In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, New York Times columnist David Brooks penned an article entitled "I Am Not Charlie Hebdo." The article was a response to the popular "Je Suis Charlie Hebdo" meme that exploded across social media in the days and weeks following the attack, which left 12 people dead and Paris reeling. Brooks began his piece by pointing out that many people claiming solidarity with Charlie Hebdo are in fact quite hostile to the kind of politically incorrect, intentionally offensive language and subject matter the magazine was infamous for:
"The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let's face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn't have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down. . . .
Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that Christians lead it.
Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium." (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/09/opinion/david-brooks-i-am-not-charlie-hebdo.html?_r=0)
The disconnect here is truly baffling. One wonders if the sympathy for Charlie Hebdo has more to do with its sexy image – French, far-left, anti-establishment – than the actual content of its magazine. At any rate, Brooks acknowledges that the kind of satire promoted by Charlie Hebdo and other media iconoclasts is part and parcel of living in a free society. As offensive as they are, we must make space for them in the public conversation or risk weakening the legal and philosophical structures upon which all our liberties rest. He also acknowledges, however, that satirists and provocateurs don't command the same level of respect or attention as more thoughtful social commentators and critics:
"In most societies, there's the adults' table and there's the kids' table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults' table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids' table. They're not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.
Healthy societies, in other words, don't suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct."
Indeed, one can't make a habit out of knocking down sacred cows, jabbing thumbs in proverbial eyes, and otherwise dumping all over the things that people hold dear and expect a charitable hearing. Which brings me to the subject of this writing: Pamela Geller.
Ms. Geller has made a latter-day career out of her crusade against the influence of political Islam and jihadism in America. Author and operator of the blog "Atlas Shrugs," and co-founder of the organization "Stop Islamization of America," she drew national attention for her opposition to the now infamous "Ground Zero Mosque" project. More recently, she made headlines after her "Draw the Prophet" contest at a community center in Garland, TX. As expected, the event provoked a violent response. Two assailants opened fire outside the event and were killed, but not before injuring a security guard. Subsequently, a plot to behead Geller for her blasphemy against the Prophet was thwarted when the suspect attacked Boston police officers and was killed.
Right leaning media has wasted no time in holding up Ms. Geller as a champion of the First Amendment and fearless truth-sayer. While the mainstream media would prefer to "submit" and "kowtow," Ms. Geller is willing to risk her life and her reputation in the service of truth, liberty, and the American way. Is there truth in what Ms. Geller says? Sure. Are her critiques of political Islam and its ultimate incompatibility with secular liberalism and a pluralistic society generally accurate? Yes. However, as David Brooks pointed out, how a person presents their perspective in large part determines the efficacy of their message and the attitude in which it is received.
Ms. Geller's association with all that is shrill, offensive, irreverent, and puerile on the far Right end of the political spectrum automatically discounts her from full participation in the public discussion of Islam's place in a free society. Speaking as someone who has very recently written my own article criticizing Islam, I can sympathize with her anger in the face of what appears to be a compliant media, a delusional progressive elite, and a disingenuous Administration on the subject of combatting the influence of political Islam in America. Her style only appeals to a small minority of the public, however. The only people nodding their heads and pumping their fists in agreement with what she says are people who are already card-carrying members of the Far Right – the kind of people that only listen to talk radio and forward the latest Obama Birther conspiracy theory to everyone on their contact list. Most other people, even those who might be sympathetic to her cause, are so put off by her caustic tone and her apparent desire to be as offensive as possible in the name of "truth" that they don't take her seriously. This only plays into the hands of organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, organizations that are more than happy to brand Geller and her ilk as nothing more than a band of bigoted xenophobes that must be silenced in the name of tolerance and civility.
Most everyone knows or has known someone in their lives who justifies everything they say with the defense that they are "just being honest." No matter how rude or tactless or tone-deaf or even cruel, to these kinds of people it's all permissible in the name of "truth." This is the defense that Pam Geller offers when her tactics are challenged. Confronted with the accusation that her cartoon contest was a crude and provocative publicity stunt, she doubled down. She wasn't being provocative and needlessly offensive, she was "standing up." She was "refusing to kowtow." Undoubtedly, a person of her convictions would consider the notion of tempering her message or modifying her strategy as a betrayal of principles and a concession to the enemy, but sometimes a bit of finesse is necessary if one truly wants their message to be given a fair hearing.
Ms. Geller can, by all means, continue haggling with liberal reporters and grandstanding for the likes of Sean Hannity or the folks at The Blaze, if that's what makes her feel good. So long as she realizes that she's doing far more harm to her cause than good. If Ayaan Hirsi Ali has a hard time getting her message to permeate the fog of delusion surrounding the rising threat of radical Islam, you can be sure that next to no one is paying attention to what Pam Geller has to say on the subject.