a model working-class community.
Alinsky was a fighter for the poor and disenfranchised, which makes him an instant villain for those on the political right. He was a young adult during the Great Depression, witnessing how people's lives were degraded and subjugated by monied interests. He saw how corporations and politicos sowed ethnic and racial divisions in the lower classes to keep them powerless, and he devoted his life to teaching others the transformational power of banding together.
But as Gingrich's convenient bugbear, Alinsky's life doesn't exactly fit. Alinsky was not a Communist or even a rigid leftist ideologue. According to a book about him by Nicholas von Hoffman, who worked with Alinsky in Chicago in the 1950s, Alinsky was suspicious of big government welfare programs and even met once with conservative icon Barry Goldwater.
"To h-ll with charity," Alinsky once told the Chicago Daily News, "The only thing you get is what you're strong enough to get — so you had better organize."
While Alinsky would have supported the goals and enjoyed the spectacle of Occupy Wall Street, he probably would have groused about the movement's inchoate mission. His seminal work, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, offers strategy and tactics to challenge consolidated power. Alinsky writes that, "The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."
After World War II, Alinsky organized scores of disenfranchised and poverty-stricken communities throughout the country. He believed the poor had to become an effective pressure group or they would be excluded from the democratic process.
Alinsky would be disheartened at what has happened over the last 30 years, as the people's voice has been silenced by the top 1 percent. He would know that government steps to slash tax rates on wealth, unleash reckless greed on Wall Street and erode worker rights were the result of the amplified voice of money. And he'd know that the rest of us had been easily divided by the "values" debates over abortion and same-sex marriage and the Republican Party's cynical stoking of racial and ethnic divisions.
Alinsky's greatest lesson, which we've somehow lost, is that the only way middle- and working-class people can get ahead is to act in concert to demand fair treatment and economic power. It's an idea that scares the stuffing out of Gingrich and those like him.
Robyn Blumner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.