Alinsky and the Rightists

ACORN Citizen Wealth Community Organizing Ideas and Issues Organizer Training Organizing

alinskyNew Orleans Like a bad penny, it pops up again that rightwing activists like the Landrieu bungling James O’Keefe have spent hours poring through Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals for tips as if it were a “how to” manual.  I’m constantly surprised to get flaming emails quoting one of Saul’s rules or another and how it is being applied to “come after me,” even as I’m delighted to see Citizen Wealth and Rules paired as a special purchase.  What’s up with all of this?

At one level it’s a case of life imitating art and thinking it is life imitating life.  What the O’Keefe’s think they are taking from Alinsky, according to their statements on web interviews quoted in the Times is a sense of tactical extreme or taking a contradiction to its outer limits.  Most of these favored stories in Rules though were exactly that:  stories.  They were well timed and pointed tactical threats, boring on a common organizing principle (though I can’t remember if this were a “rule”) that the “threat is always more powerful than the action.”  Many of these colorful and oft told tales of Alinsky actions from Rules were only tales that demonstrated what might have been or backroom threats at what could have been, and certainly never were what actually happened.  It’s one thing obviously to threaten that you will bring busloads of African Americas to the Chicago Symphony or whatever after having filled them full of beans, but it is a whole different thing to actually organize people to do such a ridiculous stunt that most would find demeaning and even racist.  Never happened, captain!

What O’Keefe and the rightsters are missing is the power of the threat and the force of irony and paradox, both of which Alinsky understood exceedingly well.  Theirs is a misreading of the text.  They have taken bad jokes and turned them into wrongheaded tactics, as the Landrieu debacle well illustrates for one and for all.

What surprises me as an organizer is not just the bad reading of Alinksy, because who really cares about that, but the fact that these are bad tactics because even for the rightwingers involved the tactics seem chosen not to create change, but simply for narcisstic self-aggrandizement of the worst kind.  Threatening to monitor Landrieu’s office’s handling of their complaint calls – and generating more of them – might have actually moved Landrieu to do something.  Now, if anything, they have made her a warrior for health reform, which is something the left was never able to do in Louisiana or in Washington.  They have written her a free political pass and allowed her to move forward on health care in a protected bubble forever.

Alinsky in his own desire to popularize at the time asked for some of this problem of misreading.  He would fill the college halls and retell the stories over and over as if they were gospel for the sake of his evangelism.  He fervently believed that the ends justified the means, which is both wrong, and now a banner easily unfurled by the right as well.  Furthermore, he used to continually say – to my chagrin and others – that he didn’t care where the organization went once it was built, he was simply the organizer, which was a weak defense for the racism that erupted from the famous Back of the Yards, but was an ideological weakness that had to be corrected in building ACORN and so many other modern community organizations.

But, even if Alinsky in some ways asked for this kind of trouble, there is no excuse for the bad work now being done in his name.