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The Trifecta of Power

Power is always at play. Our uncomfortable Melian Dialogue activity was a formidable example of several types of power. On reflection, I noted three types of power present in the class room during the dialogue: the omnipresent power of the teacher, the brute power of the Athenians, and the argumentation power of the Melians.

While the power of both the Athenians and the Melians were challenged during the class dialogue, the power of Dr. Fretz remained uncontested. Organizers have an intrinsic relationship with this kind of power: then need it in order to be able to organize, but they also challenge it in others. This dynamic is easy to recognize in a classroom: students obey or at least respect the teacher. As students we are accustomed to this, thus we did not question Dr. Fretz. However, in order to really understand this form of power I put it in a different context, what if one of my fellow classmates had told me to leave the room? Would I have done it? I probably would have, trusting that they had the self interest of the group in mind. Organizers need this power: they need the community to trust their judgment. Although most people in that room thought that the Athenians had the majority of the power in the room, it was really the organizer, our teacher, that had the most power.

I was lucky enough to be on the Athenian side. We had the leisure of demanding instead of being demanded. We relied on our supposed strength to “win” the argument. Our self interest was clear: the island of Melos was to be ours, or no ones. Self interest is an extremely important concept in this text. The Melians are unwilling to sacrifice what little agency they have and give up their self interest: independence. They are strong in this conviction and unwilling to compromise. Thucydides draws out the self interest of the Melians directly, “It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?”. The Melians are ultimately unable to see past their self interest that is rooted in pride. The Melians refused to accept this, and tried to divert the argument to an issue of fairness. Historically and contextually, the Athenians did try to help the Melians recognize the self interest of their country should be survival, “the contest not being an equal one, with honour as the prize and shame as the penalty, but a question of self-preservation and of not resisting those that are stronger than you” (4). In terms of dictators, Alinsky would have pointed out that we were quite fair.

Alinsky says that “power is the ability to act” (Rules for Radicals, 50). The Melians in our class did not act. They chose neutrality, rejecting their power. Alinsky would say this was a brash move, they killed their country because they ignored their power. Although this story seemed like a “David and Goliath” narrative, the Melians (like most “Have Nots”) actually have a fair amount of advantages and power. If I had been a Melian during the dialogue I would have made a list of these advantages including: time, organized people, trust, and a “fair” opponent. It is clear why Alinsky might use this story instead of the David/Goliath story: the Melians had a chance to organize while David did not because Goliath did not give him that chance. The Melians in both circumstances should have used these advantages. They should have taken the time granted to them by the Athenians to decide what is right for the masses, the community. Alinsky would say they should have made a power map and used tactics based on their resources. The Melians did not have to martyr themselves when faced with the brute power of the Athenians. The Melians found themselves caught up in the paralyzing idea that they were powerless because they were small, and thus made a quick, fatal decision. In our class, the Melians focused on the “why” of the situation (Why us? Why now? What did we do?) instead of contemplating true solutions. Alinsky says that power comes in two forms: organized people, and organized money. The Melians could have organized themselves, and possibly other islands to avoid certain death by the Athenians.

An organizer needs to be able to use all of these types of power to effect change in a community. They must be comfortable with being unnervingly powerful. To an organizer, the Melians are powerful but unable to harness this power without tactics such as power mapping. The power of the Melians, and other disadvantaged communities is of great interest to organizers because it is hidden to most. The power of Dr. Fretz can represent the power of an organizer in a community living on the tension line to both harness power in the community and dismantle power from the “Haves”.

Melian Dialogue

               When Dr. Fretz said we would be doing a role play on the Melian Dialogue I was not enthused about the idea. Though once the dialogue began something changed in me. My “I am a leader and what I say is right” came out. Not understanding the dialogue to well didn’t matter to me; my team was going to win this debate. I was one of the first speakers to say something back to the Melians. After the brief argument I laid out, Dr. Fretz asked me to sit in the back and let someone else be a representative. Being as head strong as I am, I was not very happy about this. Some of my team didn’t feel comfortable being a representative so I couldn’t wait to get back in there to say my part. Time passed and Eric still did not ask me to be representative again. I began to get really frustrated so when the time came for our group to discuss, I blurted out everything I had wanted to say to the Melians. I hoped that someone from my team would be aggressive and say “look, you have two options either die or join us” since I obviously wasn’t going to get my chance. In the end, I never said another word to the Melians and after discussing the dialogue I realized that this was my fault. I didn’t have to listen to Dr. Fretz at all. I could have spoke anytime I wished, but because I viewed Dr. Fretz as the authority kept my mouth shut. I think if Alinsky was watching me, he would have laughed and said I’m an idiot for not speaking up. As an organizer, I need to let my voice be heard even when I am told to be quiet. If Alinsky or any organizer didn’t speak up against the government, no social change would’ve occurred. On page 127 in Rules for Radicals Alinsky says, “Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have”. Whoever the authority or enemy is, they will not think you have any power unless you create that power by breaking the rules and speaking up. So next time I am in a debate, I’ll make sure to make my opinions loud and clear.

               It was not until we discussed what occurred in the debate that I began to understand what the heck this reading had to do with community organizing. On page 59 in Rules for Radicals, Alinsky says, “But to the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word. It is always present in the pragmatics of operation. It is making the deal, getting that vital breather, usually the victory. If you start with nothing, demand 100 per cent, then compromise for 30 per cent, you’re 30 per cent ahead.” Compromise, compromise, compromise, that’s what the Melian Dialogue is about. When the Athenians gave the Melians the option of either dying or joining them in peace, they decided to not step down and die for what they believe in. “We will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has been inhabited these seven hundred years; but we put our trust in the fortune by which the gods have preserved it until now, and in the help of men, that is, of the Lacedaemonians; and so we will try and save ourselves” (pg 4). Again, I think Saul Alinsky would have said they’re idiots for not taking the Athenian’s offer because compromise is better than nothing and no one should ever die fighting. Overall, I learned a lot from the Melian dialogue, not only about myself as a potential organizer but about community organizing as a whole.

Air Horns: A Reflection on the Melian Dialogue

While we were processing our role play of the Melian dialogue, I was clearly labeled as one of the more “prominent” voices in what otherwise remained to be a mostly civil discussion. While I wasn’t surprised with how caught up I got in the simulation, (It’s safe to say I’m pretty competitive,) I was shocked with the weight of my words among the class. To be completely honest, I probably knew the least about what was going on when the role play was assigned. I barely understood the conflict between the Melians and Athenians to begin with and had absolutely no clue what the reading had to do with community organizing in the first place. I knew I was on the losing side and I had some vague idea of the argument I was supposed to make, but that was pretty much the extent of it. Basically I served a purpose similar to an air horn for my side – not a lot of substance behind it, but I created lots of noise and pressure.

Once I moved past the fact that I had little to no idea what I was doing, I started thinking about what Alinsky said about organizers functioning as agitators in Rules for Radicals. He states, “the function of an organizer is to raise questions that agitate, that break through the accepted pattern” (72). Many of us admitted to getting caught up in the discussion so much that we started to take it personally, yet most people managed to keep their composure throughout the simulation. Instead of retreating and telling myself that it’s just a class activity, I simply wasn’t nice. I broke the pattern. I interrupted. I purposefully attempted to talk the other side into a trap, and it worked. Alinsky describes agitators as people who have mastered the art of irreverence, stirring unrest by insulting and even threatening the enemy. Clearly he believes that successful organizers are not concerned with hurting feelings if it helps to get them what they want.

My major flaw was the fact that I came into battle unprepared. I failed to research the history of the situation I was entering beforehand, which in this case meant reading the dialogue more closely before class. What would happen if an organizer waltzed into a a neighborhood at random which he knew nothing about and attempted to organize it? He would fail immediately. The only reason I had a chance is because of Alinsky’s first rule of tactics, “power is not what you have but what the enemy thinks you have” (127). Ironically enough, if Dr. Fretz would have asked me to go out in the hall I would have, but apparently my faked feistiness which broke the pattern earlier was enough to convince him otherwise. Suddenly organizing seems similar to a poker game – sometimes bluffing is enough to help you win.

When I reread the dialogue, I was surprised to find similarities between the Athenians and Melians and Alinsky’s Have / Have-Not philosophy. At one point in the dialogue, the Athenians say to the Melians, “It is rather islanders like yourselves, outside our empire, and subjects smarting under the yoke, who would be the mostly likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.” Here the Athenians declare that even the small island of Melians could potentially be a threat to an empire as great as Athens. It is this same “smarting under the yoke” that organizers wish to create in communities of Have-Nots. The organizer’s purpose is to get inside the realm of the oppressed and create both tension and community, so that even the few can become mighty and act out against the Haves.

The “Melian” Way

The Melians once said, “It is natural and excusable for men in our position to turn more ways than one both in thought and utterance”. I thought this particular quote was a good summary of our class attitude in our role play as well as the overall Melian ideal. In our Melian dialogue, I learned various things, especially about how humans tend to act in regards to pressure and minor insults. At the start of our dialogue, it was simple facts being thrown back and forth, none of them remotely threatening. However, as “Zeus” aka our teacher threw different mixtures of people in, you were quickly able to see who were the victors and who were the observers. I myself, can say I was guilty of being an observer at times. However, I managed to throw in some “salty” words that may or may not have projected the argument I wanted.  Being an observer at times though, can be a good thing, especially when you are learning about human nature. Once our discussion started, I quickly saw people poured their hearts into an argument that ended over a thousand years ago. Soon enough, people’s faces were turning red, words were being shot back and forth like an intense game of catch. Hands were slamming and things were being said that at times, made no sense. However, to the person who was speaking, it was the world to them. Regardless if they actually believed what they were saying, they made sure it was said loud and clear. That is when it hit me. People can be passionate about anything. Even if it has no personal relevance to them. What people want is to be right. At least, that’s how I was. I learned that I wanted to win the argument for that little satisfaction of being “right”. Even though the intensity of our past Melians and Athenians wasn’t personally connected to me, I made sure that it was for the moment. For once, I wanted to intimidate our opposition. This drive to be right opened my eyes up to the ways of organizing. We can look at organizing in the same matter. You have one side who is resistant to change. The other side, is heavily advocating for change. It is a constant tug of war game that is being played. One side trying to convince the other side that their team is better. However, Saul Alinsky was a different type of person. He took the scenario and undermined it completely. Through seeing the full picture, he was able to perfect organizing.  He saw both sides and found the weakness, which in a way, was very effective in getting the particular result you wanted.  The idea of undermining your opponent through weakness is exactly what some of our fellow classmates did in our Melian role play. They saw the weakness that was portrayed with some students and went full force with it. 

 Based on the readings, the Athenians were rather stubborn but did portray a mild form of resisting a large power force. I personally believe that this reading was key to showing the power of organizing and resisting. Regardless of the Athenian’s efforts to not submit, they did lose. However, the stubborn image of some of our classmates remain. That to me, is the overall victory.

How Do YOU Feel About People?

Welcome to Saul Alinsky and the Community Organizing Tradition.
Feel free to comment, or start your own conversation.
In this course students will learn about the history, theory and strategies of community organizing in the United States. Additionally, students will apply community organizing techniques by developing and implementing a project on the Regis campus or working with the local community organizers.