There’s a good reason the term “community organizer” has become a sarcastic joke. As a class, they haven’t been covering themselves with glory. The term has become more-or-less synonymous with “left-wing agitator’ or “political hustler.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The negative impression is created by the community organizers who develop strong political connections, rake in a ton of money, and rise into the media spotlight. A lot of people who would could be fairly described as community organizers are doing fine, unsung work across the country. It’s a fairly loose term, after all. There is no central board that certifies such organizers.
Alas, the aggressive, destructive, and corrupt variety of community organization is what gets all the attention. This is well-understood by the attention seekers themselves. They’ve got a pretty good handle on what it takes to get cameras pointed in their direction. They also tend to be co-opted by politicians when their efforts achieve a certain level of prominence, becoming part of corrupt machines that have maintained power in big cities for generations.
That’s too bad, because there has always been a need for people to step up in leadership roles and make their communities better. There’s only so much that formal government structures can do, only so much we should want them to do. We should call each other to higher purpose and encourage voluntary effort to make our neighborhoods better places. We should set informal standards for each other to meet, without ushering in the coercive power of the State to manage every effort and resolve every dispute.
It has become so easy for us to live isolated from one another, dwelling within electronic fortresses of solitude that handle everything from social interaction to entertainment and commerce. Less human effort is required to meet the needs of daily life than ever before. This makes us rich in free time, a treasure held in great quantity only by the wealthiest and most powerful only a few generation ago. Our community standards have a significant effect on how we choose to spend that free time, and on the courtesies we render to each other.
Courtesy seems like an old-fashioned concept in a time when aggressive demonstrations of strength and menace are so often seen as the key to securing respect. A great deal of traditional culture descends from the need to show strangers that we mean no harm. Good manners go a long way toward avoiding conflict, and even violence. Even as our technology has given us previously unimaginable means of communicating with one another, we’ve lost our sense of how to conduct the sort of communication previous generations considered most essential: the projection of benevolent good cheer, the small graces that prevent misunderstandings.
Of course, people of malevolent intent are never going to be much good at projecting benevolence. Faith and trust have drained from too many communities; shrewd residents place more emphasis on avoiding peril than seeking graceful courtesies. The landscape changes to reflect the mood of those who dwell within it. The goodwill necessary for voluntary cooperation in the pursuit of opportunity is boiled away, leaving behind strident demands for coercive solutions. Those solutions are never good enough, so frustration accumulates into fuel for explosive anger.
Good community organization should be able to help alleviate these problems. It is a sad certainty that the State cannot. No people can be made lawful through the forceful application of law. No people can be made moral through prosecution and judgment. There will never be enough enforcement personnel to control a population dangerously lacking in goodwill. Healthy societies are grown from the ground up, not constructed by mighty hands reaching down from the sky. Beyond a certain point, the effort to impose healthy social order dissolves the precious goodwill required to nourish it. Talk of making things better is completely replaced by ceaseless efforts to assign blame and arrange retribution. The brief, giddy high of energetically-expressed rage replaces the quiet satisfaction of good things painstakingly built and carefully improved. Anyone who thinks bending swords into plowshares is easy has never known the thrill of swinging a sword, or the lusty pleasure of taking spoils.
There might not be any real substitute for the family as a community building block. We have decades of extensive sociological evidence to support that proposition. Father and Mother are the omnipresent teachers and guardians no bureaucrat will ever be. Family honor is a treasure no taxpayer-funded program can ever bestow. Family wealth and reputation are resources no social engineer can replicate. A century of social studies have proven nothing so conclusively as that the State is no substitute for either Father or Mother, no matter how much money it seizes and pours into the effort.
This should not be surprising. The State is a sword; family is a plowshare. Von Clausewitz mused that war was politics by other means. Well, politics is war by other means. It even uses the language and symbolism of war – campaigns, targeting, rallies, marches, “wars” declared on various social issues, and so forth. The objective is conquest and the division of spoils; joy is taken in the sorrow of defeated enemies, who are portrayed as monsters in propaganda distributed to keep the war effort going.
Healthy communities have no hunger for war, or militarized politics. They don’t invest their resources in stockpiling the weapons of either physical or political warfare. It’s not much comfort to say that intact families are vital to building community when you’re talking to people who come from generations of broken homes… just as it does little good to encourage investment in places where property is routinely pillaged, talk about success to people who have bathed in envy all their lives, extol the virtues of education to kids who think schools are holding pens for losers, or tell someone to get a job when nobody’s hiring. But aren’t all of those attitudes and conditions precisely the sort of problems that a good community organizer should be able to help solve? Why tolerate charlatans who get rich by claiming they can help, but take the earliest opportunity to climb into a politician’s limousine and start cutting deals?
It’s tragic to watch good-hearted people march down one sad, destructive dead-end road after another, applauding people who grow rich and powerful by teaching them to feel hopeless and angry. Fifty years of falling for the same damn tricks hasn’t done a thing for them. Will a hundred years be enough, or two hundred? Or can we finally get some community organizers fit for a nation of builders… leaders suited to the task of encouraging cooperation between independent and responsible citizens… visionaries who can inspire the unfortunate to stop hoping and start doing?