Last time, I described how much of Martin Luther King’s political success resulted from his understanding of human nature afforded by existentialist thought.
To understand how that same philosophy is playing out – for ill and good – among participants in the anti-Israel propaganda wars, we need to get past the parody/cliché of beret-wearing Frenchman spouting incomprehensibly abstractions about the meaningless of life and instead focus on the foundational existentialist idea: absolute freedom.
Understanding what this absolute freedom means requires accepting a couple of simple, but completely unintuitive arguments. To start with, far from being the opposite of “something,” “nothing” (or “nothingness”) is not an absence but a real thing existing in the world.
Existentialism’s founder Jean-Paul Sartre illustrated this brilliantly (and concretely) by talking about walking into a café expecting to see a friend who was not there. In this case, it is your friend’s absence that has far more reality to you than the presence of strangers in that same café. Similarly, if I expect to find $40 in my wallet, but only discover $20 when I open it, that missing twenty-dollar bill is much more real to me than the “existing” one in my billfold.
If these examples seem trivial, consider a much more important nothingness travelling through the world: each of us. For, according to Existentialism, each of us is an empty vessel, devoid of meaning unless and until we create it for ourselves. Thus existential angst is not the result of the world being meaningless. Rather, it is the anxiety we feel over our absolute freedom to create ourselves, and our justifiable anxiety (even if just instinctive) over the fact that responsibility for this meaning-creation is ours and ours alone.
There are a number of unhealthy ways to deal with this sort of inner crisis, each of which is wonderfully illustrated by the terrible behaviors of Israel’s enemies.
One alternative to creating our own meaning and purpose is to outsource that meaning-creation to someone else. Totalitarians make crude attempts to take advantage of this option by forcing their hostage populations to line up for days to celebrate the leader’s birthday by chanting his ideological slogans. When such dictators fall, we often discover that people’s internal (existential) freedom resists this sort of bullying. But what happens when attempts to fill people’s emptiness with lies are more subtle?
When anti-Israel partisans provoke the IDF, film those soldiers’ response, edit out their original provocations (and all other context), and share what they created with the world as an example of mindless Israeli brutality, they are engaging in more than just lies and propaganda. Rather, such projects are designed to not just create (false) facts, but generate a world view (that of Israeli monstrousness) in hope that those empty of both knowledge and purpose – at least regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict – will accept the stories and moral judgements being fed to them fully digested.
BDS propagandists play a similar game with themselves, which helps explain their long track record of hoaxes: stories of BDS success which turn out to be false or ludicrously overblown.
Like the manufactured propaganda videos mentioned above, such “success stories” are designed to create a new reality, one in which boycott proponents hope the public (which activists consider empty vessels) perceive BDS as enjoying unstoppable momentum. But the creation of such storylines is also designed to help the boycotters themselves feel successful and empowered, just as their disruptive behavior – often unproductive politically – is designed to create their own self-image as an edgy vanguard.
Using the language of existential self-creation, the BDSers are involved with the project of filling their own nothingness with a witch’s brew of manufactured lies (which they believe to be reality), destructive beliefs and behaviors (perceived as unique insight and courage), and self-righteous fury (confused with morality). Given this, is it any wonder they become a howling mob the moment they are confronted with anything that interferes with their self-mythologizing?
Since most of us never ask (much less answer) the fundamental existentialist question of “Who am I?” most people instinctively look for alternatives to the painfully hard work of building our own meaning. Sartre referred to such people as “inauthentic,” and while this term eventually devolved into a slur the young (most of whom had never heard of Existentialism) hurled against the old, one can see from the lies, the deceit, and the ugly behavior of the BDS “movement” the effort people will put into living inauthentic lives (frequently at someone else’s expense).
Given the effort needed to live inauthentically, with unresolved angst (and, frequently, harm to others) as the only reward, the struggle to live an authentic life seems well worth it. But is there an option for creating existential meaning for ourselves, one which can also help others find their way and, possibly, make the world a better place in the process? A search for an answer to that question next time.