A couple of weeks back, I was sitting with some friends at work talking about the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) forces that had set up camp within about 15 minutes from our office. Apparently, the day before the OWS group had obtained a court order that would temporarily prevent their forced eviction. And, in celebration, they decided to block traffic on a key bridge causing major disruption for everyone in the city, including several of my work companions.
Discussions broke along the lines you’d see in the next day’s news headlines, with some people sympathetic to OWS’s political stances ready to forgive the movement’s excesses, while others condemning them as a bunch of quasi-Marxist no-goodniks. But I absented myself from judgment, since in the back of my mind I suspected that we were not discussing a political movement at all.
To understand this, we need to go back to my favorite political writer Lee Harris whose work on fantasy politics is still required reading for anyone trying to understand 9/11 and its aftermath. His essay on fantasy ideology that put him on the map began with this personal anecdote:
“My first encounter with this particular kind of fantasy occurred when I was in college in the late sixties. A friend of mine and I got into a heated argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of anti-war protest. To me the point of such protest was simple — to turn people against the war. Hence anything that was counterproductive to this purpose was politically irresponsible and should be severely censured. My friend thought otherwise; in fact, he was planning to join what by all accounts was to be a massively disruptive demonstration in Washington, and which in fact became one.
My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason — because it was, in his words, good for his soul.
What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.
And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy — a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective. Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability.”
So why would participants in a project like OWS take action sure to alienate potential supporters? For the simple reason that those people they were inconveniencing were not seen as potential converts, but as props in a drama taking place within the protesters’ own heads.
This phenomena explains many, if not most, of the outstanding questions regarding the strange behavior of BDS activists that have been documented here for close to three years.
Why on earth would they perpetrate a hoax on the campus of Hampshire College and then harass Hampshire’s President for not playing along when such behavior was sure to spread the word among college administrators across the country that BDS was radioactive and shouldn’t be given the time of day?
Why fabricate stories about TIAA-CREF divesting from Israel one year, only to start a campaign the next year pleading to the same organization to actually do what you just pretended they did the year before (and then strike an indignant pose when CREF management tells you to fuck off)?
Why erect the same tired cardboard walls, and hold the same Apartheid Week events, and harass another generation of college students year after year after year despite the fact that this only helps galvanize pro-Israel forces to fight against the BDSer’s by-now-completely-predictable tactics? Why push for boycotts when they only invite humiliating BUYcotts in their wake? Indeed, why continue to embrace the BDS tactic that has gobbled up a decade of anti-Israel resources and only left Israel more wealthy and popular than ever before?
The answer can be found in Harris’ conception of the political fantasist. For, at the end of the day, the goal of the boycotter is not to achieve actual political success. If they catch a break (as they did briefly with the Presbyterians in 2004), they’re happy to take advantage of it. But in the meantime they can take satisfaction in achieving a far more important goal of convincing themselves that they are part of a momentous, world-historical project, indeed that they are the only people (unlike the stooges and villains they are forced to interact with) who see the world as it really is.
Within this context, college administrators, students, food co-ops, churches, Israelis, Israel supporters, even the Palestinians the BDSers claim to care so deeply about are not really organizations or individuals. Rather, they are props that inhabit the stage of the boycotter’s own personal drama, inanimate objects that exist solely to support the BDS persona as a gallant, virtuous knight fighting against insurmountable forces of infinite villainy.
Why should we care about the internal motivation of participants in the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment “movement” (especially since their excesses tend to work to our advantage over time)? Because when such fantasies move from the individual to the collective, they develop enormous destructive power, a subject about which I will give Lee Harris the final word:
“For want of a better term, call the phenomenon in question a fantasy ideology — by which I mean, political and ideological symbols and tropes used not for political purposes, but entirely for the benefit of furthering a specific personal or collective fantasy. It is, to be frank, something like “Dungeons and Dragons” carried out not with the trappings of medieval romances — old castles and maidens in distress — but entirely in terms of ideological symbols and emblems. The difference between them is that one is an innocent pastime while the other has proven to be one of the most terrible scourges to afflict the human race.”