BOOK REVIEW

Working in the System

Having once been on the dark side, David Horowitz knows his subject of radicals well. In Radicals: Portraits of a Destructive Passion, Horowitz presents us with different types of radicals, with a look into their motivations. We have the late Christopher Hitchens, atheist sophisticate, bon vivant, and Trotskyite. We have Bettina Aptheker, abused by her well-known communist father, Herbert Aptheker, and turned angry lesbian, feminist academic. Both of these figures come from tragic family backgrounds, and Horowitz describes how such tragedy and abuse is sublimated and redirected. In Hitchens’s case, his sorrow seemed to be transformed into anger with God. In this chapter, though, Horowitz still seems to be conducting an argument with a friend he was never able to win over.

This is my only, and minor, complaint about a book written with verve and style. The other portraits offer meaningful insights into radicals of various stripes. What connects them all is the privilege each obtains from his or her radical posture.

One of these is Cornel West, who rides the academic circuit of racial grievance, demanding speaking fees in the tens of thousands. West exploits the decay in academic standards since the 1960s, and the high status accorded to any angry black man—so long as he is a radical. He is handsomely paid for his gibbering anti-American polemics and rap music.

Linda Evans and Susan Rosenberg are the “pardoned bombers” whose roles in hold-ups left children—white and black—fatherless. It is indeed an irony that the beneficiaries of the civil rights movement, like the first black police officer in Nyack, should become victims of these murderous revolutionaries. The real rot comes from the fact that such individuals were lauded for their creative work in prison, pardoned by President Bill Clinton, and then sought out by universities.

The portrait of Susan Lydon, who died at the age of 61, after overcoming drug addiction, but then succumbing to cancer, is perhaps the most sympathetic, for she seems to be one of those who got lost in a time of confusing morals. She seemed to be the quintessential flower child, naively believing her women’s consciousness-raising group that having extramarital affairs or taking drugs could be liberating. Her destructiveness was limited to those close to her: her husband and her daughter, to whom she made amends eventually as she overcame her addictions.

Sadly, the new ethos sowed many such broken lives, and produced confused and wandering souls.

As misguided as they were (Horowitz points to the common denominator of avoidance of God) their goals were strangely idealistic.

Not so with Saul Alinsky, the calculating, devious originator of community organizing and worshipper of Satan (if we take him by his dedication in his manual, Rules for Radicals). For this Machiavellian, the ends justify the means, and long before the 1960s radicals put on their first pair of bell bottom jeans, he knew that their protest methods would not effect permanent change. The community organizer (the discreet shakedown artist and quiet agitator in the background) never goes to jail. In fact, he is never seen on the evening news. What he does is perceived as respectable. He works within the system, with political players, quietly behind closed doors. While radicals like Bill Ayers and Mark Rudd landed teaching jobs after running from the law, Alinsky’s protégés, like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, parlayed his strategies into political power. Clinton wrote a senior thesis on his theories; Obama taught Alinsky’s community organizing strategies at the University of Chicago.

One person who has understood the value of the Alinskyite approach is Van Jones, Obama’s former “green jobs czar,” now faculty member at Princeton and sought-out campus speaker. Jones projects himself as a family man, with the jail stint and communist party activity from the Rodney King riots period cast into a past of youthful indiscretion.

But Barack Obama, the ideal Alinsky protégé, has no such baggage as jail time. Obama has always been clever enough to speak in palatable terms. Horowitz, however, points out how close Michelle Obama’s words are to Saul Alinsky’s. Referring to a visit her husband had made to Chicago neighborhoods, she said,

“And Barack stood up that day and he spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. He talked about ‘the world as it is’ and ‘the world as it should be.’ And he said that, all too often, we accept the distance between the two and we settle for the world as it is, even when it doesn’t reflect our values and aspirations. But he reminded us that we also know what our world should look like. He said we know what fairness and justness and opportunity look like. And he urged us to believe in ourselves, to find the strength within ourselves to strive for the world as it should be.”

Directly preceding this, Horowitz quotes from Rules for Radicals:

“As an organizer I start where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be—it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.”

That indeed is the major difference between the Alinsky devotee and the 1960s street protestor and bomber. It is also why mainstream conservative commentators have been unable or unwilling to see the extent of Obama’s transformational vision. They wonder why and how someone who seemed to be a moderate and a “uniter” has managed to introduce some of the most radical measures ever while the country grew more and more polarized. They fail to see or admit how his demonization of political opponents is a deliberate attempt to inspire civil war in order to bring about one-party rule—his party, of course. For the Alinskyite, there seems to be no higher purpose—not love of country, fellow man, or God.

This is the mark of an egotist, and of course, the ultimate egotist was Satan to whom Alinsky dedicated his book. Barack Obama has followed Alinsky’s lead.

It’s amazing that many “conservative” commentators acknowledged for the first time that Obama is a “liberal”—after his second inaugural address. Maybe it’s because they deal with Alinsky converts like Van Jones on stages on national television, not only CNN and MSNB, but Fox News. The Beltway pundits might be isolated. Similarly, not all of us have had close encounters with radicals who ranged from the misinformed to the demonic. That’s why we should read Horowitz’s book.


Mary Grabar, Ph.D., teaches English at Emory University in the Program in American Democracy and Citizenship. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is a published poet and fiction writer. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.