joelrosenberg (joelrosenberg) wrote,

Alinsky, Leo, Me, and You.

I'm being a little unfair to Leo.  He'll live. No, not that kind of Leo. I like some of LEOs, and dislike others.  This one I like -- he's a good guy, who I respect, but with whom I disagree about a lot.  (I don't know anybody who I don't disagree with, so that's not unusual for me.)  Leo Pusateri and I were having a discussion over on Twitter.  Whatever's good and interesting about Twitter -- and there is a lot -- it  forces you to compress what you say into less than 140 characters (which is good practice for me, granted.

It started here:  "Saul Alinsky wrote the book Barack Hussein Obama is living!"

I shot back (so to speak) with something to the effect that Alinsky's stuff is just tech, and Leo sneered at it. 

As is his right.  I just think that he's wrong.

There's lots of folks on the right who Just Don't Get Alinsky. Yup; Alinsky was a socialist agitator, and the founder of what's now called "Community Organizing" -- a leftish flavor of political activity that allows small groups to, upon occasion, exercise political power more commensurate with their numbers and aligned activity than with their income, education, and/or intelligence.  (I'm not saying that members of these groups need be poor, ill-educated and/or stupid -- because they don't have to be, and I've known all combinations of folks in those groups, including the rich, well-educated and whip smart.  One of the best community organizers I know [I'm sure he doesn't think of himself that way, but he is] is David "Darth" Lillehaug, who is all three.)

But it is a form of activity that acknowledges that the world is filled with asymetrical strengths and weaknesses, and allows folks who are willing to work together to take advantage of them.

It's not surprising that a lot of conservatives like Leo and moderates like myself don't have a lot of affection for Alinsky.  But affection isn't the issue -- tech is.  Let's step aside and take a look at his Rules for Radicals, which are available, in various forms, all over the place.

Here's what I think of as the canonical version:

Rule 1: Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.

Rule 2: Never go outside the experience of your people. The result is confusion, fear, and retreat.

Rule 3: Whenever possible, go outside the experience of an opponent. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.

Rule 4: Make opponents live up to their own book of rules. “You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”

Rule 5: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.

Rule 6: A good tactic is one your people enjoy. “If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”

Rule 7: A tactic that drags on for too long becomes a drag. Commitment may become ritualistic as people turn to other issues.

Rule 8: Keep the pressure on. Use different tactics and actions and use all events of the period for your purpose. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition to react to your advantage.”

Rule 9: The threat is more terrifying than the thing itself. When Alinsky leaked word that large numbers of poor people were going to tie up the washrooms of O’Hare Airport, Chicago city authorities quickly agreed to act on a longstanding commitment to a ghetto organization. They imagined the mayhem as thousands of passengers poured off airplanes to discover every washroom occupied. Then they imagined the international embarrassment and the damage to the city’s reputation.

Rule 10: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. Avoid being trapped by an opponent or an interviewer who says, “Okay, what would you do?”

Rule 11: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.

This isn't political philsophy as much as it is political technology, and, like most (not quite all) technology it's inherently morality-neutral.  A hammer doesn't have morality; the person swinging it does, and while it really matters whether he's swinging it to drive in a nail to help build a home to shelter people from the weather or drive in the skull of some mugging victim, it's still a hammer.

Now, while I'm not a conservative, these tools are available to conservatives just as they are to moderate radicals like me.

My own notes and variation on Alinsky, while working as a radical moderate focusing on self-defense related issues in Minnesota. 

  1. Power isn't what you have; it's what you do; Alinsky always worried too much about numbers, and misrepresenting them. The world is results-driven, and important results almost never happen overnight – and when they do, that overnight is after years of work. One guy who will pick up a phone and make a single phone call is worth far more than a hundred who will endlessly discuss the viability of contemplating the possibility of marching on Whatever, and then do nothing. Never lie about numbers, or anything else -- being a fake is an invitation to being exposed as a fake.  (Note:  not lying doesn't mean answering any question you don't want to, for any reason, or none.  Some impertinent dweeb importunating you for information doesn't obligate you to do anything.)

  2. Always push the envelope of your own experience, and that of your own people, if any. You don't know what you can do until you try it, and It hasn't been done before can be an opportunity as well as a warning.  If you're not failing at enough new stuff, you're not trying enough new stuff. 

  3. Whenever possible, force an opponent to go where he's gone before and failed – not only will that cause confusing, fear, and retreat, but frustration and loss of fun. If your opponents are having fun, you're losing; if you're opponents are faking having fun, you're winning, bigtime, because they know how badly they're losing. Corollary: never fake having fun.  That's that whole honesty thing. 

  4. Alinsky has this right – but the converse of this is to avoid having anything in your own book of rules that you're not happy to live up to. Opponent: "But you're being inconsistent!" You: "Thank you for noticing; I love being inconsistent. It's number one in my book of rules that I don't have to be consistent, or justify inconsistencies to the likes of you.  No offense."  (Often say, "no offense," after you've just said something offensive!)

  5. If you can get your opponent to spend a lot of time and energy pretending to enjoy defending himself against ridicule, he's dead meat, and knows it.  If you have a sense of humor about yourself, you're pretty much immune to it. 

  6. Fun, fun, fun. If it's worth doing for the fun of it, do it. Any political gain is gravy – and you'll have a lot of political gain while you're having fun. Conversely, if it isn't fun, either decide that it's utterly necessary and see if you can get somebody else who finds it fun to do it, or drop it if you possibly can. There is no task that somebody doesn't find fun to do.

  7. Tactics are mobile and flowing; strategy is a foundation. Never be afraid to consider changing a tactic.  If you're mucking about with strategy too much, you've got the wrong one. 

  8. Keeping pressure on is a natural and inevitable result of having fun working on the opposition.Corallary:  when you've got a few spare minutes and nothing constructive to do, beating up on the opposition should adhere to Rule 6.  What do you mean, "Don't get caught"?  Of course you shouldn't caught doing it, because you should be banging a drum and announcing that you are doing it; nothing to "catch."

  9. Almost never threaten. The major purposes of a threat are to draw a reaction, or to demonstrate capability. If the opposition refuses to react, the first purpose is defeated; following through without threatening in the first place demonstrates capability far better than getting somebody to knuckle under to a threat.

  10. Always have a constructive alternative, and be prepared to share it for implementation or for demonstrative purposes, never for rhetorical ones. "Okay, what would you do?" is, rhetorically, a request for something to dismiss – don't do it. "It's not my problem – I'm not in charge" is a far more useful answer, rhetorically.

  11. Alinsky's Rule 11 is perfect; don't mess with it.

Now, Leo, over to you -- tell me why conservatives like you and radical moderates like me shouldn't do any or all of this?
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