The subject came up, as so many of these things do, while trying to explain things to my daughter. She understands that ordinary people banding together made great history happen. But there are so many holes that don’t entirely make sense until we get into it a bit deeper, such as Women’s Suffrage. A bunch of women organized, marched, made a lot of fuss, and eventually embarrassed the establishment into giving in. Great. But then the bigger issue comes up – why are the details of this story not very well known?
The stories of history are one thing. The stories that are hard to find have stories of their own.
In my efforts to educate my children, I have to confess that I always learn an awful lot myself. One lesson started with the rental of “Iron Jawed Angels”. The long and short of the story is that Alice Paul took the otherwise staid Suffrage movement to the streets and organized, for the first time, working women in factories. When they stood in front of the White House reciting President Wilson’s words about Freedom back at him, they were arrested on silly charges and treated horribly in prison. Their determination and physical strength caused a backlash that got them the vote.
Where it gets strange is that I have to confess I hadn’t heard of Alice Paul before. Why? Unfortunately, I knew the answer to that one already. Organizers like her have been suppressed in our culture as being too difficult or too dangerous to explain despite their vital role in our history. Along with Alice Paul, how many have heard of Cesar Chavez, Upton Sinclair, or Harvey Milk? The Civil Rights Movement is the one time we hear about organizing, but it is usually told as a kind of Baptist Revival delivered almost exclusively from the pulpit – the work of Myles Horton and other secular organizers is usually omitted.
I can’t entirely explain why the history of organizing has been so suppressed, but I know that a big hunk of the answer lies in the Cold War. The conservatives of this nation have been terribly unsuccessful in stopping the growth of Big Government, but they did a great job of scaring the bejaysus out of people when it comes to citizen movements. Organizers are invariably portrayed with a red splash of chaos and darker hues of treason, when they even come up at all.
We’ve become scared of citizen movements despite the simple and obvious fact that pretty much all progress has come from the kind of organizing that Alice Paul did, not in the halls of power but out on the streets in plain view. That’s where the real power has always been in this nation, and hiding it is nothing less than a disempowerment of the concept of empowerment itself. The denial of such movements is now deeply embedded in our culture.
It is starting to leak out, of course. “Iron Jawed Angels” and the excellent movie “Milk” are just a few examples. When then candidate Obama was branded an “Alinsky radical” I went to Amazon to see if there was a new copy of “Rules for Radicals” in print. Not only did I see one, I saw that “People who bought this book also purchased … ” Sean Hannity? Ann Coulter? Yes, conservatives were reading Alinsky to see what the fuss was all about a year ago. I don’t see Alinsky’s name being used as an epithet quite like I used to since then.
I do see a lot of conservatives in the streets making a lot of noise, however. Interesting, aint’ it?
When I raised the role of the right in suppressing the history of organizing, I refrained from calling them useful tools of the power brokers. So I’ll say it now – the conservative rank and file of this nation have been little more than useful tools to people who are willing to expand the government to include undeclared wars, torture, and warrantless searches among many other things. I think they are learning.
Meanwhile, the liberals have little to snicker about. I’ve talked with disenfranchised people who are being victimized by outsized government plans that no one has even considered trying to organize. Lefties often seem to honestly believe that you conduct an election by printing position papers that convince people you’re smarter than everyone else, not by empowering people to improve their lives. The left is, on balance, just as scared of organizing as anyone else.
What do we do about this? Two good movies are an excellent start. I’m also impressed by the sight people out in the streets making noise, regardless of what they are after. Perhaps we can start telling the stories of how change really happens in this nation in a way that is colored only by the sweat and determination that these movements were really all about. Then, we can make some real progress.