Dangerous Illusions

In order for us to maintain the childish illusion that bad children always get their comeuppance , reports are often disseminated about 'bad children' who are punished.

For years I shared my office at Haaretz with an ecology fanatic, who ate carobs for lunch and tried to convince the cockroaches that emerged from the plastic bag in which the carobs were packaged to depart of their own free will, since killing them was forbidden according to her faith. She believed that an individual had the power to change both his own fate and that of the planet, if he tried hard enough. In the end, this health nut died of an aggressive cancer at an early age. With respect to most of the other issues that she struggled to change - the occupation of the territories, racism, the objectification of women - not much has changed for the better. My colleague's death helped me understand that after all is said and done, our ability to affect either our own destiny or humanity's in general is virtually nonexistent, and mostly involves illusions. First and foremost, the childish illusion that Janusz Korczak writes about in his charming story "Kaitus the Magician": that if we try hard enough and channel our efforts into making a certain wish, it comes true in the end. And the opposite: that bad children always get their comeuppance.

In order for us to maintain such childish illusions, reports are often disseminated about bad children who are punished. This week, whether by chance or not, two such stories began to circulate. One related to tougher restrictions and fines for smokers - the bad children who spread lung cancer. The other was about new studies revealing that cell-phone use may increase one's chances of developing a brain tumor.

Eran Wolkowski
Eran Wolkowski

These two hocus-pocus stories include an element of blind faith in the power of "research" to suggest a logical connection of cause and effect between smoking and the use of cell phones, on the one hand, and illness and death on the other. Because the vast majority of us don't understand a thing about the studies whose results are being publicized, all we can do is to say "Amen." In just the same way, in days of yore, religious leaders would often confront worshipers after their prolonged communion with God in his holy of holies, and with a stern expression would inform them that the reason for the plague or the war was mankind's sins against God.

Were those who believed such leaders more naive or foolish than those of us who believe in the research about the connection between smoking, or cell-phone use, and early death? Not at all: Then, as now, we are fascinated by the illusion that we are able to influence our lives and to defeat randomness through some sort of ritual, which will save us if we persist in performing it - or if we don't persist, at least we will know that there is a logical reason for the disaster that befalls us.

"Do you smoke?" asks every doctor who examines you. And if it turns out you are suffering from a fatal disease, he will have a pat answer to your metaphysical question of "Why me?": Because you smoked, you bad boy. To those sick people who don't smoke, he can say: "It's because of the bad people who smoked around you." And starting this week, it will also be possible to say: "You have used your cell phone a lot, right? So what did you expect?"

Theoretically, at least, the government imposes a punishment for smoking in public places. When it comes to those who talk on the cell phone, the assumption now is that their punishment will come from heaven.

Among the large number of naive and childish beliefs in one's ability to improve one's fate by doing good deeds is, for example, the belief that if we protest enough against the occupation in the territories, we will succeed in overcoming it. That is, if we constantly watch films about the occupation, and view works of art about the occupation, and read stories about the occupation, and go out to demonstrate against the occupation, the occupation will panic and flee.

The naivete surrounding such a belief was to some extent reflected in remarks by Minister of Culture Limor Livnat this week, at the opening of the Cinema South Festival in Sderot. She sharply condemned what she saw as the one-sided nature of Shlomi Elkabetz's film "Edut" ("Testimony" ), which is about the iniquities of the occupation. She left before it was screened.

The catcalls from the auditorium when she spoke - mixed with the voices of other audience members who called out "Let her finish speaking!" - belong to the realm of magic, if not to what could be called the exorcism industry. And they also fit right in with the last, surreal ritual of this week: Jerusalem Day. In the context of this ritual, television stars and broadcasters, even those known for their sharp tongues and cynicism, don an expression of suitable respect in accordance with the popular consensus regarding Jerusalem's magical abilities.

I believe that I am capable of proving scientifically that Jerusalem is damaging to health, and has caused and is causing an early death among a broad swath of the population. I can also prove that the TV shows dedicated to Jerusalem Day definitely cause brain damage. When will we have an environmental protection minister who will fine the Israel Broadcasting Authority for its ridiculously high level of imbecility in its programming?