Ridicule is man's most potent weapon? Why Saul Alinsky's fifth rule for radicals may have an expiration date. The case of Spy magazine.

When I was a teenager, I discovered Spy magazine on vacation in Florida. This issue, to be precise. 1509900869


And I fell madly in love with it. It was hard at the time to track down issues before it, but I devoured them all from the beginning, bought every new issue until its final one.

It had hard hitting pieces, snark, and an air of worldliness.

Much of what I understood about journalism, I got from Spy.

I figured out that journalism used an element of ridicule in it. Present the facts in such a way that there is no way a target can wiggle out.

Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand, wrote Mark Twain.

It was a game of Go, where the point is to surround your opponent's liberties until you have boxed them in.

Spy seemed very good at this tactic, and their covers were devastating.


They seemed to see behind the façades.

And get to the point of making people in power just seem silly.


Or so it seemed.

It was the first time I clued in that Saul Alinsky's rules for radicals were being used by people in communications.

Rule #5: Ridicule is man's most potent weapon.

And then it dawned on me that Saturday Night Live also lived by this rule as well.

I found it utterly fascinating.

It seemed to work for Spy, but then Spy folded.

And Donald Trump moved all the way up to the White House.

Alinsky's rule wasn't as absolute as rule followers would believe.

Ridicule is a feint of sorts. It is used when you do not believe your facts are strong enough. It is a way of manipulating a narrative. Sometimes the ridicule is richly earned, but it is not a substitute for facts.

And context.

Because it is too easy to substitute facts with ridicule. Snark and opinion cost nothing, but facts are precious commodities.

Gawker is also an outlet that took a page out of the Spy playbook, and it cost it its existence.


Ridicule is a way to force readers to agree with your point of view, and it at times, is appropriate when you have facts speaking louder than the snark.

But it doesn't always work, and the snarker isn't always the one who gets the last laugh.