Archived Sections, From the Editor

"Getting ugly" doesn't lead to good policy

The YouTube clips of public officials being shouted down at town hall forums across the country cause me great concern about the health of our democracy. I worry for the safety of representatives when I see the level of real anger based on managed misinformation, and of veiled and not-so- veiled threats offered by rowdy crowds.
Eventually, I heard organizers of these confrontations claim that they were simply using the organizing techniques developed by Saul Alinsky, the founder of the discipline of community organizing and author of Rules for Radicals.
I have had two careers — one as a journalist and media consultant; the other as a community organizer. I have been trained by organizations that were founded by Alinsky. I can say that the methodology employed at the currently popular town hall forums is not consistent with the tradition he established.
In the hundreds of community “actions” (events) I have been involved with, none included physical intimidation. None. Never was the intent to shut down conversation. In fact, the simple purpose was always to hear a clear statement of commitment or opposition from the elected official or community/business leader.
But the mass e-mails that have circulated to increase turnout at August’s town hall forums have included detailed instruction’s about shutting down meetings by shouting down the elected officials and those participants who agree with them.
In fact, the Web site of FreedomWorks, an organization founded by former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey and with very strong corporate pharmaceutical ties, reminds forum attendees, “If you are going to go ugly, go ugly early.” Many town hall forums “got ugly.”
True community organizers, people trying to build long-term power for those who have traditionally been locked out, know that credibility is essential in building power. One doesn’t squander one’s credibility with spurious arguments.
However, hired lobbyists often just want to win — in this case, ensuring that insurance companies maintain their profit-making juggernaut. “By any means necessary” can become the ethical underpinning.
But health care reform is serious stuff. While talking about “death panels” may be fearmongering at its worst, there are important issues to work through on this policy initiative. For the future of us all, let’s hope more civil styles and policies are heard.