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So I went out yesterday and bought a copy of Kos's Taking on the System. I figured it was about time. Two chapters in, and it's a great read. Buy it today.

But inside it mentions Saul Alinsky as the motivator behind the title and many of the ideas within. Which is funny, because not more than a few days ago, one of my extreme right-wing friends laid into me with the following:

Obama's lying. Read 'Rules for Radicals', it's allowed (and expected) to lie to achieve your goals.

“The most effective means are whatever will achieve the desired results.” - Saul Alinsky

And I ignored him. I didn't know who Saul Alinsky was. And that was thrown into the middle of a much larger argument so I didn't give it much thought. But Now with Kos's Book mentioning him, I'm interested. So look what I found:


The 1972 Playboy interview with Saul Alinsky

It's worth a read.

For example:

PLAYBOY: The assumption behind the Administration's Silent Majority thesis is that most of the middle class is inherently conservative. How can even the most skillful organizational tactics unite them in support of your radical goals?

ALINSKY: Conservative? That's a crock of crap. Right now they're nowhere. But they can and will go either of two ways in the coming years -- to a native American fascism or toward radical social change. Right now they're frozen, festering in apathy, leading what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation:" They're oppressed by taxation and inflation, poisoned by pollution, terrorized by urban crime, frightened by the new youth culture, baffled by the computerized world around them. They've worked all their lives to get their own little house in the suburbs, their color TV, their two cars, and now the good life seems to have turned to ashes in their mouths. Their personal lives are generally unfulfilling, their jobs unsatisfying, they've succumbed to tranquilizers and pep pills, they drown their anxieties in alcohol, they feel trapped in longterm endurance marriages or escape into guilt-ridden divorces. They're losing their kids and they're losing their dreams. They're alienated, depersonalized, without any feeling of participation in the political process, and they feel rejected and hopeless. Their utopia of status and security has become a tacky-tacky suburb, their split-levels have sprouted prison bars and their disillusionment is becoming terminal.

They're the first to live in a total mass-media-oriented world, and every night when they turn on the TV and the news comes on, they see the almost unbelievable hypocrisy and deceit and even outright idiocy of our national leaders and the corruption and disintegration of all our institutions, from the police and courts to the White House itself. Their society appears to be crumbling and they see themselves as no more than small failures within the larger failure. All their old values seem to have deserted them, leaving them rudderless in a sea of social chaos. Believe me, this is good organizational material.

Does that sound familiar? You can see is the start of his discussion a lot of similarities in opinion between what was going on in the Nixon Years and what is going on now. But the interesting thing is hearing his story of how he got there.

Alinsky grew up as a child of the depression, with an abusive father and a rebellious streak. Hunger and poverty change people, and his first stab at organizing was teaching kids at his school how to rip off cafeterias for food. Not real noble, but he speaks to that:

PLAYBOY: Didn't you have any moral qualms about ripping off the cafeterias?

ALINSKY: Oh, sure, I suffered all the agonies of the damned-sleepless nights, desperate 'soul-searching, a tormented conscience that riddled me with guilt -- Are you kidding? I wouldn't have justified, say, conning free gin from a liquor store just so I could have a martini before dinner, but when you're hungry, anything goes -- There's a priority of rights, and the right to eat takes precedence over the right to make a profit -- And just in case you're getting any ideas, let me remind you that the statute of limitations has run out.

He eventually went into criminology, which he studfied by hanging out with Al Capone's mob. He was an insider observing them. Again, not real savory, but he felt it had value to his education:

PLAYBOY: Didn't you have any compunction about consorting with -- if not actually assisting -- murderers?

ALINSKY: None at all, since there was nothing I could do to stop them from murdering, practically all of which was done inside the family. I was a nonparticipating observer in their professional activities, although I joined their social life of food, drink and women: Boy, I sure participated in that side of things -- it was heaven. And let me tell you something, I learned a hell of a lot about the uses and abuses of power from the mob, lessons that stood me in good stead later on, when I was organizing.

While working alongside the mob can't be healthy, his later work for the state penal system appeared no better. Witnessing what was supposed to be rhabilitation and punishment was quite obviously neither, and dehumanized all involved.

I'll tell you something, though, the three years I spent at Joliet were worth while, because I continued the education in human relationships I'd begun in the Capone mob. For one thing, I learned that the state has the same mentality about murder as Frank Nitti. You know, whenever we electrocuted an inmate, everybody on the staff would get drunk, including the warden. It's one thing for a judge and a jury to condemn a man to death; he's just a defendant, an abstraction, an impersonal face in a box for two or three weeks. But once the poor bastard has been in prison for seven or eight months -- waiting for his appeals or for a stay -- you get to know him as a human being, you get to know his wife and kids and his mother when they visit him, and he becomes real, a person. And all the time you know that pretty soon you're going to be strapping him into the chair and juicing him with 30,000 volts for the time it takes to fry him alive while his bowels void and he keeps straining against the straps. So then you can't take it as just another day's work. If you can get out of being an official witness, you sit around killing a fifth of whiskey until the lights dim and then maybe, just maybe, you can get to sleep. That might be a good lesson for the defenders of capital punishment: Let them witness an execution. But I guess it wouldn't do much good for most of them, who are probably like one of the guards at Joliet when I was there -- a sadistic son of a bitch who I could swear had an orgasm when the switch was thrown.

PLAYBOY: Did you agitate for penal reform while you were at Joliet?

ALINSKY: There wasn't much I could do, because as a state criminologist, I wasn't directly involved in the actual prison administration. Oh, I made a lot of speeches all over the place telling well meaning people that the whole system wasn't working, that rehabilitation was a joke and our prisons wer vanguard of the 14th Century, and they all applauded enthusiastically and went home with their souls cleansed -- and did nothing.

It';s pretty easy for us today to look back and judge that we would never steal, or only remain close to those wearing white hats, but this was a whole different time in America. America was simply a pretty bad place, and Alinsky tries to make that understood.

PLAYBOY: You sound a little nostalgic.

ALINSKY: Yeah, those were exciting days to be alive in. And goddamn violent days, too. Whenever people wail to me about all the violence and disorder in American life today, I tell them to take a hard look back at the Thirties. At one time, you had thousands of American veterans encamped along the Anacostia petitioning the Government for a subsistence bonus until they were driven out at bayonet point by the Army, led by "I shall return" MacArthur. 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, feathered, castrated -- or killed. Most Southern politicians were members of the Ku Klux Klan and had no compunction about boasting of it.

The giant corporations were unbelievably arrogant and oppressive and would go to any lengths to protect their freedom -- the freedom to exploit and the freedom to crush any obstacle blocking the golden road to mammon. Not one American corporation -- oil, steel, auto, rubber, meat packing -- would allow its workers to organize; labor unions were branded subversive and communistic and any worker who didn't toe the line was summarily fired and then blacklisted throughout the industry. When they defied their bosses, they were beaten up or murdered by company strikebreakers or gunned down by the police of corrupt big-city bosses allied with the corporations, like in the infamous Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago when dozens of peaceful pickets were shot in the back.

There is no doubt as you read forward in this interview that Alinsky was no angel, but that largely isn't the point. In his time the reward for standing up to power was a blow to the head or a shot in the back. And he had to fight fire with fire. But you can read and judge for yourself, but I see the transformation into a character that wanted to do the right thing, and had to work within the system and with the tools that he had.

And he also nails a point that is perfectly valid today.

But over and above all these devices, the ultimate key to acceptance by a community is respect for the dignity of the individual you're dealing with. If you feel smug or arrogant or condescending, he'll sense it right away, and you might as well take the next plane out. The first thing you've got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community. Because no matter how imaginative your tactics, how shrewd your strategy, you're doomed before you even start if you don't win the trust and respect of the people; and the only way to get that is for you to trust and respect them. And without that respect there's no communication, no mutual confidence and no action. That's the first lesson any good organizer has to learn, and I learned it in Back of the Yards.

I'm sure that if I was a hardcore conservative like my friend, then perhaps I could only view a man like Alinsky through the cold lens of a black and white moral world. He did some dirty things, thus he is an immoral man. But he grew up in a time when the common pinnings of society that we take for granted were gone. Violence, starvation, poverty, these were the norm of the time. And Alinsky wanted to better himself, and more importantly better others. And he handed down tools that we can use today, that we DO use today, to continue the betterment of others and ourselves. And that is admirable.

But take the time to read the interview yourself. Make your own judgement. I'm not going to try to defend every statement ever made by Saul Alinsky, but I will thank him for doing the right thing. And maybe if I do the right thing as well, I can help prevent the kind of America that Alinsky had to grow up in from happening again. And I'll gladly take both Kos's and Alinsky's help in doing just that.

Originally posted to Cognitive Dissonance on Wed Oct 01, 2008 at 10:39 AM PDT.

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