Rabbi Lerner writes in Tikkun:
On the other hand, if you [Obama] choose to follow the advice of community organizers such as Saul Alinsky, eschewing larger changes in consciousness and focusing solely on concrete achievements like passing legislation, your legislative victories will have little lasting impact. People who have bought into the dominant worldviews in American society think of success in primarily material terms. They believe that “progress” means the accumulation of more and more things, and that a society is “rich” to the extent that it has maximized consumer goods for growing numbers of people. These worldviews encourage people to think of themselves as isolated monads seeking their own well-being even at the expense of everyone around them, or at least without regard to how others are doing. They encourage us to believe that our security depends primarily on our ability to dominate and control others lest they dominate and control us first. If these remain the predominant ideas, it doesn’t matter how many “liberal” or “progressive” pieces of legislation you will have managed to get passed by Congress.
We saw the failure of the “non-ideological” approach in the Clinton years. President Clinton passed many valuable pieces of legislation, but most of what he had achieved was quickly wiped out by the Bush/Cheney administration because he had won his victories by playing within the old framework of politics[.]
First of all it’s a false dichotomy. Playing chess—not checkers—makes sure your conscience changing ideology is advanced by every concrete move you make. Second of all, Clinton was tempered by the GOP Congress the entire time, and his attempts at conscience-changing moves, like universal health care and gay rights, are going down in his obituary as blunders of overreaching and poor strategy. They say gays in the military should have come later, and that he should have come out of transition with the health care plan to pass, that his failure to build bridges to the Democrats in Congress cost him. All of that may be true, but it’s not the only factor at work.
Third, look at Obama’s biography. His life is a story of calculated moves, carefully chosen, to move from the beginning to victory. Even his community organizing, while genuine, was just part of his plan.
My first involvement with community organizing was met with pleas from those involved to not lose sight of what we were doing, and to divorce it from politics and ideology to “keep the eye on the ball.” Well, to me, restoring a community ethic and making “public” not a bad word anymore is the ball. But it doesn’t come about just by a bunch of television ads or movies convincing people to pay it forward. It takes concrete acts.
To the extent that Alinsky does eschew larger conscience changing moves, he’s wrong; to the extent Lerner ignores the concrete moves, he is wrong.
It is time for a change of conscience in America, yes. And the kind of change Lerner suggests is what’s needed.