BDS, Martin Luther King and Existentialism

In an attempt to scare away my last remaining readers, I’ve started another series (wait, come back!) – this one on what we can learn from an unexpected source in our fight against B, D, you-know-what.

From Algemeiner

Whenever Martin Luther King Day rolls around, both pro- and anti-Israel forces skirmish over King’s legacy, borrowing tropes from the civil rights movement and quotes from its leader to support different sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This rush to enlist Dr. King in our battles is understandable, given the “halo effect” that comes from having your movement associated with such a charismatic leader of such a noble cause.  But given how many noble causes fail, what can we learn from the spectacular success of King’s branch of the civil rights struggle that can help guide our own decisions as activists fighting against BDS (and the wider anti-Israel propaganda campaign, of which BDS is just one component)?

A number of activists before and since King have tried to rally the public behind the fight against racism in America, with mixed results – and certainly nothing like the success King’s project enjoyed.  Many credit King’s triumph to his masterful combination of Christian messaging (delivered with the inspiring voice and cadence of the black church) and the non-violent ethics associated with Mahatma Gandhi. But few understand the important role played by existentialist philosophy in the decisions King made.

This is not the place to explore that philosophy or King’s interpretation of it in great detail (although you are free to do so here and here).  But boiling down the existence of that connection to its essence: King understood that all of us (even if we can’t articulate it in such terms) are involved in a perpetual project of inventing who we are.

And if you asked most people about the person they’ve invented, they would probably not describe themselves as “narrow-minded,” “bigoted” and “hateful.” Rather, we would all like to think of ourselves as being “good,” whether that good take the form of being good Americans, good Christians, good democrats or whatever categories with which we identify.

So the reason behind Kings careful engineering of confrontations (in the form of marches chosen at locations likely to generate harsh responses that would play out on the nightly news) was not to rub white America’s nose in its own bigotry, but rather to create an unnerving contradiction between people’s self-characterization of goodness with ugly images of violence and repression being made in those same “good people’s” name.

When faced with such a disturbing contradiction, an individual has two choices: change their self-perception to embrace (or at least find room for) justifications of violence and repression, or change the world in order to eliminate the source of that disturbance.   King banked on the fact that, as hard as it might be to change the world, changing self-perception – especially one of virtue – is even harder.  And thus his brilliantly chosen tactics, dangerous though they were to him and his supporters, were aligned with the internal psychological “flow” of the people he wanted to reach.

Lack of this sort of existential empathy might explain the limited impact projects such as Black Lives Matter have had within the wider culture since they seem to be more interested in generating feelings of guilt and self-disgust among large segments of the public.  And even if you agree that America’s attitudes towards race have been and continue to be shameful, who wants to be involved with a project offering shame vs. uplift?

Insights derived from the belief system that powered King’s movement can help us better understand the BDS project, and inform the best ways to fight against it.  And it is to that first item – the BDSers’ existential strategy of destruction – that we will turn to next.

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