BDS, Martin Luther King Jr. and Existentialism
Each time Martin Luther King Day rolls around, pro and anti-Israel forces clash over King’s legacy, borrowing tropes from the civil rights movement and quotes from its leader to support different sides in the conflict. Arab-Israeli.
This rush to enlist Dr. King in our battles is understandable, given the “halo effect” that comes from associating your movement 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 battle against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement? — and against the broader anti-Israel movement? propaganda campaign, of which BDS is only one element?
Many attribute King’s triumph to his masterful combination of Christian messages (delivered with the inspiring voice and cadence of the black church) and the nonviolent ethos 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 this philosophy or King’s interpretation in detail (although you can do that here and here). But to boil down the point to its essence: King understood that all of us (even if we can’t articulate it in those terms) are involved in a perpetual project to invent who we are.
And if you asked most people about the person they made up, they probably wouldn’t describe themselves as “narrow-minded,” “bigoted,” and “hateful.” On the contrary, we all like to think of ourselves as “good,” whether that good takes the form of being good Americans, good Christians, good Democrats, or whatever category we identify with.
So the rationale behind King’s careful engineering of confrontations — such as chosen marches to locations likely to generate harsh responses that would play out on the evening news — was not to rub America’s nose. white in its own bigotry, but rather to create a disturbing contradiction between people’s self-characterization of goodness with ugly images of violence and repression in the name of those same “good people”.
Faced with such a troubling contradiction, an individual has two choices: change their self-perception to embrace (or at least find room for) the justifications for violence and repression, or change the world in order to eliminate the source of this disturbance. King bet on the fact that, as difficult as it can be to change the world, changing the perception of self – especially that of virtue – is even more difficult. And so his brilliantly chosen tactics, dangerous as they were to him and his followers, were aligned with the internal psychological “flow” of the people he wanted to reach.
The lack of this kind of existential empathy could explain the limited impact that projects such as Black Lives Matter have had within the wider culture, as they seem more interested in generating feelings of guilt and self-loathing. among large segments of the public. And even if you agree that America’s attitudes toward race have been and continue to be shameful, who wants to be involved in a project offering shame versus one offering uplift?
Information derived from the belief system that fueled King’s movement can help us better understand the BDS project and illuminate the best ways to combat it. And it is to this first element – the existential strategy of destruction of BDSers – that we will turn next time.