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Why Boycotts Rock

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

Boycotts can accomplish wonders — without violence and with as much or as little organization as situations require.

In just the past few weeks, mere threats of boycotts forced the Republican governor and the Republican dominated legislature in Indiana to scale back a “religious freedom” bill that they had just enacted. The Republican governor of Arkansas then withheld his signature from similar legislation.

What looked like a rising tide, about to spill across America’s benighted regions, seems, for now, to have been turned back; a remarkable, and very welcome, development.

If the government of Israel and the broader Israeli Right — along with their agents, the Israel lobby in the United States and other Western countries — are not fretting over the implications for them of this recent turn of events, they ought to be.

They are certainly worried about the general problem. Indeed, their desperation is palpable.

This is why Israel’s increasingly risible Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is currently acting out – giving orders to Congress, scolding the White House and State Department, and generally being a jerk.

It could be worse, of course; he could be flaunting his nukes.

But even he knows enough not to call attention to Israel’s nuclear arsenal when he has the rest of the world bamboozled into thinking that the mere possibility that Iran might someday be able to make a bomb – not forty to four hundred like Israel, but even just one – portends disasters ahead the likes of which our planet has not known since an asteroid crashed into the earth, causing the dinosaurs to go extinct.

But even as Israel’s bombs go unmentioned, the Israeli government’s antics give cause for alarm. There is no telling what the Netanyahu government will do, the more unhinged mad King Bibi becomes.

Nevertheless, the reality he and his co-thinkers are responding to gives hope to everyone seeking justice for Palestinians and Israelis.

It especially gives the worldwide Boycott, Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement reason to take heart, and press on.

The lesson is plain: not only can boycotts accomplish wonders; sometimes they work their magic more quickly than anyone, worn down by oppressive and seemingly immutable circumstances, could realistically expect.

* * *

Indiana’s hapless Governor, Mike Pence, learned this lesson the hard way.

Religious freedom, the freedom to believe whatever one wants about “divine” things, has always been securely protected in the United States.

It was different in colonial times, and there is always a gap between theory and practice, but the freedom to believe anything, no matter how ridiculous, is as secure as can be.

The freedom to do whatever religions require has also always been secure, though problems sometimes arise when there are conflicts with civil law or when “compelling state interests” are adversely affected.

There is therefore about as much need now for states to pass laws protecting religious freedom as there is for states to enact laws that require voters to show state-issued identification documents at polling stations.

The official rationale for voter-ID laws is to protect against voter fraud, a crime that is rare to the point of insignificance.

These are remedies for problems that don’t exist. Nevertheless, in recent years, Republicans have turned them into a cause.

It is not clear to what extent the Republican establishment is pandering to its base, or to what extent the base is calling the shots. It is both at the same time.

What is clear is that in the Republican netherworld, remedies for problems that don’t exist have a certain appeal.

There are no reasons that can withstand critical scrutiny that would account for this bizarre state of affairs.

Feasible explanations must appeal instead to underlying social and psychological causes, and to the demographics of the American electorate; above all, to the fact that today’s Republican base is comprised mainly of people – mostly older, mostly white — who feel socially and economically threatened by changing times.

Their view of the world is born of a sense of dislocation and despair that their policy preferences reflect.

Republican operatives figured this out a long time ago. They also discovered how to make the most of the situation. One thing they are very good at is gaming the system.

Requiring state-issued identification helps suppress the votes of constituencies likely to vote Democratic – the young, the very old, and, above all, the black and the brown. This is why Republican governors and legislators love the idea.

These are the people who also want to “restore” religious freedom.

In their world, “religious freedom” is a code word. It stands for the freedom of Protestant fundamentalists and socially conservative Catholics to impose their “moral” views on everyone else.

This is mainly, but not exclusively, a Christian phenomenon. When Governor Pence signed that notorious religious freedom bill into law last month, his minions made sure that there were a few hyper-orthodox rabbis, sporting the latest seventeenth century shtetl garb, in attendance. And notwithstanding the Islamophobia currently rampant in “Judeo-Christian” circles, they rustled up a few imams as well.

Homophobia is what seems mainly to have brought them together, and to have gotten them riled up. Within the Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) fold, theology divides; social conservatism, born of patriarchal attitudes and repressed sexuality, unites.

Republican politicians deny it, but, just as surely as the intent behind voter-ID laws is voter suppression, the aim of religious freedom laws is to legalize discrimination against LGBT persons.

The only reason they don’t come right out and say it, besides their inherent dishonesty, is that overt discrimination has a bad press these days, in much the way that overt expressions of racial animosity do. Nobody wants to be a bigot.

Or rather: nobody wants to be called out for being a bigot, or to be tagged with the label. For hard-core Republican voters, bigotry itself is fine, provided only that it is not so blatant that its reality is undeniable even to themselves.

Some Republican voter suppression efforts have encountered legal setbacks; some have succeeded. On this, the GOP is neither riding with nor against the tide. It is only taking advantage whenever it can.

On the other hand, for a while, it looked as if the GOP was on a roll with religious freedom.   They got what they were after in Indiana and (almost) in Arkansas; and efforts, likely to succeed, were underway in other states, including Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.

Then, so to speak, all hell broke loose; and, before long, religious freedom advocates reversed course. They had run into a solid wall of popular opposition.

* * *

In part, this shows that the Christian Right is losing its clout. It is about time. So far from putting religious freedom in jeopardy, Americans have been cutting the godly slack since even before the United States had a Constitution or a First Amendment.

But the days when even the tamest criticisms of religious beliefs and practices could only be proffered, expressly or not, “with all due respect” are coming to an end.

Religious inspired homophobia is especially on the wane.

Indeed, the main thing the sudden turnarounds in Indiana and Arkansas show is that attitudes towards the LGBT community have undergone a veritable sea change in just the past few years.

This “fact on the ground,” as the Israelis might say, was already clear by the spring of 2012 when Barack Obama came out in favor of gay marriage.

As leader of the Party of Pusillanimity, he would not have moved had he not realized that public opinion was already far ahead of him. There were polls indicating something like 70% support for same-sex marriages. Also, the courts, many of them anyway, were on board, and momentum was building.

Had an election not been looming, he might have waited longer still – but the money gay donors were dangling in front of him got him past his tipping point.

Obama knew as well as anybody that even if there are no red states or blue states, but only the United States, there are not many people in Indiana and Arkansas who care what he thinks about anything – much less gay marriage.

But within what is sometimes euphemistically called “the business communities” of both states, and in those of the other forty-eight, the realization has dawned that inasmuch as bottom lines depend on good consumer relations, the time has come, thanks to changing views of homosexuality, to ditch concerted opposition to “the homosexual agenda.”

Who knows how much, if at all, the attitudes of businessmen and women have changed? The important thing is only that business is business; and that haunted by the specter of boycotts, they told their factotums in the Governor’s Mansions and State Houses to back off.

And so, back off they did. The cable news channels hardly had time to adjust.

Something like this had happened before in 2009 – after voters in Arizona passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Ultimately, the Forces of Darkness lost there too. This time, with public opinion more evolved, business opposition was swifter and more intense.

And so it was that when the Arkansas-based, low wage and anti-union schlock emporium Wal-Mart told the Arkansas state government to cool it, they did – faster than a speeding bullet. How could they not?

Wal-Mart is the world’s largest company. It pulls in more than $416 billion in sales annually; this makes its economy bigger by far than Arkansas’s. Indeed, there are only twenty-four national economies in the world with a gross domestic product larger than Wal-Mart’s gross revenues.

But it was not only gargantuan capitalist enterprises pressing the case; small and medium size businesses did too. It was in their rational self-interest.

They feared boycotts, and they understood that the world had changed enough that the prospects were very real.

* * *

For proponents of justice in Israel and Palestine, this is inspiring news.

And it is or ought to be correspondingly unnerving news for Benjamin Netanyahu and his ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer.

Netanyahu was the shame of Cheltenham High (in suburban Philadelphia) and then of Harvard and MIT. Dermer, who only renounced his American citizenship because he was required by law to do so to become an Israeli ambassador, was American born and bred, and Wharton School trained. His father was a Mayor of Miami.

Therefore they both have American accents, and some acquaintance with American politics. The two of them are especially tight with Israel-friendly plutocrats, and with the pillars of the American Zionist community.

But does any of this give them a handle on how, in the present circumstances, to keep American public opinion on their side? If the recent past is any guide, don’t count on it.

What their upbringings do, at most, is give them insight into how to keep Congress doing Israel’s bidding. But this won’t be the case indefinitely; before long, public opinion will make the present level of servility unsustainable.

Now that “the arc of the moral universe” that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of is finally and rapidly bending away from injustice, their accents and educations aren’t worth a whole lot.

And yet, they seem not to have a clue. How could they and still “demand” that Iran recognize Israel before the United States reaches agreements with Iran on sanctions and uranium enrichment?

And yet, instead of scaling back, they escalate their demands – now Netanyahu wants an agreement on Iranian missiles too!

How could he and his advisors think that Americans who are not part of the House and Senate Republican caucuses, or who don’t take their lead from Democrats like Chuck Schumer, would tolerate the leader of a foreign state making demands like that on the American government – especially after delivering a preposterous lecture to a joint session of Congress?

Could too much time spent talking with Republicans and watching Fox News be making them dumber?

Or maybe the problem is just that Sheldon Adelson, the Commander-in-Chief of the Las Vegas-Macau-Tel Aviv axis, along with like-minded moneybag “philanthropists” of the Paul Singer, Seth Klarman and Irving Moskowitz variety are calling the shots?

No doubt, these factors contribute. But the leaders of the self-declared “nation state of the Jewish people” wouldn’t be quite so ready to take their cues from such sources if they weren’t already in a frenzy over the way the winds of change are blowing.

Twenty or thirty years ago, or even only ten, anyone who claimed that public opinion on LGBT issues would change as rapidly as it has would have been considered daft.

Until Israel’s assault on Gaza last summer, the same would have been said of anyone claiming a rapid erosion of the American public’s support for Israel.

In retrospect, the signs were there; evidence has been accumulating for years. But Zionist predilections seemed hardwired into the American psyche – even more than homophobia is.

Promoters of religious freedom bills found, to their dismay, that public – and business – support for the religious Right is no longer what it used to be.   Netanyahu and Dermer, and their American friends and advisors, may soon find themselves coming to a similar conclusion about public support in the United States and other Western countries for the Israeli Right.

A March 2015 survey of Americans’ attitudes released by the Pew Research Center, shows that roughly 65% of Americans still either sympathize with Israel “a lot” or “some”, while only 29% answered that they don’t sympathize “much at all.” The figures for Palestinians are 46% and 47%, respectively.

But a large part of the pro-Israel findings reflect the opinions of Americans over fifty years old, and of those who self-identify as “white evangelical Christians” or “conservative Republicans.” The figures for those who call themselves “moderate or liberal Republicans” lean less in Israel’s favor.

Hispanics are still in the pro-Israel camp, but not nearly to the extent that “whites” are; and respondents who say they are “black” are only slightly more favorably disposed to Israel than to the Palestinians.

Respondents who say they are Democrats sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians by only 3 percentage points (57% to 54%), but self-identified “liberal Democrats” sympathize with Palestinians over Israel by 8 points (68% to 60%)!  This is a truly astonishing result.

It indicates a sea change underway that is bound to register in one way or another as soon as the coming electoral season – for instance, in the primary contest in Maryland for the Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Mikulski.

Whoever gets the Democratic nomination will almost certainly become the next Senator. The leading contenders for now are Chris Van Hollen, a down-the-line Pelosiite, AIPAC approved “liberal” in the Mikulski mold, and Donna Edwards, a genuine progressive who has already taken stands that are likely to bring down upon her the full wrath of the increasingly impotent Israel lobby.

The mere fact that Edwards has a chance shows that attitudes are changing fast.

For obvious reasons, the Jewish Right and the Christian Right are not quite on the same page on “religious freedom.” The difference is not just that retrograde American Jews are less homophobic than Protestant evangelicals and retrograde Catholics. It is also that, despite their pre-Enlightened ways, even the hyper-orthodox understand that they are better off living in a liberal-secular nation than in a Christian theocracy run by anti-Semites.

But on whether America should give Israel carte blanche to do as it pleases to Palestinians, the retrogrades all agree that the answer is “by all means.”   Needless to say, they arrive at this conclusion in different ways.

For the Jews, it is because of a promise a “jealous” tribal god made to an imaginary patriarch at nearly the dawn of time.  It is not only true believers who think this; within the Zionist camp, even atheists somehow do.

For the Christians, it is because there can be no Second Coming until the Jews of the world are gathered back into the Land of Israel – where some will acknowledge Christ’s divinity while those who refuse, the vast majority, will be condemned to an eternity of torment.

That this view is transparently anti-Semitic doesn’t bother those Zionists who, in defiance of reason, identify anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. They are too grateful for the help Christian Zionists provide for their cause.

With rationales like these undergirding Zionist claims, the question is not why slavish support for anything the Israeli government does is losing its appeal, so much as how the prevailing level of servility became so deeply entrenched in the first place.

The nature and limits of the cultural and psychological forces that sustain homophobia are not well understood either, despite having been much investigated over the years.

But because they involve psychological factors of considerable depth, one would expect that their hold over the American psyche would be greater than anything Zionist ideologues and Israeli propagandists can muster in their efforts to sustain the extra-special relationship Israel has long enjoyed with the United States.

It is therefore puzzling that, when the idea was floated, boycotts directed at Indiana and Arkansas were so uncontroversial that they succeeded even without happening, while the very idea of directing boycotts and sanctions against Israel still generates hostility in elite circles and in mainstream media, notwithstanding the extraordinary growth of the BDS movement.

To be sure, there are no billionaire hedge fund managers or casino magnates viscerally homophobic enough to throw big bucks to the wrong side – not these days. On this score, Netanyahu et. al. are fortunate indeed.

And, on issues pertaining to equality for LGBT persons, major media — The New York Times, especially — have been on board for some time. There are exceptions, of course, and the farther right one looks, the more frequent the lapses and the greater the equivocations; but, on the whole, in corporate media circles, equality is the consensus view.

On Israel and Palestine, however, The New York Times is only now beginning to bend – timidly acknowledging, on its back pages, what all informed observers know: that the Israel lobby runs Congress like a puppeteer runs a puppet; and that, unlike Iran, Israel is a full-fledged nuclear state.

For extensive documentation of The New York Times’ bias, readers should check out the indispensable analyses offered by Barbara Erickson at TimesWarp.org.

With plutocrats willing to spend generously, and powerful media institutions on board, the Israeli Right can still put up a fight.   But time is not on its side. It is rapidly losing the battle for public opinion.

The Christian Right is still around too; politicians, like Ted Cruz, still pander to it. But it cannot turn back rising public support for homosexual equality. Who would have thought, even ten years ago, that it could become so marginalized so quickly, especially with so much else turning hard right.

Before long, expect American friends of the Israeli Right to find themselves in similar straits. Netanyahu accelerated the process, but it has been clear for some time that the days when Israel and the United States are joined at the hip would eventually come to an end.

This has already happened to an extent that would have seemed impossible not long ago.   The old order is broken, and there is not enough bankster-gambler money in the world to put it back the way it was.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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