In the year 1951 the American working class intellectual Eric Hoffer described those he called the True Believers. These are people who are alienated from their present conditions and suffer feelings of insecurity and uncertainty about the way their lives and communities are heading. To set things straight they seek out movements, either of the right or the left, that claim to have assured answers to problems while offering comfort and solidarity in a fellowship of like believers. The leaders of such movements often can be demagogues who expect their followers to be, well, true believers. The one and the many are made for each other in this regard. The solution to problems almost always entails conspiracy theories and the confronting of enemies, both internal and external. In generally uncertain and fearful times, more and more of the citizenry can be pulled into such movements, attracted by leaders who are assertive in a mesmerizing way. All societies have such true believers in them and today’s America is no exception.
Since the end of the Cold War, communism has been replaced by a new enemy, the religion of Islam and the billion Muslims who make it up. Even before 9/11 there was an on-going effort by radical Zionists to focus American fears and uncertainties on the Muslim world. The 9/11 attacks seemed to be proof positive of their position and, with the media’s full cooperation, increasing numbers of citizens began to think a new crusader war was justified. After all, did not President Bush say that the attackers “hate our values?” In truth the terrorism that came home to America on 9/11 was the result of decades of American foreign policies that had killed and injured incalculably more Middle Easterners than the 2973 victims of that fateful day. But most U.S. citizens were (and still are) unfamiliar with the realities of their country’s foreign policies and the government, along with the media, was not about to educate them. And so the nation entered a time of high anxiety allegedly made understandable through a mixture of propaganda, bigotry and official lies. It was (and still is for the era continues) a time made for true believers.
Introducing Pamela Geller
Now enter Pamela Geller, one of America’s up and coming, famous and infamous, purveyors of Islamophobia. Essentially, Ms Geller is advocating an American crusade against Islam. She would no doubt yell and scream that this is not so, but consider the fact that she is the one who, almost single handedly, turned the debate over the proposed Islamic center for southern Manhattan, the one two blocks from “ground zero,” into a clash of civilizations. Along with air time on Fox News, Ms. Geller accomplished this via the web, from her blog, Atlas Shrugs. This achievement must stand as a milestone in web history, though not a particularly wholesome one. It looks very much like this lady is positioning herself to be a leader of just the kind of movement Eric Hoffer described. Here are some of Ms Geller’s other particulars:
1. Geller is a 51 year old ex-employee of the New York Daily News (she worked in marketing) and then, through 1994, was an associate publisher of something called The New York Observer. After that she seems to have devoted herself to political advocacy and blogging.
2. She is co-founder of the Freedom Defense Initiative which is dedicated to stopping “Islamic supremacist initiatives in American cities” and identifying “infiltrators of our federal agencies.” She is also a founder of the organization Stop Islamization of America which, in the finest Orwellian fashion, describes itself as a “human rights organization. It recently raised enough money to place advertisements on the sides of New York City buses identifying the Islamic religion with the 9/11 attacks. The organization’s motto is “Racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the height of common sense.”
3. She is a pal of any number of right wing politicians known for their anti-Islamic positions such as Newt Gingrich, John Bolton, Gary Berntsen, and the Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders.
4. She is a right-wing Zionist with connections to the West Bank settler movement. This may be the real root of her anti-Islamic sentiments.
5. And finally, Ms Geller may very well be a megalomanic. She likes to go around dressed in superman customs and has taken to calling herself “Atlas” (after Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged). She also likes to splash around in the Atlantic Ocean wearing a Bikini, declaiming “here I am in my chador, my burka”. When she is accused of obvious anti-Islamic statements and positions, she gets huffy and offers a flat denial made at suspiciously high volume. It is all a “gross misrepresentation” according to Geller (see the Geller link above for all of this). It should be kept in mind that just because it is tough to elect a female president does not mean that there is no American constituency for a female demagogue.
As suggested above, there are millions of Americans who may find Geller’s message attractive. For example most of the followers of Glenn Beck, Franklin Graham, Michael Evans, Rob Grant and the late Jerry Falwell are probably on the same page as Pamela Geller. Taken altogether they might account for about 10% of the adult population (that is roughly 30 million people). These are the sort of people who think that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim and that there is an Islamic plot to take over the country and institute Sharia law. These are Hoffer’s hard core true believers. However, there are many additional Americans who are ready to see it Geller’s way on single issues. Again, take the Manhattan Islamic center that Geller thinks is the launching pad for the “Islamization of America.” About one third of the U.S. do not think that American Muslims have a constitutional right to build at that spot. One half of all Americans think it is legal to ban Muslims from building mosques anywhere in the U.S. About 31% would be ok with doing just that.
A Partial Explanation
How are we to understand this phenomenon? How could millions upon millions of at least potentially sensible people stereotype an entire religion of a billion people (the vast majority of whom disavowal the likes of Osama bin Laden) as enemies?
I suggest consulting Walter Lippman for at least part of the answer. Walter Lippman was a Pulitzer Prize winning political commentator. He was born in 1889 and lived on till 1974. Lippman wrote a book in 1922 entitled Public Opinion. In this work he considered the problem of the individual’s knowledge of events and situations beyond his or her local environment. Here is how Lippman explained what is really a universal predicament, “Each of us lives and works on a small part of the earth’s surface, moves in a small circle….Inevitably our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe. They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported and what we can imagine.” Inevitably, for most, those opinions of things beyond the local will be based on indirectly acquired information. Indeed, the further from home we look the more dependent we are on limited and often distorted information coming from sources which we assume to be knowledgeable but the biases of which we know little. This information underpins the “pictures in our heads” as Lippman characterized them, and it fleshes out the superficial views upon which make our judgments.
It is in times of high tension involving problems coming from beyond our local environment that we become most aware of our ignorance. To compensate for that ignorance we automatically place the unfamiliar situation within a culturally prescribed context and simultaneously turn to others of our group whom, it is assumed, know what is going on. The primary medium that brings us these “experts”: government officials, news pundits, academics and sometimes the likes of Pamela Geller, is the news media in all its forms. However, as Lippman tells us “news and truth are not the same thing.” One of the reasons for the divergence is the fact that the former is filtered through the minds of those “in the know” and their media facilitators. Thus, Lippman continues, we can assume that the guidance offered by the “experts” is “in some vital measure constructed out of his [or her] own stereotypes…and by the urgency of his [or her] own interest.” One can think of no better examples of this than Pamela Geller and Fox News.
We have two factors working here, one is limited and the other ubiquitous. We have the limited but ever present subset of the population who are potential true believers. And in addition, we have a ubiquitous ignorance of that which is going on beyond our local environment. You might argue that, in an era of globalization and the web, this cannot be so. Unfortunately it is so. While there might be a lot of information out there, some of it even reliable information, most people do not seek it out nor do they necessarily have the background to recognize truth if it happens to run counter to their culturally influenced stereotypes and favorite “news” sources. These two factors are not uniquely American. You find them in all societies, including Muslim ones. Regardless, they are increasingly serious and dangerous factors right here in the U.S.A.
LAWRENCE DAVIDSON is a Professor of History at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania.