Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Devil and Saul Alinsky

Today's post started out as a much smaller idea. You see, I was simply going to tell the story of how the Wikipedia page on grassroots radical Saul Alinsky is radically different from the page dedicated to his book, Rules For Radicals. As I started to develop this idea, however, it became clear that the Alinsky War was not so much an example of Narrative Engineering as a small part of a very specific and very large political narrative.

Narratives exist in the world around us, and explain that which is not easily explained. Religious narratives are the most identifiable, but there are loads of others. Some explain giant swaths of our existence—conspiracy theories and the like—whereas some focus on much smaller parts, like business management theories, or moms' shared consciousness about getting babies to sleep through the night. Living by a narrative does not mean that one is living by unprovable or unresearched principles, as you can see in economics. There are several different schools of macroeconomic thought, and all of them are well-researched, yet they contradict one another. No one current school of economic thought has a privileged position over the others, as it currently very difficult to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that any one is perfect. (And it is almost certain that none will ever be perfect.)

In the realm of American political dialogue, there appear to be two major narratives, produced by followers of the two major political parties. Note the use of the word "followers"—I would like to propose the idea that neither of these narratives is purely the result of party manipulation of news. Narratives only have vitality if people believe them, and those believers are the ones that propagate the story. Just as a language dies when no one speaks it anymore, a narrative dies when no one changes their lives because of what it suggests.

Now, back to Alinsky. As you are almost certainly aware, any non-banned user can edit any unprotected Wikipedia page. Heavily edited or controversial pages may be protected against edits, and issues with frequent editing and reversion (sometimes called "Edit Wars") are resolved by consensus. Alinsky's page itself is fairly standard-looking, focusing on his bio, accomplishments, ideology, and awards. It definitely makes him look good. Clicking forward to the page for Rules for Radicals, however, we get mostly a number of snippets, the first from one of the introductory pages of the book. Recently, that page referred to that quote (the "Lucifer quote") as the dedication of the book (it's clearly not—the dedication is a simple "For Irene"). More interesting than that, however, is the comment made by the Wikipedian that uploaded the quotation and called it a dedication. User "Bestbuilder" states:

I believe it is critical to understanding Saul Alinsky and his motives that his "Rules for Radicals" is dedicated to Lucifer, the first rebel. Many people who may think Alinsky is a noble person would certainly reconsider their admiration of a man who praises Satan.

Why is the book such a magnet for controversy? Well, for one, a college student named Hillary Rodham wrote her senior honors thesis at Wellesley about Alinsky. And for another, he was a community organizer in Chicago, and therefore his work influenced Barack Obama.

Alinsky and his book therefore form part of the major narrative of the right. Similarly, Halliburton's discussion page shows a number of left-leaning edits, as it plays (or has played) a role in the major narrative of the left. The interesting thing about these encyclopedia battles, to me at least, is that they show how people try to change reality to fit their view of it. That is, in The World Anyone Can Edit, the narrative doesn't only explain reality. The narrative replaces reality.

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