April 23, 2005

What's the Matter with Ann Coulter?

So I finally got to read Time Magazine's big cover story on Ann Coulter. It's true, the story glosses over many of her faults—a courtesy they would have not afforded, say, Michael Moore. But unlike many liberal bloggers, I'm only slightly concerned that the story fails to depict Coulter as a hate-filled blond fascist. In fact, no, I'm not concerned at all. For one, how many people are going to slog through a 5,000 word story on Coulter unless they already know who Coulter is and have a strong opinion about her? I don't think there are a lot of minds out there to be changed, so the story's effect on the poor defenseless "masses" doesn't seem to be all that pressing an issue to me. [EDIT: Okay, okay, as pointed out in comments, my "I'm not concerned at all" remark is probably much too flippant and there are good reasons to fear that the Time cover will give Coulter the sort of credibility among "undecideds" that she so richly does not deserve. With that out of the way, onto what's below...]

Second, though, I don't consider myself part of the poor defenseless masses, so I found the story interesting, mainly because, already knowing about Coulter's vicious hackishness, I could actually learn something new from the article: namely, that Ann Coulter probably isn't a hate-filled fascist. Really.

So let's try to figure out Ann Coulter.

First, a story. When I was in third grade (living in Japan at the time), the Denver Broncos got crushed by the 49ers in the Superbowl 55-10. Since our teacher was a football fan, we listened to the game in class, and many people cheered when the Broncos got mauled except for one kid who was originally from Denver, Chris Chamberlain. Chris had been hyping the Broncos all week, so at recess, naturally, kids started to taunt him. 55-10! Ha ha! I didn't really understand football, so at first I stayed out of it, but after awhile, it was kind of fun to see him get riled up over the whole thing. So I started in. "John Elway throws like a girl!" I didn't even know who John Elway was, but that was the way the taunts went, so I played along. After awhile, I came up with even more clever and vicious ways to insult the Broncos, pushing it further and further, not because I understood what I was doing, not because I hated the Broncos, but because that was the playground game, and it was a way to join in.

This, I think, is essentially what Ann Coulter has done with her life. She saw that there was a game of insulting liberals to be played, a way to take sides, and she took it and ran with it. There were already talking points in this little war between two ideologies, and she took them and pushed further, making them even more vicious, not because she entirely understood what she was doing, but because it was a way of joining in. "John Elway throws like a girl!" And the more reaction she got, the more fun she was having, and the more vicious and bitter her insults would become. Having so much fun, in fact, that she doesn't even notice when she crosses the bounds of decency. "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity."

One should note that there's a massive difference between Michael Moore and Ann Coulter, and it's not just that the latter has wished for the mass murder of journalists. (Though that part's important, and Digby explained why.) Moore has many faults, but at bottom, he's striving for at least some understanding of the way the world works. There's some shred of intellectual curiosity there. The most interesting thing about Bowling For Columbine was that Moore couldn't quite settle on a conclusion—the movie noted, somewhat uncomfortably, that other countries without strict gun laws don't have nearly as much violence as the United States, so maybe gun control isn't the answer. Now granted, Moore is too blinded by certain liberal dogmas, too in love with clever images and bloviating, and too full of himself, ever to do anything intellectually valuable. (From what I've heard about his brief stint at my magazine, Mother Jones, his ego really is off the wall.) But there's at least a small part of him that's concerned with being right rather than merely winning.

With Coulter, there's no such constraint. Read Slander and it quickly becomes obvious that she has zero curiosity about the way the world works. No, she sees a game being played, thinks she understands the rules of attack, and simply wants to be better at it than anyone else. I believe John Cloud when he writes that Coulter is a very loyal and dedicated friend, and that some of her best friends are liberals. Why shouldn't they be? She knows when she's off-camera and no longer has to play the game. And yes, at times she finds the whole thing very funny, just as I once found vicious Bronco attacks very funny. She can't hate liberals, because frankly, she's too dumb and lacks too much understanding to understand what hatred really entails.

At the end of the Time piece, she talks about being unable to convert her Muslim ex-boyfriend, and then laughs loudly and says, "I was just happy he wasn't killing anyone." This isn't hate. This is grubbing for acceptance. It's genuinely pitiful. What we have, folks, is a clown. A clown who desperately just wants the kids to laugh and like her.

Moreover, I think the lesson of Coulter is a lesson more widely applicable. There are all sorts of partisan hacks writing and talking about politics these days. Why, I myself am one of them! And no one is free from dogma and ideology and a subservience to mindless talking points. No one. But even among the most wretched of hacks, you can generally distinguish between the people who are at least nominally interested in understanding how the world works, and what is actually true, and the people who just don't care, and just want to play a game—whether because it's fun in some odd way, or because it helps them "belong," or because they're too dumb to understand the difference. The latter group is dangerous to civil discourse, period, irrespective of how bloodthirsty its rhetoric really is.
-- Brad Plumer 3:15 PM || ||