Letdowns for Radicals

In these polarized times, it is tempting to right wrongs by any tactic that will succeed. A master of this ends-justifies-the-means approach was Saul Alinsky, a community organizer of the twentieth century. He pioneered methods of agitating for social change, publishing his advice as the book Rules for Radicals. Two notable students of his tactics were Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Many radical groups to this day use his tactics to attempt to force change.

Two of his planned protests are illustrative of his general approach. (Note that these were only threatened protests; they were not actually carried out. But he was always prepared to follow through, because if anyone called his bluff, he stood to lose credibility.) Both quotes that follow are from Rules for Radicals. (I have bleeped one word in each quote.) First, a threat against the city of Chicago via its airport:

O’Hare Airport became the target…we tie up the lavatories. In the restrooms you drop a dime, enter, push the lock on the door — and you can stay there all day. What are the police going to do? Break in and demand evidence of legitimate occupancy? An intelligence study was launched to learn how many sit-down toilets for both men and women, as well as stand-up urinals, there were in the entire O’Hare Airport complex and how many men and women would be necessary for the nation’s first “sh**-in.” … The consequences of this kind of action would be catastrophic in many ways. People would be desperate for a place to relieve themselves. … O’Hare would soon become a shambles. The whole scene would become unbelievable and the laughter and ridicule would be nationwide.

Regrettably, another of his protest threats had a similar theme:

I [Alinsky] suggested that we might buy one hundred seats for one of Rochester’s symphony concerts. We would select a concert in which the music was relatively quiet. The hundred blacks who would be given the tickets would first be treated to a three-hour pre-concert dinner in the community, in which they would be fed nothing but baked beans, and lots of them; then the people would go to the symphony hall — with obvious consequences. Imagine the scene when the action began! The concert would be over before the first movement! (If this be a Freudian slip — so be it!) … The one thing that all oppressed people want to do to their oppressors is sh** on them. Here was an approximate way to do this.

His tactics were effective in certain circumstances because they harnessed the destructive energy of the disdain of one group for another, coupled with the simplicity of ninth-grade tactics. But in threatening to shut down a city’s airport or stink up its symphony, the protesters would not make any friends, nor would they build trust or community with anyone. It might be said that these were not Alinsky’s goals, nor those of the groups agitating for change. And in fact, he considered his opponents to be actual enemies, couching his advice in the language of war.

At a deeper level still, Alinsky had figured out that it was far easier to threaten or commit harm, than to do something positive. It’s easier to rally people to occupy airport restrooms than to organize them to pass out food and drink to tired travelers. It takes only one day to ruin a symphony—but 90 lifetimes to create one.

Such methods of protest thus rely on the same fundamental asymmetry between creation and destruction (i.e., good and evil*) that success in war depends on: the side willing and able to be the most damaging is the side that wins.

People who want change can choose their methods. One should always ask what sort of world we would have if a particular side wins. In comparing Alinsky’s world with, say, that of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., I think the choice is obvious.

*It’s probably not a coincidence that Alinsky devoted his book to Lucifer.