(All page references: Rules for Radicals, Vintage Books, 1989)
Reading Alinsky is a lot like riding the Tilt-a-Whirl — feeling jerked around by a combo of systematic and random forces between moments of crazy spin and crazy calm.
While his star pupils (Obama and Hillary) may be all artifice and sangfroid, Alinsky’s voice — even as words on a page — is refreshingly clear and passionately authentic, without a wasted word. In a political world corrupted by Orwellian doublespeak — net neutrality, affirmative action, health care reform — Alinsky’s cut-to-the-chase chapter three, “A Word About Words,” is refreshingly direct. You may not agree with his principles, but at least you know what they are.
Alinsky’s methodology is based on a naked understanding of power. And to preserve the power of the word itself (and of others discussed in the chapter: “self-interest,” “ego,” “compromise,” and “conflict”), Alinsky insists that we avoid euphemisms, which will “dilute the meaning … dissolve the bitterness, the anguish, the hate and the love, the agony and triumph attached to these words, leaving an aseptic imitation of life.” (p. 49)
Power is simply the “ability, whether physical, mental, or moral, to act.” Sinister overtones aside, the word has no real moral basis. Corruption doesn’t come from power but from those who wield it. The word itself is morally neutral.
Power is an essential life force always in operation, either changing the world or opposing change. … Power, or organized energy, may be a man-killing explosive or a life-saving drug. The poser of a gun may be used to enforce slavery, or to achieve freedom. (p. 51)
See what I mean about the Tilt-a-Whirl? The words “organized energy” grabbed me with the centrifugal force of one of those wickedly random spins.
Because “organized energy” is the pivot of Alinsky’s model for the revolution which has already taken place in America, installing the authors of Alinsky’s “hope and America-better-change” in the White House.
Make no mistake. Though Alinsky claims to love America, he loves it only in the Pygmalion sense of the word — for what he is able to sculpt from the raw material through his own efforts or those he is organizing through his Rules for Radicals methodology.
Keep in mind Alinsky’s background. Coming out of the Depression, moved by the misery of Chicago’s poor/working class, he threw himself into “organizing energy.” Then, in 1940, he established the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to duplicate his community organization model throughout the United States. The IAF, still headquartered in Chicago, today has affiliates in 21 states and the District of Columbia, plus Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
The IAF trained Obama. One wonders what Alinsky would make of today’s political scene, where the leader of the free world operates not as a leader or a statesman, but as a community organizer-in-chief, seemingly incapable of decisive action and always in campaign mode. Treating the country like an ACORN stomping ground. Riling up the “have-nots,” dissing the “have a little, want mores,” and sticking it to the “haves.” (All this while pumping up a new class of “haves” — himself and his political cohorts. It’s a modern remix of Animal Farm.)
Pygmalion succeeded in realizing his vision, but could Alinsky’s methodology possibly result in anything of beauty? Today we are experiencing the results of a cynical and exploitative political vision.
It’s about power, organizing, and an understanding of “means and ends” as a purely subjective construct. Bottom line: “Does this particular end justify this particular means?” (p. 24)
It’s all in your perspective. As Alinsky points out:
To us the Declaration of Independence is a glorious document and an affirmation of human rights. To the British, on the other hand, it was a statement notorious for its deceit by omission. (p. 27)
He also writes:
Ethical standards must be elastic to stretch with the times. (p. 31)
He then uses Sam Adams and Abraham Lincoln as illustrations, to counter:
[The] strangely unreal picture of a static unchanging world, where one remains firm and committed to certain so-called [so-called!] principles or positions. In the politics of human life, consistency is not a virtue. (p. 31)
Another Tilt-A-Whirl moment:
To me ethics is doing what is best for the most. (p. 33)
Such a simplistic philosophy could easily be used to justify euthanasia, infanticide, genocide. The stomach clutches, the mind reels.