In a comment string to another blog post attacking Barack Obama, Patrick McIlheran disparages community organizing as a wayof getting in the way of somebody making a buck and says:
New kind of politics? No. An old and detestable one.
Fortunately for working Catholics of the 1930s in Chicago, Catholic priests and higher-ups felt differently as they cooperated with Saul Alinsky, who founded the school of community organizing in which Obama participated.
From a 1972 Playboy interview with Saul Alinsky on how he organized the Back of the Yards community, the squalid slum depicted in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, in the 1930s:
PLAYBOY: How did you go about organizing a community like Back of the Yards?
ALINSKY: Well, the first thing I did, the first thing I always do, is to move into the community as an observer, to talk with people and listen and learn their grievances and their attitudes. Then I look around at what I've got to work with, what levers I can use to pry closed doors open, what institutions or organizations already exist that can be useful. In the case of Back of the Yards, the area was 95 percent Roman Catholic, and I recognized that if I could win the support of the Church, we'd be off and running. Conversely, without the Church, or at least some elements of it, it was unlikely that we'd be able to make much of a dent in the community.
PLAYBOY: Wasn't the Catholic Church quite conservative in those days?
ALINSKY: Nationally it certainly was, which was why a little two-bit Hitler like Coughlin was never censured or silenced until the war. But Chicago in those days was a peculiar exception; under Cardinal Mundelein and Bishop Bernard Sheil, it was the most socially progressive archdiocese in the country. Sheil was a fine man, liberal and prolabor, and he was sympathetic to what I wanted to do in Back of the Yards, but the key thing was to win over the local priests; some of whom were much more conservative. Now, it's always been a cardinal principle of organizing for me never to appeal to people on.the basis of abstract values, as too many civil rights leaders do today. Suppose I walked into the office of the average religious leader of any denomination and said, "Look, I'm asking you to live up to your Christian principles, to, make Jesus' words about brotherhood and social justice realities." What do you think would happen? He'd shake my hand warmly, say, "God bless you, my son," and after I was gone he'd tell his secretary, "If that crackpot comes around again, tell him I'm out."
So in order to involve the Catholic priests in Back of the Yards, I didn't give them any stuff about Christian ethics, I just appealed to their self-interest. I'd say, "Look, you're telling your people to stay out of the Communist-dominated unions and action groups, right?" He'd nod. So I'd go on: "And what do they do? They say, 'Yes, Father,' and walk out of the church and join the C.I.O. Why? Because it's their bread and butter, because the C.I.O. is doing something about their problems while you're sitting here on your tail in the sacristy." That stirred 'em up, which is just what I wanted to do, and then I'd say, "Look, if you go on like that you're gonna alienate your parishioners, turn them from the Church, maybe drive them into the arms of the Reds. Your only hope is to move first, to beat the Communists at their own game, to show the people you're more interested in their living conditions than the contents of your collection plate. And not only will you get them back again by supporting their struggle, but when they win they'll be more prosperous and your donations will go up and the welfare of the Church will be enhanced." Now I'm talking their language and we can sit down and hammer out a deal. That was what happened in Back of the Yards, and within a few months the overwhelming majority of the parish priests were backing us, and we were holding our organizational meetings in their churches. To fuck your enemies, you've first got to seduce your allies.
Yes, Alinsky was no saint and his language and tactics could be rough -- sometimes too rough. But he realized something McIlheran doesn't: sometimes building a community requires confrontation. Wasn't that Jesus guy confrontational, after all?