Radical Rules for the Present

I just finished reading Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals on the bus ride home from work. Though published in 1971 a few passages stood out to me for their relevance today, politically and personally. This seemed longer than my usual book reviews so here it goes.

  1. One of his key lessons is that organizers must respect the “dignity of the individual.” He writes that “we secretly believe that we know what’s best for the people.” I feel this acutely as an educator. Do I really know what is best for students and families? For the teachers I coach? Am I doing enough to have people “participate fully in the solutions to their own problems”? Eloquently, Alinsky explains the bidirectional nature of education when he writes, it “is as much an educational process for the organizer [or teacher] as it is for the people with whom [s]he is working.” He goes on to explain that “real education is the means by which the membership [students] will begin to make sense out of their relationship as individuals to the organization and to the world they live in, so that they can make informed and intelligent judgments.” Essentially, educational experiences (in his case, organizing) should ultimately help people make informed decisions. Today a student asked me, “Why can’t I go to high school in Boston when I live in Chelsea?” This is an opportunity to learn about their relationship to structures and institutions, like school districts, and to decide what they think is fair and just.
  2. Alinsky lists a series of tactics, one of which is “a good tactic is one that your people enjoy.” This reminds me of my mom’s admonition to have fun while standing up for what we believe in. When planning our actions and responses to injustice, this is not the moment to metaphorically run sprints that make us puke. Instead, it is the moment to run a marathon in a funny costume with our friends.
  3. Despite the publication date, the book’s conclusion reads like a crystal ball. He insists that the middle class is essential to reaching the change we seek in society. Tapping into the “silent majority” for positive ends, instead of exploiting fear for profit, is key. The organizer “should realize the priceless value of his middle-class experience…for [the] organization of his ‘own people.'” This reminded me of the internal dialogue I’ve had for a long time about where to put my energy as an educator with my values. Should I focus where the need is high or where I can organize my “own people”? How can I convince friends, family, and acquaintances of my ideas without alienating them?
  4. His analysis of the lower middle class resonates with the other book I just finished, Hillbilly Elegy. He lists their feelings: “hurt, bitter, suspicious, feeling rejected and at bay,” “beset by taxes,” “fearful of…the shadow of unemployment…mortageges outstanding,” “they look to the unemployed poor as parasitical dependents.” All this leads to “an extreme chauvinism” as “defenders of the ‘American’ faith” and turn people towards “a political paranoia which can demonize people to turn to the law of survival.” But he warns, “to reject them is to lose them by default. They will not shrivel and disappear. You can’t switch channels and get rid of them.” This is not a soft portrait. It is a portrait written by a man who, at the end of his life, wanted to make clear the importance of the white working class as a community with real values that must be understood or we risk “totalitarianism or forward to Act II of the American Revolution.” What can we do now?



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