Loose Change. That’s the term fringe political movements use to describe people who join their organizations or show up to their events, not because such people believe in what the group stands for, but because such people want to be doing something, anything, to demonstrate they care about an issue.
For example, over the last two decades, several far-right European political parties found success among voters who didn’t care for the right’s political and economic policies, but who wanted to “make a statement” on Europe’s challenging immigration issues. In the US during that same two decades, people who came out to protest the war in Iraq, or joined Occupy or the anti-Trump “resistance” found themselves at rallies and marches where the messages from the podium or on banners and signs seemed to go far beyond the issue that brought them into the streets.
To the uncomfortable European voter or the bewildered American marcher, he or she was trying to take a stand about issues they found important. But to the organizations that claimed those voices as their own, these well-intentioned people were just so much loose change.
To see the relevance of this “loose change” in BDS debates, consider the many college campuses where BDS votes have taken place in student government and consider the outcomes (bad or good) that could come about if such those resolution wins the day.
Practically speaking, the BDS votes have no economic impact. College administrators who have had divestment pressed on them over the last decade have shown no interest in politicizing their investment strategies, especially based on lopsided and fact-free characterization of the Middle East conflict.
But if the practical repercussions of such resolution are small, the symbolic impact is more significant. For, whenever the BDSers win some student government vote, even by a small margin after a long string of defeats, that success if presented as the student body as a whole standing four-square behind the divestment movement’s real message: that Israel is a racist, apartheid state alone in the world deserving of punishment. One need only look at how such controversies play out on campus to see that, far from helping students better understand complex issues, divestment is helping to rub political, religious and ethnic wounds raw.
Given the limited practical potential and significant downsides of BDS activity, we are left searching for who benefits from such activity. And thus we are left with a handful of student leaders, some of them cynical ideologues, but many of them sincerely concerned about problems in the Middle East, and desiring to do something, anything, to make a statement. Even when they have no electoral mandate to make such statements, much less take action on international issues, a “Yes” vote gives them the feeling that they are doing something virtuous, even though the actual effects will be all bad for those they represent, as well as the Middle East. It would turn leaders trusted to do what’s right for the students they represent into a handful of loose change in the pocket of the worldwide boycott Israel movement
There are times, most times, when we want our leaders to lead, to think about and act on issues on which the rest of us have entrusted them. There are also times when we want our leaders to follow, or at least listen to the people who have elected them more than the few month’s preceding an election cycle.
Acting like loose change, however, does not represent either leading or following. It consists of being manipulated into taking harmful action in order to make oneself feel good. Another term for this would be “sucker” and while it is always sad to see people waste their own money or reputation taking a sucker’s bet, it’s far worse once you realize they are betting with someone else’s name and reputation, an asset they are not empowered to sell.
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