I’ve been thinking a bit more about the notion of “fantasy” that I began to discuss in the last posting.
As some friends know, I’m a big fan of the writer Lee Harris whose masterpiece, Al Queda’s Fantasy Ideology, is considered to be one of the most insightful things ever written about 9/11. In it, he talks about fantasy as political motivator, beginning with observations from his youth when he broke with fellow protestors over the Vietnam War over their insistence that their tactics include highly disruptive street protests.
Why choose this tactic, Harris protested, when it is sure to alienate the very people anti-war activists wanted to reach (the broad undecided middle), standing the chance that they would turn not against the war but against the war protestors? The simple explanation was that the street protests were not designed to win over anyone. Rather, they were a combination of street theatre and therapy designed to benefit the protestors themselves. So what seemed to be a political act was really a Kabuki drama in which the protestors got to fantasize about being part of an elite vanguard “on the right side of history.” Under such a construct, the citizens whose lives would be disrupted by the protestors, indeed the American and Vietnamese people as a whole, were simply props for the protestors own political fantasy performance.
Harris points out that fantasy tied to political ideology is not always completely innocent or simply annoying. Rather, it is responsible for many of the tragedies that have befallen mankind over the last centuries. While Mussolini fantasizing that he was bringing back the Roman Empire, or Hitler “recreating” a fictitious Reich, or Osama bin Laden trying to restore an imagined millennium-old Caliphate, political fantasists have shown a remarkable ability to both sweep others along in their fantasies and to exterminate those who choose not to take part.
Needless to say, the fabulists who make up the divestment campaign of deception at Hampshire College or the single-minded hosers who show their street cred by incoherently protesting against Motorola retail shops in Harvard Square do not represent this level of threat. But they do share with other political fantasists an absolute inability to see the world as it really is, much less see that there may be two sides to the Israel-Palestinian conflict (or any other issue) to which they commit so much energy, and so little thought.
It’s fascinating to watch the response when confronting a picketer in Harvard Square bemoaning “Israel Apartheid” when you ask simple questions about the treatment of women, homosexuals and religious minorities in the land controlled by the Palestinians whose cause they champion (all of which would meet the protestor’s own standards for “Apartheid” be it gender Apartheid, sexual Apartheid or religious Apartheid).
Their response is not to argue, not to even acknowledge the existence of these points, but to simply push them away with a turn of the head or a scoffing laugh. This represents more than a simple debate tactic of ignoring your opponent’s points in favor of your own. Rather, it demonstrates an imperviousness to reason as it applies to situations where Israel’s loudest critics have chosen to absent themselves from the real world.
Simply put, the divestment/Israel=Apartheid/Free Gaza crew have crafted a world for themselves where they are members of an enlightened elite, the only people on the planet who see the world as it really is. If that “reality” includes paranoid fantasies about “Jewish Power” repressing very the arguments that they make loudly and daily, or a willingness to justify the most horrific brutalities (be they suicide bombings, missile attacks against civilians, or inter-Arab murder sprees among the very Palestinians whose lives they claim to hold so dear), that makes no difference to the fantasist. For he or she lives in a world where they and they alone know “the truth.”
Working from such a world view, it makes no difference that their excesses and dishonest tactics (as in Hampshire College) might make it less likely that their programs (like divestment) will succeed elsewhere. For the primary goal of these projects is not to help the people of the Middle East. Nor is it to have an impact on the civil political debate that takes place all around us.
Rather, the goal is to do something “good for their own soul,” i.e., something that contributes to their political fantasy identity as the righteous few battling against the ignorant or nefarious many, regardless of whether or not this is effective, and certainly regardless of whether or not anything they are saying is true.