Friday, August 7, 2009

Saul Alinsky for everybody

The stir over Ron Kessler's new book about the Secret Service has, of course, lots of people discussing his claim that that President Barack Obama receives thirty death threats a day.

Two immediate thoughts:

1) What exactly constitutes a death threat? Among those thirty per day, one supposes, would be the comments by one NashuaDan of New Hampshire in the Nashua Telegraph recently, reacting to a planned Obama town meeting:

His posting began: “Town Hall in quotation marks is right. Everything this charlatan does is orchestrated. Good luck getting a question answered unless you are one of his ‘plants.’ It’s guaranteed that every question will go according to plan; this empty suit of a President has never done anything that wasn’t scripted or read off a teleprompter.”... [and then continued]

“I hope NH is better than letting this guy off the hook. Let Obama know what ‘Live Free or Die’ means (hint: it isn’t reckless TAXING and SPENDING). Otherwise, Portsmouth will just be another glorified photo-op for the Socialist-in-Chief,” he wrote below a news brief announcing the president’s Seacoast visit Tuesday.

On Thursday morning, NashuaDan found himself on the phone with a Secret Service agent, explaining that his remarks were only philosophical and not intended to threaten Obama, he said.

The reason why the Secret Service got involved?

A registered user called SLRNashuan posted a comment in reply to NashuaDan on Wednesday afternoon: “Amazing, NashuaDan. All of those words and not one truth! And, by the way, is that a veiled threat ‘Let Obama know what ‘Live Free or Die’ means’ on the President’s life. Just in case, I called it in.”

2) Where is the documentation regarding Kessler's numbers? It is interesting that his major claim--that the Secret Service has been cutting corners--has been repeatedly denied by the Secret Service itself:

The Secret Service says Kessler's allegations aren't true. "The Secret Service assisted Mr. Kessler as we would any author writing a book about the agency," the denial states. "We provided briefings, on the record interviews and accurate responses to his numerous questions. However, Mr. Kessler chose to base his criticisms of the agency on unnamed sources whose motives, knowledge and experience level remains unknown.

"Any suggestion that the Secret Service has "cut corners" in carrying our protective mission is just false. It is always difficult to defend your record against anonymous sources. However, it should be noted that we currently dedicate more personnel, funding and technical assets to our protective mission than at any time in our history and our protective measures and methods continue to increase in scope and complexity, not diminish.

"The safety of those we protect remains this agency's highest priority. Failure is not an option."

In other words: a lot of the material in Kessler's book is necessarily suspect--and virtually all the so-called reviews you can find are literally reiterations of the publisher's press release.

Yet let's assume that that the 30-per-day number is accurate, and see how where that gets us.

A detour first: here was the widely condemned (including by me) statement by anti-abortion-rights-wacko and dangerous person Randall Terry objecting (inaccurately) to the inclusion of Federally funded abortion in health care reform:

“Please understand: neither I, nor any thinking person wants the convulsions that would inevitably come from such a government policy — the decision to force Americans to pay for the murder of their neighbor.

“Nevertheless, the sheer horror and frustration of such an evil policy will lead some people to absolutely refuse to pay their taxes. And I believe — if my reading of history from America and around the world is correct — that there are others who will be tempted to acts of violence.

“If the government of this country tramples the faith and values of its citizens, history will hold those in power responsible for the violent convulsions that follow.” — Randall Terry

Now compare this to a local response to the Kessler book:

According to Ronald Kessler, author of “In the President’s Secret Service,” President Obama receives 30 death threats a day, an increase of 400% over Bush. Yeah, I want to hear conservatives say we hated Bush just the same as they hate Obama. Another lie from liars.

Clearly, the blame for this increase lies squarely on the shoulders of Beck and Limbaugh and those like them who have stirred up fears of tyranny and oppression where none exist.

Add to that the blatant and evil racism on the part of many in the Republican Party, and you have the greatest animus directed toward any US President in my lifetime, and one can only pray that it doesn’t result in actual attempts on the lives of President Obama and his family. If it does, we will all be doomed, for I do not see any way to prevent more violence, riots, and even civil war in response.

Which of these statements met with round condemnation, and which was met with silence?

You see, Kessler's book has been subtly moved from being another one of his rather gossipy, tell-all government exposes into being a major weapon in the war over rhetoric in this country, in which both liberals and conservatives are jockeying for positions of moral superiority and the ability to discredit not just what their opponents are saying, but their opponents' right to speak at all.

Paul Krugman characterizes some legislators are Traitors for voting against cap-and-trade:

And as I watched the deniers make their arguments, I couldn’t help thinking that I was watching a form of treason....

A Fox commentator goes off the deep end and says it will take a nuclear attack to save the nation by waking us up, and the local comment is:

If you agree with that statement, you are a traitor to the United States of America, and you deserve to be arrested, tried, and put to death in as quick a manner as possible.

Steven Pearlstein suggests that the appropriate word for legislators who are attacking the health care reform plan with inaccurate claims is terrorist:

The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.

And in the local blogosphere the reaction is praise:

Good on Pearlstein, though, for calling out the lies and bad-faith of these people.

I don't have any problems with Pearlstein or Krugman calling out anybody: but the use of the term Traitor and Terrorist as everyday fodder by the individuals who set themselves up as the new philosopher-kings of the appropriate direction for America is--according to the self-appointed expert--about as eliminationist as you can get.

Don't get me wrong: the Republicans have engaged in every single nasty trick or rhetoric, distortion, and borderline eliminationism in the book. The modern day Old Confederacy and Buffalo Commons Party has played the race card, the socialism card, the gun control card, and the really scarey faggot card. Clowns like Glenn Beck routinely masquerade as libertarians and spout ridiculous trash mixed in with the veiled threats and the magical thinking that only a fairly loonie apocalyptic fundamentalist can combine. And at their best, our local bloggers--with Jekyll/Hyde brilliance--have pointed that out with dead-on target posts.

But does that make this the appropriate response?

[Talk show host] Mike Malloy: "I have a good news to report; Glenn Beck appears closer to suicide - I'm hoping that he does it on camera; suicide is rampant in his family, and given his alcoholism and his tendencies towards self-destruction, I am only hoping that when Glen Beck does put a gun to his head and pulls the trigger, that it will be on television, because somebody will capture it on YouTube and it will be the most popular video for months."

I guess it does, because here is the local equivalent [this is from the cached page, because the original has been removed by the website administrator; in so doing he protects both the guilty and the innocent, which I guess is not--on balance--a bad trade]:

David Burris, you are a fat disgusting lying human being who really should consider suicide as your next failed career move. Don’t worry, you won’t succeed at that either.

See, here's the interesting part: if a blog comment or blog post had referred to Barack Obama as a traitor or a terrorist, or suggested that he should contemplate suicide--and that this would be a good thing for the nation--it would be something that the Secret Service would be duty bound to investigate.

I am not blameless; I have stepped across the line on many occasions, and there are those who honestly believe that my across-the-board, no-holds-barred defense of political free speech is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

On the hand, this is not--and ultimately cannot be--the acceptable answer:

We here at Delaware Liberal are called loons, fascists, Nazis, idiots, baby killers, etc. We are not going to complain about the names you call us, so long as those names are [not] racist or sexist.

And what to we do in response to those insults? Have I ever tried to out Hube whenever he insults me? No. And I don’t even know if Hube’s identity is known, because I have never cared to find out. Why? Because when he insults me, I just insult him right back. Done and done. Yes, it is not ideal. We shouldn’t be calling our opponents’ names. But passions get the best of all of us, and I think we all would much rather vent our anger by virtually insulting someone than by getting out our guns and killing each other.

Do you see the unintended irony? The folks who ascribe to the idea that one of the greatest dangers in American politics is eliminationist name-calling and characterizing other citizens as dangerous [and possibly in need of drastic violent action]; these same folks are saying, But that's the way we do things here in our own backyard, and as long as you don't use racist/sexist slurs it's all OK and part of the game.

We are standing at the brink, and when people who routinely practice the rhetorical tactic they deplore every day, it doesn't do one goddamn thing to step us back from it.

Nor does it move us any further away from the brink when the President himself suggests in no uncertain terms that the entire opposition party should just shut up:

"That was gift-wrapped and waiting for me," Obama said. "I don't want the folks who created the mess do a lot of talking. I want them to get out of the way so we can clean up the mess. I don't mind cleaning up after them, but don't do a lot of talking."

Notice the irony here that surrounds the despicable descent into cat-calling and verbal intimidation as Congress goes out on recess: both sides are now employing virtually all twelve of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. The venerable radical himself is limned this way in the Wikipedia entry:

Saul David Alinsky (January 30, 1909, Chicago, Illinois – June 12, 1972, Carmel, California) was a community organizer and writer. He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing in America. His ideas were adapted by American college student protest organizers in the late 1960s, resulting in the college campus and societal upheavals of that time.

According to Alinsky's rules, both the Democrats and Republicans are playing according to the Marquis of Queensbury:

RULE 1: "Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have." Power is derived from 2 main sources - money and people. "Have-Nots" must build power from flesh and blood. (These are two things of which there is a plentiful supply. Government and corporations always have a difficult time appealing to people, and usually do so almost exclusively with economic arguments.)

RULE 2: "Never go outside the expertise of your people." It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone. (Organizations under attack wonder why radicals don't address the "real" issues. This is why. They avoid things with which they have no knowledge.)

RULE 3: "Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy." Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. (This happens all the time. Watch how many organizations under attack are blind-sided by seemingly irrelevant arguments that they are then forced to address.)

RULE 4: "Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules." If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules. (This is a serious rule. The besieged entity's very credibility and reputation is at stake, because if activists catch it lying or not living up to its commitments, they can continue to chip away at the damage.)

RULE 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions. (Pretty crude, rude and mean, huh? They want to create anger and fear.)

RULE 6: "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. (Radical activists, in this sense, are no different that any other human being. We all avoid "un-fun" activities, and but we revel at and enjoy the ones that work and bring results.)

RULE 7: "A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag." Don't become old news. (Even radical activists get bored. So to keep them excited and involved, organizers are constantly coming up with new tactics.)

RULE 8: "Keep the pressure on. Never let up." Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new. (Attack, attack, attack from all sides, never giving the reeling organization a chance to rest, regroup, recover and re-strategize.)

RULE 9: "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself." Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist. (Perception is reality. Large organizations always prepare a worst-case scenario, something that may be furthest from the activists' minds. The upshot is that the organization will expend enormous time and energy, creating in its own collective mind the direst of conclusions. The possibilities can easily poison the mind and result in demoralization.)

RULE 10: "If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive." Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog. (Unions used this tactic. Peaceful [albeit loud] demonstrations during the heyday of unions in the early to mid-20th Century incurred management's wrath, often in the form of violence that eventually brought public sympathy to their side.)

RULE 11: "The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative." Never let the enemy score points because you're caught without a solution to the problem. (Old saw: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Activist organizations have an agenda, and their strategy is to hold a place at the table, to be given a forum to wield their power. So, they have to have a compromise solution.)

RULE 12: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions. (This is cruel, but very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works.)

The hypocrisy comes in when one side or the other suggests that by using these strategies their opponent is un-American (but that charge, of course, follows RULES 3, 5, and 12).

This is uncomfortable territory for me, and for a lot of folks who would prefer to see some actual discussion of the issues, but that's not really possible in today's radicalized and polarized America, is it? Nobody who was above the fray could survive long enough to get into power.

So I guess we'll end up settling for name-calling (but not outing) and the naked application of power politics....

... because we lack the character and imagination to do anything better.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

good summary of Alinksy's rules - thnaks very much!