(All page references: Rules for Radicals, Vintage Books, 1989)
Just a couple lines into Rules for Radicals, I heard the voice of Rahm Emanuel:
You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. What I mean by this is it’s an opportunity for you to do things you could not do before.
Just as Obama, Emanuel, and their compatriots are doing, so too did radical Alinsky decades before. In 1971, he observed the counterculture (“the revolutionary force”), saw a rudderless movement, and set out to to chart a course for the next generation of radicals to follow:
These words are written in desperation, partly because it is what they do and will do that will give meaning to what I and the radicals of my generation have done with our lives (p. xiii).
Alinsky bemoans the vanguard of young radicals having to start “almost from scratch,” because of the McCarthy “holocaust” of the early 1950s. Holocaust? Six million deaths in Nazi Germany vs. the McCarthy hearings and the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for espionage?
Alinsky’s description of life in America is suffocatingly dark and nihilistic. Looking through his charcoal-colored glasses, there is no joy among the adult middle class. These people are materialistic, mindless sellouts with superficial values whose relationships and lives end in destruction and decay (xiv).
The disaffected youth spawned of these miserable creatures see their parents clearly and also are preternaturally wise enough to see the “almost unbelievable idiocy of our political leadership” at every level.
We are all — well, except for Alinsky and his “happy few” youthful radicals — hypocrites and failures.
The world is “utter bedlam,” and American youth have no sense of meaning or purpose. Alinsky notes that:
Men have always yearned for and sought direction by setting up religions, inventing political philosophies, creating scientific systems like Newton’s, or formulating ideologies of various kinds,” but life is as random as “the changing pattern in a kaleidoscope” (xv).
As discussion fodder, this statement is loaded. There’s the sense of ideologue Alinsky somehow not seeing his own ideology as part of the kaleidoscope. There’s the glaring fact that the purposelessness of which he speaks is not a collective sin — that the responsibility of finding meaning and purpose is an individual problem, not something to blame on society. Finding meaning and purpose has always been as simple and available as volunteering at a soup kitchen, reading to a hospitalized child, or tutoring an inner city student.
What stands out: The emptiness of atheism. The solipsistic response of the human heart where there is no God. Alinsky — just as I and other former radical comrades — supposes that if you aren’t living the philosophically nihilistic life of a radical then you are a mindless automaton with no human vitality, creativity, or value.
Self-absorbed, he seems completely unaware that during the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s, millions of people were leading quietly ordinary — and often sacrificial — lives: getting married, working, raising families. They thought themselves happy, productive, and satisfied.
But what did they know?
When I came out of my political radicalism and finally began to relate up close and personally with conservatives, this was indeed a startling revelation. Until then, I believed my entire generation was counterculture — well, except for a few pathetic purposeless souls as defined by Alinsky. As a conservative, I was gratified to find I had been in the minority — as I found at my 40th high school reunion in 2005, where it seemed that most of my classmates had had their heads on straight while I was living large the Rules for Radicals life.