Useable Knowledge: Combating Rules for Radicals

I used to teach a class in which we read and discussed Susan Bordo’s chapter “Hunger as Ideology” from her quite interesting and provocative Unbearable Weight. Although the chapter contains some complex theories and presents a decidedly feminist slant (of which I very much approve, btw), it was fodder for much lively discussion among students because it talks about the way that advertisers create ads that emphasize the female body in an unrealistic and unattainable way.  Bordo explains that advertisers engage in perpetuating and reinforcing what she terms “gender ideology,” and that this is done both consciously and unconsciously and received by readers/viewers both consciously and unconsciously.
This has certainly become a more accepted view since the book was published in the early ’90’s, but students were very resistant to the idea that they are being subtly manipulated.  As Bordo notes, students insist “these are just images, not ‘real life’; any fool knows that advertisers manipulate reality in the service of selling their products” (104).  My own students would take this still further, arguing that they know that eyeliner is not going to make them look like a fashion model or movie star or get them respect, riches, or whatever else the ad portrays.  Yet Bordo, I believe, is right, when she acknowledges that “on some level, we do know this” (104), and she goes on to explain that it’s not “useable knowledge” (104).  If it were useable knowledge, she argues, “it is unlikely that we would be witnessing the current spread of diet and exercise mania . . . ” (104).  Her argument, then, is that if we stop and think about it, we know that no product is going to perform “magic” and improve any aspect of our lives, but we don’t stop and think about it, we just absorb what we see, and it becomes a part of our social and cultural understanding, formulating far more than our views of makeup or the latest diet craze, but actually subtly reinforcing traditional gender roles.
There’s much truth in this, and it’s the same truth that I see in Alinsky’s strategies for radicals seeking . . . well, change.  I’d seen something about this on Fox News (forget the program), and my ears perked up a bit.  BO’s huge success with the populace has long been inexplicable to me.  I mean, I thought he was attractive, charming, and articulate (before we learned how much he depends on teleprompters and what a stuttering mess he becomes when he’s thrown off), but that didn’t explain why so many people were willing, even eager, to toss common sense, analytic thought, and reason to the winds in their rabid desire to support him.  He had little to say (though he talked constantly), and what he did say was quite alarming.  Why did no one want to know about anything that might besmirch their image of him?  The real man is very different from that facade and persona he’s created, but they just didn’t want to know. 

So when I read LL’s Obama’s Playbook post yesterday, I did so with both a sense of vindication and a sense of utter disgust, and not a little fear.  I did a quick Google search and found an article by Craig Miyamoto entitled Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (referencing Alinsky’s out of print book). He writes:

To paraphrase some sage advice, “keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.” If your business or organization ever becomes a target of radical activists, it will be extremely helpful to know what strategies of attack will used against you. Short of having spies infiltrate their organization – a practice that is sure to be found out and exposed to your discredit – it would help to study their methods.
Known as the “father of modern American radicalism,” Saul D. Alinsky (1909-1972) developed strategies and tactics that take the enormous, unfocused emotional energy of grassroots groups and transform it into effective anti-government and anti-corporate activism. Activist organizations teach his ideas widely taught today as a set of model behaviors, and they use these principles to create an emotional commitment to victory – no matter what.
Grassroots pressure on large organizations is reality, and there is every indication that it will grow. Because the conflicts manifest in high-profile public debate and often-panicked decision-making, studying Alinsky’s rules will help organizations develop counteractive strategies that can level the playing field.
Governments and corporations have inherent weaknesses. And, time and again, they repeat mistakes that other large organizations have made, even repeating their OWN mistakes. Alinsky’s out-of-print book – “Rules for Radicals” – illustrates why opposition groups take on large organizations with utter glee, and why these governments and corporations fail to win.
Large organizations have learned to stonewall and not empower activists. In other words, they try to ignore radical activists and are never as committed to victory as their opposition is committed to defeating them. Result? They are unprepared for the hailstorm of brutal tactics that severely damage their reputation and send them running with their tails between their legs.
And this is exactly what we’ve seen done time and again by the BO campaign and administration:
Some of these rules are ruthless, but they work. Here are the rules to be aware of:

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.)

I’m sure you don’t need me to go through and show you exactly how and when these tactics have been used; it’s pretty clear, really.  So let me just say that the BO team has certainly done their Alinsky homework and taken these “rules” to heart, particularly, we have seen Rules 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 10, 11, and 12.  Look at the ridicule that the Tea Party and Town Hall goers have endured, BO’s constantly telling people that republicans offer no solutions (this is patently false, but he’s said it so often that to his people, it’s fact), look at that monstrosity Pelosi sniffling about impending violence (knowing that to date, all violence has actually come from the left), and the active work being put into polarizing this nation and its people (all while saying that the goal is the opposite).

Look at the demonization of Sarah Palin, the lies that were spread like wild fire.  I remember writing a blog post about the more ridiculous lies that were being bandied about the internet, and actually had commenters admit that they didn’t know it was all untrue  . . . . but the facts just didn’t matter, they’d been swept up in the manipulation and were being driven by the puppet master.  It was one of my more shocking moments as a blogger, that thinking people whom I respect could look at the mountain of evidence that proved that their opinion of Palin was based in outright lies and misrepresentation and still somehow believe it.  The knowledge, then, was not useable to these readers. (oops, sorry, I know I said that I wouldn’t point to specific instances of the application of these “rules”; I do get carried away sometimes.)

My students who so readily dismissed the effects of advertising on their perceptions of gender were college freshmen, so they can be excused (if that’s the right word) for not quite comprehending the insidious nature of broad-scale sub- and unconscious manipulation.  We, however, cannot be so wide-eyed and innocent, cannot afford to be so blessedly idealistic and confident of our own power to use the knowledge that we have, that we know to be so . . . if we only stop to think about it.  I’m not sure that we can really turn something we know intellectually into something that is actually useable knowledge, but surely the first step is to realize what is happening and to be aware that we are pawns in a huge, very high stakes game.


Update:  A great article about BO’s use of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. A NYTimes article on Alinsky’s Rules, very interesting, provides a view that conservatives are applying them (but reveals more about the left than it does the right.)


14 thoughts on “Useable Knowledge: Combating Rules for Radicals

  1. i can't help but be reminded of that essay i linked to the other day, “the 7-lesson schoolteacher”:

    School as it was built is an essential support system for a vision
    of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones
    in a pyramid that narrows as it ascends to a terminal of control.
    School is an artifice which makes such a pyramidal social order seem
    inevitable, although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the
    American Revolution. In colonial days right through the period of the
    early Republic we had no schools to speak of — read Franklin's
    Autobiography for a man who had no time to waste in school — and yet
    the promise of Democracy was beginning to be realized. We turned our
    backs on this promise by bringing to life the ancient dream of Egypt —
    compulsory subordination for all. That was the secret Plato reluctantly
    transmitted in The Republics when Glaucon and Adeimantus exhorted from
    Socrates the plan for total state control of human life that would be
    necessary to maintain a society where some people took more than their
    share. “I will show you,” said Socrates, “how to bring about such a
    feverish city, but you will not like what I am going to say.” And so
    the blueprint of the seven lesson school was first sketched.

    i don't think it would matter who was in the white house or which party was in control. i feel like i've become one of those crazy, paranoid conspiracy theorists, but the last eight years or so have really made me start thinking this way. and a “change” in leadership has not made me think any differently.

    the other day you said to me, “i know you're an obama supporter…” but the truth is, while i did hope that maybe we could get this country turned back around in the right direction, my original belief still seems to be true: politicians are nothing but lying weasels willing to tell you anything you want to hear in order to get elected. at the end of the day, there's really no difference which party they're from. they aren't looking out for our best interest but only their own.

  2. Hi Kerry, it's always wonderful to see you here! πŸ™‚ I loved that article you linked and see the connection you make here.

    I also understand what you are saying about politicians in general terms, and I do agree. I think, though, that what we are faced with now is a true crisis for this country. There is no doubt in my mind that BO has already told us exactly what he wants and that he is working toward it every day. Sometimes taking small steps, sometimes large, but he's not taking many steps back, and I just hope that we have time. He's not changing the direction this country is going in, he's forging a new path for us, a path that few see and fewer still want to go down.

  3. Thought I ought to catch up on you. But you're a bit prolific. So I'll have to pop back back rather more often. Fuzzy, I wasn't sure that these rules offered anything new. They seemed to mirror Hollywood's strategy in 'Primary Colors' for example. Isn't the point that the Candidate is a nice looking, nice sounding figurehead? The real action comes not from the President but from the policy and teleprompter writers. I'm also not so sure about the perception manipulation. I accept that some of this is subliminal unconconscious stereotyping, but surely to interrupt that you'd have to change all representations of women – soap operas, fashion (and men's) mags, pop, sport, etc. Don't these also reinforce traditional gender roles?

  4. Neil! No way! I'm so happy to see you πŸ™‚ And no need to read through all my blather, just doing the usual musing.

    Oh, there's nothing new about this at all. Even Alinsky (1909-1972) didn't invent it, he simply provided a “formula” for use by radicals, one they've adopted with vigor. As Kerry points out, these same strategies have been used for ages, going back to ancient Greece. What is problematic here, from my perspective, is the adaptation of these strategies to push a radial agenda that will essentially “transform” this country (to quote BO).

    And yes, of course the depiction of gender in all media forms does the same thing, acts in the same way, has the same effect. Bordo does address this in other chapters of her book (and in numerous articles, as well), but the chapter that I was referencing focused on advertisements (and afforded me a means of cogently discussing “useable knowledge” without writing a book of my own, hehe). But as this post isn't about Bordo, per se (or gender), I didn't see the need to go into her ideas. Though, actually, that wouldn't be a bad idea for a post one of these days! πŸ™‚

    Yay! So happy to “see” you; I've missed you bunches.

  5. D'oh, I didn't address your point about the “figurehead” thing. In some ways, the presidency is that, but the executive branch has a lot of power in this country, and BO's maxing it out these days with his appointment of all these czars (before he even finishes filling actual cabinet positions that should be overseeing these departments). He also has both houses of Congress at present, so he's got both the legislative and the executive branches at his beck and call (they, for example, shot down the motion in the Senate yesterday to halt funding for czars until there is more transparency concerning them, and more oversight by Congress allowed. As is, they answer only to the president. Also, Bush really started amassing the power in the executive branch, and BO is simply expanding it at an alarming rate. He is certainly not a figurehead, not in any sense of the word.

  6. Hi Opus, I so agree. We need to know what they are doing and either do the same thing, use the same strategy, or find a way to effectively combat it. I know we can. The left is already intimidated by the real grassroots uprisings that have been taking place and that they certainly didn't expect, and they are trying most of these “rules,” some are working, some are not. Thanks for stopping in! πŸ™‚

  7. Wow you're good πŸ™‚ Very, very good. Curious about your background. I'm reading those 'rules', and I'm seeing BO's activity all over them, as well as others on the left. For example, I think rule 5 is Jon Stewart – ridicule. And rule 4 – Obama, attacking Bush over 'torture' by turning waterboarding into torture, forcing them (and all who support him) into a corner. Thanks for dropping by my site!

  8. Hi Candle and welcome! And many thanks for the kind words–you've made my day. πŸ™‚

    You make an excellent point, one that I hadn't considered, when you mention the “torture” that our protectors in the CIA are being accused of. It's amazing to me that they call “embarrassment” torture or having smoke blown in your face (if that's the case, more than a few strangers have tortured me on numerous occasions). But yes, this is a great example of a couple of the rules. The fact that BO, in the face of seven former CIA directors'–from four different administrations–formal request to stop the AG, refused to do so is suggestive of that unrelenting attack, of holding the victim (or enemy, as Opus says, we're at war) to their own standards or rules. It also plays into the demonization of and explains the continued attacks on George Bush (in particular, this reopening of the closed investigation is *about* continuing that anti-Bush sentiment that worked well for them for eight years).

    They want to keep us off our game, not leave us time to regroup, etc. (Rule 8). If we're not being attacked for torturing people, we're being called idiots and “angry mobs” (anyone see the REAL angry and violent mobs at the G20? Not a conservative among the lot of them, but we won't hear a peep about the violence or their disgusting behavior–they are targeting us, after all), or we're being called racists, terrorists, etc.

    It's all there, in the Rulebook. Anyone else feeling a little empowered? Now that I know what they're up to, it all seems so transparent, almost silly. Finding a way to combat it on a larger scale will be a challenge, but I think that the right are up to it.

  9. Thank you so much for this exquisite and informative post. This serves as a primer for littlebrains like me who often see propaganda as the spontaneous flow on questionable information. Naivete runs deep in my family.

  10. Thanks, Nickie, for your kind words. I don't think anyone is naive who thinks that propaganda is spontaneous, but we've seen so much evidence that it's not (including the attempted takeover of the National Endowment for the Arts), that I was just looking for something, anything to explain not only BO's (to me inexplicable) popularity but also how and why thinking people on the left (and they DO exist) actually buy into all the hateful and disgusting things that are said about conservatives. This was all I could come up with. I'm so glad you liked it; I definitely enjoy your posts a great deal.

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