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Alinsky v birthers

Photo of Saul AlinskyI haven’t read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, and in fact I had never heard of it before some right-wing type accused someone else of using “Alinsky tactics” online. I was reminded of it again by one of the birthers at Birther Report listing the rules (according to the Wikipedia article correctly). What I thought I would do here is take each rule and think about how it has been used, or might be used in the birther context. Some of the rules I think are good ones to follow, and some I do not.

The Rules

image“Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.”

That’s certainly true. I can go as far back as the story of Gideon in the Bible for an example. This is a poor rule to start off with, because I don’t see much application to birtherism. I suppose that the birthers do overestimate the power of their opponents (that the entire government, courts and media are all against them), but their actions don’t appear to be dampened by that belief and call into question how genuine it is.

At the beginning, I suppose I overestimated the potential for birtherism to reach a tipping point, but that proved not to be the case and I don’t think any anti-birther today is concerned about any future birther ascendancy. We think that birthers are toothless.

“Never go outside the expertise of your people.”

This is wonderful advice for everyone, and everyone is guilty of violating it at least sometimes. Birthers, however, build their entire world view on crackpot experts from their own ranks. Not following this rule is their greatest weakness.

“Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.”

This is an anti-birther tactic, and it is easy to employ because the birthers themselves are so utterly inexpert—from the pathetic legal briefs of Orly Taitz, to armchair image analysts too laborious to list. Using this tactic is not a conscious anti-birther choice, but it is rather forced on us—birther expertise is so tiny that it is hard not to go outside it.

“Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”

If birthers have any rules, I haven’t been able to discover them. Their tactics, such as making stuff up, claiming false expertise, and invalid argument are definitely not consistent enough to make a birther live up to them. Sometimes we do point out the hypocrisy of a birther asking for proof from Obama that they wouldn’t ask of another president, but we have never had success at making birthers be consistent.

“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”

Pretty much any time you hear Alinsky invoked as a counterargument (i.e. a diversion) it is in relation to this rule. I would point out that the Alinsky defense against ridicule is itself ridicule. I personally think that ridicule can be overdone. I regularly use phrases like “nonsense” (fairly and accurately), but I reserve “complete idiot” for special cases.

One tactic I have use against the particularly vulgar commenters at Birther Report is to say “does your mother know you talk like that.” It is often effective at ending a thread. A tactic that I want to try to use more is the whining defense, something like:

Anti-birther: That’s a stupid thing to say.

Birther: You’re using Alinsky tactics.

Anti-birther: Stop whining.

“A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”

I don’t know what birthers enjoy except saying degrading things about Barack Obama. I like figuring out rigorous refutations of birther theories; debunking is a tactic I enjoy, as do I think many others on the anti-birther side. I also think a number of anti-birthers enjoy the ridicule tactic.

“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”

The birther tactic of appealing to future evidence is certainly one that has  been over used and has worn thin, with even the birthers becoming frustrated with it. The lawsuit as political theater tactic has also lost its luster. I don’t think debunking the one thousand and first birther claim has much impact either.

“Keep the pressure on. Never let up.”

Photo of may carrying signThe birthers have certainly followed this rule well. Some birther blogs have closed down, but most of the main characters are still birthin’. Birther Report publishes multiple articles per day, even though many of them are old, or repeats of recent articles. I remember the blog, The Steady Drip, as having a title exemplifying this principle. The Cold Case Posse (more on that later) also uses this tactic, and the continuing meritless lawsuits against Obama and others falls under this category.

One must give the birthers credit for taking an unsubstantiated remark on a right-wing blog and convincing a majority of Republicans that it was true, and for rebounding magnificently after the hit caused by the release of President Obama’s long form birth certificate. Clearly steady pressure has had an effect, but not on the people that matter (the electoral majority).

“The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”

Birthers do not use this to effect. For example, I get threats all the time that I am being investigated or that I will be tried for treason. For a threat to be believed, it has to have some grain of truth behind it, and these threats do not.  I think very few consider anything the birthers do a threat. Birthers use threats to motivate other birthers to more effect, creating anxiety about the destruction of the country, marshal (sic) law, economic collapse and dictatorship. (Note: the subtle ridicule in the previous sentence).

“The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.”

Birther organizations don’t seem to have been effective—birthers don’t play well together. Conspiracy theorists are by nature loners in the first place. The only organizations that hold together in birtherism are a few online communities, such as this blog, The Fogbow, the Free Republic and Birther Report. The problem with those operations is that they don’t really maintain any pressure upon the opposition.

The closest thing that the birthers have to an operational tactic is the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Cold Case Posse, that attempts to maintain pressure through press releases and lobbying Congress. The problem with the CCP is that its pressure is ineffectual.

I would draw a sharp contrast between the success of the Tea Party and the failure of the birthers. This alone speaks strongly against birthers having the kind of funding and resources that the Tea Party did.

“If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.”

This was explained by Austin Cline saying:

You can’t win every battle, but you also need to avoid admitting to having lost any battles. Losing can breed an attitude that you’re losers; winning can breed the attitude that your winners. So, whatever happens, you need to find ways to turn losses into victories.

Birthers are big on not admitting that they have lost. The Cold Case Posse has made so many stupid mistakes that I’ve lost count. There is an entire Facebook group dedicated to the lies of Mike Zullo and Carl Gallups. Still Zullo has never, ever, admitted a mistake. Birthers in general never admit defeat in arguments—they just advance to the next talking point.

On the other hand, folks like myself, regularly admit when they are wrong (fortunately it doesn’t happen all that often). And when we do that, the birthers are instantly on the offensive, to divert from their own failures that they do not admit to the failures of others who do admit them.

Birthers operate more in an excuse making mode than pressing negatives; birthers who lose lawsuits blame it on the judge or technicalities.

The best example I can think of for turning a loss into a victory was when Donald Trump, after the humiliating refutation of his ludicrous claims by the release of President Obama’s birth certificate, declared victory for clearing the issue up by forcing the President’s hand. President Obama countered with ridicule a few days later at the White House Correspondents Association dinner when he said:

Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately but no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like, “Did we fake the moon landing?’” “What really happened on Roswell?” And “Where are Biggie and Tupac?’”

“The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”

Birthers will never have a “successful attack” so they really don’t need to find a constructive alternative. Their goal is destruction and they do not see beyond that.1 The anti-birther alternative is the 2016 presidential election.

“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

I think that both sides use this tactic. A number of folks have tried to “out” their opponents, to publicly identify anonymous persons with an opposing viewpoint. Especially the birthers tend to go to extremes to make up wild accusations about the persons they personalize.

Conclusion

I haven’t detected anyone consciously basing their strategy on Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Maybe someone like Sam Sewell thinks about it, but I don’t know. The only principles that I have made any attempt to follow beyond basic integrity are the occasional reference to a chart on correcting misinformation that I have taped up next to my monitor.


1When I wrote that, I was reminded of the ending of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Fixer. The protagonist had been unjustly accused of a crime by the anti-Semitic Russian authorities and mercilessly badgered by the police. At the very end, he is being conveyed to court and somebody throws a bomb that I suppose was part of a revolutionary plot. (The story is based on a historical event.) The book (as I recall) ends at the point of violence, not the redress of the wrong.

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26 Responses to Alinsky v birthers

  1. avatar
    Slartibartfast November 27, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    Great article Doc! I’ve always thought that birther references to Alinsky’s rules were one of their more pathetic traits—opposing a tactic that can be used by people of any ideology (like the “war on terror”) is likely to be both ridiculous and ineffective.

  2. avatar
    Bonsall Obot November 27, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

    This post is an example of Alinskyite Ridicule, therefore proving that Obots are shaking with fear. Any Day Now…

  3. avatar
    Thinker November 27, 2013 at 11:43 pm #

    I have pretty good liberal bona fides and I had never heard of Saul Alinsky until I came across the anti-Obama wingnuts. When I finally read the book, I was underwhelmed. It’s a nice compilation of ideas, but none of the tactics he writes about were new to me or nor are they unique to his philosophy. These losers who whine about Alinsky tactics–do they really think Saul Alinsky invented ridicule, or was the first person to recognize its power? And do they honestly not see how teabaggers themselves use these same tactics?

    I was waiting for a table at a restaurant a couple weeks ago and Fox News was on in the entryway where I was waiting. Somebody was interviewing Dr. Ben Carson. I didn’t catch the details of the discussion, but I did catch him using the generic, worn-out criticism that Democrats were just engaging in Alinsky tactics. I know very little about him, but anyone who wastes his breath on a vacuous answer like that to any question is probably not going to be high on my list of people I respect.

  4. avatar
    OllieOxenFree November 28, 2013 at 1:04 am #

    Kerchner can’t write a single article without throwing in “Alinsky,” somewhere, nor can he debate anyone without claiming “Alinsky tactics.”

    I often ask people who shout “Alinsky tactics,” if claiming Alinsky is in itself an “Alinsky tactic?” Rather than actually debate a subject, they somehow seem to think that crying Alinsky settles the argument.

    Like you Doc, I had never heard of Alinsky or his book until it was brought up in a debate with another person only recently. It also seems to me that those who can most easily quote him are those who claim to oppose him the most.

  5. avatar
    RoadScholar November 28, 2013 at 1:14 am #

    Alinski is an amateur. I rely on The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

  6. avatar
    JPotter November 28, 2013 at 1:33 am #

    “I suppose that the birthers do overestimate the power of their opponents…”

    Indeed they do, and it takes classic conspiratorial form.

    Birthers are wingnuts. Wingnuts choose—or more precisely, imagine—their own opponents. They dream up archetypical bogeymen, and assign them to real-world personages. Then they proceed to “fight” their own fantasies, which has little effect on the targeted people. It looks like windmill-tilting, and the targets, and rational observers, are left wondering what the hell is wrong with those people. Wingnuts’ opponents are all in their head.

    “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.”

    That one doesn’t work for the birfers, because their “enemy” knows they have squat. Irrational and spastic, they are easily blown off and ridiculed; thus, The Empty Chair. Convincing your chosen enemy from the git-go that you have no power is a bit of a handicap.

    ______________________

    The early Tea Party organizers latched on to Alinsky, and pushed it as “The Bible of the Left”. Someone (named Koch?) must have been nursing an old 70s-era grudge/obsession. Quite an oversimplification, To think everyone who doesn’t agree with them can be understand by reading one, old book. I enjoyed his writings, but they’re pretty obscure … or were until the TP resurrected him to play bogeyman! I hope his family is still getting royalties.

  7. avatar
    Slartibartfast November 28, 2013 at 1:49 am #

    Strategy without tactics is the slowest road to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. The absence of both is the recipe for a birther FAIL.

    RoadScholar:
    Alinski is an amateur.I rely on The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

  8. avatar
    brygenon November 28, 2013 at 2:47 am #

    If you’ve never seen Bill Maher on the the matter, I recommend it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRL9CI2G_T8

  9. avatar
    Thinker November 28, 2013 at 2:51 am #

    I think that wingnuts declare something an Alinsky tactic because they believe it invalidates whatever point the other person is making. It allows them to ignore evidence and logic and reality, which is an absolute necessity for wingnuts.

    OllieOxenFree:
    I often ask people who shout “Alinsky tactics,” if claiming Alinsky is in itself an “Alinsky tactic?”Rather than actually debate a subject, they somehow seem to think that crying Alinsky settles the argument.

  10. avatar
    The Magic M November 28, 2013 at 4:29 am #

    Thinker: I think that wingnuts declare something an Alinsky tactic because they believe it invalidates whatever point the other person is making.

    It’s a modern version of Godwin’s Law. Just like people believe comparing someone/something/an argument to Hitler or Goebbels automatically “wins” the debate. (You can still see this in creationists who think claiming Hitler used Darwinism to justify the Holocaust automatically invalidates evolution theory.)

    “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

    Of all the rules, this is the one that most reminds me of Scientology. Similar verbiage can be found in some of the OT materials, usually the “target” in that context is an “implant” (like a memory or a fear).

    Thinker: do they really think Saul Alinsky invented ridicule, or was the first person to recognize its power?

    Ironically, they follow the rule I just quoted – they “personalize” ridicule by attributing everything to Alinsky.

  11. avatar
    Krosis November 28, 2013 at 7:44 am #

    Yeah, these tactics (the headlines, at least, I dunno if Alinsky elaborated on them in his book more specifically) are rather generic.

  12. avatar
    Andrew Vrba, PmG November 28, 2013 at 9:33 am #

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around why the right wingers treat Alinsky like he’s in league with Satan.

  13. avatar
    Northland10 November 28, 2013 at 10:06 am #

    RoadScholar:
    Alinski is an amateur.I rely on The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

    I was thinking the same when I read through the “rules.”

    Alinsky

    “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”

    Sun-Tzu, Chapter 2

    When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.

    The birthers would have done better if they had actually read Sun-Tzu or Alinsky. Of course, if the read, understood and followed either author, they would not have run off on their fool crusade.

  14. avatar
    Curious George November 28, 2013 at 10:13 am #

    Andrew Vrba, PmG: I’m still trying to wrap my head around why the right wingers treat Alinsky like he’s in league with Satan.

    Saul Alinsky quote:

    “Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder
    acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all
    our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to
    know where mythology leaves off and history begins-
    or which is which), the first radical known to man
    who rebelled against the establishment and did it
    so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom
    –Lucifer.”

    Rules for Radicals
    Vintage Books Edition, October 1989

  15. avatar
    Andrew Vrba, PmG November 28, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Well, that’d certainly do it!

  16. avatar
    Daniel November 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm #

    “Alinsky” is a weasel word used by birthers when they realize they’re in danger of having to engage an intelligent person. 99% of the birthers who complain about you using “Alinsky” tactics have no idea what those “tactics” are.

  17. avatar
    Andrew Vrba, PmG November 28, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    Daniel:
    “Alinsky” is a weasel word used by birthers when they realize they’re in danger of having to engage an intelligent person. 99% of the birthers who complain about you using “Alinsky” tactics have no idea what those “tactics” are.

    Makes sense. They don’t seem to grasp any of the terms and words they use.

  18. avatar
    Curious George November 28, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    Andrew Vrba, PmG: Well, that’d certainly do it!

    Daniel: “Alinsky” is a weasel word used by birthers when they realize they’re in danger of having to engage an intelligent person. 99% of the birthers who complain about you using “Alinsky” tactics have no idea what those “tactics” are.

    And very well used by birthers when they get cornered by facts. A classic Alinsky tactic that birthers embrace (unknown to them) is “The end justifies the means.” The facts are ignored because they get in the way of reaching their goals. Many of them are among the most dishonest people you will ever meet.

  19. avatar
    Joey November 28, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    The first time I heard of Saul Alinsky’s words being applied to the Birther cult it was back in 2009 and it was in the conservative alternative newspaper in Honolulu, the Hawaii Free Press which was attempting to warn Hawaii conservatives (all eight of them) not to be suckered into Bitherism.

    Saturday, July 25, 2009
    Don’t be fooled: Obama was Born in Hawaii
    By Andrew Walden

    (Notice how the Obama media has suddenly chosen to focus on the birthers just as Obama’s socialized health care scheme falls apart in Congress? Precisely as this writer has explained again and again, the “birthers” are very helpful to Obama. He uses them to portray his opponents as loons. He also uses them as a cudgel against any investigation of his past or his associations.)

    Led by 9-11 trooothers like Pennsylvania Democrat Phil Berg, the scammers claiming that Barack Obama was born outside the US are continuing to work day and night to divert Obama’s opponents into useless tin-foil-hat conspiracy theories. Every day they come up with a distracting new lie.

    As Obama’s hero Saul Alinsky, explains:

    “The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength.”

    The trooothers are Democrats and other sociopaths who spent most of the last eight years telling Americans that Osama bin-Laden was innocent and President George Bush was guilty of the 9-11 attacks.

    Don’t become one of the 9-11 trooothers “birther” victims. Don’t fall for Obama’s backers’ scheme to divert the opposition. Arm yourself with the facts.

  20. avatar
    Nullifidian November 29, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    I haven’t read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, and in fact I had never heard of it before some right-wing type accused someone else of using “Alinsky tactics” online.

    I wouldn’t let not having read it worry you; it hasn’t stopped the birfers.

    I have a hypothesis about the phrase “Alinsky tactics”. I think it emerged from the GOP about the time of the 2008 primary election intended as a smear against Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama, who actually has a recognizable connection with Saul Alinsky, having written her Wellesley College senior thesis on Alinsky’s political thought. If Clinton had won, they could have gone into the question of why Wellesley suppressed the thesis at the White House’s request while Bill was president. Instead, Obama emerged as the front-runner, a much younger man. Obama was a ten-year-old when Alinsky died, but the GOP figured that it was too good a smear to go to waste, linking it as it did two qualities that are passionately loathed on the far-right: being a leftist and—let’s face it—being Jewish. (I know some right-wingers who still privately refer to the Grey Lady as “the Jew York Times”.) Knowing their “base”, they guessed that the smear would still work even when there was no conceivable association between Alinsky and Obama, and they were proved depressingly correct.

  21. avatar
    Dave B. November 30, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    Actually, that’s not an accurate reflection of Alinsky’s very pragmatic but nuanced position on means and ends. He devoted an entire chapter to the subject of the ethics of means and ends. He began by saying
    “That perennial question, “Does the end justify the means?” is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”
    and went on to provide personal and historical examples of particular means that did or didn’t measure up.
    He listed eleven rules of the ethics of means and ends, beginning with
    “One’s concerns with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue”
    and its parallel,
    “One’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s distance from the scene of conflict.”
    Some of the more pointed rules–
    The fifth rule:
    “Concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.”
    The sixth:
    “The less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.”
    The seventh:
    “Success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.”
    The eighth:
    “The morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory.”
    The ninth:
    “Any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical.”
    (That’s where the automatic accusation of using “Alinsky tactics” comes in.)
    The tenth:
    “You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments.”
    Describing an instance where he rejected a particular means as “loathsome and nauseous,” he added
    “…if I had been convinced that the only way we could win was to use it, then without any reservations I would have used it. What was my alternative? To draw myself up into righteous “moral” indignation saying “I would rather lose than corrupt my principles,” and then go home with my ethical hymen intact?”

    Curious George:
    And very well used by birthers when they get cornered by facts. A classic Alinsky tactic that birthers embrace (unknown to them) is “The end justifies the means.”The facts are ignored because they get in the way of reaching their goals.Many of them are among the most dishonest people you will ever meet.

  22. avatar
    JPotter November 30, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    Andrew Vrba, PmG:
    I’m still trying to wrap my head around why the right wingers treat Alinsky like he’s in league with Satan.

    Alinsky was an honest-to-goodness community organizer. Empowering the underprivileged to demand a fair share–horrors!

    If you’re a cranky old WASP who buys into the “America was a whitebread paradise in the ’50s, wrecked by dirty hippies in the ’60s, and restored by Pope Reagan in the 80s” tunnel-view of alternate history, then, yes, you would have been convinced that Alinksy was Evil back in the ’70s.

    Younger wingers think he’s Satan because their elders, detailed above, tell them so.

  23. avatar
    Curious George December 1, 2013 at 11:28 am #

    Dave B.: Actually, that’s not an accurate reflection of Alinsky’s very pragmatic but nuanced position on means and ends. He devoted an entire chapter to the subject of the ethics of means and ends. He began by saying“That perennial question, “Does the end justify the means?” is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”and went on to provide personal and historical examples of particular means that did or didn’t measure up.He listed eleven rules of the ethics of means and ends, beginning with“One’s concerns with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue”and its parallel,“One’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s distance from the scene of conflict.”Some of the more pointed rules–The fifth rule:“Concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.”The sixth:“The less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.”The seventh:“Success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.”The eighth:“The morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory.”The ninth:“Any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical.”(That’s where the automatic accusation of using “Alinsky tactics” comes in.)The tenth:“You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments.”Describing an instance where he rejected a particular means as “loathsome and nauseous,” he added“…if I had been convinced that the only way we could win was to use it, then without any reservations I would have used it. What was my alternative? To draw myself up into righteous “moral” indignation saying “I would rather lose than corrupt my principles,” and then go home with my ethical hymen intact?”

    Alinsky wrote, “Means and ends are so qualitatively interrelated that the true question has never been the proverbial one, “Does the End Justify the Means?” but has always been “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”

    I would argue that the particular end to be achieved by Birthers (the removal of President Obama from office) does not justify their means (dishonesty, obfuscation, sedition, slander). It could be argued Birthers are adhering to a form of Alinsky’s third rule, ” …in war the end justifies almost any means.” The Birthers have declared war on President Obama calling for his removal from office. The truth is, America is not at war with President Obama and there are legitimate means defined by our Constitution for the transition of leadership and or the lawful removal of leadership from office. The irrational Birther means will not achieve their desired end. Their methods have not taken hold with the general public and their methods are not seen as legitimate. (Just one person’s opinion.)

  24. avatar
    Dave B. December 1, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

    And they’re going to run smack dab into that seventh rule, too:
    “Success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.”

    Curious George: I would argue that the particular end to be achieved by Birthers (the removal of President Obama from office) does not justify their means (dishonesty, obfuscation, sedition, slander). It could be argued Birthers are adhering to a form of Alinsky’s third rule, ” …in war the end justifies almost any means.” The Birthers have declared war on President Obama calling for his removal from office.

  25. avatar
    Curious George December 1, 2013 at 11:23 pm #

    Dave B.: And they’re going to run smack dab into that seventh rule, too:“Success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.”

    Agreed.

  26. avatar
    Kiwiwriter December 2, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    Fascinating essay, Doc.

    Birthers are not the only folks who wave Alinsky like a red flag…the neo-Nazis use his tactics as well, and then accuse their opponents of doing so, to my amusement.

    The “Hitler Zombie” is brought up in debates as low as school board elections, in the effort by Candidate A to slime his or her opponent, Candidate B. I get tired of it. Adolf was derivative of previous existing anti-Semitism and racial philosophies in theory, but unique in execution.