Free Speech Makes Strange Bedfellows.
The Pamela Geller incident, and the reaction to it amongst pundits and the press, has demonstrated some disturbing yet important truths. Mainly, it has highlighted how many people are willing to offer what Salman Rushdie called (in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders) the “Yes, but…” defense of free speech, which he rejects as no defense at all. Free speech means freedom for speech with which you disagree, by people you don’t much care for.
The incident also brought out the virulence of the verbal attacks against Geller by her critics in this country. Both those who defend Geller’s right to free speech and those who shy away from it don’t necessarily break down neatly into the left vs. right camps.
There are certain liberals like Jonathan Zimmerman, for example, who absolutely loathe Geller, and yet pause in the midst of their vilification* to heartily and strongly defend her right to speak. His article is even titled “Je Suis Pamela Geller;” at the same time, though, he’s also calling her an “appalling bigot” and “hateful” in it. And yet some on the right (or who are often regarded as being on the right) and who might actually agree with some of her premises have said she should have kept quiet and not offended Muslims’ sensibilities.
Yet Zimmerman, who clearly despises her, is also defending her. Steven Lubet at TNR does almost exactly the same thing as Zimmerman—calls Geller a “a nasty-hearted Islamophobe” and calls her campaign to stop the ground zero mosque “despicable” and “repulsive anti-Islam activism.” Yet he adds:
Blaming her, even partially and conditionally, for an act of terror stretches moral reasoning beyond the breaking point…
There comes a point…when defiance is the only feasible response to censorship. In a better world, we would all respect the religious sensitivities of others, and no one would have cause for offense. Alas, we live in a world where atheist bloggers are hacked to death in the streets of Bangladesh, and Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris has been forced into hiding for four years after being placed on an Al Qaeda hit list. Self-silencing—at the point of a machete—is not the answer to this problem.
Lubet then makes sure the reader knows how much he hates Geller:
I stand second to no one in my contempt for Pamela Geller and everything she represents. Her derision of Islam and Muslims is morally wrong, but that does not make her morally responsible for the attack in Texas…
The defense of free expression should become stronger in the face of violent threats, not weaker.
It is to the shame of American liberalism that the assertion of such an essential ideal has defaulted to reactionary hatemongers such as Pamela Geller.
Like the NY Times, Lubet seems to feel little obligation to illustrate what he’s talking about when he excoriates Geller. Other than the cartoon contest itself, which is hardly evidence of vicious hatred on her part, the only specific offense of Geller’s he even mentions is her opposition to the ground zero mosque—a position which, by the way, was shared by the majority of Americans and New Yorkers (by enormous margins). If that’s her offense, then most Americans are reactionary hatemongers, too.
I find this to be one of the most curious aspects of the entire episode, although very emblematic of the leftist mind as I’ve come to know it. It is open season on Geller, and few seem to feel the need to prove that she deserves such contempt. Geller wasn’t a household name until this incident, so it’s not as though readers are familiar with her work; and yet some of the same people doing this also manage to defend free speech with some vigor, while the majority of their fellows (and some on the right as well) do not.
The distinction seems to come down to which people still value liberty at all. Some have lost that sentiment entirely, it seems.
[NOTE: *In the comments to Zimmerman’s article (at the moment, it’s the one at the top of the list), Geller herself offers this video in refutation of Zimmerman’s claims about what she actually said at the event he is describing in his article.]
[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]