Thursday, September 04, 2008

Why Obama Has a Vision, While Palin Doesn't...Or Why I'm (sort of) a Community Organizer

I wasn't planning on writing much on my blog this week because I'm putting everything in boxes right now, preparing to head back to Guam in a few days. But, I feel like I have to after hearing the bewildering attack that Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin made on "community organizers" tonight. The attacks on the media and the Washington elite in her speech were expected. Pure hypocrisy, but completely anticipated.

President George H.W. Bush ranted and ran against the media in his re-election big in 1992, pleading with voters to "annoy the media" by voting for him. McCain's campaign in this cycle has regularly complained about the darling treatment that Senator Obama receives from the press. A shameless complaint since if there has been any politician in recent times who has received a bulk sale on "free passes" from the media its Senator John McCain. His gaffes, his inconsistencies, his absolute pandering and flip flopping, are all insignificant and meaningless details, overshadowed and blacked out, by his incredible biography, his heroism and bravery. I mean, even in the Democratic National Convention, speakers found (what seemed like) 72 different ways of honoring McCain's service. Even when McCain shows signs of over-invoking his POW status to deflect questions on everything from health care to his favorite songs, the media still seems to be enamored by the maverick POW visage of John McCain.

While for Democrats, Barack Obama seems to be testing the durability of his coalition, by softening his stances on certain issues and moving towards the center, thus potentially incurring the wrath of his anti-war and progressive base. John McCain seems on the verge of doing the same thing, pushing away ungratefully those who have long made up his most faithful base, the media. It was interesting to see the faces of journalists like Tom Brokaw tonight when reporting this new McCain strategy. His ashen face seemed to communicate, what his words did not, that there were obvious feelings of betrayal for being lumped in with the angry left-wing media.

Attacks on Barack Obama's lack of experience were also expected, but it was clear from the Palin pick, that the typical, John McCain fought alongside General George Washington - and therefore has more experience than any other living person, strategy wasn't going to work. Palin, despite all the excruciating twisting and resume padding that Republican surrogates and talking heads are doing, has the least possible amount of experience for the position she has been selected for. But, the experience issue couldn't be taken off the table, they needed to keep it there, but somehow make Palin's limited experience as a city councilwoman and a mayor of a small town, seem "realer" or more "authentic." The argument of "executive" experience vs. "legislative" experience could only go so far, since Palin has only had any executive experience that matters for about the same amount of time that Obama has been running for President. The easiest route would be, and they did take this route, to dismiss Obama's experience as "Washington experience," or in the vocabulary of the Republicans, the wrong type of experience, as if this country is great except for Washington which screws everything up. Don't ask me how they can make this argument without their heads exploding since Washington has been Republican occupied territory for quite a while now.

What came out of nowhere, and still makes so little sense to me, is to attack Obama and his "community organizer" experience. To not just attack it, but to demean it, to reduce it to something which has no impact on the world. To understand the demeaning part of it, just read this quote, "I guess a small-town mayor if sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities."

Since hearing her speech, I've really though hard about what would compel the McCain campaign to take this route, to attack and belittle people who do vital work in all communities and cannot be written off as people without "actual responsibilities." My first thought was that "community organizer" might be in the dictionary of conservative Republicans, a term for dirty liberal, hippie activist. Since Obama was one, and he always mentions it, and he is the most liberal member of the Senate, it must be a code word for crazy anarchist, or spotted owl lover. Perhaps then, they assumed, that since other "community organizers" are being arrested, being pepper sprayed and being assaulted outside of the Excel Center, and most of the media has decided to interpret these clashes as "people without messages, getting their kicks" that to attack that label would go completely unnoticed. Maybe then, it was like so much else at the RNC so far, not something meant for anyone outside of the Convention, but simply more red meat to throw to ravenous Republicans, looking for something to loathe and hate.

Or maybe, this was a response to the belittling of Palin's own resume. A reaction to the way the media has been treating her own experience as backwater, small-town, insignificant. A person with no foreign policy experience, except when it comes to negotiating with the moose. While Obama's Senatorial experience can be attacked as "Washington elitism" it can't be dismissed as small or meaningless, after all if being in the Senate is pointless or insignificant, John McCain may not be as pointless as Joe Biden, but his much much more pointless than Barack Obama. So the attack then had to come to Obama's own "small" experiences. The times before he was a national figure, the things that tie him to communities, real experiences of Americans.

And here is where the "strategy" to the McCain campaign's negativity comes into play. Palin's "small" experiences are supposed to tie her to the common American man and woman across the United States. Obama, has used, not so much now, but during the primaries in his constant introductions to state after state, his own community organizing stories as a way to show his small roots, his commitments to regular people, his ability and determination to effect change. By attacking, not the specificities of his experiences, but the label that he uses to connect himself to regular people and their concerns, they hope disrupt one of the key things in his biography that prevents him from being that fancy-pants liberal elitist, namely his work with poor/working class communities suffering from the loss of heavy industry jobs in Chicago.

This is the time in Obama's life where he was doing the things that Palin professes is what makes her unique amongst all four of the candidates, this work that's not tangled up with Washington red tape but deals with "actual responsibility," the real lives of Americans. If you take away the claim of a "community organizer" as being a real vital or important leader or responsible part of society, then you have accomplished a huge task in turning Obama into that arugula-run liberal gas bag that floats above real American issues and responsibilities, and has been cut off from any real ties to the American people and their problems. Notice, that this tactic is far easier than actually trying to propose any real policies or ideas.


Part of my frustration over this attack, is that it demeans the very very difficult work that community organizers, working on so many different issues are out there fighting for. Obviously, community organizers come from all different political positions and so they are not all "liberal." But my work in community organizing and my admiration for past and present organizers and organizations come from the progressive end of the spectrum.

I have been called a community organizer before, but it is not a label that I have really accepted as my own. I know that some of the work that I've done in terms of getting Chamorro organized around certain issues in Guam, but mostly in the United States would fall under a broad definition of a community organizer, but mainly because I don't feel that I've accomplished very much, I'm uncomfortable taking on this label.

One of the reasons for this is that, unlike the realm of politics which is dictated by successes, the world for organizers, especially those who take up "radical" causes, are fraught with far more failures, and often bump into so many different rules in communities and societies that limits your effectiveness or how much you can accomplish.

When organizing communities, you are often working with an injustice and a vision. A community which is being mistreated, is not getting their fair share, has been ignored or forgotten, and you reference this historical or contemporary mistreatment in order to activate them, to propel them forward into a progressive, more inclusive, more prosperous, more equal or simply, just a better vision of the future. In Barack Obama's campaign you can see this, and contrast it with the McCain campaign's approach. Obama and the Democrats lay out the atrocities and incompetence of the past eight years, as an injustice that has been forced upon the American people, and then provide a vision, which because of Obama's skin color and background, promises not just to be a better, more prosperous one, but also promises to be a historical one, which will possibly change the color of this nation forever. McCain's campaign is very different, far far less organized (pun is partially intended), there is no singular injustice that he is trying to use to organize people and push them forward, instead he's operating on a sort of twin fear technique, working to get people to vote for him as the antidote to America's internal and external enemies.

Palin's indirect claim that community organizers are outside of real American experience may be irritating, but its not exactly wrong, but that is what makes the work that they do so difficult. When John McCain presents himself and his party, he does not articulate himself as outside of anything. He is not pointing out any real problems or failings of America, his main purpose is to convince you that everything has been fantastic and can still be better. One pundit tonight spoken very accurately about the fact that last week Democrats ran through lists of all the things going wrong with the country right now, and so Republicans will counter that by this week putting up a facade of "I don't see anything seriously wrong with this country!" The result is the typical delusional sort of amnesia and blindness that both parties get drunk on, "We are America, America is great, I can lead America to even more greatness!"

The position of a community organizer is obsessed with not celebrating the status quo in order to appease and not offend the sensibilities of your base, but rather to perceive problems and offer solutions. This position sets them, by definition outside of the community, sometimes as a saint and savior, but more usually a troublemaker, someone rocking the boat, making a big deal out of nothing, or worst of all, someone with too much time on their hands. They may come from that community, but they are defined as being those with a different vision for that community, one which is usually resisted as being impossible, naive or taking too much work to get there. The community organizer, must then endure the pain of trying to fight for a particular community, but treated as someone with "different values" because of their refusal to accept the current social order of things, by members of that same community.

Communities are bound together by a number of things and are activated and compelled to change based on certain reactions. The most obvious thing that can both reinforce and change a community is crisis. We saw this after 911 in the United States, where a moment of violence in the United States opened up the space where America could either reinforce its exceptionalist/superior notions about itself, and it's floating high above the rest of the world, or it could change and join the world as an equal partner, a powerful partner, but ultimately an equal one. What we've seen since indicates that America, with a lot of help from its government chose the first option. A crisis is the moment of sovereignty, it is the easiest way to get people to change or help them stay the same. The feeling of having lost all bearings, can be manipulated into a violent clinging into the basest assumptions of your social being, or a rearticulation of your being and a reaching to different ideas in the re-establishing of your identity.

Although community organizers can invoke a looming or continuing crisis in order to get people to move or join, it is primarily through appeals to a change in vision that their work is accomplished. And this work is slow and as I've already said, full of failures and frustrations.

To bring this to a more personal level, much of my own limited experience in trying to organize Chamorros has revolved around getting them to be more critical about the military buildup of Guam. Although in different fora, in different moments, with different people you take up or emphasize different angles, but ultimately the entire package of this sort of organizing boils down to the following:

1. Injustice: A recounting of the past 110 years of US military exploitation on Guam, that continues up until today. 2. Impacts: The potential damage that the current slate of proposed military increases to the island will have on Guam's economy, society, environment, infrastructural and movement towards decolonization. 3. Vision: Appeals to a Guam which is not dominated by the exportation of American military violence and weapons or war, but is instead built upon more sustainable ideas of community, economy, etc.

The abstract draw of all of these points are undeniable. Guam's history with the United States is not something that should incite patriotism or colonial devotion, but is full of racism, colonialism and Chamorro displacement. The military buildup does represent huge dangers to Guam's people, environment, economy and everything else, which both the local government and Federal government are downplaying. But, in engaging with a community, they are not enough to get most people to buy into a different vision for the future. The reason of course being that on Guam, the source of prosperity and order on the island is intimately tied to the US military presence there. The vision of the "average" person on Guam, or even in the diaspora is that Guam has a present and a future because of the military buildup, and all the evidence that I can provide to show the dangers, will not easily force a break with that thinking.

This is why the work of community organizers is so difficult and slow. You don't have the authority of being an "elected official," and so your impact on the community has to be made through the arduous tasks of finding the points in their lives in their histories which will activate them, which will allow them to perceive the vision or the ideas you offer differently, and possibly subscribe to them.

Speaking of elected officials, this is another point of sadly true frustration in Palin's remarks, that echo some largely forgotten remarks that Senator Hillary Clinton made several months ago. When Palin makes the distinction between the "real" work that she does, and the by default "not real" work that community organizers do, she is simply revealing the structure of society and the relationship between "activists" and "politicians" and who gets credit, or who ultimately becomes responsible for the changes brought about in a society.

It feels like it was years ago, but it was just a few months ago, that in an effort to neutralize the insurgent "outsider" and "oratorically superior" campaign of Barack Obama, she brought up the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson, in order to talk about her own relationship with Barack Obama, and the advantage that her long experience in Washington D.C. gave her. Speaking of the Civil Rights movement and its transformation from grassroots, community movement into something which became the law of the land, Clinton talked about how fantastic and inspirational MLK may have been, but how he still needed a seasoned political operative like LBJ to actualize his dream, to make it a reality.

While some, myself included, might see or feel that this characterization is a travesty and has racial elements to it (it does), it still lays out the relationship between community organizers and social movements and elected officials and government. Which is that the government as "the formal" representative of the people, who embody the true expression of their will and their dreams, exists to take credit for the work of those "informal" representatives of the people, activists, community organizers and so on. When your work reaches a certain point, others, those wealthier, more prominent, those elected, more politically connected, will eventually become subsumed or engulfed by the movement, but as they are those "democratically elected" to represent said community, the credit will most likely gravitate towards them. Certain figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. or even Jesus, might have been able to avoid this, but such isn't the norm.


I sincerely hope, although I have to admit I am not holding my breath, that there will be some sort of push back against this or outcry. Community organizer is a very broad term and Sarah Palin just dissed every single one of you.

Otro fino'-ta: "Jesus Was A Community Organizer" on Facebook.


Lynyrd said...

I have the perfect video for this...

Thanks for the blogs!

Michael Lujan Bevacqua said...

Hafa Adai Lynyrd, this is a great video. Very direct, very true. I'll be sure to post it on my blog.


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