Monday, September 21, 2009

Metaphor Madness

"This Is the Abu Ghraib Of the Great Society,"

Andrew Breitbart, conservative internet entrepreneur, quoted in Darryl Fears and Carol D.Leonnig, "The $1,300 Mission to Fell ACORN," The Washington Post, September 18, 2009.

Let's say at the outset: ACORN was wrong. They need to fix some things, to say the least.

Intentions and values, however, are evident in the metaphors we use. What does this statement say about what's behind the ACORN sting operation? Of course, Breitbart's exhuberant; he really thinks he's taking down the whole liberal-left. He's an internet entrepreneur and exaggerates. Okay! In retrospect, we may all conclude that this was the final straw for ACORN. Supporters just peeled away. That would be a sad ending.

Back to the metaphors. Let's be literal if that's not too contradictory. Abu Ghraib was about the Iraq War, torture, humiliation, videos, and breaking the rules of decency and internation convention. Bad stuff. ACORN wrongly gave advice to people who were trying to take advantage of public and private funds for illegal purposes. Were they all breaking the law or the public trust. In either case, not Abu Ghraib by a long shot.

On to "Great Society." Conservatives still want to lambast the "big government" of head start, civil rights and local community programs. Or maybe they don't like that a lot of poor people started taking over city governments.

Like ACORN's organizing or not, they provided, for the most part, pretty good services for people needing a loan, who were screwed by exploitative sub-prime lending, or who were fighting foreclosure. In my mind, it's hard to argue with that -- whoever provides the services.


Matt Osborne said...

Nail on the head. Today's "scoop" is just going to be more of the same demonization of community organizers.

But I have to say that I watched the NYC ACORN video the other day -- the one with the advice to hide money in a tin can -- and I'm shocked to report there's NO WRONGDOING in the video. In fact, the woman was giving advice on how to escape an abusive pimp.

Bob Brehm said...

During the 80's in Chicago - an experience we share - the opposition to independently elected, reform-minded Mayor Harold Washington held up federal grant funding for the entire city for a couple of years. Their reason was that some of that money went out to community-based service providers and housing developers who were supportive of or aligned with Harold Washington.

What they claimed was that all of us in agencies receiving those grants were actually just political hacks of Mayor Washington, that we did nothing for the money and were just being rewarded for our political loyalty.

Nonsense, right? For most of the groups, yes, but there were plenty of groups that fit that description, and they'd been funded by lots of machine mayors and there were new ones funded by Harold's administration.

I always felt that we had to fight that image in order to maintain our credibility at the street level. There would always be critics - in our case the real estate interests who wanted to see our community gentrified - and it was up to us to stay "squeky clean" to make sure we didn't give them any fodder for their charges.

One of the biggest hurdles we faced in community organizing in the 80's and 90's in Chicago was getting past residents' skepticism of community groups. Cynicism and evidence supported their viewpoint. Just as with the incredibly out-of-whack Abu Ghraib metaphor, we operated in a community fed up with its "poverty pimps". But the reality is they existed then, and they do now.

I read another commentary on this controversy that makes a similar point to yours, also from the Iraq setting - Why is no one clamoring for cutting off Blackwater's contracts - surely what they've done is far worse than anything Acorn may have done?

Cut 'em off where it hurts, and do it as soon as possible. Same goes for those lenders and the people responsible in New Orleans that ACORN has taken on so well.

But the very people we're organizing or serving have been burned far too often by street level hucksters - some of them working for nonprofits or churches - that it's our ethical and practical responsibility to do it "right".

When we sort out who are the "good guys" and the "bad guys" (sorry for the sexist cliche) - no question, ACORN is on the right side.

Still, we've got to find ways to challenge power, shake things up, and still do it ethically and in a way that qualatatively distinguishes our work from "business as usual".