Jack TenneyExtra Point

by Jack Tenney, Publisher

July 2012

In 2000, there were organized demonstrations that reminded me of Saul Alinsky. Thanks to flash mobs, 99 percenters, Arab Spring, and Greek drama, I am re-reminded of him and, therefore, a rerun of my September 2000 “Extra Point.”

In 1971, a year before Saul Alinsky’s death, his book Rules for Radicals was published. When the recent demonstrations in Seattle got more memorable press coverage than the World Trade whatsy, I thought maybe I should finally read it. As demonstrators were being arrested in Philadelphia during the GOP convention, it occurred to me that perhaps I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t read it. Then, during the Democratic convention, when I heard some folks on Vermont Public Radio defending and/or explaining the purpose of the demonstrations, I actually started reading.

Alinsky made his mark before World War II organizing poor people in Chicago to get what everyone seems to want: “More!” His success there led to one cause after another for the next 30 years. The sum of all his successes led to the writing of the book, which is subtitled “A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.”

Every struggle is for power, emphasizes Alinsky, and the struggle is always between the “Haves” and the “Have-nots.” His classic example of this struggle is not any of the obvious ones like between the rich and the poor, the old and the young, labor and management, landlords and tenants, shepherds and ranchers.

Alinsky’s example is the struggle that took place in the ’30s between two unions. It was the radical C.I.O. that wanted to “organize the unorganized,” against the conservative A.F. of L. that hung on to a craft unionism that effectively excluded unskilled laborers.

A careful reading of the book gave me insight into how to thwart irrational protesters (aka your opponents). Don’t arrest them and send them to jail; give them a grant to attend a symposium where they can write persuasively about the causes so dear to their hearts.

Alinsky explains it this way:

“I remember that once I accepted an invitation to participate in a one-week discussion at the Aspen Institute. The argument was made that this would be a good opportunity to get away from it all and write. The institute sessions would last only from 10 to noon and I would be free for the rest of the afternoon and the evening.”

He found, however, that the sessions were engaging and the company convivial. He then chatted through lunch with some fascinating intellectual for so long that there was scarcely time to clean up for cocktails and dinner. After dinner was, of course, too late to begin the hard work of arranging words in a compelling way. The week passed and he penned no new tracts.

He argues:

“Jail provides just the opposite circumstances. You have no phones and, except for an hour or so a day, no visitors. Your jailers are rough, unsociable, and generally so dull that you wouldn’t want to talk with them anyway. You find yourself in a physical drabness and confinement, which you desperately try to escape. ... You escape into thinking and writing.”