I've just spent half an hour reading comments at Mondoweiss, something I don't often do. It's a bizarre exercise. See, for example, the comments on Phil Weiss' angry response to Obama's Afghanistan speech, last week. It's title, 'History's Fool', only goes halfway; the comments contain a long discussion about the probability that Obama, like other presidents before him, has received a sealed envelope with "marching orders" from... whom? It's not clear, but they're the Bad Guys, and they control the world, and Obama is under their thumb, and his decision on Afghanistan is proof.
I understand there are kooks around, and they can be found at both ends of the political spectrum. You look at this discussion, however, and some of the others on the same site, and you wonder if perhaps the sentence shouldn't be formulated in the other direction: the ends of the political spectrum exist because there are kooks around who can't deal with the complexity of reality and instead create imaginary scenarios to comfort themselves.
So long as they're fringe kooks, they add flavour. Yet the 20th century saw any number of times when the kooks took hold of the mainstream; in the course of trying out their ideas they killed tens of millions of people and caused endless human suffering - which is why normal people need to keep a wary eye on them. Not obsess about them, not act on each and every idiocy they invent, but never forget that in the wrong conditions, kooks can be very persuasive and infinitely destructive. They are often intelligent, articulate, and personable. They don't advertise their oddity with obvious external symbols such as pointed ears, tails, or even simple frothing at the mouth. They can be a nice-looking elderly man with glasses, a clear-eyed fellow with an open collar (to mention two I've linked to over the past few months) - or, they're very likely to be eager young university students earnestly learning about the world. Jo Ehrlich, for example.
Jo and I were on the same bus tour to Hebron, last week. I haven't yet written about the experience. Jo has, at Mondoweiss, here. She doesn't tell how she carefully chose the parts of the story she wished to tell, while overlooking others. She can't tell you the parts she doesn't know. That was one of the funniest things about her, to me: that she and the other enemies of Israel with us on the bus didn't know very much about the Israel-Palestine conflict, to the extent that they didn't even know much about what Israel has done wrong. They are firmly rooted in a narrative about the present, with next to no idea of how it came to be.
I use the term 'enemies of Israel' advisedly. On the way back to Jerusalem I engaged some of these students in conversation. I hadn't intended to, but there was an American woman a few rows behind me who was defending Israel, and the students were lambasting her with a stream of counter factual contentions, so I joined the discussion to set the facts right. (Using the Goldstone Report as my primary source, of all things. The "facts" they were citing were so outlandish I was able to refute them from the Goldstone Report, which they all admitted not to have read.The world can be a funny place).
Jo Ehrlich didn't participate in the conversation, which was mostly between myself and two or three young Palestinians, and an English student named William. The Palestinians weren't kooks; it took all of ten minutes for us to agree that we can't live in peace with each other because their fundamental positions and mine aren't compatible. They demand a right of return and reject a Jewish claim to the Temple Mount. But they were nice, and I was sorry we didn't have more time to discuss.
William, on the other hand, is an antisemite with whom there can be no common ground for agreement. For him, Israel Is Evil. Everything Israel does is wrong and the Palestinians are the only wronged party in the conflict. He was incapable even of an intellectual exercise of trying to piece together how the Israelis see their world. Not only can there be no possible explanation of the facts that would set Israel in a reasonable light; when I suggested a number of such scenarios he brushed them aside as fantasies. In one case, I told of a clear-cut democratic decision made by a comfortable majority of the Israeli electorate earlier this decade; not only was he unaware of it, but he confidentially told me I was wrong, and if I wasn't wrong, the decision had been a hoax, intended to pull the wool over people's eyes; since he, however, studies Middle East Studies in London, he's able to recognize the truth and not be fooled.
Such a pathology cannot be argued with, and after about the fourth attempt to counter his allegations with facts, to each of which he responded with a version of "it's an Israeli attempt to fool everyone so as to continue with their evil machinations", I literally turned my back to him and stopped trying. If I'm evil irrespective of any facts, what might we discuss?