October 2008 Archives

White Dread

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Watching the McCain-Palin rallies is a little scary. No, it’s a lot scary. The intensity of their rage at Obama is obviously fueled by the awareness that their world view on free markets and anti-government intervention is as dead as Lehman Bros., while their assumed beliefs in the inherent exceptionalism of the American way of life—our economy is safe, so everyone who wants to work can and will; we win all wars, so people in the world can trust us; every person with a job is “middle class,” so we’re just one lucky step away from being like the rich—have gone up in the smoke of a bad debt, bad militarism, and very, very bad 401(k)s.

When people have cherished beliefs, to be confronted with the stark reality that you may have been sold not only a bill of goods but down the river is psychologically devastating. What we’re seeing at those rallies is how not just anger but the outcome of massive cognitive dissonance: if I let go of all that I have believed, I lose my identity; if I hold on to what I believe, I may lose my life. Trapped between these two poles, people adapt to this unbearable tension by becoming even more extreme in one belief or the other. Every teenager goes through this as they begin to distinguish the simple truths of their childhood with their dawning awareness that the world is more complex (and inevitably more hypocritical) than they realized as children. We can go through this as adults, too: a divorce can challenge one’s beliefs about love and trust; beliefs in fairness may be tested in similar ways at work. Lucky for the world, the extreme behaviors of teens and adults in various moments of mid-life crisis get acted out pretty much away from the center stage of national life.

Barack Obama was a community organizer before he moved on to do somewhat different things. Sarah Palin was a small town mayor, a job she describes as “like an organizer, only with actual responsibilities.” So what exactly is a community organizer? So far from this election, you’d think it was a short-term job for young people, waiting around to grow up.

As a long-time professor of community organizing at City University of New York’s Hunter College School of Social Work, I’d like to offer for counterpoint a few stories on who community organizers are, what they do, and what happens to them as they move along in their careers. Some folks might be surprised.

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