I continue this look at Saul Alinsky’s 1972 book “Rules for Radicals”* that – I believe – has exerted and continues to exert a substantial and deforming influence on national politics.
His fifth chapter is entitled ‘Communication’.
“One can lack any of the qualities of an organizer – with one exception … communication.” (p.81)
He defines communication-with-others as taking place “when they understand what you’re trying to get across to them”. A functional approach, to say the least.
As usual with him, he ‘defines’ a term only in relation to what he particularly wants to see in it, in terms of its usefulness to his own approach. And that’s getting ‘words’ and ‘definitions’ exactly backwards: you accept the framework of the definitions. You can't just go and shoe-horn your own preconceptions into the words as if you were stuffing a suit-case on the way to the airport.
In the first place, the density and (though I don’t often trust this word any longer, seeing how it’s been abused) ‘richness’ of the human self and its interactive potentials with other human beings requires the greatest possible commonality in ‘definitions’ – and purposely limiting a definition for your own convenience throws a monkey-wrench into all that.
There are numerous vital purposes beyond manipulating-folks for which human beings communicate. Sharing thoughts and feelings, seeking understanding … these are just some of the major ones. The species evolved common rules for definitions precisely in order to facilitate that communication.
In the second place, such commonality is essential in order to ensure a common ground for exchanging or discussing information. Especially in a public forum and especially in a democracy.
Alinsky’s approach is – not to put too fine a point on it – manipulative and leaves open an awful lot of room for mistakes in understanding and comprehension, and in a world-‘room’ where humans are already like tuning-forks and can set each other off, adding this manipulative element of his simply opens up vast possibilities for misunderstanding and – again not to put too fine a point on it – deceit.
And We have surely seen in the post-9/11 era what happens when a government deliberately engages in deceit. And not simply the old-fashioned reasons-of-state deceit practiced among diplomats along the lines of Machiavelli, but rather a more fundamental and thorough-going form of deceit that the government practices on its own Citizenry.
But this was going on long before Bush-Cheney. Alinsky’s presumption that Nothing Is On The Level justified the debasement of language (precisely what George Orwell feared) since ‘language’ and its ‘rules’ (and perhaps ‘truth’ itself) were merely tools for the Haves to extort and oppress the Have-Nots. In which case the only ‘honorable’ (though Alinsky would not use the word) road was to take the ‘low road’, even in political discourse.
And this toxic stream of his blended with Deconstruction in an awful synergy: since there was no ‘objective reality’ anyway, and since there could be no ‘Big Picture’, then the ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ of things was up for grabs, and would go to the most politically pressure-full bunch.
Indeed, since the entire corpus of civilization – in both Alinsky’s essential economic view of life and in the radical-feminists’ essentially genderist view of life – was nothing but a tattered but heavy blanket designed to smother the (fill in the blank) minority, then ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ became piñatas to be Deconstructed, and the sooner and the more thoroughly the better.
And yet, of course, in the great national piñata party of the past 40 Biblical years, those who ‘get it’ would not have to wear blindfolds, and could also maneuver the rest of the party-goers around with gentle or forceful shoves; and in that I would include the purposeful manipulation of language by debasing words. Thus so much that was done (with vigorous Beltway backing) for the most assaultive and destructive (and Deconstructive) purposes was spun as merely being ‘reform’, ‘change’, ‘tweaking’, and ‘progress’. Which, really, was hardly the case; certainly was not ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’.
But then, since Alinsky starts (as do so many Advocacies) from the assumption that Nothing Is On The Level, then those who seek to do good (meaning to help the Have-Nots) must ‘walk on the dark side’ in order to Do Good. Which, of course, was a Standard Operating Procedure that burst the containing walls protecting the polity from the likes of King-Kong Cheney and his sock-puppet Deciderer.
BUT by the time Bush-Cheney got into positions of great power the walls were already swiss-cheesed all to hell.
“Educators are in common agreement on this concept of communication” he asserts (p.82) although this is a pathetically deficient description of the breadth and depth and height of the potentials of human communication and I can’t imagine that when he started spreading this stuff around that comment was true. Nowadays, of course, after 40 years of Alinsky-ite indoctrination by the Academy and the Beltway I can’t say the same – and woe is Us because of it.
But characteristically, he immediately adds his own little toxic and revealing comment: “… even though few teachers use it [this concept of communication] … after all, there are only a few real teachers in that profession”. (p.82) Zang! Zing! Biff! Pow! There are so few ‘real’ anythings, because they don’t agree with Alinsky, and perhaps in the beginning opposed his thought, until the Advocacies and their Beltway goons jammed their needles into the national Arm with the pressure of an IV-push. And now the national Patient is confused, dazed, and often happily mumbling in some half-lit dreamworld of purposely-induced illusion and immature mental processing. And here We are.
“Since people understand with their own experience, an organizer must have at least a cursory familiarity with their experience.” (p.82) But NOT to understand people so much as to use their own experience to cloak the manipulations you as an organizer intend to perpetrate upon them, using their own language abilities. ALTHOUGH, of course, it’s for their own good.
And, in a hell-hot irony, We wind up today a People comprised of many many Have-Nots and a very few very wealthy Haves … replicating more so than at any other time in American history the society of Tsarist Russia against which Alinsky’s intellectual mentors waged their struggles.
“When you are trying to communicate and can’t find the point in the experience of the other party at which he can receive and understand, then, you must create the experience for him”. (p.83) In other words, you know what s/he SHOULD be experiencing, so you have carte-blanche to ‘create’ what you are already sure must be there. Thus, among other things, the unending series of ‘symbolic incidents’ that are designed for no other purpose than to convince large numbers of people (modern communications technologies are far more efficient in pulling this gambit on masses of people rather than the slow one-person-at-a-time approach) that derange a democratic politics, derailing it from a ‘politics of substance’ and rendering it merely a ‘politics of symbolism’ and ‘apprearances’.
His vision spreads like a toxic flood: “For another example of the same principle, here is a Christian civilization where most people have gone to church and mouthed various Christian doctrines, and yet this is really not a part of their experience because they haven’t lived it. Their church experience has been purely a ritualistic decoration.” (p.87)
So church-goers and decent believers are all lumped in with those many ‘educators’ who – really, in Alinsky’s assessment – are nothing but frauds and fakes. Which, amazingly, echoes the plaint of Holden Caulfield in the throes of adolescent alienation: everything and everybody is “phony”.
It’s an incomplete world (the Eastern philosophical term ‘dukkha’ comes to mind) and an imperfect one. Sin – the abiding human ability to act counter to its own most genuine nature – is everywhere, as once was taken for (and recognized as) ‘reality’ and perhaps as ‘Reality’.
But for Alinsky the abiding incompleteness of things – the lacrimae rerum – with its darker tinge and twist of deliberate sin … all of that is merely phoniness or the witless misdoings of those who don’t really embrace the full reality of Life and History. They ‘just don’t get it’, the ‘it’ being Alinsky’s penetrating insight that sees through everything to the phony core beneath.
No wonder the follow-on Advocacies, committed to Deconstruction, had so easy a time with their deceptively ‘well-intentioned’ and robust efforts to ‘crush the infamous thing’. All of the civilizational structure was a rotted door; and – in a marvelous channeling of the deluded lunatic with the little moustache as he unleashed his goose-stepping legions against Russia – “you have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down”. Ja! Yah.
Church-goers are by and large ‘phonies’, either out of deliberate deceit or dumb-assed mediocrity. And thus, ‘Church’ must be nothing more than that too. Adolescent sensibility, adolescent logic. But, of course, in 1971 the Dems were getting ready to declare themselves the Party of Youth and so on and so forth, and would give the kids the vote – at age 18 – in 1972. Wheeeeeeee!
For all his legitimate sensitivity to the incompleteness of human efforts in just about everything they undertake, Alinsky has a evolved here a pathetically insufficient explanation and a toxic ‘solution’. Adolescents – at least before that time – had a shot at growing into a more mature and tempered view of the great vessel of civilization that carried them through the chaotic waters of Life and History.
But since then, they have been assured that you can simply chop the vessel up in order to re-arrange it. And, increasingly nowadays, that Oh well, swimming’s more fun than hanging around on a musty old ship anyway! Alinsky, I would say, has never really been to sea – out on the vasty deep. Or if he ever did venture that far out, he ‘just didn’t get it’.
“Christianity is beyond the experience of a Christian-professing-but-not-practicing population.” (p.88) Not that Alinsky is going to help improve the quality of the anybody’s Christian dedication and praxis. Crush the infamous thing! That’s about all he comes up with.
But like Canute, as the Beltway has now discovered, your sovereign authority as human or as a pressure-group that pulls the strings of a vote-addled pandering Beltway … cannot and never can command the tides and the deep waters. And most of the planet is comprised of such ‘waters’, as is most of human experience – the experience that humans create together, as incompletely as their own human nature imposes.
Rather than ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ Alinsky will Deconstruct – even though the formal term itself was still just coming into vogue when he wrote. His thoughts and Deconstruction created a lethal synergy in national affairs and in the life of the nation and The People, and it bethumps Us still.
He will engage in a bit of Scriptural investigation, as phony as religion is. Moses (“a great organizer”), suddenly finding himself – in Alinsky’s reading – suddenly finds God referring to the Israelites in the desert as “thy” people, and Moses is a little annoyed that he’s going to get saddled with running the show.
So Moses “kept his cool” and “he knew that the most important center of his attack would have to be on what he judged to be God’s prime value”. (p.90) This is what Alinsky gets out of a profound Scriptural experience: you are about to be extorted by the Ultimate Have, and you have to ‘attack’. I’ll leave it to you to read Alinsky here for yourself (and maybe glance back at the Moses-God story in the Bible itself).
Suffice it to say that Moses “tells God to cool it” and that if God destroys the Israelites because they have been ‘incomplete’ (my word) in their faithfulness, then God is going to lose his worshipping (and viewing) audience if He goes and punishes them; and on top of that all the other peoples in the vicinity will figure God is some whackjob you can’t believe in because He is lets his temper get the best of Him.
God, in Alinsky’s take on it, is convinced it would be in His best interests to strike a deal. And that proves Alinsky’s approach works and that it is – by the by – a valid expression of the core of Western civilization. (That same civilization which Alinsky dismisses largely as phony and populated by phonies … but of course there is that saving remnant who ‘just get it’ who will have to manipulate-unto-Glory all of those lumps ‘who just don’t get it’. Wheeeeee!)
You can see why a whole lotta people felt reely reely good assigning themselves the role of Those Who Get It in Alinsky’s vision of things.
“Is this manipulation?” he asks. (p.92) “Certainly, just as a teacher manipulates, and no less, even a Socrates.” So Alinsky has promoted himself to Socratic as well as Mosaic status, and of course Those Who Get It are authorized to “manipulate”. THIS was not something that any democratically elected and Constitutionally-bound body of politicians needed to hear.
And, naturally, although actual teachers and actual believers are nothing but phonies, Alinsky’s elite corps of vanguard elites will remain true and pure and utterly dedicated. Ovvvvvv coursssssssse.
He urges incessant questioning. BUT ONLY until folks have come to the one answer you want them to arrive at. After that, the time for thinking has passed. Ach.
As you may imagine, I get a baaaad feeling about this (one way in which, I think, young Skywalker’s comment in the original 1977 flik expressed a cultural sensibility too deep for anybody to forthrightly express in a public forum).
But it has been, and shall ever remain, a sad reality of American history that We were not able to communicate that profound unease effectively.
And here We are today.
*My copy is the paperback Vintage Books/Random House edition that reprints the original 1971 edition. The ISBN is 0-679-72113-4. All my quotations and page references will be taken from this edition.