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Things Fall Apart

10 Jul

Every couple of years, we are given a reminder of how much the choices of both pro- and anti-BDS campaigners are constrained (if not driven) by geopolitical forces beyond the control of even the most effective, thoughtful and successful activist individuals and organizations.

Going all the way back to 2001, the pre-cursor to today’s BDS “movement” originated at the Durban II conference (a UN event which, by definition, makes it a conference of state actors).  While the original agenda for that event was supposed to be the fight against global racism, that goal was quickly abandoned in favor of supporting racism, notably, the racist campaign to brand Israel as the inheritor of Apartheid South Africa (the so-called “Apartheid Strategy”).

An associated Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) conference, which consisted of organizations under the sway of those aforementioned state actors (demonstrated by their following the lead of the nation-states making decisions at the adjoining main conference), helped distill that “Apartheid Strategy” into a set of tactics that involved recruiting civic organizations (such as schools, churches and municipalities) – by any means necessary – into embracing a position we today refer to as BDS.

That strategy laid fallow for several months as the world’s attention turned to 9/11 and its aftermath (the defining geopolitical events of the 21st century). But once another quasi-state actor (Yasir Arafat, whose source of authority was always the nation-states of the Arab world which declared his PLO to be the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”) decided to unleash a terror campaign on Israel, another state actor (Israel) was forced to respond.

It was this response that led to global street protests, part of a galvanization of domestic political activity directed at Israel and its supporters, activity that had post-Durban blueprints ready to follow.  But that agenda might never have been activated (and our counter-activity never needed) had state actors and other powerful geopolitical forces not created the war-and-peace framework to which all of us had to respond.

Since then, the same game has played out every 2-3 years: in Lebanon (’06) and Gaza (’09, ‘11 and today), with either Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza choosing to start a war (through kidnapping, bombing or missile-launching campaigns), triggering an inevitable Israeli response.  But Hezbollah and Hamas were and are not grassroots organizations working on their budgets during the day and firing rockets at night, but forward military allies of those from whom they receive their weapons and money – notably nation-states like Iran.  And even if geopolitical alliances might change from year to year, the reason Hamas receives multi-million dollar arms shipments and checks while Tibetans must endure with bumper stickers is that the former has friends in the capitals of powerful nations, while the latter does not.

As the street protests we saw in ’02 repeated themselves in ’06 and ’09, they quickly morphed into an extension of the wars they were allegedly protesting.  Put simply, those claiming the title of “peace activists” (who are ready to shriek in your face or punch your lights out if you refuse to acknowledge them as such) pretty much have nothing to say when missiles fly from Lebanon or Gaza into Israel.  But once weapons start firing in two directions, suddenly these once-somnambulant peace warriors roar to life, taking to the streets to demand an immediate cease fire, followed by war crimes trials of any Israel who dared to return fire.

These choices make no sense whatsoever if we were dealing with a genuine peace movement.  But if you realize that these activists (and the BDS tactic they re-committed themselves to in 2009) are part of the arsenal of war, then all the facts fall neatly into place.

For war is not just fought with guns, missiles, tanks and planes.  It is also fought with propaganda.  And the goal of propaganda arm of the anti-Israel war movement is to limit Israel’s military choices while maximizing those of the Jewish state’s weapon-wielding enemies.  So the reason you never see pressure applied to Hamas in response to kidnapping murder and missile attacks – while Israel’s response triggers immediate calls for a cease fire – is that those demanding a halt to two-way (vs. one-way) war want to ensure groups like Hamas are not so degraded that they aren’t free to rearm and restart their war another day.

While I promised to give the Presbyterians a rest, I’ll use them as an example of the dynamic I’m talking about.  For during an entire week allegedly dedicated to praying and thinking and talking about peace in the Middle East, did PCUSA ever make their devotion to the Palestinian cause conditional on an end to kidnapping and rocket fire, or threaten some put their divestment program on hold until kidnapped boys were released and missiles stopped landing in Sderot?  Nope.  Instead they offered generic prayers for peace while directing all condemnatory resolutions with teeth at the target of kidnappings and rocket fire.  In short, their choices made them part of a war project, which is why so few people inside and outside their organization take their self-characterization as peacemakers the least bit seriously.

The difference between earlier eras of joint military-propaganda operations and those taking place today is that the entire region is now aflame after an Arab Spring turned from Islamist Winter to a pan-Middle East war of all against all.  And as nations rise and fall and new organizations and alliances emerge to fill various vacuums, geopolitical actors with money, arms and power continue to be the decision-makers regarding what happens next.

In a way, this Arab civil war has precedent in the 1950s and 60s when the monarchs who ruled the region either lost their heads or fought to the death against secular dictators who hoped to redraw the map of the Middle East in their favor (with the global superpowers playing their role by arming and supporting an ever-shifting set of allies).

Today, as those remaining monarchs and aging dictators (or, more specifically, their sons) find themselves in a new death match against religious fanatics, the major difference is that nations which spent three generations justifying limitless violence, a violation of every norm of war and peace, and the weaponization of the vocabulary and machinery of human rights in their fight against Israel now find themselves on the receiving end of the same weapons (including propaganda weapons) they originally hoped would be targeted at the Jews alone.

While some of the geopolitical actors creating facts (and corpses) on the ground have different names than earlier tyrants, all past and present wannabe dictators and Caliphs are joined in representing the latest variant on mankind’s oldest enemy: ruthlessness.

Long-time readers will recognize what I’m talking about when I use that term (and, if not, you can grab a cup of coffee and read this series on the subject).  But for purposes of this discussion, we need to keep in mind that when the next BDS proposal gets made by people brandishing photos of dead Gazans (including those that are just recycled pictures of dead Syrians), those pushing for such proposals are not grassroots peace activists but weapon systems that both support and are supported by equally militant geopolitical actors.

This does not diminish the need to fight against such propaganda efforts everywhere and always.  But as we do so, we need to maintain a humble understanding that the ultimate decisions over whether there will be war or peace are – as always – in the hands of those holding the reigns of power, hands that will either pull or not pull triggers based on things other than what we do or say or write.

Rules for Radicals – 5 (Conclusion)

6 Jun

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Rules for Radicals


If you Google “Saul Alinsky,” many contemporary references come from right-wing commentators decrying him as an evil man with a wicked agenda, opinions I find to be simultaneously overheated and lacking in the type of insight needed to condemn what deserves condemnation.

For, as I’ve come to realize while writing this week’s series, Rules for Radicals represents something that has done at least as much damage as has pure evil over the centuries: a philosophy that counts on anyone picking it up being as wise and good as its creator.

Perhaps it’s because I share beliefs with many a Community Organizer with regard to issues like labor and civil rights, or because I can appreciate the challenges involved with organizing the disempowered to fight for themselves that I don’t find the causes Alinsky chose to support all that troubling.  But as noted in this piece, an ideology that eliminates moral judgment regarding the type of means needed to achieve certain ends invites calamity, with the BDS “movement” serving as Exhibit A for where such a philosophical choice must inevitably lead.

This piece maps out how a political approach dedicated to empowering communities ended up creating a monster that devours those communities for its own selfish gain.  And if you follow and accept that analysis, a final question remains of whether we should simply reject Rules for Radicals out of hand as a toxic approach to politics, or find something within it that can still guide our own actions.

Personally, I find many of the techniques Alinsky outlines as bristling with keen insight regarding human nature and group psychology.  Power does indeed derive as much (if not more) from people than from money, and I can appreciate the need to cultivate a community to make its own choices (even if it doesn’t always end up making the best ones) vs. showing up and telling others what to do.

You’ve seen this play out in the fight against BDS where the power of student groups battling against (and for) divestment derives more from the energy, drive and talent of people, rather than from millions flowing into the coffers of either set of partisans. And I would say that the strategy chosen by the wider Jewish community to allow students on the ground to set the agenda has been one of the reasons for our overall success (even if such trust means we have to live with the occasional defeat).

Throwing your opponent off balance (Rule #3), making them live by their own playbook (Rule #4), leveraging ridicule (Rule #5) and doing things your supporters enjoy (Rule #6) are all tactics you will find supported or implemented on this site.  And I can even see the benefits of tactics that involve personalization and polarization of political difference, although those approaches are the most vulnerable to corruption without making a critical modification to Alinskian philosophy.

That modification entails a wholesale rejection of his notion that means not be subject to moral criticism even if such a move requires acceptance of a certain level of inconsistency (legitimately criticized as hypocrisy) in political discourse.  For if our ideology allows us to turn another human being (or group of human beings) into “mere means” to achieve our ends, it’s just a matter of time before we become corrupted or those following our lead begin to harm others in the name of a goal that disgusts us.

So the good news is that every choice of tactics (which can include any and all of the powerful and effective techniques outlined in Rules for Radicals) represent legitimate political choices.  But before some “great idea” on how to achieve victory against our foes can be put into practice, we must first ask ourselves a simple question (and answer it honestly), namely: “Does such a tactic in any way use others (notably those not directly involved in the debate or conflict we are engaged in) as “mere means” to achieve our ends?”  If the answer is “Yes,” such a tactic MUST BE REJECTED.

Before you complain that such a move would neuter one side in a conflict, requiring us to not do anything that would hurt anyone else’s feelings, keep in mind that this “mere means” test still leaves plenty of arrows in our political quiver.

Most importantly, it does not require us to limit ourselves in any significant way when we direct political action against those with whom we are in conflict.  The campaign of ridicule you’ve seen in Brighton, for example, or efforts to mock and expose the boycotters as a bunch of dishonest, ridiculous losers is fair game in the fight against BDS.  And handing them another defeat in this student council or that food coop is doubly allowed according to these New Rules for Radicals since such an effort would prevent innocents from being used as mere means by the BDSers while also supporting our campaign to brand them as a bunch of losers.  Tormenting them when they show up at someone else’s place of work to protest this or that product is thus fair game, while showing up at their place of work to protest their political activity is not.

The key to Alinskian political methodology is creativity, imagination, aggressiveness and trust in your supporters – all virtues in politics (especially in an age when so much political action seems to have devolved into an undifferentiated blob of shouting, petitioning and tweeting).  So if we simply apply the “mere means” test to how we decided to apply The Rules, we can achieve success without selling our souls.

Until this week, I’ve never been able to articulate why the notion of “turning the tables” on our opponents and getting some civil society group to which we belong to condemn Israel’s enemies for their real (vs. imagined) crimes filled me with such revulsion.  But having analyzed the de-evolution of Rules for Radicals from a handbook of community empowerment to a toolkit for community destruction, it is now clear why using others to get what you want can never be considered a legitimate choice.

Playing by this set of rules might put us at a disadvantage when fighting against a global de-legitimization campaign that plays by no such rule (or any rules whatsoever).  But if you look at the success of a Jewish state which has tried to maintain its humanity (even in the midst of perpetual existential struggles) compared to the degeneration of societies that for decades have tried in vain to gain victory over Israel “by any means necessary,” it’s easy to see where political toxins lay.  And our continued success will rely on not letting those poisons enter or bloodstream, no matter how tempting it might be to fight fire with fire.

Rules for Radicals – 4

5 Jun

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Rules for Radicals


Reading Rules for Radicals from beginning to end provides important insight to those trying to better understand the mindset of those advocating for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) targeting Israel.

Starting with the famous (or infamous) “Rule #12” which specifies to “Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it,” what better way to describe the BDSers targeting of Israel, personalizing the conflict through pathos-based argumentation (usually featuring context-free photos of dead children) designed to short-circuit reason, and creating a polarized world of evil Jews (whoops! I mean “Zionists”) and innocent Palestinians that allows no room for context, history or anything resembling a shade of gray.

The boycotters’ inability to accept any information in conflict with their Manichean world view (and willingness to shout anyone presenting alternative information off the stage) also fits nicely into the context of “freezing” a target since, as far as they are concerned, nothing must be allowed to intrude on the characterization of the enemy they have frozen in their own minds and so desperately want to freeze in everyone else’s.

But other rules (and other sections of the book) that talk about activism as a form of community empowerment also explain why those involved with BDS campaigns are so willing to engage in activities that seem so counter-productive (if not bizarre).

Why put so many resources into getting toothless divestment resolutions forced through student councils when everyone knows they are meaningless?  Why dedicate time and effort into un-noticed boycott protests in front of tiny retailers (while ignoring that the Israeli brands you are boycotting are going from strength to strength in the world market)?  Why come up with irrational rationales to explain how everything – including actions by your opponents that lead to your defeat – amount to a illustrations of your effectiveness (if not disguised forms of victory)?  Because doing so helps create the feeling of empowerment within a community, specifically the community of BDS activists.

But think for a moment how much the BDS implementation of Rules for Radicals diverges from what Saul Alinsky meant by community empowerment.  For even if you don’t have a high opinion about his goals and methods (and, as you can probably tell, my opinions are mixed), when Alinsky was trying to organize a community to fight on its own behalf, any success he achieved derived from placing the knowledge and needs of that community at the center of his work.  So when he was trying to create a common front among local citizens, church and labor groups, for example, “never go outside the experience of your people” was a call to follow the lead of this church or that community group with the ultimate goal of empowering others to lead themselves.

In contrast, for the BDS “movement” a church, food coop, union, minority organization student or municipal government – far from taking center stage – doesn’t actually exist, except as a “mere means” to be used to achieve the BDSers desired ends.

To take one example, if the Presbyterians vote in divestment later this month, expect to see a replay of what happened ten years ago when the BDS groups who pushed that vote onto the church immediately moved on to their next target, leaving PCUSA behind to deal with the wreckage that reckless decision created.

That wreckage included a decade-long battle that depleted church ranks, strained relations between church leaders and members, condemnations raining down on PCUSA from every corner of the country, and a near severing of interfaith relations between Jews and Presbyterians.  Every one of those predictable results left the church less able to fulfill its spiritual mission, less able to support broader social causes (which it had once done in partnership with the very synagogues it spent the last decade alienating) and less able to see to its own significant needs during an era of crisis within the organization.  In short, the BDSers were able to empower themselves, but only by at the expense of a religious community who were never more than the means to the boycotters ends.

Actually, the divergence between Alinskian and BDS “community organizing” is much worse than what I just described.  For the boycotters actually possess the intelligence and intuition required to understand the strengths and weaknesses of whichever organization they target.  But rather than help them build on those strengths, they instead take advantage of those weaknesses in order to get others to do their bidding.

Pulling out another familiar example, most food coops have relatively light governing structures since they are built around the assumption that everyone participating in such an enterprise does so in order to cooperate with other members of the community on matters related to healthy and affordable food.  But while normal people will put aside political differences unrelated to that mission when they participate in such a cooperative enterprise, the BDSers instead see a lack of rules as a welcome mat that allows them to drag their boycott campaigns into the organization no matter what the cost to others.  And their ability to ape the language of human rights and progressive values (coupled with their insistence that anyone subscribing to those values must do as they say) allows them to prey on the good nature of any progressive community through campaigns comprising little more than moral blackmail.

And never lose sight of the fact that the mission the BDS movement is ready to sacrifice all these communities to achieve is built around spreading a lie (that Israel is the inheritor to Apartheid South Africa) and then freeze that falsehood into place.

Now some have criticized Alinsky’s Community Organizing principles as only being effective when working in support of causes that have already reached societal consensus (like labor rights in the 40s or civil rights in the 70s).  So, perhaps the BDS application of Rules for Radicals to the cause of creating a new consensus built around a lie is doomed from the start.  But that does not seem to prevent the BDSers from turning the principles of Community Organization on their head by wreaking havoc on (and thus disempowering) other communities in order to prop up their own fantasies of power and effectiveness.

It’s tempting to let Alinsky off the hook and claim everything described above is a corruption of his principles (similar to the way in which Marx is often separated from the crimes committed in his name).  But such forgiveness ignores the mean-vs-ends issue I talked about last time.  For when you create a philosophy that says anything is allowed if you believe your cause to be just, what is to prevent any fanatic from doing anything necessary (including harming innocents) to achieve what they perceive to be as glorious ends?  And if you tie that “means don’t matter” argument to a set of powerful political techniques, you can’t just walk away from the results when other people use those techniques in support of a militant cause which destroys not just communities but the meaning of words like “human rights” and “justice” in the process.

So with that in mind, I’d like to end this week’s series tomorrow with a reflection on whether there is anything good that can be extracted (or salvaged) from a set of Rules for Radicals that was so easily corrupted to serve an unjust cause.

Rules for Radicals – 3

4 Jun

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Rules for Radicals


While the most vociferous critics of Saul Alinsky and his work tend to focus on the tactics he recommends in Chapter 7 of Rules for Radicals (a list which is frequently confused for the rules themselves), the keystone flaw in Alinsky’s political theory can actually be found a hundred pages earlier in a chapter entitled “Of Means and Ends.”

In this chapter (#2 if you’re interested), Alinski presents an argument as to why our assumptions of means never justifying ends is not just unwarranted, but  serves as part of the power structure the “Haves” use to keep the Have-Nots” in line.

His argument begins by pointing out that those in power invariably gain their position through some type of political competition or conflict.  And, by definition, anyone who wins such a conflict must have used the means necessary to obtain victory.

He then goes on to point out that those who achieve their ends invariably try to outlaw or declare immoral the very techniques and tactics (i.e., the means) they just used to win power, making “ends-never-justifying-means” morality both politically self-serving and hypocritical.

History is replete with examples of just such hypocrisy (or “inconsistency” if you’re feeling more generous).  When it came time for the Massachusetts militia to put down a farmer’s revolt (Shay’s Rebellion) against the just-formed US government, there was radical revolutionary Samuel Adams explaining why the very tactics he demanded be used against British tyranny were illegitimate when directed towards the government he helped bring into being.  And who were we to complain about Vietcong guerrilla tactics, given how much unconventional warfare forms the basis of America’s own foundation story?

But while this argument is convincing, even compelling (since it taps into most people’s intense dislike for inconsistency in word vs. deed), it misses a subtle but vital distinction between a political movement that acts against its own principles to achieve victory (and then covers up that fact by either outlawing or declaring immoral what they just did) and a political movement that chooses from the outset to use whatever means are necessary to accomplish their ultimate goal.

In theory this latter group is less vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy since they never claimed any intention of acting by a code, only that they would do what was necessary to get to an end point so valuable that it would easily justify the cost of getting there.  But if hypocrisy is the compliment vice plays to virtue, a group unwilling to subject their means to any moral test beyond effectiveness stands a much better chance of using other people as “mere means” to achieve their ends.  And while the philosophical point I’m trying to make might seem subtle, in the real world this distinction determines whether your post-revolutionary society will be led by George Washington or Josef Stalin.

The notion that using people as “mere means” cannot be justified under any circumstances is part of an ethical canon articulated by the Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant (although the principle can be traced back to much earlier work, such as Christ’s Golden Rule).  Which means that Alinsky’s pragmatic rejection of this principle represents rejection of a cornerstone of Western ethical thought.

And to see whether such rejection is justified, I’d like to get back to that example I used yesterday regarding Alinsky’s storming of a medical office to demand a clinic be built in the community he was organizing, a goal that could have been achieved just as easily through a polite request.

But in this case, Alinsky had a different end in mind: giving the community he was organizing an opportunity to feel successful so as to help move them along the path of confident self-empowerment.  And if the medical organization (or, more specifically, the hapless woman who happened to take the meeting with Alinsky and his group) had to serve as a mere means to achieve that end, by Alinsky’s means-vs-ends analysis, this was just fine.  No doubt there was also a lower-case-p pragmatic step involved which calculated that, since this tactic would not prevent the clinic from coming to town, then no practical harm was done (even if the choice of tactics did reduce someone else to “mere means.”)

But stop and think about that organization for a moment which I presume existed to provide medical services to the poor – a mission just as worthy and noble as any of the ones Alinsky subscribed to.  Couldn’t they just as easily justify “playing” the community that had just stormed their office to achieve a different end, one that might not have anything to do with the group Alinsky was trying to empower?

Going further, what’s to stop anyone – including contemporary right-wing critics of Rules for Radicals – from using all of the methods and tactics found therein in ways that use other people to achieve a set of ends to which most followers of Alinsky would find appalling?

I suppose people who see themselves as part of the Community Organizing tradition could set themselves up as arbiters over who can or cannot be considered appropriate ethical users of these tactics.  But that would place them in the same tradition as those they criticize as hypocrites for having one set of rules for themselves and another for those with whom they disagree.

And if you’re getting tired of so  many hypotheticals, let’s talk about a movement that that has assigned itself the right to use any means necessary – including actions that stand 100% chance of subverting, damaging and thus disempowering the very communities Alinsky dedicated his life to support – in order to achieve their own destructive and militant ends.  If you’re reading this blog, you can guess who I’m talking about.  And it is to this subject that I will turn to next.

Rules for Radicals – 2

3 Jun

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Rules for Radicals


It’s ironic that 40+ years after Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals was published, its author is still characterized by some as a closet Commie or anarchist bomb-thrower, given that Alinsky was trying to provide those radicalized to fight the status quo an alternative to joining Marxist movements he knew to deliver only sterile misery.  And with regard to bomb-throwing, the only thing he held in contempt more than the “Haves” he battled against were those self-infatuated fabulists who thought they were accomplishing something by giving cops the finger.

It’s no accident that the subtitle for Rules for Radicals is “A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals” since his political thinking is intimately tied up with the Pragmatic School of philosophy I mentioned last time.

And by “pragmatic,” I don’t just mean “practical.”  For according to the cornerstone principle of Pragmatism (the so-called “Pragmatist Maxim”), reality itself is defined, and thus changeable, by human action in the real world.

I know I promised to not delve into too many philosophical nuts and bolts, but it’s worth stopping for a moment to consider a canonical example of Pragmatic thinking: why a knife should be considered sharp.  According to the Pragmatist, the knife is sharp NOT because it possesses (or partakes in) some metaphysical form of “sharpness,” nor because the notion of sharpness can be measured imperially (through some combination of blade width and hardness, for example).  Rather, a knife is sharp because any rational person seeing one sitting next to a stick of butter would use the knife to cut the butter, rather than vice versa.  And an irrational person who tried to do the opposite would necessarily fail.

I thought of this notion of man creating meaning while reading a passage in Rules for Radicals in which Alinsky described a rally he struggled to organize which (due to competing schedules of those involved) fell on July 14.  It was only after a reporter asked him why he scheduled the event on Bastille Day that he quickly embraced the coincidence, declaring the choice of date to be fraught with meaning.  So just as the knife is sharp because people use it to cut, a rally that happened to be scheduled for July 14th became a Bastille Day event (with all the meaning that implies) because a human being (in this case Alinsky) made it so.

Today, most people think of these dozen recommendations for radical action as constituting the Alpha and Omega of Alinsky’s Rules (despite the fact that these are tactics he outlines within a broader discussion of goals and strategy).  And while some of them might seem troublesome (especially with regard to polarizing and personalizing political debate), you need to keep in mind that these tactics all had a pragmatic goal in mind: to transform communities that thought themselves powerless and alone into effective advocates for their own needs, confident in their own power to take on the powers that be.

This is the reason Tactic 2 (“Never go outside the expertise of your people”) is so vital, since one of those sub-cultures I mentioned last time needs to feel (accurately) that they are driving their own fate.  So even if a smart-alecky community organizer knows what’s best for a community they are trying to organize (and has access to experts who know more about the issue than does anyone within the community), the successful organizer will defer to the knowledge and experience and needs of the people they are helping, lest they alienate the members of that community or (even worse) make them dependent on someone outside their own group.

Even the much maligned rule (or tactic) 12, the one which says “Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it” has pragmatic purposes, starting with the need to hold someone accountable, especially in our slippery bureaucratic age when every sin can be endlessly round-robined to someone else.  Which is why it is the Mayor, for example, who must be selected and “frozen,” preventing him from blaming the toxic waste dump being built in a poor neighborhood on this committee, that board or some other ill-defined, unaccountable entity (up to and including “The System”).

Grounding the enemy in flesh-and-blood also fills a psychological need to have conflict defined in terms of human beings, rather than abstractions (which is why The Hunger Games needed a President Snow to give the dystopia being battled against a human face).  And even polarization can be seen as useful for the one goal Alinsky valued above all others: creating communities whose belief in their own power created genuine power.

Another anecdote from Rules illustrates this last point.  In it, Alinsky had discovered that a medical organization was ready to set up a desperately needed clinic in a neighborhood where a community he was organizing was located.  But rather than simply sending them an invitation, he instead marched his group into the offices of the medical organization to make demands, pound tables and not let anyone else get a word in edgewise until a commitment to set up the clinic was extracted.

One can almost hear the chuckles arising from the author when he describes this incident, as well as his pride in using an easily achievable victory (in this case, “forcing” a concession from someone who was already on your side) to create a sense of empowerment for people desperate to feel like they could do anything they set their mind to.

I’m guessing that most readers are a bit more troubled by this anecdote than the previous one regarding the Bastille Day rally, even if you’re not sure why.  And I’m going to ask you to hold onto that feeling and roll it around in your heads for a while since within it you will find the tragic flaw in the Rules for Radicals approach to politics, a flaw I will begin to outline next time.

Next – Means vs. Ends

Rules for Radicals – 1

2 Jun

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Rules for Radicals


A sharp-eyed reader may have spotted a reference in a recent piece on BDS-amokery to Rules for Radicals, the Bible for the Community Organizer written by political activist and guru Saul Alinsky in 1971.

Because our current President came out of a profession defined in many ways by Alinsky’s work, critics of the administration have reached back to Rules for Radicals with an odd mixture of hostility (seeing it as a blueprint for subversion) and excitement (since the aggressive tactics the book outlines can be just as effective when used by the Left or Right).

To the delight of some, and disappointment of others, I’m going to stay out of such domestic political quarrels for now to take a closer look at Alinsky’s Rules and the historic context from which the movement he inspired emerged.  And while some may find the first part of my analysis a bit too friendly towards its subject, hold tight – for after that I will highlight how serious flaws within the system Alinsky developed contained the seeds of its own corruption, best exemplified by our old friends in the BDS “movement.”

While I’ve talked out Left vs. Right arguments at length in the past, one of the reasons I hesitate to get drawn into those debates is that these 18th century European labels (which originally applied to the seating pattern around the King of France) filtered through an American cultural prism of rugged individualism vs. the collective leaves out the two major intellectual drivers of American political thought.

To begin with, the nation’s founders were not striving to create a nation of lone frontiersmen and cowboys (which only became idealized characters in the 19th century), but rather saw the nation they were founding as an experiment in Common Sense philosophy.

Most people will recognize that phrase from the famous tract written by Thomas Paine, but Paine – like the rest of the Founding Fathers – were steeped in a philosophical tradition that originated in Scotland which bore the label of “Common Sense.” And unlike the colloquial way the phrase is used today, Common Sense philosophy saw truth – up to and including scientific truth – as something that could best be derived through the work of common folk reasoning things out together.

The image you should hold in your head is that of the jury trial where a group of citizens, not selected because they possess any type of expertise, are asked to come together to draw conclusions based on evidence, the law, even human psychology that could have dramatic (up to and including life and death) consequences.  And for the builders of this nation, it was the small, local Common Sense community that would provide the foundation for the new Commonwealth: localities where the citizens would work together to find solutions to their own problems large or small.

But as modernity reared its head, bringing with it industrialization, urbanization, travel and trade, new philosophies began to take the place of a Common Sense that no longer worked in an increasingly complex world.

Pragmatism, America’s major contribution to the philosophical canon, built an intellectual superstructure to help the growing, changing nation deal with this increasing complexity.  And rather than getting into the weeds of this interesting but complicated school of thought, I’ll instead just look at the end product to which it contributed: technocracy, or rule not by citizens exercising their Common Sense wisdom, but by trained and skilled experts.

Given that most of us spend every waking hour dependent on experts we will never meet for the gas and electricity that flows into our homes, the technology that energy powers, and virtually every other aspect of our lives, the notion of rule by the Common Sense community can seem quaint to the point of irrelevance.  But as experts became the decision makers (including experts who teach politicians how to get us to vote for them so that they can then appoint other experts to run the machinery of state), the notion of citizen rule – i.e., democracy – has come to be perceived (accurately) as increasingly hollow.

So while modern Conservatism has evolved to become a sophisticated political philosophy, those strands of Conservative ideology that react violently against the rule of elites are not expressing hostility towards the suppression of the cowboy in us, but are rather demonstrating nostalgia over a Common Sense way of life that no longer works.  Interestingly, the Left’s suspicion of Big Government (at least as it relates to its military and security arms) not to mention hostility to Big Corporations and other large entities reflects this same nostalgia for a time when the small autonomous community was the grounding for an organized society.

One solution to this dilemma was the creation of sub-cultures: small self-contained communities living within the larger too-complex-to-fully-understand world, communities able to give their members a sense of meaning and purpose.  And the brilliance of Alinsky was his ability to find ways to harness those civic communities towards a common political good.

How he did that (or tried anyway) will be the subject of my next posting.

Next – Alinsky’s Pragmatism