"What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be."
- Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals
The threatened fart-in was to take place at the Rochester Philharmonic. "[The group's] increasingly gaseous music-loving members would tie themselves to the concert hall where they would sit expelling gaseous vapors with such noisy velocity as to compete with the woodwinds," writes biographer Nicholas Von Hoffman in his great doorstopper Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky.
Saul Alinsky was a crass dude, and proud of it. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he was raised in Chicago and took a stab at archeology after college. It was the Depression, and archeologists were "in about as much demand as horses and buggies," Alinsky wrote. "All the guys who funded the field trips were being scraped off Wall Street sidewalks." He fell into community work almost by accident, and early in his career he helped organize the Back Of The Yards neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Using intelligence, intuition, and chutzpah, he approached community organizing like a guerrilla commander, and he developed novel tactics to "turn scattered, voiceless discontent into a united protest."
Alinsky left instructions, a kind of operating manual for political dissent. It's giving me a lot of succor these twisted days. I feel so much anxiety just now. We all feel it. My wife feels it more acutely than I do. Like an old Indian tracker in a tumbleweed western, she senses each vibration in her feet and knows evil's rolling down the line. Every day, sure enough, some fresh catastrophe, and she's vindicated and destroyed. Sometimes she cries at work, attacks of empathy. And that's followed by the question, the same one I've had, the same one I've heard a lot of people ask: What can I do?
The marches were beautiful. A perfect outlet at the perfect time. But they also left me with a creeping sense of sluggishness. It was too easy, and one beautiful Saturday does not an effective resistance make. That's no knock on a magical day. But it's over, and the question lingers on: What can I do? Donate to the ACLU? Boycott L.L. Bean? It feels so feckless, limp. Another protest? Some blog art? Molotov cocktails?
If you feel the legacy of great political artists, the anxiety is compounded by the certainty that this is our moment, and the pressure to rise to a generational challenge is excruciating. So no matter how much solidarity I feel in my anxiety, feel with others who are open about their anxiety, I also feel alienated from this moment, awfully uncertain what I can do. I'm caught in crossfire between chattering shoulder angels of pragmatism and passion, opportunity and resignation, and I'm having trouble finding a path forward.
Which is why it's so important to remember that Alinsky left instructions.
The word "organize" is vague enough to carry lots of romantic impact without suggesting a definition for itself. Our last president, a Chicago rabble-rouser in Alinsky's image, often suggested people should organize to effect change. I would nod at that, envisioning soap box speeches and epic walk-outs, wondering when things would get that bad. But I think I had it all wrong, and I'd like to suggest a much simpler definition and a much less intimidating way in. Organizing is nothing more than getting together with people, brainstorming how to solve a problem, making a plan, and then putting it into action. And along the way you gather as many stakeholders as possible. It could be a nationwide march, sure, but it could also be some artist friends meeting for beers, coming up with a clever project, putting the word out, and pulling it off. I do that sort of thing with professional collaborators all the time, and you probably do, too. For me, thinking of organizing in terms that feel familiar--as an act that starts with a few confidants gathering for an open discussion over drinks--makes it much more accessible.
I read Rules for Radicals in grad school and liked it. It's full of great examples of organizing, and it's clear Alinsky had a lot of fun in his life. But reading now, the book feels urgent.
Here are a few of Alinsky's rules ...
“A good tactic is one your people enjoy. They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones."
“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”
“Never go outside the expertise of your people.”
“Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.”
And an epigraph that gets me every time, and that evidently scared Ben Carson to his conservative core:
"Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer."