"In war, practice dissimulation, and you will succeed. Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt." Those words were written 2500 years ago by a great Chinese general, Sun Tzu, who laid out some principles of winning strategy so brilliant that they are still used today, not only by the military but also by politicians and marketers and yes, religious leaders. In any kind of conflict, good strategy is the difference between victory and defeat.
As I follow the uproars around the California Equality summit coming up in L.A. on January 24, and watch the organizers buckling to public pressures about media access, I wonder whether they are thinking about that old caveat to keep your plans "dark and impenetrable."
I understand the anxiety about "transparency" in leadership. There's far too little of it in the United States today, which accounts for all the corruption that infests our entire society. I get it that some LGBT organizations failed to create effective election strategies -- that these failures led to passage of Prop 8. I recognize the need for a change in strategy, so Prop 8 can be scuttled.
But I also understand why the L.A. Summit leadership originally decided to bar the media from the most sensitive meetings. They recognized the importance of keeping their plans "dark and impenetrable."
It's not a good idea to tell the enemy ahead of time what you're going to do. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese didn't send President Roosevelt a telegram saying, "Hi, there, we're going to bomb Pearl Harbor this morning." Nor did Al Qaeda send Bush an email saying, "Just to let you guys know, we're going to hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th." The need for "dark and impenetrable plans" applies in politics too. During the Presidential campaign, the strategists for Obama nor McCain didn't invite the media to their planning meetings, and they didn't go around blurting their strategies to everybody in the world. And hello, the yes-on-8 people didn't advertise their strategies either...which is why the LGBT movement wound up feeling so blind-sided by the election results.
So let's not confuse the need for transparency with the need for better strategy. These two needs are not the same thing at all. Inviting the media to all the L.A. Equality sessions may be the politically correct thing to do at this point. But let's not kid ourselves. Having the media there is not necessarily going to produce a winning strategy for same-sex marriage in California.
Brilliant strategy -- the kind that Sun Tzu describes as "flashing forth from the heights of heaven" -- comes out of a few people with brilliant and courageous minds. Sometimes one smart person is all that's needed. In the case of Martin Luther King, the winning strategy came to him from Bayard Rustin, black gay Quaker who had the brilliant idea of adapting Gandhi's successful non-violent protests in India to U.S. civil-rights activism. Brilliant strategy does NOT come out of a lot of public wrangling and media glare. It's never the result of noisy consensus. Least of all does it result from the media's habit of doing obsessive and exhaustive Nancy-Grace-like microanalysis of every little thing that is made public.
If anything, subjecting the L.A. Summit proceedings to public debate and media exposure may confuse the issues even more...cripple our movement even more. As Sun Tzu says, "All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved."
If we expose our strategy, the religious right will just sit back and smile, and take notes. Indeed, nothing can prevent them from sending their own media moles to attend the Summit.
Where do we find a few good Sun Tzu-like strategists? The kind that we need right now? How do we put them in the driver's seat of our movement?
In our desperate search for a winning strategy right now, one problem we face is that the LGBT world has tolerated ineffective leadership in many of our activist organizations for over a decade. For example, HRC's fatal contribution to the Prop 8 debacle shouldn't surprise anybody who has been dismayed at HRC's gutless and bumbling performance for many years. I stopped supporting HRC in 1996 while I was involved in the L.A. school district as a commissioner and saw HRC's gutless and bumbling performance when our district's gay-friendly programs were made the object of a Congressional investigation, and HRC did nothing effective to help us.
To put it another way, a lot of us need to stop contributing to -- and supporting in other ways -- activist groups who are more dedicated to protecting their image and their jobs than they are to protecting our rights.
We LGBT people are up against a political enemy who are very clear about the fact that they are at war with us. The religious right are so crystal-clear that they talk obsessively about "armies for God" and "soldiers for Christ." And it's important to note that the righters talk like this no matter which church they belong to! If we're going to beat these "armies," we need to be even clearer about the war than they are. Especially since they are more numerous than we are, and have more money and leverage, plus they are better than we are at putting aside their differences in order to work together. According to Sun Tzu's principles, this fact puts us at a dangerous disadvantage. All the more reason why we need to do some thunderbolt thinking about strategy that will blast us to victory.
You can bet your bottom dollar that the religious right have adapted Sun Tzu's thinking for their own uses...though they would rather be boiled in oil than admit publicly that they borrowed any ideas from a pagan.
Sun Tzu's principles were so proven in his own time, by his own performance, that he was able to say, "The general that hearkens to my counsel and acts upon it, will conquer. The general that hearkens not to my counsel nor acts upon it, will suffer defeat."
So...my hope for the L.A. Equality Summit is this: that the core leaders will come up with a thunderbolt plan, and keep it "dark and impenetrable." They may not get another chance to pull this off.
The complete text of Sun Tzu's The Art of War can be found online here
Historians debate on who Sun Tzu really was. Ancient Chinese history sources describe him as a great general who commanded the armies of the King of Wu, during the early period when what we call "China" was divided into a number of states that were constantly fighting with each other. This period came to an end with unification of China into an empire in 221 B.C. Some historians today view The Art of War as having been created by a school of military thought, not by one person.
The fact remains -- the principles and strategies do work, and have had an enormous influence on both Eastern and Western military thinking.