Thursday, September 04, 2008

What's Wrong with Community Organizing?

Last night, I watched the latter part of the GOP convention. I got to see Giuliani's speech as well as Sarah Palin's speech. I am biased so I guess I'm not a good judge of the quality and effectiveness of the speeches. Trying to be as objective as I can, I will say that I thought they were o.k., but nothing superlative. However, I was in a room full of Republicans and conservatives who really liked both speeches.

But there was one thing about both of these speeches that puzzled me. I don't understand why both Giuliani and Palin viciously attacked Obama for having been a community organizer. I kept thinking: "Don't they know that people, both liberals and conservatives, who are interested in local issues and who are involved in their local communities, are in essence 'community organizers'?" I understand that they are trying to use this as a slap in the face of Obama's "experience"; but what they actually did was to take a swipe at the work of community organizing in general instead of at Obama specifically.

I, myself, am involved in local community work as a volunteer. I consider myself to be a "community organizer" of sorts. Many people I come into contact with, and who are both liberal and conservatives, volunteer at the community level and would probably consider themselves a kind of "community organizer." It can be in the local pro-life Church organization planning a rally against an abortion clinic. It can be developing youth leadership programs. It can be getting involved in Junior Achievement or YMCA programs. It can be assuming an active role in the homeownership or neighborhood association. Community organizing is essentially assuming a leadership role in helping members of the local community come together around shared issues of local concern and deciding what, if anything, to do about them. It is essentially a non-partisan, non-ideological activity of civic engagement. Ideology rarely factors into community organizing. It is issue-based and reflective of the interests of the specific community that is being organized. And yet Giuliani and Palin repeatedly demeaned this kind of work as essentially unimportant and insignificant. By taking a swipe at this aspect of Obama's life experience and work, I think they revealed themselves to be dismissive of that fundamental aspect (and maybe the only aspect) of the everyday person's life in his or her community that gives him a sense of civic pride. "Community organizing" binds people to politics in ways that watching conventions on television can never accomplish. And it is much more real to people. Attacking that can't be a wise strategy. I noticed that Palin and Giuliani mocked Obama's "clinging to guns and religion" line. But by demeaning community organizing, they themselves are mocking an individual's "clinging to community."

If they want to take on Obama's lack of experience, there must be better ways to do it that won't be perceived by the common person interested in civic life at the local level as an attack on their own work within their local communities.

It's a losing strategy. And I think it is a great tactical mistake. Rest assured that the Obama campaign will flip this around and make it appear as if the GOP is cynically demeaning the good work that people with a sense of local civic pride engage in and take pride in. In fact, I got an email from the Obama campaign this morning that jumped on this issue. And this won't be the end of it, I'm sure.


Eric said...

I didn't see Giulianni's speech, so I'm not sure what he said about it, but I thought it was pretty clear what Palin was saying. She wasn't attacking community organizing at all. She was very plainly attacking the idea that being a community organizer is good experience for being President, in the same way and for the same reasons being the office event organizer doesn't qualify one to be CEO of the company.

What she was saying was that, regardless of the scale, being mayor of a small town offers more executive experience than being a community organizer in a large community.

That is a valid point, although one Obama can easily counter by pointing out he was a community organizer 20 years ago, and has since spent a lot of time excercising the levers of power at a higher level, both in state politics and in the US Senate.

But still, she wasn't attacking volunteer work at the community level in any way.

pat said...

>But still, she wasn't attacking volunteer work at the community level in any way.

I can't see why this judgement is valid, while Palin claims community organizers don't have as many "actual responsibilities" as the governor.

Huck said...

Hi, Eric - I know what she was trying to do, but the criticism of Obama's experience didn't come through all that clearly. It came across, at least to me, as more of a slap at community organizing in general. She never once made the point explicitly as you are making it. She tried to make the point by diminishing the task of community organizing. If she had said: "community organizing is a good thing, but it doesn't qualify one for President" that would be one thing. Rather, she said something along the lines of: "can you believe it, Obama was a community organizer, as if that's anything noble or worthwhile? Only those who can't do anything else do community work." It had that kind of feel to me. And I'm not alone in noticing this. Andrew Sullivan picked up on this. The Obama campaign picked up on this. I picked up on this. Watch Palin's address again and tell me if that condescension to the activity of community organizing itself doesn't come through. Again, I know the point they are trying to make; but what I'm arguing is that the delivery of this point by attacking community organizing in the way that they did comes across as condescending and elitist in its own way. It's not just an attack on Obama's lack of "presidential" experience, but a demeaning of community organizing itself.

Huck said...

Good point, Pat. That gets precisely at the condescending tone that came across. It's not easy to try to bring disparate communities together under common cause. And to suggest that "community organizing" bears no real "actual responsibilities" is do imply that the task in itself is essentially worthless when compared to being mayor of a small town.

Eric said...

"She never once made the point explicitly as you are making it."

Well, it was meant as a sarcastic one-liner, so expounding on it would have deflated the impact. It was meant to be belittling.
She was making fun of Obama, but it wasn't for the act of community organizing. A few people might mistake her dismissive tone as a judgement on community organizing, rather than a judgement on the idea that Obama's time as a community organizer is a serious testament to his ability to be President, but when you consider the context (she was addressing claims that she doesn't have enough executive experience) it is pretty easy to see what she was talking about.

Maybe it was too nuanced for some people. I knew exactly what she meant, and you say you do too. So if it can be taken two different ways, why not assume the one that matches up with the context? One of the things that conservative pundits like Limbaugh are horrible about is ignoring context in order to find something to get angry about, and it pisses me off when they do it. This is the same thing.

Huck said...

Eric - I understand what she was saying because I know the conservative narrative against Barack Obama's inexperience quite well. And yet, even still, it felt even to me at the moment I heard it like a slight to the community work that I, and many others, do. You admit that it was meant to be belittling. All I'm saying is that it was belittling to more than just Obama. It was belittling to a kind of civic engagement. It is not folks like me who are ignoring the context, rather it is the speech itself that ignores the context. I think of the speech as precisely something Limbaugh would say as he mocks "community organizing." The "context" they are ignoring is that there is value, hard work, and "actual responsiblity" in community organizing -- no matter if it's Obama or my neighbor doing it.

Eric said...


Simply put, community organizers don't have as many actual responsibilities as the governer.
They are mobilizers for social issues, but they aren't enacters of policy. Their responsibilities are extremely open-ended when compared with a mayor or governer, and they have very limited accountability for their success or failure to enact change.
Also, they can chose from day to day whether to follow through on those responsibilities. Rather go see the new Batman movie than stand in the Wal-Mart parking lot trying to get people to sign your petition? Call Frank and see if he can fill in for you. The governer (and mayor) has a legal obligation to fulfill duties they have been elected to perform.

There is a big difference, and Palin was making a legitimate point in counter to complaints that Obama has the experience to lead while she does not.

Eric said...


Fair enough, you have every right to be offended if you feel you were slighted. I would disagree that she was disparaging public service, but people will take it how they want to take it, and the comment is nuanced enough to be interpreted either way. I just don't think many objective listeners are going to take her comments that way if they consider them in context to what she was talking about. I suppose time will tell.

Anonymous said...

Obama, who has worked as a lawyer and a legislator to improve living conditions for the poor, took campaign donations from Rezko even as Rezko’s low-income housing empire was collapsing, leaving many African-American families in buildings riddled with problems — including squalid living conditions, vacant apartments, lack of heat, squatters and drug dealers.

parsifal81 said...

Gov. Palin likes to talk about "challenging the status quo".
How can she be credible when she laughs at community organizers, who are some of the only people who ever challenge the status quo?

The argument that this was all just an attack on Obama's experience doesn't make sense. The phrase "community organizer" was mockingly used several times by both speakers in order to elicit raucous laugher from the crowd. Also, if this is just about debunking Obama's resume, then why did they only focus on one particular line of that resume?

This was a calculated cultural swipe that pits "small towns" against urban "communities". The act of citizens coming together to find solutions to their common problems and exert collective power runs counter to the more individualistic tendencies in our society. Giuliani especially makes it clear, through his you've-got-to-be-kidding-me tone and expressions, that "community organizing" carries with it a certain whimsical and even foreign connotation for some voters.

It is surprising that the republicans would take a shot at those who brought us the 5 day work week, an end to child labor, civil rights, civil liberties, women's suffrage, and many environmental victories. Were MLK and Mother Jones not "leaders"? Did they not have
"responsibilities"? Anyone involved in lobbying elected officials or in protecting a group of protesters from police harassment knows the extreme dedication that it requires. Success is simply not possible in this kind of situation without responsible leadership.

Giuiliani used the words "mob" and "machine" to belittle the coordination involved when individual people come together to act collectively. The word "machine" obviously is meant to dehumanize the struggle of the working poor.

Also, the cultural swipe plays upon people's notions of respectability in power. A "mayor" holds a position in a hierarchy. A "community organizer" pools together the shared power of the community and often challenges that hierarchy. Therefore, the former is seen as more legitimate than the latter.

D-BB said...

As a former community organizer for the Sunny Ranch Nudist Park outside of Albuquerque, I assure you; organizing events are quite important and if not done properly, could lead to severe consequences. What if I had not assured that we alternated males and females in our leap frog activities? Can you imagine?