The passionate intensity of the know-nothing protester
Why do people with no knowledge of the Israel-Hamas conflict feel the need to join these awful marches?
A short video was shared on X this week in which two young female protesters at a pro-Palestine march were asked a pretty straightforward question about the crisis in the Middle East: ‘When Hamas invaded Israel on the 7 October, what was your initial reaction to that?’
The first one looked briefly confused. Was this a trick?, she seemed to be thinking. Her companion stepped in: ‘I don’t believe they did, did they? Hamas?’ Then something started coming back to the first one. The stirrings of something like a distant memory. ‘I think so…’, she said, trying to correct her friend who didn’t think Hamas had done anything.
Encouragingly, in the light of this, the first one then appeared to experience an awakening. ‘Honestly, I think I need to be a bit more clued up on everything that’s going on’, she said, before finally responding to the original question: ‘I feel like I’m not really qualified to answer that too well…’
Her companion, however, was having none of this. No room for doubt in her ranks. So she persisted in her Baudrillard-tier scepticism about the 7 October attack: ‘I mean, I’m not sure that I’ve seen anything that shows that that’s actually happened or that’s actually correct.’
It’s tempting to respond to this video by wondering who the fuck are these virtue-signalling halfwits and why aren’t they in a library studying? Yet even if these young women are typical of many of those attending the anti-Israel demos, a bit more understanding might be in order.
The fact is, I have a big-hearted daughter of 19 at a London university. I don’t think she is marching, and I know she does at least have some grasp of recent history. But I can imagine her feeling a degree of sympathy for a civilian population caught in the crossfire and deciding to attend a protest to call for an end to their suffering. And I can also imagine her hesitation and confusion when confronted with a camera and a microphone, and a vague suspicion that she is being lured into a trap.
I said on BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz after 7 October that sometimes an outrage is so horrific as to create a kind of vacuum around itself. The psychological effect is similar to the deafness and disorientation that follows a bomb blast. Any talk of context is then not only impossible, it is also an affront to human sympathy.
I think many of us felt that way about 9/11. And I think many young people feel the same way after seeing parts of Gaza reduced to rubble and infant Palestinians caked in the blood and dust that seems almost to be their default husk when seen on Western media. I think, for young people, the horror of what they are seeing has deleted even the immediate context in which Israel’s assault on Gaza is taking place.
Of course the events of 7 October did happen. This is the bare minimum one should know before going on protests against Israel in its war with Hamas. But this conflict is a multi-volume history, and very few of us have mastered the complete set. Indeed, the past 75 years of Arab-Israeli conflict is a lifetime’s study and then some.
There are the wars, the personae, the negotiations, the demographic changes. There are the changes in the global power balance, the coming and going of the Cold War. There is the fall of Arab nationalism and the rise of Islamism, especially after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. And there are the changing calculations within the Arab world, such as the rising enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And all that is before one gets into historical Zionism, into Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann, and the Balfour Declaration…
Be realistic. No student could be expected to get to grips with all of that before taking a stance on the current conflict. But still the question remains: why have so many young people seemingly forgotten or chosen to doubt the horrors visited on Israeli civilians, only a month ago, and swung so decisively behind their murderous tormentors?
Some have attempted to explain this phenomenon by pointing to the influence of critical race theory and ideas of ‘decolonisation’. After all, various academic currents suggest that the darker skin in any conflict is a reliable proxy for virtue. And that the better-funded military and the smoother-running democracy is always suspect. Wokeness always favours the weak.
But getting properly into CRT and theories of decolonisation also involves some heavy reading, and we have long been a post-literate culture. No, the visual images of suffering in Gaza are vastly more persuasive and immediate.
And these are not the only images that young people are subjected to. They have also been exposed to powerful messaging from Hollywood for decades. They have repeatedly seen tales of brave and noble partisans fighting back against highly militarised, colonising forces, from Star Wars to Avatar to Dune.
But the more powerful, the better resourced, are not always in the wrong, despite what the movies say. And this is an important lesson that I do not think we take the time to teach: to not always believe that strength and resolve is cruelty, that might is necessarily wrong.
The most-quoted poem to describe the world we live in has for some years now been WB Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’. And especially the line, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’ Let us at least teach our children not to mistake one for the other. Especially when, on a rare occasion, the best display some conviction after all.
Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian.
Picture by: Twitter.
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