There is a restlessness that stirs my soul — a need to know the nuance of the threads that tie us together when it seems like the divide is becoming more vitriolic. I seek out those situations where people seem extreme and time and time again I find that we have a lot more in common than our labels would divide us.
This is how I found myself in a Saul Alinsky boot camp taught by the infamous Koch Brothers organizing arm The Americans for Prosperity. If the left could call up fire and brimstone, they would be candidates for immolation. The right would likely wish that Alinsky fans would walk straight off the proverbial flat earth. If bedfellows were always strange, then this class was positively John Waters getting fictionally-married to Liberace.
I am no stranger to community organizing; in fact, I have taken this exact kind of class before. Though never with a speaker so morally offended by Alinsky as a man, particularly his assertion that Lucifer was the first rebel, that it rendered every sentence she said ineffectual. Never in a room full of church-going believers who would philosophically never question the power structure of traditional leadership for this is where they mark home. The idea of teaching them that they too were empowered fell flat as organizers read in monotone from slides. This was never more clear than when I led a coalition that argued that individuals were responsible for their destiny and education. That if we continued to rely on institutional power structures to make decisions for us that they would forever trap us. This coalition was told to disband and fell immediately to the thin power structure in the room--teacher vs. student: I, the sole survivor.
What I had hoped to find was the kind of charismatic Pentecostal preacher who was successful at motivating his flock to live a good life. While one presenter had a little chutzpah, he lacked the organization to bring home any message. I wanted to be swept away with excitement ready to charge forth in a groundswell. That's the feeling you get when attending this class on the left. You believe you can seize the opportunity and make a change. You see the word HOPE in all of its 2008 enthusiasm and messianic fervor.
I can tell you that this was the dying gasp of an ideology so lost that it is trying to define itself in radicalism it doesn't even understand.
I wanted to come away with a better understanding of all those red-hat stadium-filling Americans who feel that this party speaks to them. Engage the true believers and understand what winds their clocks. What I found instead were a lot of folks who were afraid. The country is changing at rates that outpace their participation. Minority small business owners who saw prosperity and wanted to connect to that better life. Mostly just people who have been told what the world should look like who listen but haven't found the hands to sculpt.
As for that unifying thread? It's people who try their best to shape a world they feel comfortable in. On both sides "the other" is always a slippery slope. . . a world racing downwards. It doesn't have to be this way. There is and always has been room for experiments in culture and belief. Groups, sects, religions, pioneers, disrupters, pranksters who have lived among the status quo and believed their corner was the best their was. They were all probably right, for them it was.