Who in Hell is Saul Alinsky?

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

  I’d actually halfway finished a blog on a different subject today, when I was spun in a different  direction. Thursday night I had done something I never do and watched the Republican Debate in Florida. It was frighteningly enlightening to say the least, but what stood out for me was Newt commenting that our President was a disciple of Saul Alinsky. I thought then “How many people today know who Saul Alinsky was and what he represented?” On last nights Bill Maher’s show, Bill asked the question “Who was Saul Alinsky?” as part of his New Rules segment. This morning in HuffPost, Frank Mankiewicz addressed a variant of the same question: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-mankiewicz/america-meet-saul-alinsky_b_1238953.html

The idea of following heroes to me has always seemed silly, yet there are people whose lives and work I deeply admire and to some sense try to emulate. My first was Clarence Darrow and it is therefore no coincidence that I am a denizen of this blog. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarence_Darrow .  Clarence Darrow’s picture is used above because it is in the public realm, while mysteriously Saul Alinsky’s isn’t. Obviously, Saul Alinsky is another person whose life I admire. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Alinsky  Alinsky was a radical in his methods, but one who eschewed the doctrinaire self assurance of an ideologue. When asked if he ever considered joining the Communist Party he famously replied”

“Not at any time. I’ve never joined any organization—not even the ones I’ve organized myself. I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it’s Christianity or Marxism. One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as ‘that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you’re right.’ If you don’t have that, if you think you’ve got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide.”

His was a belief that has resonated with me since those radical days in the 60’s, with the Movement, when I was surrounded by and courted by various ideologies, mostly Marxist whose rigidity of thought and party line belief, actually disgusted me. Yet there was Alinsky, the man who literally wrote the book on community organizing, who felt similarly towards ideological rigidity. He was truly an America Patriot, whose guiding idea was to assist downtrodden people to gain power over their lives and give them a chance to decide their fates. Alinsky was a man who achieved great success, if you define success as achieving ones goals. The disdain and demonization again being heaped upon him today comes from the very real threat his methodology has towards the 1% elite and curiously that aim of his was the reinstatement of “The American Dream” of freedom, equality and social justice.

The current conservative obsession with Alinsky comes from the fact that Barack Obama was supposedly an Alinsky disciple because of his community organizing work in Chicago:

“Biographer Sanford Horwitt has claimed that U.S. President Barack Obama was influenced by Alinsky and followed in his footsteps as a Chicago-based community organizer. Horwitt furthermore has asserted that Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was influenced by Alinsky’s teachings.

Adding to their “Alinsky disdain” is that:

Hillary Clinton‘s senior honors thesis on Saul Alinsky, written at Wellesley College, noted that Alinsky’s personal efforts were a large part of his method.”

Thus we see two villains of the extreme Right Wing of the Republican Party, being linked somewhat to Alinsky, makes bringing him back into play as a “bogeyman” fitting. In truth one of the things that swayed me to support Obama in the first place were his ties to Alinsky, via his community organizing work in Chicago. For these extremists, however, the fact that Alinsky died when Obama was ten years old, is irrelevant. The President and Hilary, to their minds, have been polluted by Alinsky’s teachings. Why one would ask are the teachings of someone who was not a Marxist, not specifically anti-capitalist and believed that people should have the freedom to make up their own minds politically, be so damned threatening to the Extreme Right?

My take on the “why” is twofold. The first is that Alinsky believed in “empowerment” of those like Blacks, Stockyard workers and the poor in general. His methods, though non-violent, were disruptive of the status quo. He became so effective in organizing protests that sometimes just the threat of a protest led to negotiation with “the powers that were”. Take a look at this particular tactic and smile:

“After organizing FIGHT (an acronym for Freedom, Independence, God, Honor, Today) in Rochester, New York, Alinsky once threatened to stage a “fart in” to disrupt the sensibilities of the city’s establishment at a Rochester Philharmonic concert. FIGHT members were to consume large quantities of baked beans after which, according to author Nicholas von Hoffman, “FIGHT’s increasingly gaseous music-loving members would hie themselves to the concert hall where they would sit expelling gaseous vapors with such noisy velocity as to compete with the woodwinds.”[9] Satisfied with the reaction to his threat, Alinsky would later threaten a “piss in” at Chicago O’Hare Airport. Alinsky planned to arrange for large numbers of well dressed African Americans to occupy the urinals and toilets at O’Hare for as long as it took to bring the city to the bargaining table. According to Alinsky, the threat alone was sufficient to produce results.[9]

The elite of his time were infuriated that he had the temerity to disrupt their privileged existence. They insisted that by his not working through the “system” he was destroying our ordered way of life. The fact for instance that Blacks in the South had no system to work through, was irrelevant to those conservative forces reaping the “systems” benefits.

“In Alinsky’s opinion, new voices and new values were being heard in the U.S., and “people began citing John Donne‘s ‘No man is an island,'” he said. He observed that the hardship affecting all classes of the population was causing them to start “banding together to improve their lives,” and discovering how much in common they really had with their fellow man.[4] He stated during an interview a few of the causes for his active organizing in black communities:

“Negroes were being lynched regularly in the South as the first stirrings of black opposition began to be felt, and many of the white civil rights organizers and labor agitators who had started to work with them were tarred and feathered, castrated—or killed. Most Southern Democrat politicians were members of the Ku Klux Klan and had no compunction about boasting of it.”[4]

The second reason Alinsky is anathetimized is because his tactics work so damn well that people actually gain empowerment from them. This works in tandem with the fact that it is non-ideological, so it works to blur divisions between class, race and religion. The American Elite has always made its’ mark by sowing division among the 99%. This is in fact the entire operating structure that has kept the power structure in place. It to me it is little coincidence that the real opposition to MLK  outside the South, came at a point when his organizational effort went beyond Black Civil Rights and began to display opposition to poverty and the Viet Nam War. In the South post-bellum, the average White, while still suffering under the economic oppression of the South’s Elite, under a deeply unfair economic system, nevertheless could be comforted in their poverty by the fact that their status was higher than Blacks.

What is too madly ironic to be funny is that we see today the Ultra Conservatives utilizing Alinsky’s techniques to further their ends:

“Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the conservative non-profit organization FreedomWorks, which is one of several groups involved in organizing Tea Party protests, says the group gives Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals to its top leadership members. A shortened guide called Rules for Patriots is distributed to its entire network. In a January 2012 story that appeared in The Wall Street Journal, citing the organization’s tactic of sending activists to town-hall meetings, Brandon explained, “his tactics when it comes to grass-roots organizing are incredibly effective.” Former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey also gives copies of Alinsky’s book Rules for Radicals to Tea Party leaders.[19]

Below you will find a link to an illuminating debate between Alinsky and William F. Buckley. There are only five minutes video to be seen of this hour long “Firing Line” episode, but it is highly instructive. From this link you can also obtain a PDF link to a transcript of the entire debate. In both the Buckley salvos and the Alinsky responses you can see the essece of the men. Buckley, limited in tangible argument turning again and again to his huge vocabulary to throw up the smokescreen that he is actually making telling points. Alinsky, surprisingly (for political debate), honestly exposing himself as a human being, while demolishing Buckley’s false charges that would make Alinsky a threat to American Democracy.  http://hoohila.stanford.edu/firingline/programView2.php?programID=99

Looking at the Occupy Wall Street Movement I have no proof, but little doubt, that its organizers have been highly influenced by Saul Alinsky. In my opinion we all need to brush up on the Alinsky methodology today as our only way out of the dawning of an age of Corporatist Fuedalism. Voting can only be used to stave off the potential disasters that await the 99%, if the direction of this country doesn’t change. So in answer to my posed question: “Who in Hell is Saul Alinsky”, he is one of the great minds of the Twentieth Century, when it comes to finding non-violent means of developing a more humane society. I believe that putting his concepts into use by those who truly love this country can finally bring about the changes that will save America from becoming just another Third World Nation under the rule of a monied elite.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger.

54 thoughts on “Who in Hell is Saul Alinsky?”

  1. idealist707
    1, January 28, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    Not challenging, just wondering. What did Hillary do to establish her creds in your eyes as a “true follower”, other than the thesis?

    Was she also a community organizer? (Snide question I admit) …


    Not really snide at all … read her commencement speak at Wellesley and then study all the work she did in Arkansas … if you don’t see Alinsky all over the place then you don’t really know Alinsky.

  2. As the Chinese say, “To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous.” Not only has quantum mechanics shown that uncertainty is built into the very fabric of the universe, uncertainty is required for learning. I wasn’t raised by Judge Hand, but the basic principles I was taught from a very young age are principles of which I think he might have agreed.

    Always question authority.
    The only day wasted is a day you didn’t learn something new.
    The only constant in life is change.

  3. Raff,

    I don’t know that the Judge is right, but I too have decided to believe that he is.

    Silly comparison: I like popcorn, especially a big bucket of it at the cinema. But I dislike the husks getting between my teeth or between my teeth and my gums. No one else ever complained of any problems with popcorn husks, so I figured something must be wrong with me. I quit eating popcorn. I was a teenager.

    While at a movie with my teen-age daughters, they asked why I never eat popcorn. I told them. They laughed at me, said the husk thing happens to everyone.

    We each had a big bucket of popcorn.

  4. MS quotes Alinsky as saying: “One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as ‘that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you’re right.’”

    OMG!!! THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! I have always had the ever-gnawing inner doubt and considered not one of the most important things in my life but rather a major character flaw. Now I know better, and from Judge Learned Hand!

    THANK YOU!!!

  5. raf, Isn’t Alinsky the polar opposite of the “true progressive” Ron Paul?

  6. BTW, I passed on the link to the Alinsky rule list to the Obama campaign.
    If Obama is real smart he’ll use Alinsky to egg the RW nuts on and rattle their cage.

  7. For those interested in contrasts, look at this.

    It’s W. F. Buckley vs Christopher Hitchens interviewed on “Uncommon Knowledge” (Hoover Institution). Subject: The Sixties
    In 1968 Buckley was listening to the demonstrators outside the RNC convention from his hotel room 14 stories up (von Oben as usual); and Hitchens was in Cuba in a Trotsky group looking to see if the Cuban revolution would in fact break with Moscow.
    Buckley, as usual, dumps a whole bucket of tar on the young of the time, calling them listless, mastubatory, kick-seekers.
    Hitchen replies by saying that that was just a generational expression of jealousy by those who didn’t have the pill to free them.
    Will look for more.

    Who says old times are not relevant? Or at least amusing.

  8. raff,

    I agree with you…even a weakness of Sauls is better than the best attribute of the RW Nuts running….

  9. I cherish the fact that the RW Nuts are alluding to Saul…..The man had principal….They tried to break him, many times but he always put principal ahead of personalities….He sought a common goal and the ability to reach that goal….

    Thanks Mike,,,,I think that if Obama is smart he’ll be able to capitalize on even the weaknesses of Saul….

  10. Link to Buckley vs Alinsky (Thanks Mike S.)

    Before looking at that I checked the Buckley vs Chomsky in 1967 on YouTube.
    Then looking at B vs A, (only five minutes long), I was struck by the SIMILARITY of a snide insinuant deriding intro followed by giving enough rope to see if his opponent would hang himself. I have no idea how it went for Alinsky, but certainly he had more experience with ferocious opposition and ridicule than the professor did.
    So what happened. Buckley, deciding that Chomsky had a better command of facts than he did, exercised a program leader’s prerogative. Buckley just rode roughshod over Chomsky not letting him say more than two words before interrupting. Buckley was impressive in his quick parrying of whatever might get through his barrage, but would always deflect to another sound bite in his favor.
    Now another segmant showing the last five minutes of the program show an angry Chomsky who had discarded his academic “fairness” obligation; and who returned tit for tat. Finally, it was Buckley who was at a loss for words.

    Am curious how it went later for Alinsky.

    I can buy the video if it’s still available at Amazon as this excellent site informs it is. But can’t contain my impatience to know how it went.
    Anyone know?

    PS You lucky young ones. In 10 years, it’ll be possible to download in 30 seconds from Amazon. My link from Apple Store isn’t that fast.

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