I recently saw a ‘debate’ that pitted conservative apologist Dinesh D’Souza against the President of the Alinsky Center and Saul Alinsky’s son David. James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, monitored the ‘debate.’ Interestingly, O’Keefe opened the debate by admitting that he’s read Rules for Radicals numerous times.
He also closed the debate by revealing that he has the Thomas Paine epigram found in Rules for Radicals hanging in his office. That quote, which I think is an excellent way to open this article, is this: “Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul…”
That quote is also etched on Saul Alinsky’s tombstone.
While I watched this ‘debate,’ along with the conservative comments in the thread, it reinforced some of the ideas I have been entertaining lately about the nature of power, or, as I like to say, the reality of power. Before I get to the debate, let me offer a brief explanation on what I understand power to be.
I call myself a VisPrivusion (I coined the word). It comes from the Latin Vis- Power, and Privus- Individual. For me, it means anyone who advocates for tipping the balance of power always towards individuals and free associations over coercive enterprises (the state).
A Visprivusian is not necessarily an Anarchist, but is happy to continue, as far as human reality allows, down the path towards the strengthening of individual and free association power and the ever-diminishing power of the coercive enterprise (which, I must confess, I don’t believe ends with Anarchy, save in isolated areas, and then only for finite periods of time).
I believe Alinsky understood what I would call the Reality of Power. Power is the ability to act and to influence the action of others. We influence through demonstration, through ideas, through social acceptance and ostracism and finally through use of force. Understanding this cold reality strips you from the mythos of idealism and allows you to stand, unabashedly, on your preference, and identify those who share your core preferences.
For me, that core preference is to have as much power to choose my own action and to see others have that same power (because I recognize if my neighbors do not have that power, they probably won’t support me having that power, and even if they did, they won’t have the power to help me gain ad preserve that power).
While the ‘debate’ was about Alinsky himself, it focused mostly on his book, Rules for Radicals. In that book, I believe he touches on all four spheres of influence and has some powerful ‘hacks’ to affect in very powerful ways the demonstrable and social spheres of influence, and secondarily the ideational and forceful.
As for the ‘debate’ itself, sadly, the debate format had too small a span of time and the format allowed for little authentic rebuttal. Dinesh was afforded a significant period of time to rebut the opening statements of Benko and Alinsky, who were both afforded 2 minutes each to address Dinesh’s laundry list of attacks on Saul Alinsky.
Benko focused on appealing to the audience to read the book for themselves and proposed you could find the same principles that inspired the 56 signers of the declaration of independence in the book. With just two minutes to answer Dinesh’s laundry list, it was probably the best Benko could do.
As I listened to the debate, I found myself thinking that I don’t know if Rules for Radicals influenced me subliminally or not, but it seems to me that Alinsky was a power pragmatist who recognized the tools he had and how to effectively utilize those tools. He must have been influenced by the stoics and, possibly Ayn Rand (who herself was essentially a modern-day stoic).
I too am rooted in the stoics and I too take a pragmatic approach to life, but a pragmatism framed in values that are born from a preference to have the power to choose with the least amount of coercive action altering the ease of that free choice. I suspect Alinsky shared that preference as well. When I read Rules for Radicals some years ago, I did not have such a pragmatic belief or understanding of the reality of power, so, perhaps this book helped significantly nudge me towards that understanding.
Dinesh D’Souza gives as evidence of Saul Alinsky’s lack of character his embrace of self-interest. In that critique, Dinesh reveals more about his own tendency to embrace collectivist thought than he does Alinsky’s. Embracing self-interest, I believe, is not selfish, but key to self-discovery and key to coming to an understanding of the actual nature of the reality of power around you, such as you can grasp that complex, shifting reality.
In fact, there is no such thing as selfless acts. Anyone who fancies there are, is simply not willing to face their own preferential reality, and is far more aligned with Marxism than the one who does not shy away from the reality of self-interest. On this score, I found Dinesh far more aligned with “Marxist’ thought than Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals. The ‘ideal’ of selflessness is one of the favorite tools of tyrants, who use such ideals to condition their subjects to accept misery, limited pursuit of self-preference, in exchange for the ‘greater good,’ but more brutally, in exchange for social approval based on the ‘ideal’ of being a selfless person.
Another one of the charges Dinesh made was that Saul Alinsky declared he was trying to get as much as he could with as little work as possible. If Alinsky really did declare he wanted to get things with as little effort as possible, I applaud him for it. I suspect Dinesh is merely reflecting the Protestant American, or Calvinist work ethic.
The Calvinist work ethic that has filled America with the ‘work for work’s sake’ is an ethic I believe needs to die, hard, now. I suspect Dinesh recognized in Alinsky a chaffing at this high moral standard. This high moral standard, I believe, does not recognize the dignity of humans, but rather, the ‘dignity’ of work. Again, this type of thinking is more in keeping with Marxist thought than any thought of a free-minded, or, liberal (n the classic sense) person.
The Calvinist work ethic is a great ethic if you have and wish to preserve a system that produces a lot of tremendously difficult and time-consuming work for a large percentage of people to simply sustain themselves. This system hardly allows any time or energy for individuals to discover to any depth who they are.
Meanwhile, a small minority have greater opportunity to flourish in exploration, and do so not necessarily because they earned it but because many of them used the levers of coercive power to cut off fair and open competition. To be sure, I myself do not want to collectivize successful people (as in, people who have accrued great wealth). And I don’t believe Alinsky was doing that either. More on that next.
On another point, Dinesh decides to equate Saul Alinsky with Marxism because Alinsky talks about the haves and the have nots. As a matter of fact, understanding the nature of the haves and have nots is essential to understanding the book itself. My understanding of Rules for Radicals is that the haves and have nots is NOT a class-based designation, as Dinesh wanted to mischaracterize it as, but that it was a recognition of the reality of the human condition.
Dinesh, though, never challenges the efficacy of the claim that there are such conditions as have and have not, but only seems to suggest that merely observing this reality makes you a Marxist. He never actually challenges the claim itself.
There ARE haves. There ARE have nots. Observing this fact is not, in and of itself, an expression of value for haves or for have nots. Understanding the dynamics of the haves and have nots is key in understanding the levers of power, where to pull, where to push, not a condemnation of the haves as a collective class. It is NOT, as Dinesh seems to suggest, envy of wealth.
For those that have accrued wealth, and hold on to that wealth, using the levers of power to coercively prevent or diminish fair and open competition (something that would actually be antithetical to a true free market), there is no endorsement, acceptance, legitimization of that type of ‘success.’ And on this front, I would agree with Saul, not Dinesh.
I can understand how Saul might feel were he alive today to hear this critique. I get attacked all the time for making statements that people assume reflects what I want to be rather than what I believe is.
When I listen to Dinesh, I hear in him the same ‘sins’ that he identifies on the left. He spent a fair part of his presentation attacking the character of Saul Alinsky, even, at one point, implying Alinsky was a hypocrite because he died on a beach front property.He leaves out the fact that Alinsky was at that beach front property to take care of his sick mother. He also leaves out the fact that if Alinsky WERE a wealthy man (which he most assuredly was not), that is IRRELEVENT to the veracity of his claims made in the book, Rules for Radicals. Dinesh did to Alinsky what he accuses the left of doing to the right, as Benko adeptly pointed out, he attacked the person, not the ideas.
The other thing that Dinesh does that the left is also guilty of (and for which Dinesh has called them out in the past), is hide behind a vague ideal that is unevenly applied. On this front, I haven’t figured out if Dinesh is trapped in his own success, creating a product that appeals to a certain, I’m going to call them, myopic, jingoistic audience, or if he believes the simplistic, though beautifully articulated, words that come out of his mouth.
The secret to Dinesh is mostly the certainty and melisma of his tone, not necessarily the information the words contain.
He has created a very black and white world with heroes and villains. I can see this in how he characterized the republicans as the gentlemen, when, in fact, that’s not the case. They were not, are not gentlemen, but they are committed to the veneer of Rule of Law, Law and Order, and thus their own brand compels them to be, publicly, civil, while behind closed doors, there were murders, thefts, betrayals, etc. And, in many cases, outright collusion with the other side.
Dinesh likes to attribute the emergence of increasing ruthlessness on the side of the left to Alinsky, ignoring the real cause of the rise of ruthlessness in the political world, the further concentration of power, and the consequences of elections where there is increasingly all winning and all losing. Politics has always been a blood sport, and it always will be. The greater the prize, the more the blood.
The left had no stigma against Alinsky. Instead, they embraced his tactics, tactics that, as David Alinsky said, can be used by ANYONE for ALMOST ANY REASON. Never mind that they don’t fully follow his rules, even following them imperfectly can and will yield results.
I see Dinesh (and I saw him this way before this ‘debate’) as either an idealist uncomfortable looking at his own unveiled preferences (whatever they might be) or simply a product that will not change the message because then the product loses its audience.
I strongly suspect the latter, because I cannot believe a man with his intellectual power is still trapped in the fantasy world of heroes and villains, where somehow conservatives are the guys with white hats, as is America, and everyone else is at best dirty grey, but mostly wearing black hats.
In this ‘debate,’ Dinesh spent all of this time either impugning the character of Saul Alinsky or attacking the book on a few ‘points,’ one of which was Alinsky’s phrasing of the haves and the have nots and the other was in Alinsky’s dedication (which was not a dedication) to “Lucifer.”
It is telling to me that Dinesh NEVER addressed a single one of Alinsky’s Rules directly. He never discussed the truth of Alinsky’s observed understanding of the reality of power.
When he did touch on a rule (as I outlined in his ‘critique’ of the haves and have nots), he dealt with it from a high-handed moral ground, never addressing if his rule was an accurate reflection of the reality of power he was describing.
And herein lies my fundamental issues with Dinesh, an issue I have not just with conservatives or progressives, but even with Anarchists and Libertarians. Rather than face the reality of power around him, as well as his own reality of preference, Dinesh spent his entire presentation moralizing, casting aspersion on Alinsky’s character and hiding behind words like freedom to attack (though never directly) the actual substance of the truth claims Alinsky made in his book.
To be sure, we all have our little gods, our ideals, values that we place in the unquestionable category of objective absolute standing, cutting ourselves off from critical thought, cutting ourselves off from coming to terms with who we truly are and not who we truly hope to be, but I fear Dinesh has many gods, and many of those gods are not so little.
Whether he is a self-made victim of his own pantheon of gods or he is the man that Alinsky declared he would never be, a man who whored his own soul, Dinesh D’Souza demonstrated in this presentation that he is not a light for understanding, for truth, for reality, but merely a light, a symbol for a whole group of people that have similar gods, the conservative gods.
If you wish to have your conservative worldview unquestioningly reinforced, then Dinesh, for you, will be an inspiration, but if you wish to understand what is (such as humans can know such things) and if you wish to understand who and what you are (such as humans can understand such things), you’d learn far more on both those fronts by reading and understanding Rules for Radicals then you ever would listening to or reading the thoughts of Dinesh D’Souza.
For those of us who dare imagine a world without coercive enterprises, this quote is one we must embrace if we are to be effective ambassadors of the values of liberty that emerge from a preference for self-direction: “Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul…”
Own your preferences and follow your values that emerge from those preferences. Do not become a whore to values that did not emerge from an understanding of your own preferences, whether you do it for your audience, or for your own perceived ‘peace of mind.’ Dinesh has chosen the safe path, the path of the house cat, as Ralph Benko called him, not the alley cat as he called himself, as I also call myself.
As the old saw goes, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Hiding behind unchallenged, unassailable ideals is as sure a way as any to start off on that journey, a journey that will make you feel good about yourself while you travel, but might ultimately destroy who you were really striving to be.
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