How (Political) Rage Makes Perfect Sense–At Least per Alinsky and Screwtape

Phyllis Beveridge Nissila

Anybody over, say, forty, remembers days in the U.S. when political parties may have railed at each other a bunch during the days prior to election day, but afterward, most people agreed to disagree and life carried on. There were always some, of course, who nurtured a slow burn of anger laced with vengeance.

Things are very different, now.

From every corner, these days, people shake their heads with incredulity at the vitriol.

The prevailing thought is that nobody, it seems, can simply hold differing opinions, anymore.

So the question becomes how to back away from the mental and emotional fray with civility if we are to remain, well, civil and resist the sucking power of the seeming bottomless pit of political rancor that saps energy, time, productivity, and goodwill.

And it is important to consider this question–along with answers –because some millennials, in particular, caught up in the white heat of hatred don’t know politics without such intense drama. To them, this kind of political emotional milieu might seem normal, which does not bode well for the future.

Others, older and with more of a sense of the (unadulterated, primary-sourced) history of the U.S., wonder if there is to be no more “peaceful transfer of power” as we continue, in good faith, to work out what ails the nation, as modern, so-called identity politics seems to be driving “e pluribus” so far from “unum” political and social tribes now stand with fists raised against each other from each their own island of animus.

Of course, these consequences are not unintended by some who know well the power of the press–and human nature–to feed that which so divides, to eventually conquer. And in this behind-the-scenes political machinery, there grinds a perfect logic.

What seems devoid of reason to many makes perfect sense, there, in the boiler room of Anarchy Central.

The writing of one modern revolutionary, Saul Alinsky, an icon of the far left, illustrates this.  See what you think. The following is excerpted from his famous work, Rules for Radicals.

(Prompts for thought, if you will, in parentheses.)

A Perfectly Sensible Rage per Alinsky

  • “Always remember the first rule of power tactics: Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have…” (the news helps–particularly when it  is fake);
  • “Wherever possible go outside the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat…” (to keep them in an emotional spin winding further and further away from reason);
  • “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon…” (mockery, shaming, insults, oh my!);
  • “Keep the pressure on…” (wear them out, leaving no time out for unpacking logical fallacies, identifying spin, or pointing out glaring irony); and, 
  • “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it” (identity politics at is finest, read worst).

There is a lot more in Rules for the thoughtful researcher–and concerned citizen.

But Alinsky isn’t the first political revolutionary to try to rally the base down to base human nature in order to exploit and conquer.

Consider the Master Con, the Original Community Organizer, Exploiter-and-Divider, the same* Alinsky acknowledges on the dedication page of his work: Lucifer.

To Lucifer’s “rules,” so to speak, see if you think a few, similar tactics on a “list” gleaned from C.S. Lewis’ epistolary satire The Screwtape Letters** aligns with Alinsky’s recommendations in any way.

(More prompts for thought in parentheses).

A Perfectly Sensible Rage (Against the “Enemy,” i.e., God) per Screwtape 

In Screwtape’s letters to his tempter-in-training, and nephew, the young devil Wormwood, the following advice:

  • “It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches (the Devil’s ‘enemy, God, that is). That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that” (the news helped back in the 1940s, too–particularly when it was properly spun);
  • “There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them,”  in other words, “keep the pressure on”–as per Alinsky (to keep them in an emotional spin winding further and further away from reason and exploration); and from the front pages of Lewis’ satire,
  • “The devil…the prowde spirite…cannot endure to be mocked”–Thomas More, 1478-1535, quoted in the epigraph (thus the Screwtape satire begins, where mockery is used to both offend and defend–let the thinker determine who offends and defends  with ridicule these days, and for what purposes.

So How Is Rage, Both Kinds, Perpetuated?

By getting to them young and often with the notion that everything is relative, nothing absolute, and modern is best.

Lewis, via Screwtape, sums it up well not only for his mid-twentieth-century audience but also for early twenty-first century readers:

“My dear WORMWOOD,
[…] Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating The Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the ‘present state of the question’. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge – to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour – this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to our Father (Lucifer) and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that ‘history is bunk'”…

Another way of putting this danger might be: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”–G. Santayana.

I would add one more danger: the idea that old people who still hold to old absolutes, morals, and ways of thinking are just not hip. As it was coined in my youth “you can’t trust anyone over thirty.”

For more on the old–but ever clever–Arch-Anarchist from that ancient book, the Bible, see a list of more temptations to draw us away from reason, productivity, and goodwill, not to mention the kind of truth that sets one free.


*“From the front pages of Alinsky’s book: “Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history… 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.”

**Screwtape Letters is the imaginably realistic (and clever) satire where each letter from Uncle Screwtape (an administrator in the lower regions of Hell) provides a series of instructions written in letter form to his nephew Wormwood who is as yet a rather unsuccessful tempter-in-training.

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