Fantasy Island

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.”

PCUSA – Selfless or Selfish?

There is an interesting construct that has taken hold within the Presbyterian Church (and not just there) that allows Israel’s most vocal critics to identify themselves as being above concerns such as nationalism and other forms of particularism which they identify as the source of war and other misery. They are citizens of the world and, in contrast, we supporters of Israel are seen as narrow partisans, acting selfishly out of interest for a particular people or state.

As is often the case, Lee Harris (one of my favorite political philosophers) describes far better than I or anyone else can the irony of this self-identified cosmopolitanism as just another form of particularism. But for purposes of discussing what’s happening at the PCUSA General Assembly this week, I will try to make a couple of particular observations of my own.

To begin with, the type of activities we’ve been seeing taking place within PCUSA committees dealing with Middle East issues are probably best described as motivated by what I would call “vulgar cosmopolitanism,” rather than the more sophisticated cosmopolitanism described in detail by Harris.

Like “vulgar Marxism” which reduces every political discussion to some form of economic determinism (a la Naomi Klein), “vulgar cosmopolitanism” ironically defines global citizenship around level of support for a particular strain of nationalism.

The notion, for example, that a new state – a Palestinian state – is not just urgently needed, but represents the ultimate expression of justice and virtue is unquestioned by members of stacked PCUSA committees dealing with the Middle East. While they may debate whether such a state should live alongside or replace the state of Israel, the idea that there should be a 197th state, a 25th Arab state, a 51st Muslim state in the world goes unquestioned, as does the religious particularism (not to mention human rights abuses) within the Muslim world.

The PCUSA’s own “vulgar cosmopolitanism illusion” makes delegates particularly open to the harshest of partisan voices. For the easiest nationalism one can reject is one’s own. But when confronted by those who guard their own nationalism most jealously and fiercely (including countries who insist that repression of their own people is an internal matter which the “international community” has no business interfering with), the vulgar cosmopolitan is faced with a dilemma: face up to the limitation of their world view, or somehow convince themselves that by acting in the narrow interest of nationalist partisans representing a people not their own, they are, in fact, truly “acting globally.”

This attitude makes an individual or organization vulnerable to the nationalist most willing to ruthlessly exploit the language of internationalism and human rights for narrow, self-serving ends. In the case of PCUSA, this means that a group like the Palestinian Christian Liberation Theology organization Sabeel can pretty much have its way with the organization by threatening to “expose” the Presbyterians as not truly standing up for their cosmopolitan principles if they do not follow the dictates of Sabeel and its fellow partisans.

Thus, more than any time in the past, PCUSA itself has become what could best be described as “occupied territory” with individuals and organizations outside of the church setting the terms of debate within the organization and determining the limits of what can be discussed and what cannot. One need only look at this week’s committee work where concerns over Presbyterian-Muslim relations are allowed to impact not just discussion (or lack thereof) of human rights abuses (including those directed against Christians) within the Islamic world, but can also determine what can officially be said regarding Presbyterian-Jewish relations.

I’ve previously noted the irony of how the supposedly narrow goal of defending the honor of tiny Israel has universal implications while those who use universal ideals like human rights and the rule of law as a smoke screen for their narrow attack on the Jewish state are the ones sacrificing global principle for provincial aims.

To point out one additional irony: I (an alleged partisan who supposedly is concerned about nothing beyond my tribe and it’s homeland) am just as concerned (if not more so) with what the current debate will end up doing to the Presbyterian Church as I am with how this debate might harm Israel.

Yes, the Presbyterians rejoining the anti-Israel bandwagon will be a pain, but we’ve lived with that before between 2004 and 2006 and I have few doubts that any gains the Sabeel crowd makes this year will be reversed in two year’s time.

On the other hand, the Presbyterian Church – once a cornerstone of American civil society – is well along in the process of destroying itself. One can ask if anti-Israel animus is a symptom or the cause of the church losing half its members since 1965, but one cannot deny that this self-immolation is taking place.

While it would be insincere of me to claim a great history of love and support for the Presbyterian Church (although I’ve met many wonderful church members in recent years), this alleged particularist is cosmopolitan enough to understand that we are all worse off when a major element of civil society – through its own actions – either goes away or makes itself irrelevant to their own and everyone else’s lives.


I’ve been thinking a bit more about the notion of “fantasy” that I began to discuss in the last posting.

As some friends know, I’m a big fan of the writer Lee Harris whose masterpiece, Al Queda’s Fantasy Ideology, is considered to be one of the most insightful things ever written about 9/11. In it, he talks about fantasy as political motivator, beginning with observations from his youth when he broke with fellow protestors over the Vietnam War over their insistence that their tactics include highly disruptive street protests.

Why choose this tactic, Harris protested, when it is sure to alienate the very people anti-war activists wanted to reach (the broad undecided middle), standing the chance that they would turn not against the war but against the war protestors? The simple explanation was that the street protests were not designed to win over anyone. Rather, they were a combination of street theatre and therapy designed to benefit the protestors themselves. So what seemed to be a political act was really a Kabuki drama in which the protestors got to fantasize about being part of an elite vanguard “on the right side of history.” Under such a construct, the citizens whose lives would be disrupted by the protestors, indeed the American and Vietnamese people as a whole, were simply props for the protestors own political fantasy performance.

Harris points out that fantasy tied to political ideology is not always completely innocent or simply annoying. Rather, it is responsible for many of the tragedies that have befallen mankind over the last centuries. While Mussolini fantasizing that he was bringing back the Roman Empire, or Hitler “recreating” a fictitious Reich, or Osama bin Laden trying to restore an imagined millennium-old Caliphate, political fantasists have shown a remarkable ability to both sweep others along in their fantasies and to exterminate those who choose not to take part.

Needless to say, the fabulists who make up the divestment campaign of deception at Hampshire College or the single-minded hosers who show their street cred by incoherently protesting against Motorola retail shops in Harvard Square do not represent this level of threat. But they do share with other political fantasists an absolute inability to see the world as it really is, much less see that there may be two sides to the Israel-Palestinian conflict (or any other issue) to which they commit so much energy, and so little thought.

It’s fascinating to watch the response when confronting a picketer in Harvard Square bemoaning “Israel Apartheid” when you ask simple questions about the treatment of women, homosexuals and religious minorities in the land controlled by the Palestinians whose cause they champion (all of which would meet the protestor’s own standards for “Apartheid” be it gender Apartheid, sexual Apartheid or religious Apartheid).

Their response is not to argue, not to even acknowledge the existence of these points, but to simply push them away with a turn of the head or a scoffing laugh. This represents more than a simple debate tactic of ignoring your opponent’s points in favor of your own. Rather, it demonstrates an imperviousness to reason as it applies to situations where Israel’s loudest critics have chosen to absent themselves from the real world.

Simply put, the divestment/Israel=Apartheid/Free Gaza crew have crafted a world for themselves where they are members of an enlightened elite, the only people on the planet who see the world as it really is. If that “reality” includes paranoid fantasies about “Jewish Power” repressing very the arguments that they make loudly and daily, or a willingness to justify the most horrific brutalities (be they suicide bombings, missile attacks against civilians, or inter-Arab murder sprees among the very Palestinians whose lives they claim to hold so dear), that makes no difference to the fantasist. For he or she lives in a world where they and they alone know “the truth.”

Working from such a world view, it makes no difference that their excesses and dishonest tactics (as in Hampshire College) might make it less likely that their programs (like divestment) will succeed elsewhere. For the primary goal of these projects is not to help the people of the Middle East. Nor is it to have an impact on the civil political debate that takes place all around us.

Rather, the goal is to do something “good for their own soul,” i.e., something that contributes to their political fantasy identity as the righteous few battling against the ignorant or nefarious many, regardless of whether or not this is effective, and certainly regardless of whether or not anything they are saying is true.