CREDIBILITY, BUT IN WHOSE EYES?

by John Spritzler

May 26, 2019

[Click here to read how the question this article addresses is being debated in the Brighton Allston Community Coalition]

There are two opposite views about how an organization can win a demand (such as providing affordable housing for all and thus ending gentrification) that the rich and powerful don't want to grant.

 

The first view is that the way to do it is for the organization's leaders to maintain credibility in the eyes of the rich and powerful. This means the organization's leaders must make it clear that they consider the rich and powerful to be reasonable and good people, not unjust rulers who should be removed from power. It means doing what is necessary to ensure there is a friendly, positive, mutually respectful working relationship between the organization's leaders and the rich and powerful people they hope to persuade to  grant some demand.

The second view is that the way to win a demand that the rich and powerful don't want to grant is to 1) throw credibility (in the eyes of the rich and powerful) out the window and instead denounce the rich and powerful as unjust rulers who are not at all on the "side of the angels" and who should be removed from power, and 2) do all that is possible to make the rulers afraid of what will (or might) happen if they don't grant the demand.

Many people think the first view is the obviously correct view.

 

​A PERSONAL STORY

I want to tell a personal story about how I learned the first view is not the way to win a demand. The story is about a conflict between myself and the Harvard School of Public Health's Dean of Academic Affairs in 2004. The entire story is online here in the form of all the relevant emails between myself (an employee at the time of the Harvard School of Public Health) and the dean. While the lesson to be drawn from this story is serious, the story itself has a comical aspect and I strongly encourage you to read these emails to get the whole story.

Briefly, here's what happened. I emailed the dean that I would like his permission to hand out, at the School, a leaflet (online here) sharply criticizing the Israeli government for committing immoral ethnic cleansing of Palestinians (my views about this are online here) and denying them even emergency hospital medical care.

At this time the president of Harvard University was Larry (Lawrence) Summers, who had earlier stated that:

"Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-semitic in their effect if not their intent."

Larry Summers was clearly a member of the ruling elite club. The dean I was communicating with knew that his job--what Harvard president Summers expected of him--was to make sure that I did not distribute my leaflet. If you read the dean's email replies to me you'll see that he was trying to do his job by coming up with one absurd excuse after another: "We do not allow distribution of materials not directly related to school business within the School property. The public spaces are so small, and the traffic so high in them, that we simply don't have the room to accommodate this sort of activity." Note that in the same building the dean routinely approved of job fairs and Christmas book fairs and vaccine administrations that took up enormous amounts of space.

The dean was emphatic that I did not have permission to distribute the leaflet on any Harvard property.

But as soon as I informed the dean that I and several others were going to distribute the leaflet from positions on public property where we could reach virtually everybody walking into the Harvard School of Public Health buildings, AND that the leaflet would contain a note explaining that the dean (with his name provided) had denied permission for the leaflet to be distributed anywhere on Harvard property, everything changed.

All of a sudden the dean did a 180, emailing me, "I agree that the School should provide opportunities for discussion of important public health and human rights issues. We have been thinking about how you can air the issues you have raised without disrupting the other business of the School." He offered me permission to set up a table at one entrance to distribute the leaflet, and as soon as I said I wanted a table at each of the two entrances he said "OK." (You have to read the emails to see how abject the dean became--it's quite humorous.)

When I explained that the leaflets had already been printed with the note saying that the dean had denied permission for it to be distributed on Harvard property, he immediately agreed to pay for reprinting all of the leaflets without that note. And he did pay, sending me a check for $262.50!

The dean went from imperiously denying permission for the leaflet to be passed out, to paying for the printing of the leaflets to be passed out on two days at two locations!

Why did the dean do this 180?

The reason is quite clear. He was afraid of what would happen if he didn't do the 180. He knew that if he continued to deny me permission to pass out the leaflet then virtually everybody entering the School would soon nonetheless receive the leaflet informing them that the dean had prohibited its distribution anywhere on Harvard property. In other words the dean was afraid of being exposed as a tyrant denying free speech (at a university that claims to be a defender of free speech!) on a topic that most people thought was not only important but also directly related to the mission of the School of Public Health, which has engraved in six languages on the exterior of its main building a statement for which the Israeli government shows utter contempt when it comes to Palestinians:

"The highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being." 

The Mission of the Harvard School of Public Health included (in 2004) the aim to "increase awareness of public health as a public good and fundamental right." (The School has lately changed its Mission statement, for the worse in my view, and it now uses instead the phrase: "advocacy to improve public health locally, nationally, and globally.") The dean was afraid that he would be exposed as a hypocrite, of going against the School's Mission by suppressing criticism of the Israeli government.

WHAT IS THE MORAL OF THIS STORY?

The moral of this story is that when it comes to making the rich and powerful do something that they don't want to do, one must make them afraid of what will (or might) happen if they don't do it.

Having credibility in the eyes of the rich and powerful, on the basis of denying that one would ever do something that would greatly anger them (such as waging a labor strike) or by denying that one has a goal that very much frightens them  (such as removing the rich from power to have real, not fake, democracy with no rich and no poor), is a recipe for FAILURE, not success. How successful do you think workers would be in trying to win higher wages and better benefits and working conditions if they adopted the strategy of gaining credibility by assuring the bosses that they would never, ever, go on strike? This is not rocket science!

I HAD LOTS OF CREDIBILITY AT HARVARD, BUT IT WAS WORTHLESS FOR GETTING PERMISSION TO PASS OUT A LEAFLET

Regarding credibility, I should point out that I had lots of credibility at Harvard. I earned a doctoral degree in biostatistics from Harvard in 1992 and immediately was hired there as a Research Associate and was a Senior Research Scientist when I retired in 2012. Harvard viewed me as very credible (when it came to biostatistics), and for that reason gave me a private office with a nice view and a very good salary (a bit more than $130 K in 2011) and never bothered me about when I showed up for work (or not) and paid my expenses for travel to professional meetings, etc.

The point, however, is that my credibility was respected ONLY in regard to my providing a service (as a research scientist) for Harvard's own goals. When I acted contrary to Harvard's own actual, not hypocritically stated, goal (as when I distributed the leaflet) my credibility did not earn me any  respect at all. What got me respect was not having "credibility" but rather making the dean fear the consequences of not granting me the permission I sought.

Many professionals know from their personal experience that credibility earns them respect from powerful people when they work for goals of which the ruling elite approves. The mistake, however, is in believing that when one's goal is one that is not approved by the ruling elite, that the way to achieve it is to rely on having "credibility" in the eyes of the powerful--credibility in this case based not on professional expertise but rather on making it clear that one does not have an egalitarian revolutionary goal. That is simply false. It's not how the world works. It is naive to believe it so.

Of note, people who are not professionals and who have not experienced being respected by the rich and powerful (in other words most people with relatively low-paying jobs) tend to understand that the only way to win demands that the rich and powerful don't want to grant is by making them afraid of what will (or might) happen if they don't grant them. This, for most people, is a "no brainer." Unfortunately it is not a "no-brainer" for many well-meaning professionals.

CREDIBILITY, BUT IN WHOSE EYES?

A movement aiming to win demands that benefit ordinary people--demands that the rich and powerful don't want to grant if they can avoid it--does indeed need to be credible. But credible in whose eyes?

The movement needs to be credible in the eyes of the general public. This credibility requires that the movement is honest about what is the actual obstacle to achieving its demands, and honest about what it will take to overcome that obstacle. Telling the public that the way to win demands that the rich and powerful oppose is by being credible in the eyes of the rich and powerful by claiming NOT to want to remove the rich from power and NOT to want real, not fake, democracy and NOT to want no rich and no poor is exactly the way to LOSE credibility in the eyes of the general public.

If leaders lack credibility in the eyes of the general public then they will not be able to enlist nearly as much of the public in their organization or elicit nearly as much enthusiasm from the general public, as if they had this credibility.

Yes, credibility is vital! But it's credibility in the eyes of the general public that we need, not in the eyes of the rich and powerful.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MY CAREER AFTER MY CONFRONTATION WITH HARVARD?

I am telling this part of my personal story to address the natural concern people may have about what might happen to them if they openly declare they aim to remove the rich from power to have real, not fake, democracy with no rich and no poor. From 1992 until my retirement in 2012 I was well known at the Harvard School of Public Health for not only the specific political activism mentioned above but also for the fact that I was an editor of NewDemocracyWorld.org, which advocated the egalitarian revolutionary goal. I even, on occasion, enlisted people who worked at the School of Public Health to help me pass out NewDemocracy (i.e., revolutionary) leaflets.

 

According to the "standard wisdom," activism like mine, directly opposed to the wishes of the higher authorities, should have ended or at least greatly harmed my career at Harvard. But no! It did not. I continued to get promotions. In my annual review meetings with my superiors (the chair of the department of biostatistics and others) the topic of my political activism was never mentioned--not a single word. This in spite of the fact that I had earlier in 2002 engaged in political activism (read about it here) against Bill Gates and the leaders of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group, which organization Harvard paid me to serve full time as a biostatistician.

I believe the reason Harvard treated me with "kid gloves" is because my activism resulted in my colleagues (fellow biostatisticians and the MDs I collaborated with in 2002, and the general population of the School of Public Health in 2004) taking my side in what they viewed as a moral issue. Harvard authorities knew that if they did anything that appeared to be punishing me for my activism then it would seriously undermine their credibility (as being "on the side of the angels") among the students and faculty of Harvard University. This they most certainly did not want to risk. The rich and powerful ALSO need at least some credibility in the eyes of the general public in order to continue to remain in power.

It's not just that Harvard, with its carefully promoted reputation for being "on the side of the angels," needs this credibility. Even Adolph Hitler also needed it, as the following historical event illustrates.

Shortly after WWII started, Hitler gave a secret order to doctors that they should kill patients who were a drain on the Aryan race due to injury or physical or mental handicap. In two years more than 70,000 people were killed by this action. As people realized what was going on, they grew alarmed and angry and a number of their Church leaders wrote letters condemning the action and gave sermons denouncing it. When Bishop Galen of Munster gave a sermon "thunderously denouncing the 'murder' of the mentally sick as opposed both to the Law of God and to the laws of the German State," local Nazi leaders moved to hang him. But "Goebels pointed out, however, that 'if anything were done against the bishop, the population of Munster could be regarded as lost to the war effort, and the same could confidently be said of the whole of Westphalia.'" At this point Hitler gave the order to halt the euthanasia action. [This is excerpted from my book, The People As Enemy: The Leaders' Hidden Agenda in World War II. The source for the above is Ian Kershaw, Popular Opinion & Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933-1945, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983, pgs 336, 339]

TO WIN, WE NEED TO THROW OUR CREDIBILITY IN THE EYES OF THE RULERS OUT THE WINDOW

If we challenge the power of the rich and powerful in a manner that makes it clear to the general public that it is we, not the authorities, who are on the "side of the angels," then we will maintain our credibility with the general public and at the same time LOSE our credibility in the eyes of the ruling elite.

 

I LOST credibility in the eyes of the Harvard dean when I switched from asking politely for permission and began threatening to expose him as a tyrant aiming to suppress a leaflet (free speech) that told the truth about Israel's immoral ethnic cleansing. And THAT is why the dean ended up sending me that check for $262.50 to print leaflets he had earlier banned.

 

Bishop Galen of Munster LOST his credibility in the eyes of Hitler when he thunderously denounced Hitler for committing murder "against the Law of God." And THAT is why Hitler gave the order to halt the euthanasia action.

In our effort to wrest adequate affordable housing and similar good reforms from the Mayor and the big money developers he backs, we are confronting the lower levels of the ruling class in the United States. The top level of the ruling class is a ruthless billionaire plutocracy that enforces extreme class inequality and is motivated by greed and a lust for power revealed most strikingly by its warmongering mass murder based on lies, but also by its domestic policies that cause horrible gentrification to sweep the nation and drive people into homelessness, forcing many people--even those with jobs--to live in increasingly huge tent cities. To gain credibility in the eyes of these ruling elites by pretending that the Mayor and big money developers are just respectable well meaning folk with whom we can bargain on that basis is absurd; it is a recipe for abject failure.

 

Only by throwing our credibility in the eyes of the ruling elite out the window, by denouncing the ruling elite as it deserves to be denounced, can we frighten the rulers enough to make them think it would be in their interest to do something we are demanding they do. And in this case,  the ruling elite, in order to avoid destroying what remains of its credibility with the general public, will think more than twice before doing anything to punish us. Harvard did not punish me, and Hitler did not punish Bishop Galen.

I am not saying, of course, that the ruling elite will not ever resort to outright repression, even violent repression, against a movement that does everything right. I am simply pointing out that it is possible for a movement to use a strategy that a) maximizes the pressure it puts on the ruling elite to grant its demands by making the ruling elite fear what will (or might) happen if it doesn't grant those demands, AND at the same time b) minimizes the chance that the ruling elite will respond with harsh repression by making it fear losing even more of its crucial but rapidly disappearing credibility (legitimacy) in the eyes of the general public if it does resort to repression. This is the strategy that makes sense for us.

Failure to employ this strategy will only let the ruling elite know that they have no compelling reason to grant our demands. The evidence for this fact is all around us, with the reasonable demands of ordinary people dismissed by our rulers routinely, and with the ruling elite treating ordinary people like dirt, as I discuss here.

The choice is ours. Success, or failure.

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