The Surprise at Finding Alinsky in the Arts

Ideas and Issues

alinskysmallMissoula     Not long ago we talked about the problems of training organizers and the importance of history in our tradition, and how they were all similar to the problems of training teachers, doctors, lawyers, and others.  In doing so I mentioned some surprises over the years when organizers, even very good organizers, didn’t know who a Cesar Chavez might have been or a Saul Alinsky, much less an Arthur C. Townley or a George Wiley or a thousand others who might warrant inclusion on such a list.

            Out of curiosity at the time while trying to date the most recent works on the contribution of such peoples’ tribunes, I noticed thanks to the wonders of the internet that there were two somewhat recent pieces on Alinsky, and surprisingly enough one was an epic poem and the other was a play.  Who knew?  Amazon, “the everything store”, delivered these small volumes quickly, so that I’m now able to make a full report.

            The poem was written by Olivia Diamond, who coincidentally now lives in Montana.  She’s a well published author of what I gather might be romance novels and several books of poetry.  She and a friend wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times on an issue they felt strongly about and in a later rejoinder another letter writer accused her of having been a devotee of Saul Alinsky since she was originally from Chicago.  Having no idea who that might have been and what that comment might have intended, she then dove in and read what she could find anywhere and everywhere, and actually became an admirer.  One thing led to another and Diamond penned her epic poem called “Be Thou a Man:  A Poetic Tribute to Saul Alinsky.”

The story to me was almost more valuable than the poem.  You now know that it exists, so I’ll leave its merits to your own investigation.  It’s interesting enough, weaving Alinsky and his career into the intersections of Ms. Diamond’s own life, but it felt rote to me, perhaps too much a compilation of big hits rather than a labor of love.  Epic poems are hardly the rage in modern poetry, but what do I know about poetry?  The more important thing in my view is that it exists at all, and that in itself is a miracle to behold.

If anything though, I may know less about the theater than I do about poetry.  Nonetheless I found Herb Schapiro’s The Love Song of Saul Alinsky, strangely appealing.  The play benefited from the cooperative advice of Alinsky’s widow no doubt because it seemed more human.  There was doubt, which is often the handmaiden of success in organizing.  The first Act is set in a hotel room at 3AM.  Haters are trying to keep him out of Kansas City.  He’s on the road too much and not home enough.  A lot of the set pieces are also a review of his history from Capone’s gang to labor’s John Lewis to a collection of others, but though some of the pieces still seemed somewhat heavy handed, it was possible to imagine them being livelier on the stage.  They also acted out crowd favorites like his Chicago airport tactical suggestion about blocking the toilets, which is an essential part of his legend.  The “love song” is his dedication to people, which makes for a nice ending.  Let’s just say this.  If the play were in town.  I’d go and sit up front.

More importantly, just finding Alinsky crossing over into the arts and being part of the culture he lampooned so heartily as an organizer, gave hope that maybe something about our work could go “viral” and move the culture, which is also part of social change.   Fox News does its part at making the work viral enough to provoke the Times’ letter writers that prompted Diamond, so who knows if our day might be coming on other fronts as well.