Friday, March 26, 2004

Been reading Esmerelda Santiago's When I Was Puerto Rican and Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals simultaneously over the past couple of weeks, and thoroughly enjoying them both.

I was concerned that Santiago's book would turn out to be another semi-autobiographical disappointment along the lines of Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory, with a Lifetime TV plot full of "exotic" archetypes and cliché. Fortunately, it's a cut above that, largely because her writing is much less forced. It reads more like a well-written memoir than a pretentious literary whitewash. One of her strengths, that Danticat shares, is her talent for painting vivid pictures of her childhood home. Of course, I'm only a third of the way into the book and she hasn't been transplanted to New York yet, which is where Breath really started to fall apart so...I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

I'm further along in Alinsky's primer for wannabe radicals and feel kind of like a rookie pitcher that's used to throwing straight heat being introduced to fundamental mechanics and a slider. It's rare to come across a book that crystallizes many of the things you believe in and try to live by but have never been able to properly put into words. Or action. There's quite a few things that turned my head and offered some answers to past failures. That I was two years old when it was first published - in 1971 - and yet it remains on point about the continuing ills of our society is both amazing and sad at the same time.

One of his most interesting ideas is the difference between an organizer and a leader:

Having his own identity, [the organizer] has no need for the security of an ideology or a panacea. He knows that life is a quest for uncertainty; that the only certain fact of life is uncertainty; and he can live with it. He knows that all values are relative, in a world of political relativity. Because of these qualities, he is unlikely to disintegrate into cyncism and disillusionment, for he does not depend on illusion.

...Curiosity, irreverence, imagination, sense of humor, a free and open mind, an acceptance of the uncertainty of life, all inevitably fuse into the kind of person whose greatest joy is creation. He conceives of creation as the very essence of the meaning of life. In his constant striving for the new, he finds that he cannot endure what is repetitive and unchanging. For him hell would be doing the same thing over and over again.

This is the basic difference between the leader and the organizer. The leader goes on to build power to fulfill his desires, to hold and wield power for purposes both social and personal. He wants power himself. The organizer finds his goal in creation of power for others to use.
That's a healthy meal to digest on for anyone that believes they're really "doing" something with their lives. You know, beyond living the Nike slogan and being like Mike.

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