Hey, Sarah—Organize This!

Sarah Palin may have more in common with community organizers than she realizes.

It is possible that Sarah Palin really knows the difference between being a small-town mayor and a community organizer. But it’s unlikely—because she has more in common with community organizers than she realizes.

The main thing a small-town mayor and an organizer have in common, despite Palin’s claim otherwise, is that they have real responsibilities to people. Otherwise, they’re almost opposites. Mayors are supposed to enforce the laws. Organizers break laws if they have to. Mayors believe in order. Organizers believe in civil disobedience. Mayors get banquets in their honor. If they’re lucky, organizers get invited to banquets for other people. Mayors get their names in lights. Organizers live mostly in shadows.

Some organizer long ago probably got Sarah Palin going. There must be at least 20 women in the House and Senate who are there now because, long ago, some organizer got them going.

I am not a community organizer, but as a union-side lawyer, I know a few of them. Of Sarah Palin I know nothing except her lack of grace. She lashed into Barack Obama after a week in which he was the only public figure to defend her against the press, or at least to excoriate those who had focused on her daughter. She might have started with a thank you.

Curiously, this shows she has the temperament of an organizer—she’s a divider, and dividers don’t usually offer gratitude. The problem with the Spiro Agnew types like Palin is that they often act like organizers, even when they’re officers who should carry out the laws. Such organizer-officials will break laws if it helps to whip up a crowd or polarize a country.

A good example: the war in Iraq, then Guantanamo. It’s similar to the law-breaking that organizers sometimes do, to create a confrontation, to radicalize a situation.

And what appeals to me about Barack Obama is that, his background notwithstanding, he has little of the temperament of an organizer: It’s not in his character to radicalize people, to create or stage a confrontation, the way Palin types in the “movement” like to do. Haven’t we had enough of politicians who are organizers? Organizers have their place, but not even the greatest ones, Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., much less Saul Alinsky, should have been (or even thought they should have been) holders of public office. Part of what public officials do is bind up the wounds that organizers (who serve causes great and squalid) necessarily create.

Just to be clear: I like organizers—if they sign onto the right causes. The best ones are clergy and the religious, who seem to be able to live out their roles as uniters and dividers more comfortably than the rest of us. My heroes are organizers like the Rev. John J. Egan, who worked on behalf of the poor in Chicago and could mingle with the mayors and governors but knew how to take it to the streets. Yes, I like insiders who are outsiders, or vice versa.

But very few can pull this off. Insiders should be insiders and hold things together. Outsiders, at times, have to pull us apart. And a country is in trouble if we can’t keep these roles straight.