how things can change

The future belongs to the best organized

A LOT OF PEOPLE haven’t heard of Saul Alinsky, and many of the people who have heard of him seem to have the wrong idea. Alinksy died in 1972, and while he was influential, he was never famous enough to be a household name. He never wrote a blog. People on the political right who have heard of him know him from his vague association with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and something about communism and dangerous lefty ideas, while people on the political left who have heard of him tend to see him as another face on the Mt. Rushmore of liberal thinkers, alongside Dr. King, Eugene Debs, and Noam Chomsky.

The truth is, however, Alinsky wasn’t really “political” in any kind of right-left sense as it is typically framed today. Alinksy was an operator, an organizer, a do-er — he was a guy who believed that all people should have a voice, and a guy who understood that in a pluralist democracy like ours (a democracy in which there are many groups, but no single group constitutes a majority), the most organized voices always win. So that’s what he did — he helped organize people.

Organizing from a political standpoint is really just about finding the people who care about an issue, getting them together in one group, and helping that group take collective action rather than as individuals, and Alinksy literally wrote the book on modern organizing (Rules for Radicals,1972). Primarily, Alinsky helped organize black neighborhoods in Chicago in the 1930’s, but he worked with a number of groups in places like Michigan, New York, and his native California.

I mention all of this about Alinsky because he famously eschewed political parties and all of those complicated “-ism’s” that seem to define mainstream politics. He had his ideas, like all people have their ideas, but Alinsky’s true allegiance was to democracy, and he felt that democracy only worked when all people had a voice and knew how to use it effectively to try to make change. If people he helped organize had an idea he didn’t like, it didn’t bother him because it wasn’t his business. What was important to Alinksy was that people worked together to find their voices and to make a demand of government and society.

I have only dabbled in organizing in my career (it’s hard work and it DEFINITELY doesn’t pay much, if at all), but I’ve come to admire and share Alinsky’s outlook. Yes, I have political views, and yes, if you assigned an “-ism” to them, it would be one of the “-ism’s” on the far left (I think ‘anarcho-democratic socialism’ fits best, but again, who cares?), but I believe very strongly that all those terms like capitalism, conservatism, liberalism, socialism, etc., have come to represent identities and dictate actions like they’re some sort of blueprint.

But these are just vague ideas. They are just the best-fitting descriptions of a set of ideas that a lot of people happen to share, more or less. Like the “identity politics” we hear so much about today, it’s just a way of saying that when you look at the group of people who share a certain set of beliefs, those people tend to share a common characteristic like ideology, skin color, or economic class. At best, these shared characteristics provide a way to broadly identify people uniting around common interest, but at worst, and more and more frequently, they’re a way of stereotyping, dismissing, dehumanizing, and co-opting the voices of others without their consent.

Like Alinksy, I believe that my personal politics are less important than the ability of all people to get together and talk about what’s going on in the world, how they see it, how it affects them, what they think about it, and what they should all do about it. Do I happen to believe that in an ideal world, these people would get together and agree that the system I happen to think is best is the best one? Of course I do. Everyone does. But the reason I do the work I do (I have spent my career in the nonprofit sector), the reason I pursued my course of study (I studied public policy and urban planning in school) and the reason I wanted to work with Matt to write this blog is because too many people do not understand the power and capacity for change they possess.

Call it empowerment, call it education, or call it dumb internet “hot takes,” but I believe we’re all the same stupid jumped-up primates with the same inherent dignity (or lack thereof) and are worthy of the same respect (or lack thereof), and so to me, Enough to be Dangerous presents an opportunity to help people find their own voices, their own power, and their own ideas.

This blog will provide some info Matt and I have gleaned from school or research or some random podcast we both listened to, but the point is not that we will steer you to the right idea. The point of this is exactly what it says in the URL — to give you the tools and the knowledge to express your own ideas in your own community, and maybe make that felt in the world as well.

We could never claim to touch Alinksy’s brilliance or experience, but because I think this blog shares some of his intellectual DNA, maybe it’s best to close with a quote of his from Rules for Radicals: “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”

Featured photo by Pat “Cletch” Williams

The future belongs to the people who show up

ON THE NIGHT OF the 2016 Presidential Election, I was in a New Orleans Airbnb with my wife and cousins. We planned on waiting until 10 — when the election would be called for Hillary, of course — and then going downstairs to get a cocktail on Bourbon Street. Instead, at 10, I found myself urging friends not to panic, to wait for Wisconsin, wait for Michigan, wait for Pennsylvania… and whoops, nope! The world’s on fire!

My wife, Steph, works in New Jersey politics, and that means you’re imagining her as some sort of Tony Soprano gumar with big hair and too much make-up. She’s more like Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec. A sweet, gregarious Italian girl from the Jersey Shore who thinks she can help people who need help. I’ve never seen her more upset than she was on election night — Donald Trump was so clearly a liar, so clearly a kleptocrat, and so casual about tossing grenades into the lives of the marginalized people of the world that she simply couldn’t conceive that so many of our loved ones would support him.

What was so galling was that he was what everyone was saying was wrong with politics. I’ve seen Steph get into it with strangers at bars — She tells them what she does for a living, and they say, “Sorry sweetheart, you’re all corrupt,” and she tears them a new asshole, because they have no fucking idea what they’re talking about. I’ve lived in DC, I’ve worked two blocks from the White House, and I’ve married a public servant, and it even took me a few years to reject the common narrative that American politics are hopelessly broken.

I reject it now because I go out for drinks with the poorly-paid peons that keep America afloat. I’m friends with Congressional staffers, non-profit workers, union employees, even dreaded lobbyists, and in them, I don’t see conniving puppet-masters like Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards. What I see — when they’re at their best — is Sam Seaborn and C.J. Cregg from The West Wing. At their worst, they’re like the petty buffoons of Veep, but they’re never evil.

But after the election, it was hard to argue with the House of Cardsinterpretation of American politics. “They can’t make that stuff up!” one family member said of House of Cards. Sure, they can make up an intergalactic robo-war in Battlestar Galactica, or a time-traveling alien who lives in a police box in Doctor Who, but they can’t make up a Senator pushing a girl in front of a train.

As I talked to more and more of my non-political friends and family members, I realized how far we as a country have become divorced from the reality of our democracy. A staggering amount of people believe 9/11 was an inside job — that George W. Bush was competent enough to conduct the greatest cover-up in history, but couldn’t manage to find false-flag terrorists that were from the country he wanted to invade or plant a few WMDs. Even more of us think that it’s impossible to be an elected official without being patently corrupt, which is demonstrably wrong. And nearly everyone votes based on personality, not on policy.

After the election, I spent most of my time on Facebook, trying to help organize and console friends who had just seen a brighter future melt away before their eyes. I am not part of the “everything’s okay” crowd, because it’s not, but I do think there’s more reason for hope than we maybe imagine.

Probably the most vocal voice on my Facebook feed was Jesse Steele. I’ve known Jesse since the first day of second grade, and we lived together a few years after college, back when we were broke and drunk most of the time. The two of us eventually went off to grad school — he studied public administration, I studied human rights — and he now works as a manager of a non-profit. I’m a writer and occasionally a journalist.

After the election, we decided that our Facebook posts could only get out to so many people, so we decided to start a website. We’re calling it Enough to be Dangerous (with a stylized 2, for reasons that have nothing to do what was available on GoDaddy), and we’re focusing on how we, the mothafucking people, can be effective in our democracy.

Because, look: things seem bad. But we still have a nominally democratic system. It’s a system that favors the people who show up. And for years, the main people showing up have been businesses. This isn’t because they’re evil, it’s because they have very clear bottom lines, and because they can see — in terms of dollars and cents — how different policies are affecting their bottom lines.

It’s a lot harder to quantify our conception of “the good life” than it is to look at numbers on a balance sheet. So we convinced ourselves that what was good for business is good for us. And it sometimes is. But it often isn’t.

So the future will start bending back in our direction if we start paying more attention to how we’re planning for it. That’s it — that’s all. There’s no reason that Donald Trump needs to mean the end of America or the end of the world.

What we’re going to try and do with this blog is to explain how we can be good, involved, effective global citizens. As the stoic slave philosopher Epictetus said 1900 years ago, “Only the educated are free.” As Jesse said to me on Gchat a half an hour ago, “In a pluralist democracy, whoever is the most organized wins.”

Let’s get educated and organized. We can still win this. This blog will hopefully teach you just enough to be dangerous.

Featured photo by Paul Sableman