A lot of people, journalist Ron Rosenbaum probably the most prominent, have questioned how someone like Adolf Hitler could rise to power in a country as culturally sophisticated and technologically advanced as Germany was in the 1930s–a country where there was almost no illiteracy. A country where there was political plurality and a free press. A country that, we should all remember, voted Hitler into power in a fair, democratic process.
I submit to you that maybe it was Hitler’s private collection of himself in beefcake poses.
Fast forward to the United States in 2010 and I give you Pamela Geller, a woman who has risen to fame almost entirely for hateful diatribes toward Muslims and her bikini photos. No matter how long you write, no matter how long you study, no matter how much thought you put into a subject, no matter how many credentials you collect or peer reviews you receive, it still seems as if the best way for you to get attention and to snag a bit of celebrity for yourself, even in a “good” society like America, is to do it just as you did in high school: find the person who is not like anybody else and then go to town on him. In high school, you gave wedgies or beat somebody up in the locker room. Today you get on a Web site and bash foreigners.
Geller even calls herself a bigot racist as a joke. It just makes her that much cuter, and we’re supposed to laugh her off. I suggest we create a new line of racist Barbie or Bratz dolls–“Give Us A Squeeze,” says the box.
Ann Coulter led the way when she learned that the more provocative you are, the more beloved you are by people with no self-esteem and no imagination. It’s led us directly to Geller, a person who might even chagrin Coulter (who has recently tried to rehabilitate herself a bit by cuddling up to gays). It’s always been pretty easy to call Coulter an attention whore. For Geller, it seems too nice a phrase.
Of course, the U.S. is not Nazi Germany, and I don’t mean to suggest that it is. I make the comparison to show how bigotry, which we were all taught to watch out for in school, is even today an aphrodisiac with a sexy hint of taboo. This woman uses a lot of meretricious rhetoric appealing to those with wounded pride. It could be she appeals to people who are too nationalistic. Those who are out of work and need someone to blame. Or more likely it’s those whose lack of intellectual confidence turns them into “joiners.” It sounds insipid to say out loud–that there’s a group of Americans who’d be swayed by a pastiche that is so transparent–and yet this woman mobilized thousands (millions?) against Park 51, an Islamic center in downtown Manhattan whose symbolism makes it somehow unacceptable, even in an area that already has mosques in it.
Geller called the center a “victory lap” for America’s enemies. You can’t argue with buzzwords like that. They’re so small, you can’t get an editorial in edgewise.
As a proud atheist, I dislike all religions, and would definitely challenge some of the points of Islam–the treatment of women in some corners (though not all) and the iconoclasm of certain sects that denies the bigger imperative of free speech (something I’m a bit of an absolutist about). I’m as angry as anybody that an American cartoonist, Molly Norris, was forced to go into hiding for her satiric idea that we should have an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” (an idea that wasn’t even serious, but that grabbed the attention of extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and got the poor woman put on a hit list). If we can’t get past the ephemeral (and totally inconsistent) picture-drawing ban by Muslims, then how might we ever drill down into their even more troublesome ideas?
But criticizing Islam in its cultural confrontation with the West is a far cry from dehumanizing all Muslims. I interviewed several Muslims myself for a book a few years back, and what I discovered is that there are plenty of competing philosophies and reflections and ways of reconciling the sacred and profane within Islam as there are anywhere else. I was most impressed by a Sufi adherent who said that the religion he knew didn’t believe in mullahs or burkas but was only obsessed with the spirit and what nourishes it. He didn’t see Islamic teaching as incompatible with a Western upbringing. You might say he’s not representative, but then you might ask who is a representative Christian. A Crusader? Torquemada? Jerry Fallwell? Larry Flynt in his born again period? An atheist who just thinks it’s right to turn the other cheek? We say that we hate Muslim strictures on female clothing, but what about the rules of certain Christian faiths that girls must wear skirts and nobody can dance? This is usually where arch-conservatives write in that Christians don’t blow up buildings. I feel unable to defend myself against a person who can’t count the billion or so non-building-destroying Muslims out there. It’s like arguing with a pelican.
I’m a bit depressed that The New York Times had to give this lunatic coverage, even under the pretext of responsibly keeping tabs on her. I just hope it doesn’t give her some kind of legitimacy.