Pamela Geller: American patriot or extremist firebrand?
Robert Chalmers meets the right-wing blogger to find out
Sunday 15 May 2011
Among the many new things I have learnt from the work of Pamela Geller is that President Obama reputedly used to knock around with a crack whore.
"That," the author, blogger and broadcaster insists, "is not what I said. You are taking this out of context. The post [on her website atlasshrugs.com] was pointing out how people were reporting lie after lie about Sarah Palin. I said to myself, there is so much about Obama we don't print. In his youth," she continues, repeating a story for which there exists absolutely no foundation, "he supposedly liked a girl who was a crack whore. I never reported it as fact. They say all these vile things about Palin but do we ever talk about Obama and the crack whore?"
The incredibly libellous post, entitled: "IT'S TIME TO EXPOSE THE TRUTH ABOUT OBAMA" appeared on 1 August 2009. "Why not tell the truth about Obama and his reported strange sexual predilections?" Geller wrote. "It is well known that he allegedly was involved with a crack whore in his youth. Very seedy stuff ... Find the ho, give her a show! Obama allegedly trafficked in some very deviant practices."
You may not have encountered the writing of Geller, one of the more controversial ascending stars of the American extreme right. Politicised, as she says, by the events of 9/11, she inspired, then orchestrated, opposition to the construction of the planned Muslim cultural centre two blocks away from the former site of the World Trade Center, which Geller named the "Ground Zero Mosque". A pivotal figure in the so-called "birther" movement, she has – in common with other robustly conservative figures such as Donald Trump, broadcaster Glenn Beck and her writing partner Robert Spencer – tirelessly queried details of President Obama's ancestry, and hence his entitlement to office. Geller still has many questions in this area, despite the recent release of the "long form" of the president's birth certificate, proving that he was born in the American state of Hawaii.
A glance at her voluminous blog reveals her disdain for institutions such as the UN (for employing "child-raping peacekeepers") The New York Times ("Jew-haters") and other famously subversive voices such as that of our own Sun newspaper (for whom "Jewkilling is OK, everything else is terror") and Pope Benedict XVI ("Maybe Jew-hating," she writes with reference to the German pontiff, "obliterates rational thought"). She didn't like the way Campbell's Soup went about producing a halal recipe and has described liberal Jews as "self-hating wretches". An infamous post on Atlas Shrugs suggesting that Barack Obama was the love-child of Malcolm X was, Geller insists, not written by her. The image she posted of Obama urinating on an American flag was "a very well-circulated cartoon – so what?"
"I believe you once said that President Obama 'wants jihad to win'."
"I don't know if he wants it to win, but he is certainly Islamophiliac. He is certainly aiding jihad."
To help discourage him, Geller has provided a one-click link from her site to what she describes as "pornographic" photographs of Obama's late mother. These are actually rather sad black-and-white pictures no more offensive than the images on hand-cranked peep-show machines from the early 20th century.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre, the US's leading political watchdog group, has classified "Stop Islamization of America" (the group she founded with professional partner Robert Spencer) as a hate organisation. She continues to defend Radovan Karadzic, whose trial she has likened to the Nuremberg hearings. Geller speaks fondly of kindred spirits such as the far-right English Defence League (EDL) and the Dutch extremist Geert Wilders, whose rhetoric recently resulted in what she calls a heresy trial.
"Wilders is generally regarded as a racist lunatic, isn't he?"
He is, Geller insists, a "lovely man. In Pakistan, you speak against Islam and you are put to death. Here in the West, your character is assassinated. You are a racistislamophobe-republicantimuslimbigot." The speed, not to say pride, with which she delivers what has become a one-word catchphrase, is undeniably impressive. "You get called something enough times," she smiles, "you say it plenty fast."
The intensity, if not the ethnic focus, of her views on national identity, recalls the correspondence between H Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling, in the course of which they discuss "the Jewish problem" [ie there are Jews, some of them in England]. On the evidence of her writing alone, you might assume its author to be a male octogenarian in tweeds carrying a 12-bore.
But Geller (whose blog carries video of opponents, referring to what they perceive to be the results of cosmetic surgery, screaming: "whore – your face is melting") looks younger than her 53 years. She arrives for our meeting at Manhattan's Four Seasons Hotel wearing tight jeans, boldly luxuriant eyelash extensions and a quantity of mascara and eyeshadow that wouldn't have looked out of place in the days when, as she recalls, she used to dance to the Cramps at clubs such as CBGB's.
She occasionally records video blogs wearing a bikini. In one clip, which defends another prominent right-wing activist Ann Coulter, Geller performs an a cappella version of Morrissey's "Some Girls are Bigger than Others" while stroking a small dog.
A practised and articulate guest speaker on TV channels including Fox News and CBS, she isn't fond of the American media, dominated as it is by "Obama's serfs". Recently, Geller tells me, she declined an interview request from the BBC. She switches on a digital recorder. "Normally," she says, "I don't have to use this." But she's dealing with "a lefty newspaper" which carries reports by Robert Fisk.
Whatever you might think of Pamela Geller, you can't accuse her of lacking courage. Her website reproduced cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, first published in 2005 by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which led to an attempt on the life of artist Kurt Westergaard.
"Going through my notes," I tell her, "I find you quoted as asking: 'Does Obama know anybody that isn't wacky, radical, militant, Judeophobe, Socialist, Marxist and Paedophile?' Next to which I appear to have written: 'Possibly Diana Krall.'"
"Actually I didn't say that but I did say something that echoes that, so I don't have a problem. There is no one in his cabinet that is not radical."
America, argues Geller (she uses the noun to apply to the United States rather than the whole continent), is at war with evil – a force whose most pernicious incarnation is Islam, or to be more precise, "creeping Sharia". Towards the end of what turns out to be an animated two-hour conversation I will ask her whether, had her contributions been articulated on a public stage in the UK, she would have been arrested. Under British law, she says she doesn't know. "In Holland," she concedes, "probably."
She recalls how Terry Jones, a fundamentalist minister, achieved international fame after he declared he was going to burn the Koran, an action he performed in Florida, in March. "Who cares if some fringe pastor is going to burn a Koran? You burn a Bible, nobody says 'Boo.'"
"Can you think of any good Muslims?" I ask her. "Because reading your book – The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration's War on America [co-authored with Robert Spencer]– I can't find any."
"That's not true. I love Muslims. I hate an extreme ideology that oppresses women... we have seen a 1,400-year history of 270 million victims of jihadi wars."
Geller doesn't mind, she insists, what anybody regards as sacred. "I don't care if you worship a stone," she says. "I don't care if you worship a little rock."
"How did you know about Gordon?" I ask her. "I left him in the hotel room."
The writer, who is, remarkably, not without a sense of irony, permits herself a smile.
"I can think of one Muslim of my acquaintance – Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens," I tell her, "who I don't believe would hurt a fly."
"No. But he has said some things."
"As he's often explained, he was very naive at that time and he was entrapped by a British newspaper. He's said that he would not repeat or endorse those statements as reported, and I believe him."
"So who are the good Muslims that you know?"
"Isn't that a bit of an oxymoron?"
"No. If you adhere to the Koran... the last chapters are very violent."
"Have you read Deuteronomy? Ask Saladin what he thought about Richard I."
"But there was an enlightenment. Islam has had no enlightenment. You cannot criticise Islam. You cannot speak candidly of Islam..."
"You seem to be giving it a good go."
"Listen, you think it's easy being me, dear? I get threats. I have my contacts at law enforcement."
Geller has even managed to fall out with former sympathiser Zuhdi Jasser, an Arizona-based critic of what he terms "political Islam". Jasser, once a lieutenant commander in the US Navy and no shrinking liberal, is a regular guest on shows hosted by attack dogs of conservative broadcasting, such as Sean Hannity – a man who, even Pamela Geller concedes, "is right-wing".
"Geller and Robert Spencer's comments... show that they are against any solution from within the House of Islam," wrote Jasser, who is of Syrian descent, earlier this year. "This only aids and abets all Islamists. But that doesn't matter if their target includes all Muslims and their only viable solution is conversion of one-fifth of the world's population."
Everything in Geller's motivation comes back to 9/11. One of the many ways in which the United States was changed forever by the atrocity was a more widespread acceptability of the kind of hateful diatribe that had previously been the preserve of a handful of shock jocks.
Five years ago, referring to 9/11 widows who opposed George W Bush, Ann Coulter told NBC's The Today Show: "They believe the entire country is required to marinate in their personal agony. These broads are millionaires, lionised on TV, k revelling in their status. I have never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much."
In May 2010 Geller began her campaign against the project then called Cordoba House (a title she considered deliberately offensive in its evocation of the Moorish conquest of Spain) and now named Park 51. As currently planned, it would involve the construction of a 13-storey building on the site of a damaged factory a tenth of a mile away from the World Trade Center. Its advocates, such as chief organiser Imam Rauf, assert that – housing as it would a memorial, theatre, swimming pool and baseball court as well as a prayer site – it is neither at Ground Zero, nor a mosque.
The title of her blog on 6 May last year read: "MONSTER MOSQUE PUSHES AHEAD IN SHADOW OF WORLD TRADE CENTER ISLAMIC DEATH AND DESTRUCTION." She raised funds for posters on New York buses, which depicted an image of the burning towers, with the slogan: "Why There?" Her campaign was supported by the New York Post and resolute conservatives such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich.
Geller has recently completed work on a film called The Ground Zero Mosque: The Second Wave of the 9/11 Attack. "The Ground Zero Mosque is deeply insulting, deliberately provocative and offensive," she argues. "To build a megamosque in a building that was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks is the height of insensitivity."
Among the people likely to visit the facility, I suggest, "will be honest believers, some of whom lost relatives and fellow Muslims in the attack".
"I don't separate the Muslims that died from the non-Muslims. Many moderate Muslims," she asserts, correctly, "are against it. It is an Islamic pattern to build triumphal mosques on the cherished sites..."
"Let me finish, sir. On the cherished sites of conquered lands. There has not been one mosque of reconciliation, ever, on the site of a jihadi attack."
"Maybe this is a good chance to start."
"I don't think you are going to get it from Imam Rauf."
Geller launches into a swift character assassination of the imam, who said recently: "If I'd known that this would happen; that the project would cause this kind of pain, I wouldn't have done it."
"No matter how [Geller mouths the word "fucking"] much we progress, the human condition never changes. The battle is eternal and the battle is between good and evil. I think the fundamental problem today is the inability, or reluctance, to distinguish between good and evil."
She has carried the fight all over the world, from New York to the Black Country. Geller learnt of reports of clashes in April 2010 between right-wing demonstrators and West Midlands police in Dudley, during protests against an application to build what she blogged was a "Monster Mosque".
"Senior EDL leadership," she wrote in the 5 May 2010 issue of the conservative online magazine American Thinker, "informed me that thousands of Muslims began rioting in Dudley... showing the true face of Islam." Muslims, she went on, in what may come as news to residents in Sue Lawley's home town, "are policing the streets in cars... and the dhimmi [non-Muslim living under Sharia law] Dudley police are doing nothing about it."
I tell Geller that I'd assumed that the experience of meeting her would be similar to an uncomfortable afternoon I once spent with Arianna Huffington. That was when the Greek-American thinker was in her right-wing, Newt Gingrich period, before she performed a remarkable volte face and established herself as a prominent liberal and founded the left-leaning news website The Huffington Post. Geller isn't flattered by this at all, and it's true that the two women could hardly be more different. Huffington always looked like a Republican vice-president's wife, and seemed, at least back then, more driven by ambition than ideals. Geller, by contrast – quite amazingly, given the nature of her beliefs – has the ability to laugh at herself and, as I mentioned to a well-known journalist who has studied her ascent, has a strange habit, even at the most intense moments of disagreement, of flashing you a look of what I can only describe as girlish vulnerability.
"Pamela Geller is a Ground Zero in herself," he replied. "Angry yet fragile. Just occasionally, that flash in her eyes that you mention betrays what I interpreted as a longing to be loved. I sensed a deep insecurity in her; the time I spent with her left me feeling deeply uncomfortable."
Geller grew up in the affluent New York suburb of Hewlett Harbor, Long Island, the daughter of Reuben, a textile entrepreneur who she describes as "a tough guy from the old school".
"Like John Wayne?"
"Well... from the Frank Sinatra era. Robert Mitchum. You know: masculine."
Of her three sisters, two are doctors, one a teacher.
"Do they share your views?"
Politically, Geller says, "we are all on the same page".
As a young woman, she was heavily influenced by Atlas Shrugged, the 1957 novel by Ayn Rand, which praised the virtues of individualism, as opposed to state intervention.
In the 1980s she worked in marketing at the New York Daily News, then became a senior executive at The New York Observer. Her enthusiasms back then were fashion and music. (Geller, who has four children, left the Observer in 1994 to look after her family.)
Before 9/11, she says, she was "more socially liberal".
She began blogging on littlegreenfootballs.com, run by the professional musician and software expert Charles Johnson. Between 2004 and 2007, she posted thousands of entries. "She was always as reactionary," he tells me, "as you see her now."
Johnson, who, as that remark would suggest, does not share Geller's opinions, is described as a "mental patient" on Atlas Shrugs.
"I know Pamela Geller often calls me crazy," he told me. "But I'm not the one who talks about the president's birth certificate being faked or says that he's the illegitimate son of Malcolm X, and I'm not the one who defends a war criminal and makes alliances with white supremacist groups. That would be Ms Geller. She has a very long record of absolute lunacy, mixed with bigotry and racism and I am far from the only person to point this out."
These days, she expresses a view of the superiority of her nation reminiscent of the more entrenched kind of British patriot in the golden age of Empire. "What would be the good," Geller asks, "of subjecting America to international norms? America has always been a light to the world."
There is no reason, in other words, for the United States to account for its actions to the International Criminal Court, or the UN.
"I can see how that's a very attractive view of the world," I tell her, "but I find it difficult to accept the USA as the embodiment of perfection that all other nations should aspire to" – a recurrent theme in Geller's writing.
"I don't care what other nations do. I don't care about them. I care about America."
In order to "get America", she argues, "you have to grow up in America. Obama is missing the DNA of the USA. It's just not in him," she adds, like a missionary speaking of a heathen who has never heard the name of Christ. "Through no fault of his own."
The USA, Geller believes, is unique and superior to any other nation. "America is not an ethnicity, it's not a creed, it's not a colour, it's a shared value system. And in order to get it, you have to have grown up here, or yearn for it."
"If I was from Bruges and talked like that about Belgium, what would you think?"
"All power to you."
"I think you'd assume that I'd gone off my rocker."
"Because I would be elevating respect for a nation beyond what most people would regard as sane."
"Respect for an ideal is insane?"
"But what you mean by America and what [say] Steve Earle or Randy Newman mean by America are two very different things."
"That's the beauty of America."
The day before we met, I'd entered the words "Pamela Geller" and "mad" into a search engine.
"You come in at 606,000 hits. That's just behind King George III; he scores 771,000 and he talked to trees."
"Yeah," Geller replies, "but he was cured of that, wasn't he?"
One American she does consider "crazy" is the legendary comedian Dick Gregory: role model for Richard Pryor, diet coach to Muhammad Ali and now a full-time civil-rights activist. "I talked to Gregory recently about Barack Obama," I tell her, and he said: 'Imagine what they'd have done to him if he'd been useless.' Do you see Obama as evil, or stupid?"
"I don't see him as either. I just don't see him as a man who loves America. In my book I explain that here is k a man who was raised, from the ages of six to 12 [others say six to 10] in a Muslim country [Indonesia] and who," Geller claims, "studied Islam. When he came to the States he went [back] to Hawaii, which had only become a state two years before his birth."
She has asserted that Obama visited Pakistan in 1981 looking for "jihad or drugs".
"That was a joke."
On a more serious note, Geller has claimed that: "The only reason there is any semblance of peace around the world is because of the military presence of the US."
Considering her nation's recent military excursions to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, can she point to any place where its intervention can be said to have worked? Libya, she says, was "a disaster. I don't see what we're doing there at all."
"Would it bother you if the Americans had gone in there purely because of the oil?"
"Of course not. Why would it bother me?"
"Thousands of civilian dead?"
"They're dying anyway. Isn't that what we're doing, saving them? Why not get oil at the same time? Why is China getting Iraq's oil? Our blood," she adds, in a phrase which might have come from the Crusades, or indeed The Sopranos: "our treasure."
The phrase "war on terror" I suggest, has been a catastrophe in the way that it's given carte blanche to any nation with enemies.
"It's not [a war on] terror. It's a war on jihad."
"Where has it worked? In Iraq?"
"Iraq is now a fledgling democracy."
"It's a basket case. They have no fresh water; they have no electricity."
"You telling me Iraq was the height of civilisation prior?"
"If you define civilisation by being able to turn on the tap."
"Over there," Geller replies, "maybe that is how they define it."
"Is there anything Israel has done that you're ashamed of?"
"Only Oslo," she says (referring to the 1993 accord which allowed for the creation of the Palestinian National Authority). "And surrendering in instalments."
"The Jenin Massacre" – a term commonly used to describe the Israeli Defence Force's April 2002 entry into a West Bank refugee camp, in bulldozers – was, she believes, Palestinian "propaganda".
"How about Tom Hurndall, the peace volunteer shot by the IDF while he was trying to pull an infant to safety?" Hurndall, who was wearing an orange fluorescent jacket, died in 2004 after spending nine months in a coma; the sniper responsible was sentenced to 11-and-a-half years for manslaughter, of which he will serve eight, by an Israeli court.
"I don't believe that. I don't believe the Israelis ever fire where there is no threat."
Geller would like to see more settlers in the Occupied Territories (though neither of the last two nouns are ones she would recognise).
"It's not 'settlers'. It's the Jewish homeland. Settler is an anti-semitic term."
"How about Joe McCarthy [the senator responsible for the Communist witch trials of the 1950s]? How do you feel about him?"
"McCarthy was right. He went overboard, but he was right. The Communists were infiltrating and they have been very successful here in America."
"Let's talk about people who are white and racist."
"I don't know any."
"[The South African white supremacist] Eugène Terre'Blanche? I've seen you described as a supporter of his."
"He was viciously murdered. I never knew who he was, but when he was hacked to death, I condemned it. I have no interest in his ideology."
"Can you think of any others, apart from Hitler?"
"No. Because I don't travel in those circles."
"I mean from history."
"I guess the Ku Klux Klan."
"No, I'm saying that. But I don't believe in white supremacism. Islamic supremacism is the threat I see right now."
Pamela Geller, as you might expect for someone so powerfully attached to certain ideas and theories, has had to suffer her own conspiracy theorists.
"You married [car dealer] Michael Oshry in 1990?"
"Yes." (The couple divorced in 2007; Oshry remarried, but died of a heart attack the following year.)
There are reports on the web concerning Oshry's company, Universal Auto World, that offer a scenario worthy of a thriller writer such as James M Cain. A car salesman, Collin Thomas, was killed on the evening of 11 January 2007, with a single bullet, while closing one of the company showrooms, on Long Island. The subsequent police investigation revealed a large-scale fraud perpetrated by employees, who had used credit records of other individuals to obtain finance for luxury vehicles.
"My ex was a very good man," Geller says. "He had a number of dealerships. In one there was a crook who was part of a gang. Michael was never arrested or indicted. When my ex-husband died, the whole thing was over. The guy went to jail. My ex-husband was a victim in this."
Geller doesn't want to say whether she is currently in a relationship. Her priorities are "working 20 hours a day, and raising my family".
It's noticeable that no recent developments – not even Obama's recent tour de force of a satirical speech to the White House Correspondents Association, tormenting Donald Trump and other birthers with a self-deprecating wit and comic timing that would have done credit to Woody Allen in his prime – have diminished her zeal.
Where are Obama's college records? asks Geller. Where are his medical records? Where is his law practice client list?
And the killing of Osama Bin Laden, on Barack Obama's watch? "I am thrilled he signed off on it. Could Obama have said no to this operation, and gotten re-elected in 2011?"
Conversation with Geller, unless you share her world view, is invariably confrontational, and this is something you sense she enjoys. Her attitude to critics is that of a woman faced with someone who believes the world to be flat, and obstinately refuses to be persuaded otherwise.
Once she's no longer speaking for publication, the mood lightens considerably. She sits for a while and enthuses about music: the Ramones, Al Green and Loudon Wainwright III.
There are two well-known songs, I tell her, that kept coming to mind while I was listening to her: Bob Dylan's defiant hymn to Israel, "Neighborhood Bully" ("I love that") and, especially, Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding".
"I used to love dancing to that," she says.
"So what is so funny about it?"
"Nothing. But both sides have to want it."
Our one point of firm agreement, in what has been an afternoon of sometimes tense discord, is that, given the current climate in America, the political tendency she represents is well-placed to advance. This belief is confirmed by the rising popularity of her blog – currently ranked 28 in the category of US politics – and a resurgence in interest in the novel Atlas Shrugged.
"If that's all I ever achieved," she says, in reference to Rand's book, "I'd be happy."
Does she see herself as a mirror reflecting pubic opinion, or a beacon for them to turn to?
"Neither. I'm happy that I am influencing the national dialogue, and disseminating information that the media refuses [to publish]. I believe I am providing a very important public service. I see myself as a quintessential American."
Perhaps the best image of her place in the field of American politics would be as a magnifying glass capturing, focusing and intensifying the blinding prejudices of her compatriots (if such opinions can credibly be compared with sunlight) and directing them towards a pile of kindling. For a woman blessed with so many certainties in her life, you suspect that even she could be surprised at quite how fierce, alarming and widespread the eventual conflagration might be.
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