ORGANIZER Saul Alinsky’s rules stand the test of time.
It is an irony of the current skirmishing about health care that those who could be considered Mr. Alinsky’s sworn enemies — the groups, many industry sponsored, who are trying to shout down Congressional town hall meetings — have taken a page (chapters, really) from his handbook on community organizing. In an article in The Financial Times last week,Dick Armey, the former Republican House majority leader, now an organizer against the Democrats’ proposals on health care, offered his opinion: “What I think of Alinsky is that he was very good at what he did but what he did was not good.”
The disruption of the town hall meetings has many Alinsky trademarks: using spectacle to make up for lack of numbers; targeting an individual to make a large point; and trying to use ridicule to persuade the undecided. Here are excerpts from “Rules for Radicals.”
Mr. Alinsky observes that “any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical”:
One of our greatest revolutionary heroes was Francis Marion of South Carolina, who became immortalized in American history as “the Swamp Fox.” Marion was an outright revolutionary guerrilla. …Cornwallis and the regular British Army found their plans and operations harried and disorganized by Marion’s guerrilla tactics. Infuriated by the effectiveness of his operations, and incapable of coping with them, the British denounced him as a criminal and charged that he did not engage in warfare “like a gentleman” or “a Christian.”
Don’t worry, Mr. Alinsky advised, if they call you names:
The job of the organizer is to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a “dangerous enemy.” … Here again we find that it is power and fear that are essential to the development of faith. This need is met by the establishment’s use of the brand “dangerous,” for in that one word the establishment reveals its fear of the organizer, its fear that he represents a threat to its omnipotence. Now the organizer has his “birth certificate” and can begin.
The first step:
The organizer dedicated to changing the life of a particular community must first rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; fan the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression. He must search out controversy and issues, rather than avoid them, for unless there is controversy people are not concerned enough to act.
Being on TV can be empowering:
A man is living in a slum tenement. He doesn’t know anybody and nobody knows him. He doesn’t care for anyone because no one cares for him. …When the organizer approaches him part of what begins to be communicated is that through the organization and its power he will get his birth certificate for life, that he will become known, that things will change from the drabness of a life where all that changes is the calendar. This same man, in a demonstration at City Hall, might find himself confronting the mayor and saying, “Mr. Mayor, we have had it up to here and we are not going to take it any more.” Television cameramen put their microphones in front of him and ask, “What is your name, sir?” “John Smith.” Nobody ever asked him what his name was before. … Suddenly he’s alive!
Make yourself look as big and scary as possible:
For an elementary illustration of tactics, take parts of your face as the point of reference; your eyes, your ears, and your nose. First the eyes; if you have organized a vast, mass-based people’s organization, you can parade it visibly before the enemy and openly show your power. Second the ears; if your organization is small in numbers, then do what Gideon did: conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does. Third, the nose; if your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place.
Find a single person to focus your energies on:
It should be borne in mind that the target is always trying to shift responsibility to get out of being the target. There is a constant squirming and moving and strategy — purposeful, and malicious at times, other times just for straight self-survival — on the part of the designated target. The forces of change must keep this in mind and pin that target down securely.
In one of his sharpest passages, Mr. Alinsky tells his readers, living in their “radicalized dream world,” not to ignore the lower-middle class:
They are a fearful people, who feel threatened from all sides: the nightmare of pending retirement and old age with a Social Security decimated by inflation; the shadow of unemployment from a slumping economy, with blacks, already fearsome because the cultures conflict, threatening job competition; the high cost of long-term illness; and finally with mortgages outstanding, they dread the possibility of property devaluation from non-whites moving into the neighborhood. …Remember that even if you cannot win over the lower middle-class, at least parts of them must be persuaded to where there is at least communication, then to a series of partial agreements and a willingness to abstain from hard opposition as changes takes place.
His final rule is that there is no handbook for life:
I hesitate to spell out specific applications of these tactics. I remember an unfortunate experience with my “Reveille for Radicals,” in which I collected accounts of particular actions and tactics employed in organizing a number of communities. For some time after the book was published I got reports that would-be organizers were using this book as a manual, and whenever they were confronted with a puzzling situation they would retreat into some vestibule or alley and thumb through to find the answer!