(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.
But the ride’s not over:
The judgment of history leans heavily on the outcome of success or failure; it spells the difference between the traitor and the patriotic hero. There can be no such thing as a successful traitor, for if one succeeds, he becomes a founding father. (p. 34)
The tenth rule of ethics of means and ends is that you do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments. (p. 36)
Consider abortion, which was legalized ostensibly to save lives from back alley failures, but which has grown into a highly profitable industry with 1.5 million abortions per year. Instead of appealing to women to behave more responsibly or creating a more welcoming world for “unwanted” children, feminists have continued to cloak this tragic outcome in “moral garments” — with abortion treated as a religious sacrament, clinics as modern day temples surrounded by sacred space, and abortionists as high priests mediating between women and unwanted motherhood.
In the Rules for Radicals worldview, nothing is sacred. Even an icon like Gandhi is suspect — and Alinsky takes him down from his pedestal in five pages (p. 37-42).
He pushes Gandhi into his tenth rule of ethics template — a revolutionary who had to work with the material at hand while giving it a moral spin. According to Alinsky, Gandhi recognized that the Indian masses, having been emasculated by British colonialism, were incapable of any kind of action. Gandhi’s concept of nonviolent confrontation was therefore simply a brilliant political maneuver. Alinsky has no doubt that if he had had other means at his disposal — i.e., arms and a citizenry ready to use them — Gandhi would not have hesitated:
To oversimplify, what Gandhi did was to say, “Look, you are all sitting there anyway — so instead of sitting over there, why don’t you sit over here and while you’re sitting, say ‘Independence Now!'” (42).
While Alinsky eschews morals, he scoffs at those — like Machiavelli — who would purposely disavail themselves of this useful disguise:
All great leaders, including Churchill, Gandhi, Lincoln and Jefferson, always invoked “moral principles” to cover naked self-interest in the clothing of “freedom,” “equality of mankind,” “a law higher than manmade law,” and so on. (p. 44)
Alinsky does not believe that some individuals may be motivated by concern for others more than by concern for self:
The myth of altruism as a motivating factor in our behavior could arise and survive only in a society bundled in the sterile gauze of New England puritanism and Protestant morality and tied together with ribbons of Madison Avenue public relations. It is one of the classic American fairy tales. (p. 53)
Self-interest at a national level means that our allies are chosen not on the basis of ideology but on their usefulness to us at any particular time:
We do not care what kind of communist you are so long as you do not threaten our self-interest. (p. 57)
One certainly sees that in Obama’s kowtowing to China, ignoring their human rights violations, and even going so far as to snub Tibet so as not to displease the Chinese.
One way to read Alinsky in 2009 is with one eye on the test and another on a mental news feed comparing O & Co. to their playbook. Where are they true to the Rules and where have they pushed the envelope so far left as to become the repressive regime they thought they were going to overthrow?
A few quotes to consider:
Control of power is based on compromise in our Congress and among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. (p. 59)
Speaking of how leaders appear to partisans:
To one side he is a demigod, to the other a demagogue. (p. 60)
But it does seem, doesn’t it, that the right tends not to make messiahs of its untested leaders?
On the importance of ego:
If he or she does not have that complete self-confidence (or call it ego) that he can win, then the battle is lost before it is even begun.
“Ego,” as we understand and use it here, cannot be even vaguely confused with, nor is it remotely related to egotism. No would-be organizer afflicted with egotism can avoid hiding this from the people with whom he is working, no contrived humility can conceal it. Nothing antagonizes people and alienates them from a would-be organizer more than the revealing lashes of arrogance, vanity, impatience and contempt of a personal egotism. …
An infection of egotism would make it impossible to respect the dignity of individuals, to understand people, or to strive to develop the other elements that make up the ideal organizer. Egotism is mainly a defensive reaction of feelings of personal inadequacy — ego is a positive conviction and belief in one’s ability, with no need for egotistical behavior. (p. 60-61)
I’m wondering if Alinsky would find this to be a fatal flaw in his star pupil, who played from the Alinsky deck but appears to be coming up short in closing his ideological deal with the American community. The crown is slipping. (Must read for the week: “Thank you former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush.”) Obama’s “cool” factor — so highly touted before the election — has turned out to look more like cold contempt.
What would Alinsky think?
Next up: The Education of an Organizer and Communication (Chapters 4 and 5, pages 63-97)