Tilting at Windmills: The Politics of Polarization Against Majorities

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Tilting at Windmills: The Politics of Polarization Against Majorities

A friend of mine sent me an interview with Steve Best, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas who lost his position as department chair, he alleges, for his support of animal rights. In the interview, he denies personal involvement with violence employed by some animal rights advocates, but responds to the extreme violence that is committed against animals in experimentation saying, “The true forces of ethics and justice have involved groups such as the Jewish Resistance, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, the Suffragettes, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. All of them broke the law, destroyed the enemy’s property, or committed violence; they were beaten, jailed, killed, and denounced as extremists or the equivalent of terrorists.”1

I responded to my friend that most people, even if they do not agree, can understand breaking into research labs to liberate animals. This casts humans against animals with animals as victims. What they will not understand are actions such as firebombings of UC Santa Cruz researchers’ personal private property.2 These latter actions will be understood by the public as an attack on humans, casting animals against humans, with humans as victims. My point was that when the dispute polarizes as humans versus animals, animals will lose every time.

Saul Alinsky argues as well for such polarization, justifying means with ends, pointing to the one-sided rhetoric of the anti-Nazi resistance in World War II and even that in the Declaration of Independence. Alinsky’s argument goes a step beyond Best’s in that he countenances a distortion of truth.3 Not all revolutionaries go so far. Paulo Freire writes to the contrary, “it is necessary to trust in the oppressed and in their ability to reason. Whoever lacks this trust will fail to initiate (or will abandon) dialogue, reflection, and communication, and will fall into using slogans, communiqués, monologues, and instructions.”4

But Alinsky has history on his side, and so Mexican American radicals turned to his tactics in combating the horrendous discrimination they faced.5 I cannot help but wonder if the polarization he advocated contributed to their cynical exploitation by the most notoriously cynical politician of modern times, Richard Nixon, in the 1972 presidential election.6 Now, while Mexican Americans are a voting bloc to be courted, just as Nixon did, except on immigration reform—which affects white privilege—it is hard to see how their concerns are being addressed,7 even as their population in the United States grows at a rate second only to Asians and Pacific Islanders.8

Polarization may have a short term value in motivating activists. But as Freire pointed out, it ultimately disempowers the very people Alinsky sought to advance, just as it makes animals the losers in a contest pitting animals against humans.

1Steve Best, interview by Jason Miller, May 17, 2008, Cyrano’s Journal: Thomas Paine’s Corner, http://www.bestcyrano.org/THOMASPAINE/?p=713 (accessed November 30, 2008).

2Conan Knoll, “Police: UCSC Researchers Targeted in Firebombings This Morning,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 2, 2008, http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/localnews/ci_10080054 (accessed November 30, 2008).

3Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1989), 27.

4Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000), 66.

5Manuel G. Gonzales, Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States (Bloomington: Indiana University, 2000), 242; and Armando Navarro, “The Mexican American Youth Organization,” in Zaragosa Vargas, Major Problems in Mexican American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 394.

6Tony Castro, “Gaining the Mexican American Vote in the 1972 Presidential Election,” in Vargas, Major Problems in Mexican American History, 431-438.

7See for example, “McCain: Obama’s Word Cannot Be Trusted,” CNN, June 29, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/06/29/mccain.obama/index.html (accessed November 30, 2008).

8Frank Hobbs and Nicole Stoops, Demographic Trends in the 20th Century, Census Bureau (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2002), http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/censr-4.pdf (accessed November 30, 2008), 80-81.

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