Bigotry for broadcast

Demagogues come in different flavours, but they share a lot of the same basic ingredients.

Pamela Geller
Proliferate anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller said she was promised to "discuss the threat opposed [sic] by Islamists, including those living within our midst" [AP]

“You know, Fred, a lot of people don’t like us.” Steve Drain was suspicious. The chief propagandist for the hateful little homophobes that make up the Westboro Baptist Church feared he was being played for a sucker; that I was not who I said I was. With its protests of military funerals – “Thank God for dead soldiers”, the group’s signs declare, attributing the deaths to God punishing America for tolerating the mortal sin of dudes kissing – Westboro had succeeded in uniting the entirety of the US political spectrum in disgust, so he had reason to be wary. Also, my name isn’t Fred.

Working on a talk show called BrandX with comedian Russell Brand, it was my job to get bigots to agree to something they shouldn’t: Coming on the show. Talking to homophobes and neo-Nazis all day can be pretty grim stuff, so I created a chipper alter ego, “Fred Douglass”, so I could at least smirk while doing so. And it almost always worked, the nutter’s desire for the spotlight overriding any concerns about potential humiliation.

Besides the initial paranoia, it wasn’t hard getting Westboro to go Hollywood. After playing coy, Suspicious Steve Drain agreed to fly out to LA the coming Friday – not that I offered, but he preemptively declined any of our tainted money – and to bring a friend: Fellow church member Timothy Phelps, son of founder Fred, a former civil rights activist turned full hater. Disconcertingly, Steve’s emails almost always contained at least one ” 🙂 “. What kind of evil was I dealing with?

In person, Drain seemed alright enough, everything he stands for and everything I know about him aside (his estranged daughter, Lauren, told me she wouldn’t feel comfortable being in the same room with him). When he and Phelps pulled into the studio parking lot, they had just come from protesting outside a local Catholic school, holding cardboard signs addressing the priest rape scandal in a way one would imagine it would be depicted on a cardboard sign held by a lunatic.

“I got cursed at by a puppet!” Drain told me, beaming. A half-dozen or so counter-protesting puppeteers had gotten word Westboro would be in town. He loved it.

“So, how long you been working on the show?” Drain asked as we walked to the green room, or rather just a barren room strategically located far enough away from the real green room to prevent any run-ins with the normals.

“Since the beginning, I guess.”

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“Cool, man,” Drain replied, nodding. “Cool.” He told me he watched a couple episodes on Hulu. Not bad.

Tim Phelps, son of the church’s founder, seemed mostly concerned with asserting his heterosexuality, which of course had the opposite effect by immediately putting it in question. “Now, Russell better not touch me,” were the first words out of his mouth. “He better not touch me. I worked 22 years in corrections.” We were dealing with a big boy, he wanted us to know.

With childlike delight, Phelps and Drain then showed me a special gift they had prepared for the show: A poster with Russell’s face and the words “FAG PIMP BRAND.” Well? their grins inquired.

“You don’t think it’s a little too subtle?” I asked. They laughed. God, I hated them so much.

Fear and loathing in Los Angeles

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.

Riz Khan
Islamophobia in the US

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?

Hate comes in all shapes and sizes

Demagogues come in different flavours, but they share a lot of the same basic ingredients. Some like to play dress up and do the whole Third Reich thing, while others go professional, drawing up talking points and casting their hate as humanitarian: Isn’t it awful how *marginalised brown subgroup* treats sex-positive kinksters?

The guys from Westboro Baptist Church don’t give a damn if you agree with them, being the trolls of the hate movement. Their identity is based on righteous opposition to a decadent society; on the smug contentment that comes with thinking one has this whole life thing figured out. Being hated only bolsters their beliefs, like some terrible homophobic supervillain. And they’re actually a bit taken aback when you don’t take the bait. Yelling’s part of the show.

Others are more aware of their audience, finessing their message in front of non-believers and saving the vitriol for the blogosphere. This type is naturally more dangerous the more charismatic they come – no, Pam, not you – as they are able to cloak a reactionary agenda in the language of liberal sensibility, cracking an award-winning smile, child on the knee, as they press a red button to obliterate a village in a distant province. The most dangerous ones are often Democrats.

That’s the thing about hate: It doesn’t always look or sound the same. It’s something that infects the mind, not always recognisable by crazy signs and swastikas and Michelle Malkin books. Oh, would that evil came sporting a Hitler ‘stache every time; the reality is more banal. Sometimes hate manifests itself in the Old Testament-quoting street preacher, other times in the respected diplomat: The Madeleine Albright coolly justifying the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq. It may not always be recognised as hate to inflict such suffering on the foreign Other, to as a matter of policy deprive whole populations of basic medical supplies – and that’s why it’s so dangerous.

It’s bad being labelled decent, instead of, say, totally unacceptable. And that can’t be good.

Working in television has reinforced something I started to learn while a reporter covering Congress: The people doing all the hateful things are just people, unfortunately, who are a bit sicker than most, suffering the same insecurities and vices as the next human on this planet and just choosing to deal with it in a really terrible way. That’s not to excuse their behaviour, but to explain it.

It’s comforting when the purveyors of intolerance are overtly mean-spirited caricatures dressed in SS outfits. Some are, but most aren’t. A lot of them are perfectly ordinary, polite almost to a fault. Some are, superficially, likable. And they’re not just on the fringe or late-night television. The ones you really need to watch out for are being interviewed by Wolf Blitzer.

Charles Davis is a writer currently based in Los Angeles.