A system that will save us: liberty and love

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Barack Obama's critics on the right sometimes mention, derisively, his first post-college job as a "community organizer."

The problem isn't that the president started his political career as a community organizer. It's that he didn't stay at it long enough to gain adequate insight into -- and respect for -- the stubbornness of human nature.

I did. I speak from experience -- some of it bitter, some of it encouraging, all of it sobering.

"Change won't come from the top," as President Obama recounts his youthful ideals in "Dreams From My Father." "Change will come from a mobilized grass roots."

But he was too impatient for Saul Alinsky's stoke-their-discontentment method. He left his adopted Chicago neighborhood for law school and pursued social change through political power. Change not from the mobilized bottom, but from the imperious top.

That doesn't work either -- and I'm not referring to the impending disaster of Obamacare forced on an unwilling nation.

People simply don't like to be told what to do, at any level of empowerment or impoverishment.

And many people don't appreciate a gift or a helping hand -- or even a quiet example, since any of these might imply that they aren't doing as excellent a job at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as you are.

Nothing breeds resentment like indebtedness or success. (That's why the Europeans treat us the way they do.)

In fact, generally speaking, the greater the need, the greater the suspicion and resentment.

One of the saddest cases I've seen is the middle-school boy who would repeatedly, methodically, overturn the stone border around our community flowerbed -- the one on his own street. He didn't just crush the flowers, he broke down the wall that separated them from the wildness outside. He wasn't merely a brat: This was the perfect tragic metaphor for his family situation.

I moved to this neighborhood because I fell in love with the old buildings and with the idea that by simply living in a place others had abandoned, I could make a difference.

This North Side neighborhood -- we call it "Deutschtown," its historic name -- is something of a special case. It was half-demolished, isolated and turned into a drive-through community by federal and state highway departments. (Thank you, top-down planning!) Most of those who could afford to leave did so.

Among those who remain, who hung in here through thick and (mostly) thin, are some of the finest people I have ever known.

Others are ne'er-do-wells who sabotage any improvement plan they can or openly boast of manipulating the system to live for "free."

Among those who've arrived post-destruction are would-be rescuers like me, the inevitable real estate speculators and, of course, the dedicated evil-doers who prefer a wasteland in which to practice their misery.

We are a true mix of races, ethnicities, backgrounds, education and socio-economic levels, religions, aspirations and values.

What I've seen over and over again in the last decade is that while some people are held back by misfortune or lack of opportunity, it is sometimes poor character and diseases of the mind that are to blame.

Some people would prosper if they would devote as much time and energy to legal activities as they do to illegal. But they prefer brokenness, nastiness and oblivion.

No government program is going to fix that. In fact, as often as not, government programs subsidize and propagate the dysfunction.

As important as they are, rising property values and neighborhood block watches aren't going to fix what's so broken in our society: People.

The only thing I see actually succeeding in improving lives and communities, incrementally, over months and years, is true religion: the humility and spirit of service that coax us all, whatever our station in life, toward mutual accountability.

As the sign on our church wall says, "Love wins." Not political power. Love.

Every time we volunteers venture out to work on a garden, we pick up the trash, plant more flowers and build up the broken-down wall. Resistance to destruction is an expression of love.

So is safeguarding liberty -- respecting the right of others to choose how they want to live and insisting that in so doing, they not trample on your rights or property.

What you believe about human nature -- its malleability, improvability or lack thereof -- deeply shapes your politics. I moved here well enough acquainted with my own frailties to be a conservative -- to believe we need a system that protects us from each other and from tyranny.

Today, as an experienced community organizer, my prescription is: more liberty, more love.

I came to change the neighborhood; instead, I'm being changed.


Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com.


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