Closing in on the finish to a series of postings from many years ago regarding my first encounter with the BDS “Movement” in Somerville, MA, here was my first invocation of Lee Harris and his theories regarding ruthlessness (with a nod towards the kind of fantasy politics that defined the BDS movement that was resurrected in 2009).
In previous essays, I have described the tactics of the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP) as “ruthless.” Yet what does this term mean, beyond highlighting the aggressive, “by-any-means-necessary” nature of this group’s behavior?
For most of the ideas in this article, I am indebted to Lee Harris, author of “Civilization and It’s Enemies: The Next Stage of History,” whose remarkable book defines ruthlessness not simply as a way of engaging in activities involving power politics. Rather, he sees ruthlessness as one of the great foes of civilization, indeed its oldest, original enemy.
Primitive man thought nothing of stealing food from his fellow pre-human, but only the ruthless were willing to murder others for food they could otherwise obtain through honest means or simple theft. As mankind clawed its way to some kind of order, with civilization advancing, halting, reversing and advancing again, the ruthless were always there to threaten any progress towards establishing some kind of peaceful living space where trust and cooperation replaced bullying and butchery as the organizing principles of society.
The power of the ruthless comes from their willingness to engage in activities that the rest of us would never even imagine. In a world traumatized by the global conflagration of World War I, Europe’s nations were willing to do anything to avoid another conflict of that scale or worse. While a worthy sentiment, it provided ruthless actors, like Nazified Germany, the ability to have their way by simply threatening to trigger another World War if their demands were not met.
In a previous essay, I discuss the suicide bomber as a creative innovation, exported from Israel to the rest of the world complete with technology, tactics and ready-made apologies and explanations for their brutal behavior. Yet the willingness to blow up school busses and nightclubs, or fly airliners into skyscrapers is not simply an example of de-civilization or nihilism. Behind those that push the button or steer the aircraft are national and factional political leaders who understand that their willingness to detonate their followers at a Passover Seder or subway stop gives them a ruthless power over those who want nothing more than to help the world steer a course of ongoing progress via cooperation and the rule of law.
Contrary to their own self-image, highly radicalized groups like the Somerville Divestment Project have come close to meeting their goals not through imaginative political tactics or devotion to a cause, but through simple ruthlessness.
It does not require much creativity or organizational skill to bring a campaign like divestment into an open-minded, caring city like Somerville. If, for example, I was committed to scoring points against Israel’s Arab foes, I could begin a drive tomorrow to have Somerville take an official position against the brutal discrimination against homosexuals in Islamic lands. I could blanket the city with images of gays being hung in Iran or thrown off high buildings in Egypt and demand that progressives take a stand on the issue. I could set gay rights groups against Arab citizens, liberal churches against mosques, demand that the Mayor who was so supportive of gay marriage publicly condemn anti-gay violence in the Middle East or be accused of hypocrisy, or of having the blood of murdered homosexuals on his hands for not supporting my position.
It would not be difficult to take these steps, except for the fact that I (and everyone else who forcefully battle anti-Israel divestment) would never inflict the pain and conflict such a campaign would cause on the city just to publicly embarrass Israel’s critics. Indeed, not only would I never do such a thing, I would never even have imagined this kind of behavior before the SDP provided us all a template from which to work.
And there lies the difference. What most of us, until recently, could not even imagine, ruthless players like the SDP wake up every morning and do. Subverting the language of human rights for short-term political gain, forcing religious and political organizations to take a stand or risk possibly permanent schisms, dragging the bitterness of the Middle East into a struggling, multiethnic city, these are all acts with potentially long-term damaging effects. Yet the ruthless do not care about the consequences of their actions. To them, the leaders and citizens of Somerville are mere props to be manipulated so that leaders (and a few followers) of the divestment movement can feel part of some great, global, revolutionary struggle.
Even the Palestinians, in whose name hate groups like the SDP profess to speak, are simply props in a vulgar, political game. As anyone with eyes can see, the only path the Palestinians have from their present misery is through peaceful negotiations. Yet by holding out the prospect of victory through war, supported by propaganda efforts like divestment, these “friends of the Palestinian people” are leading them towards an even darker blind ally than the one into which they want to drag the city of Somerville.
While divestment proponents might be able to convince themselves that the ends justify the means as part of some fantasized higher, noble calling, in truth their means have become their ends. For what defines such movements outside of their willingness to say anything, do anything, hurt anyone, sew conflict, corrupt democracy, abuse the language of human rights and free speech, i.e., to behave in a manner that defines ruthlessness?
While some may wish for a day when mankind has evolved to a point where ruthlessness has been eradicated from the human species, there is nothing more dangerous than imagining that such a day has already arrived when it so clearly has not. Ruthlessness has been with us since humans first interacted, and wishing it away or blaming its victims for keeping us from an imagined utopia has been a recipe for the 20th (and now the 21st) century’s most unimaginable disasters.