Bigotry for broadcast
by Charles Davis (AlJazeera English)
The first time I ever spoke with Pamela Geller she chastised me. “I’m here at the booth and they don’t have my name,” she complained over the phone in a moderately irritated Long Island accent. The anti-Islam jingo who led the campaign against the “Ground Zero mosque” had just flown from New York to LA to, in her mind, encourage television viewers primarily between the ages of 18 and 35 to put aside whatever differences they may have and just focus on hating Muslims.
Geller, the woman behind an ad campaign on US public transit portraying plucky Israel as the “Civilised Man” (take a wild guess who the uncivilised “Savage” is) had agreed to appear on a regular segment she did not know called, “Totally Unacceptable Opinion”. As the guy who’d convinced her to come, it was my job to put on a polite smile for ten minutes and lead her to the green room; to put aside my normal pre-show routine of interrogating people in the line outside about their disgusting sex lives – every taboo violated is a tiny revolution, comrade – in favour of making nice with a hatemonger in a glittery jacket.
The Bigot, it so happens, Wears Prada.
Imagining myself a borderline not-terrible person, I put aside my well-I-oughta grumbling and did not dwell on the fact that Ms Geller had shown up at the wrong gate after ignoring my politely repeated request that she holler at me prior to arriving. No, with the confidence and grace of a god walking amongst the sure to be damned, I apologised for an error that was not mine. And carried her stupid bag.
You can see then how saddened I was to find that my pained affectation of decency was not reflected in Geller’s post-show account of her appearance in a characteristically understated column entitled, “Russell Brand’s ugly jihad“. Written in an underground hate-lair lined with row upon row of mid-80s televisions cycling at 2.5 speed through a horrific loop of car crashes, assassinations, atom bombs and natural disasters – one imagines – Geller’s column provided a livid, refreshingly fictional account of the little jingo-blogger that could doing battle with basic cable.
“Charlie is a liar.” I had led her to believe, allegedly, that her ripped from Ayn Rand hate rhetoric would be treated in a “meaningful fashion”, because that’s typically how they do things on late-night talk shows broadcast by cable channels better known for mixed martial arts. Pasted in the column were emails from me wherein I had promised we would “discuss the threat opposed by Islamists, including those living within our midst”. Do something neither author nor recipient apparently did: Read that last bit twice.
So what happened? At the taping, Geller shied away from the Islamophobic red meat she daily dishes on her blog, perhaps sensing that a Hollywood audience of 18-35 year-olds fresh from the pot dispensary probably weren’t all that concerned about the imposition of Islamic law in their lifetimes. Asked if the West should attack Iran, she replied with a simple “no” and a look of “who would ever…?” bemusement, never mind what she tells her fans: “Iran should be attacked today and their people liberated from their misery.”
She wasn’t a hatemonger who sees jihad under every hijab, but a human rights activist, Geller protested. And then someone in the audience protested that.
“Pamela’s racism kills!” shouted a young man, holding up a sign that said the same thing. After a couple chants, Russell brought him on stage where he explained his objection: Pamela Geller is a hatemonger, a belligerent and ignorant purveyor of fear and advocate of war and hate and intolerance. Or maybe those are my words.
And that was pretty much it, Russell soon booting both protester and protested off the stage. Next up: Eric Idle singing a song about fellatio. Such is television.
Reading Pamela’s account, however, depicts a cable talk show that is both suprisingly dangerous and weirdly Islamic. That protester guy? An “extremist Muslim” whose crazy outburst of disagreement made her think she was about to fall victim to a jihadist, one she claims was planted by the show. “I half expected him to pull out a knife and try to behead me.” To be fair, it would have made interesting TV.
While no one’s denying the protester wasn’t pasty white – indeed, suspiciously not so – he isn’t actually Muslim, but an atheist who, as it happens, fought with the US Marine Corps in Iraq. Geller, it seems, based her assessment that he was an Islamic extremist on two things: His opposition to her and his aforementioned lack of pastiness. If I were trying to avoid accusations of prejudice, I probably wouldn’t use “the Muslim” as shorthand for “that non-white I don’t like”. You could end up looking foolish, ya know?