by Chris Heuer
The purpose of this post is to get you to read Saul D. Alinsky’s RULES FOR RADICALS. Since it was an important source of reflection for a lot of protestors, I thought that some of you might be interested in learning what it was all about, and applying some of Alinsky’s ideas to your own situation. In addition to that, I’ve often thought that perhaps introducing the spirit of Alinsky to the spirit of A.G. Bell–or in other words introducing the words of a revolutionary and radical organizer to the oppressive reality created by a man intolerant of the natural condition of deafness -might result in a new state of existence, one where Deaf people never again passively accept totalitarian regimes in their institutions. Maybe that’s a lot to hope for, but you never know until you try.
Here are some cool quotes from Alinsky’s book:
On the common good and reconciliation…
“In this world laws are written for the lofty aim of ‘the common good’ and then acted out in life on the basis of the common greed. In this world irrationality clings to man like his shadow so that the right things get done for the wrong reasons–afterwards, we dredge up the right reasons for justification. It is a world not of angels but of angles, where men speak of moral principals but act on power principals; a world where we are always moral and our enemies always immoral; a world where ‘reconciliation’ means that when one side gets the power and the other side gets reconciled to it, then we have reconciliation…” (p. 13)
On means and ends…
“Life and how you live it is the story of means and ends. The end is what you want, and the means is how you get it. Whenever we think about social change, the question of means and ends arises. The man of action views the issue of means and ends in pragmatic and strategic terms. he has no other problem; he thinks only of his actual resources and the possibilities of various choices of action. He asks of ends only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work. To say that corrupt means corrupt the ends is to believe in the immaculate conception of ends and principles. The real arena is corrupt and bloody. Life is a corrupting process from the time a child learns to play his mother off against his father in the politics of when to go to bed; he who fears corruption fears life.” (p. 24-25)
“The Ninth Rule of the ethics of means and ends is that any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical.” (p. 35)
On taking a new step…
“Dostoevski said that taking a new step is what people fear the most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution.” (p. xix)
On how the Haves will unceasingly attack the revolutionary messages of the Have-Nots…
“From the Haves, on the other hand, there has come an unceasing flood of literature justifying the status quo. Religious, economic, social, political, and legal tracts endlessly attack all revolutionary ideas and actions for change as immoral, fallacious and against God, country, and mother. These literary sedations by the status quo include the threat that, since all such movements are unpatriotic, subversive, spawned in hell and reptilian in their insidiousness, dire punishments will be meted out to their supporters.” (p. 7-8)
On the three main players in any revolution…
“The setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores. On top are the Haves with power, money, food, security, and luxury. They suffocate in their surpluses while the Have-Nots starve. Numerically the Haves have always been the fewest. The Haves want to keep things as they are and are opposed to change. Thermopolitically, they are cold and determined to freeze the status quo. On the bottom are the world’s Have-Nots. On the world scene they are by far the greatest in numbers. They are chained together by the common misery of poverty, rotten housing, ignorance, political impotence, and despair; when they are employed their jobs pay the least and they are deprived in all areas basic to human growth. Caged by color, physical or political, they are barred from an opportunity to represent themselves in the politics of life. The Haves want to keep. The Have-Nots want to get. Thermopolitically they are a mass of cold ashes of resignation and fatalism, but inside they are glowing embers of hope which can be fanned by the building of means of obtaining power. Once the fever begins the flame will follow. They have nowhere to go but up.” (p. 18-19)
“The cry of the Have-Nots has never been ‘give us our hearts,’ but always ‘get off our backs’; they ask not for love but for breathing space.” (p. 19)
“Always remember the first rule of power tactics: Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have. The second rule is: Never go outside the experience of your people. When an action or tactic is outside the experience of the people, it results in confusion, fear, and retreat. It also means a collapse in communication, as we have noted. The third rule is: Whenever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.” (p. 126-127)
On obeying the law, Alinsky-style, when using protest tactics…
“Use the power of the law by making the Establishment obey its own rules. Go outside the experience of the enemy, stay inside the experience of your people. Emphasize tactics that your people will enjoy. The threat is usually more terrifying than the tactic itself. Once all these rules and principles are festering in your imagination, they grow into a synthesis.
I 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!)
Let’s examine this tactic in terms of the concepts mentioned above.
First, the disturbance would be utterly outside the experience of the establishment, which was expecting the usual stuff of mass meetings, street demonstrations, confrontations, and parades. Not in their wildest fears would they expect an attack on their prize cultural jewel, their famed symphony orchestra. Second, all of the action would ridicule and make a farce of the law for there is no law, and probably never will be, banning natural physical functions. Here you would have a combination not only of noise but also of odor, what you might call natural stink bombs. Regular stink bombs are illegal and cause for immediate arrest, but there would be absolutely nothing here that the Police Department or the ushers or any other servants of the establishment could do about it. The law would be completely paralyzed.
People would recount what had happened in the symphony hall and the reactions of the listener would be to crack up in laughter. It would make the Rochester Symphony and the Establishment look utterly ridiculous. There would be no way for the authorities to cope with any future attacks of similar character. What could they do? Demand that people not eat baked beans before coming to a concert? Ban anyone from succumbing to natural urges during the concert? Announce to the world that concerts must not be interrupted by farting? Such talk would destroy the future of the symphony season. Imagine the tension at hte opening of any concert! Imagine the feeling of the conductor as he raised his baton!
With this would come certain fall-outs. On the following morning, the matrons, to whom the symphony season is one of the major social functions, would confront their husbands (both executives and junior executives) at the breakfast table and say, “John, we are not going to have our symphony season ruined by those people! I don’t know what they want but whatever it is, something has got to be done and this kind of thing has to be stopped!”
*Chris here again. Now, true, I’ve quoted a lot of Alinsky. Don’t get me wrong, I admire and respect Alinsky’s writings, and I’m advertising them… but my goal isn’t to encourage them. Rather my goal is to bring them inside of the experience of the Deaf Community. We have problems far beyond Gallaudet, problems that we cannot block a gate in order to resolve. Problems that we cannot take over a building in order to resolve. We can only march to the Capitol so many times before Hearing America gets sick of us as a collective minority group.
So what do we do? Have a Town Hall meeting? All very fine and well–I’m going to the one on Wednesday night… but I guarantee you, anything we come up with there is going to be undone in this System, because this System only knows terrorization and routine intimidation–it does not understand and does not respect anything that is not more powerful than it is. Already people have been talking to me about how, after the arrests, the students would never again have the guts to block the gates–they’d be too scared. Deeply analyze this kind of thinking, because it will allow you to have a good look at denial at its thickest–the students already have continued to block the gates, even after they were arrested! Jesus, where does the memory go in this System? Why does it strive to return people to the mentality that the deaf are weak and will never rise up… just mere days after they successfully revolted?
I offer Alinsky’s writings as part of our overall solution–as part of our answer regarding what we’re going to do next. This isn’t just a question of rebuilding Gallaudet–it’s a question of rebuilding our own cultural mentality, our own sense of ourselves and what we can do.
Therefore I hope you’ll buy this book, and really study it. Agree or disagree with its message–that’s up to you. But do read it, and debate it, and debate it passionately, because I think that we can all learn a lot in talking about it.
[Ken’s note: In addition to RULES FOR RADICALS, Alinsky also wrote REVEILLE FOR RADICALS, for which a reviewer wrote the follow comments: “manual for building community-wide power in the form of People’s Organizations. It was meant as an inspirational guide to community organizers interested in replicating what Alinksy had done initially in the Back of Yards neighborhood of Chicago and later in other cities across the United States including Buffalo and Kansas City. It has become a timeless text explaining both why and how to organize.
Alinsky draws on his experience as a community organizer to explain the role an organizer can play in the process of building neighborhood power. He also explains with insightful anecdotes what obstacles the organizer and the nacent organization he attempts to construct are likely to face as they take on the powers that be. He is a spellbinding storyteller.” Alinsky’s biography is also available, called Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy.]