Poster Children

From the Boiling Frogs on The Dispatch

Recently my colleague Chris Stirewalt tried to explain why House Republicans would double down on Donald Trump’s coup attempt by choosing Mike Johnson, a top henchman in the effort, as their new speaker.

It’s inscrutable as a matter of political logic, he recognized, but perfectly legible psychologically. Blame the “strange alchemy of ego by which shame without atonement turns into pride” for Johnson’s ascension, Stirewalt wrote.

That’s elegant phrasing for a phenomenon Dispatch readers have become familiar with. On The Remnant, Jonah Goldberg regularly references a point made by Yuval Levin about why the right’s insincere, opportunistic Trump apologists tend to devolve into true believers. Insincerity is a heavy psychological burden to carry every day, Levin argued, especially when that insincerity serves a dishonorable cause.

If MAGA pretenders can’t or won’t unburden themselves by atoning, they’ll do it by converting their shame into pride.

Watching scenes like this play out lately, I wonder how many might be explained by that same strange alchemy:

There’s more where that came from. It’s become common enough that some Americans have begun to stand guard near the posters to prevent them from being ripped down and stolen.

In one sense, putting up images of missing persons is so anodyne that it barely qualifies as political. A crime has been committed; public awareness of it is being raised. It’s no more inflammatory than a photo of a lost child on the side of a milk carton.

But insofar as the posters assert the humanity of Israelis in a vivid and intimate way, some Palestinian apologists find them so provocative as to be unbearable.

“I think they’re putting them up to bait people to take them down,” one vandal told the New York Times, complaining of attempts to name and shame the defacers online. “I think it’s disgusting how they’re trying to destroy people’s lives.” The word “bait” features in this widely derided Daily Dot piece about the practice as well. “Some are wondering if the posters are being strategically placed to entrap those who tear them down, many of whom support the Palestinian people,” the author wrote, seemingly not grasping what the word “entrap” means.

Needless to say, it is very, very typical of pro-Palestinian activists to disclaim blame for the sins of their own side by placing it on the enemy instead.

I want to be charitable and chalk all of this up to the strange alchemy described by Stirewalt.

Perhaps those activists are ashamed of the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7 but can’t unburden themselves of it by saying so, especially when Israel is pounding Gaza. So they’re unburdening themselves through pride instead, making a spectacle of their callousness toward Israeli hostages to assuage their feelings of guilt.

The posters are a type of haunting, one might say. The haunted are exorcizing the spirits as they encounter them to spare themselves from torment.

Guy Benson notes that some caught tearing down posters have indeed sounded sheepish when asked about it. One offered the preposterous excuse that he was merely trying to keep the streets of New York City clean and apologized to anyone whom he had offended. Maybe his remorse upon being found out was genuine, or maybe it had to do with the sudden prospect of becoming unemployable after being photographed and identified by a major newspaper.

Some alchemy isn’t so strange.

It wouldn’t be strange either to discover that many vandals know little about Israel or Hamas and are along for the ride in this latest permutation of progressive activism. Young Americans’ favorite Chinese-communist-backed social media platform turns out to have a heavy pro-Palestinian bias, wouldn’t you know it, and that bias is being impressed upon impressionable minds. If TikTok is capable of convincing people they have Tourette’s syndrome, it’s capable of convincing them that tearing down posters of kidnapped Israelis is a righteous thing to do because … reasons.

Pride, ignorance, and conformity account for most of the world’s problems. Why should tearing down posters of Israel’s missing be different?

That does explain some of it, no doubt, but not every defacer acts without due deliberation. There’s an ideological project being served here. Plainly, Palestinian apologists despise the posters because they confound the clean progressive narrative about one side of the conflict being victims and the other victimizers.

On October 7, Hamas’ victims suffered a brutality so perverse that no one to the right of Rashida Tlaib could possibly excuse it—and the left will never forgive them for it.

The posters are a plea for sympathy for them and a de facto indictment of what Palestinian irredentism has enabled, from the depravity of the pogrom of October 7 to the depravity of Western leftists demanding that Hamas be allowed to get away with it by insisting on an immediate ceasefire. This image captures the pro-Palestinian moral objection to the “Kidnapped” posters succinctly:

God only knows what horrors are being visited upon that girl in captivity in Gaza. To stare that reality in the face and convert her missing poster into something akin to a “wanted” poster—guilty of the crime of being a Jew on what’s supposed to be Arab land, regardless of age—is to assert nothing more or less than that she had it coming.

Mocking up an “Occupier” poster to make that point is a lot of work. Tearing down a “Kidnapped” poster does the same thing but more efficiently. These are not people to be mourned or missed, it implies. These are not victims. Not even the children are innocent.

Would it surprise you to learn that that attitude, as it goes mainstream, might spill over from posters to people? And from Israelis to the global Jewish diaspora?

A few days ago, threats were posted on an online message board by someone threatening to attack a kosher dining hall at Cornell University. The poster warned that he would “bring an assault rifle to campus and shoot all you pig jews,” which was so over the top in its hatred that some suspected an Israeli sympathizer might have posted it to raise awareness of antisemitism.

The threat was real. A student at Cornell was arrested on Tuesday for making it.

Vandalism that began with “Kidnapped” posters being torn down has now spread across the country into more aggressive acts closer to home for America’s Jews. It strikes me that the public nature of the defacement is deliberate and important, the same way that Hamas’ decision to record its barbarity on smart phones and body cams on October 7 was deliberate and important. It shows Israelis and their allies that their enemies won’t allow shame to restrain their ruthlessness.

They will act in broad daylight. They will act even when cameras are trained on them. And they will trust that their allies will feel emboldened by their own boldness.

You’ve heard of the “broken windows” theory of criminality, which holds that small signs of social disorder—e.g., unrepaired broken windows in buildings—signal to local miscreants that more significant acts of disorder will be tolerated. Tearing down the posters is the antisemitic equivalent of breaking a window.

There’s a whiff of book-burning to it too. In both cases, subversive information risks undermining a grand moral project. Suppressing the information isn’t enough; to communicate the urgency of the project and the fearsomeness of the violence that sustains it, the information must be destroyed publicly.

You know what Heine said about that. By the time this is over, we’ll be lucky if no Jews have burned. Or no more than already have, I should say.

If allies of Hamas were prone to shame, they wouldn’t be allies of Hamas. That’s the basic problem with explaining poster defacement in terms of the “strange alchemy” that Chris Stirewalt used to describe House Republicans.

The most brutal regimes in recent human history each took pains to hide the extent of their brutality. Even modern Russia, hellbent on ending Ukraine as a nation, routinely denies having committed war crimes and frames its ambitions as a brotherly reunion of two peoples better understood as one. They don’t do that because they’re ashamed of how they’ve behaved, lord knows. They do it because all regimes crave international legitimacy, including those who despise the international order.

Hamas is different. It’s an open book about their endgame for anyone who cares to read it.

I suspect they regard their savagery not only as morally justified but as politically useful in solidifying support among their Western allies—which seems counterintuitive. The less defensible their behavior is, the fewer defenders they’ll have in the civilized world, no?

No, not really. The framework of “decolonization” through which the left views the conflict means that Palestinians are never morally accountable for their own actions. Rather the opposite: The more immorally they behave, the more desperate they must be to free themselves from the dire straits in which “occupation” has placed them. Hamas behaving like sub-Nazi degenerates on October 7 is ultimately just a lesson in how treating Gaza like an “open-air prison,” to borrow a favorite progressive term, has driven otherwise normal people to unthinkable barbaric rage.

That’s why posters for pro-Palestinian rallies last month sometimes featured paraglider iconography, echoing the means by which some Hamas terrorists entered Israel on October 7. Under the “strange alchemy” theory, that imagery would be a matter of activists channeling their shame at what Hamas did into pride in it. In reality, I think, the paraglider is a symbol of moral outrage: Israeli occupation is so supremely unjust that Hamas felt compelled to resort to this to strike a blow at it. Associating themselves with the paraglider is the protesters’ way of associating themselves with the sense of outrage which they believe justifies the attack.

The worse, the better. If you doubt that, think back to how quickly calls for a ceasefire began following the worst crime perpetrated against Jews since the Holocaust. Pro-Palestinian activists knew instantly from the savagery of the violence that Israel’s retaliation would be terrible, but rather than propose some way to punish Hamas while sparing innocent Palestinians, they leaped to trying to restrain Israel’s response. For them, the brutality of the pogrom made protecting the side responsible for it more urgent, not less.

Tearing down posters of kidnapped Israelis reflects that impulse too, I suspect. It’s not a matter of coping with the shame they feel deep down at being reminded of what Hamas did. It’s a manifestation of anger that October 7 is being treated as a tragedy for Israelis rather than for Palestinians.

“It’s so obvious that they don’t care about people’s lives,” one defacer told the Times about those putting up the posters. Israel’s sympathizers should provide “context” instead: “Why did this happen and what are the events that led to this happening? That is what’s missing, and I think it’s intentional.” Another grumbled to the Daily Dot that “It’s like they’re trying to force you to focus on only these people and not on the thousands being slaughtered in Gaza.”

They’re not ashamed of what Hamas did, or what it might ultimately do. They’re ashamed of what Israel did before October 7 and resent the implication that they should feel otherwise, so they’re taking out their frustration through acts of minor vandalism.

The left being the left, some may even view what they’re doing as a form of “expression.” Treating violence as speech and vice versa as the progressive agenda requires is an ongoing project; words are tantamount to dangerous acts when they discomfit a victimized group while dangerous acts are tantamount to words when they discomfit the victimizers. The Times’ report on the posters refers to the vandalism as “its own form of protest,” in fact, a “release valve” for critics of Israel’s government.

The sort of person who believes “hate speech” isn’t free speech and who’s prone to shouting down political enemies was destined to try to suppress a moral reproach seeking sympathy for “colonizers.” How else, really, did we expect them to react to the posters?

The propensity of ideologues to dehumanize their political enemies is the ultimate both-sides affliction. Some influential Republicans are doing it right now with respect to Palestinians in Gaza, Will Saletan noted Wednesday in a piece for The Bulwark. For a movement like Trumpism, the cruelty is always the point.

But for conservatives of a certain age like me, watching the hard left ignore, rationalize, or embrace atrocities committed to advance The Cause is as familiar as an old blanket. The Cause is different now: Hamas is committed to smashing an outpost of Western liberalism in “colonized” Arab lands, not to liberating the world’s underclass from economic exploitation. Yet the same old rules apply. If the ends are righteous enough, any means are justified.

They’re not going to be shamed into caring about Israeli hostages. They’re not going to be shamed either into placing the blame for Gaza’s misery where it belongs, on Hamas. The cruelty is not the point in this case, but there’s no limit to the cruelty that will be tolerated in service to the point. All Israel can do is what it’s always done, hanging on and waiting idly for human nature to change.

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