Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when 3.5 inch floppy disks were considered cutting edge, I attended some of the big computing tradeshows that defined that pre-Internet era (PC Expo, Mac World and – the big one – Comdex), as both a journalist and an exhibitor.
It was while acting as a journalist that I learned an important lesson: that the level of violence a salesperson has to do to his or her own character in order to attract people into their booth is directly proportional to the crappiness of their product (or the likelihood that it would never be released).
Said violence frequently involved apes (including dressing up in a gorilla suit or, in some cases, having an actual live chimpanzee in the booth – usually under a sign that bore some variation on “Don’t Monkey Around with Data Security!”). Other acts of “spectacle” included the use of celebrity impersonators (poor imitations of Robin Williams and Cher ring a dim bell) and, at one MacWorld, Leonard Nimoy wearing a grey turtleneck sweater yamming on about Wingz!, a Mac spreadsheet that never saw the light of day.
Such behavior came to mind as I started thinking about the type of “spectacle” that is important enough to merit its own session at the now-so-close-I-can-smell-it PennBDS conference. Like the aforementioned chimp shows, BDS performances have the tendency to bewilder and appall their target audience, rather than attract and inspire them. In fact, given that BDS public performances have tended to be either bizarre (such as attempts at creating a “flash-mob,”), gross (queue the Code Pink bikini squad) or hostile (including blowing air horns and shouting through megaphones at concerts and ballet performances), BDS spectacle seems to represent an evolutionary step downward from the good old days of PC Expo monkey-business.
Interestingly, the behaviors required to participate in these types of BDS activities are the very ones I have been busy teaching my nine-year-old to avoid. This includes interrupting, wallowing in mud, and being rude during public events. It’s intriguing to discover that at the same time I am trying to get my 3rd grader to learn proper manners, the PennBDS cru is running a course on how to unlearn them (and then celebrating the results).
There is a logic to this behavior once you realize that, unlike getting schools, churches or cities to embrace your political program, making a spectacle of yourself only requires acting up in public and thus success or failure is under the full control of the boycotters. Sure, they’re likely to get kicked out of a store or concert for being public nuisances, but even if their “direct action” winds up with them sitting on the pavement, the ability to initiative these actions requires nothing more than their own rudeness and exhibitionism.
And we should not forget that between the start of a flash-dance or interruption-fest, the digital cameras will be rolling (do digital cameras roll?), capturing every minute of the “big event” on film (well, bits, anyway). This video footage is a crucial component for understanding why folks like Code Pink put such a stake in spectacle.
Given how much BDSers brag of their flash mobs, de-shelving, and similar “direct actions,” you might be surprised to discover that no more than a couple of dozen these types of events have ever taken place. Each one lives on, however, on BDS web sites, Facebook pages, YouTube channels and even the occasional DVD which are then talked about in mailing lists, RSS feeds, tweets and BDS conferences, with participants hailed for their edginess and “courage.”.
Once you realize that these stunts are not played out to convince an external audience, but to impress an internal one, everything makes perfect sense. Other questions get answered as well, including why the BDSers disrupt talks put on by their political opponents when this is guaranteed to turn the uncommitted against their cause? It explains why they perpetuate fraud and hoaxes, knowing full well they’ll get caught. It explains why they use corrupt tactics to win one battle, which all but guarantees they will lose the war.
For a full explanation, we must again return to our old friend fantasy politics; a set of activities that on the surface seem political, but in reality are designed to create a self-image among participants in a collective fantasy where they (and they alone) represent a noble, courageous, vanguard, of all-seeing seers who battle alone against unspeakable evil.
Why should such fantasists care about how the public reacts to their flash dances and catcalls since, for them, this public does not actually exist except as props in a drama going on in their own heads. In fact, all of us are props for the fantasist: Israel, it’s friends and supporters, even the Palestinians in whose names the boycotters claim to speak are just things, not people, a backdrop for YouTube videos designed to demonstrate to the world that by acting naughty in front of grownups that the BDS “movement” is more than what they are.
And what are they? Well here in reality, BDS is just a tactic used by the same tired Israeli haters who have been gathering in church basements for decades to show each other cliché-ridden 16mm films and talk about how horrible the Jews (whoops! I mean the Zionists) are. And while the names and faces may change, the only genuine difference is that today those films are distributed via Internet download and the basement has been briefly extended to an unknown location on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.