September 3, 2002
By Pamela Troy
And so the steady devolution of American political discourse
continues. The two latest contributions are the recent attempts
by George Gurley in the New York Observer and Melik Kaylan
in the Wall Street Journal to examine the appeal of slime-babe
Ann Coulter. Apparently Coulter's output of offensive, borderline-violent
pronouncements on liberals has become so prolific that her
fans now feel they need to explain themselves. The result
was first the gushing Gurley piece, which reads like a TIGER
BEAT interview with Julius Streicher. This was followed a
few days later by a marginally more dignified effort by Kaylan,
in which she asks what's the big deal about Coulter making
statements that advocate violence against liberals. Both pieces
are interesting in what they reveal about Coulter and her
I had to read the Gurley piece several times to convince
myself it wasn't a parody, and I'm still somewhat at a loss
every time I see it. Is Gurley serious? Is he sober? Is he
out of high-school yet? Did his editor read this before it
ran, and if so, does his editor have something against Gurley?
Or are we all missing something? Is the Gurley interview
in fact a disguised attack on Coulter? The most quoted section
is Ann Coulter's comment, near the end of the interview, "My
only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New
York Times Building," but for my money, a more interesting
passage comes early in the piece. Gurley is waiting to meet
Coulter at Michaels, "the sunlit media-centric restaurant
on West 55th Street." He describes his reaction to Coulter's
description of New York Times letter writers as "pathetic
little parakeet males and grim, quivering, angry women on
the Upper West Side of Manhattan hoping to be chosen as that
day s purveyor of hate." "At that point," Gurley swoons, "I
thought I was already falling in love."
But then he says, in the second chapter, "I experienced an
emotion I was less sure about."
'Every pernicious idea to come down the pike is instantly
embraced by liberals to prove how powerful they are,' Ms.
Coulter writes. 'Liberals hate society and want to bring it
down to reinforce their sense of invincibility.'
"Now Ms. Coulter had triggered something else in me: I was
getting really pissed off. I felt infuriated stirred up.
I looked around Michael's restaurant. They were everywhere."
This emotion Gurley "was less sure about" is hatred. The
"they" Gurley refers to are liberals. While this doesn't actually
put Gurley in a brown shirt, the image of a young man reading
a right-wing polemic that accuses a given group of wanting
to destroy society, and then gazing angrily about a café and
reflecting "they are everywhere," does conjure up a moment
in another country in another time. Other writers have remarked
on the similarity of Coulter's hyperbolic vitriol against
liberals to Nazi propaganda in 1930s Germany about Jews, but
rarely has the parallel been more clearly illustrated. "To
strip the world of its soul, that and nothing else, is what
Judaism wants," wrote Hitler associate Alfred Rosenberg in
1928. "Even now, while the Jews still live among us, all their
undertakings reveal this aim "
The rest of the interview does little to dispel this sense
of deja vu, as Gurley and Coulter proceed to "whoop it up"
at their table by badmouthing "Manhattan liberals", the media,
and New York. In fact, invective against the Big Apple and
its residents crops up so much in the interview that the words
"New York" start to leap out at the reader. "They're such
parochial idiots here in New York," Coulter says. "Oh God,
they're so stupid in New York! But it's fun living in the
belly of the beast, don't you think?" "The rest of America
hates New York." After a while one starts to suspect that,
for Coulter, the term "New Yorker" is code for something else.
One often-asked question about Coulter is the extent to which
she actually believes what she writes. A passage in the New
York Observer piece does try to address this. "I mean, usually
when I write up a column, I know what's going to drive them
crazy," Coulter says. "That is my signature style, to start
with the wild, bald, McCarthyite overstatements seemingly
and then back it up with methodical and laborious research.
Taunting liberals is like having a pet that does tricks. Sit!
Beg! Shake! Then they do it."
So here we have the essence of what passes for Coulter's
wit. You see, if you grossly insult people, impugn their loyalty
and threaten them with violence, they get all offended and
upset! Isn't that just priceless?
Melik Kaylan's Wall Street Journal piece is a sedate attempt
to sell this kind of irresponsible approach to political discussion,
and the euphemisms for Coulter's hate-filled invective are
piled thickly. "Effortlessly guilt-free flights of extroversion,"
"fierce but never humorless conservatism," "Impassioned
outrage and outrageousness." The problem, as Melik Kaylan
sees it, is that "such effrontery" (like calling for the "physical
intimidation of liberals") "sounds more palatable in the mouths
of Black Panthers." And even Coulter's invective is different
from theirs, you see, because "They meant it literally, bombs
and all. Miss Coulter, on the other hand, acts out her thoughts
in a kind of 'what if' political theater, a tongue-in-cheek
agitprop, and believes that most Americans understand the
difference Why would anybody even pretend to believe that
Ms. Coulter wishes any real harm to the New York Times or
wishes to convert all Muslims forcibly to Christianity?"
The question is, why should we not believe that Ms. Coulter
wishes any real harm to the New York Times or wishes to convert
all Muslims forcibly to Christianity? Because she's tall blonde
and pretty and shaves her legs? Because she wears skirts and
nylons and appears on CNN? Kaylan reminds me here of the college
boys I knew back in North Carolina in the '80s who behaved
as though they thought racists were fabulous monsters akin
to little green men from Mars, and that there was nothing
funnier than scaring the yokels by pretending to be one.
Since Kaylan has to reach back a couple of decades to the
Black Panthers to find a parallel to Coulter's bloodthirsty
rhetoric on the left, it might pay her to consider at length
the history of political violence in this country. There was
a lot of rhetoric like Coulter's in the south in the 60s and
early 70s, and not from the liberals and leftists who put
their lives on the line marching for Black Civil Rights. Liberals
were accused of being Communists, of hating America, of wanting
to destroy it. Some liberals were beaten, their homes firebombed.
Some of them were murdered. There was rhetoric like Coulter's
about anti-war demonstrators. Some anti-war demonstrators
were beaten and harassed. Some of them were killed. In fact,
for the past hundred years, from the rash of Klan lynchings
in the early 1900s, to the institutionalized brutality of
the McCarthy period, to the truck bomb in Oklahoma City, to
the fire-bombings of abortion clinics in the present, political
violence in this country has tended to come from the right
not the left. Liberals would be idiots not to take Coulter's
rhetoric seriously, even if Coulter does not. The chances
are, there are people in this country who read Coulter and
take what she says very seriously indeed -- and not because
they disagree with it.
Perhaps the best example of what is wrong with Coulter's
rhetoric comes at the end of the Gurley piece. After describing
the horrific psychic trauma of hearing Angela Davis speak
in college and having a "hippie girl" yell at him for liking
Margaret Thatcher in the early 90s, Gurley asks Coulter plaintively,
"There was nothing wrong with me?" She tells him there was
not, assures him that liberals are just plain stupid and hateful,
and the piece closes with him gazing gratefully upwards at
her. "I looked up at her from in the taxi. She seemed very
tall against the sky."
Yes, there is something wrong if you have reached your thirties
and the only political argument you can muster is insults,
threats, and misrepresentation. Yes, there is something wrong
when this approach to political "argument" is countenanced
by the mainstream press and offered a national venue. Yes,
there is something wrong with mainstream political rhetoric
that can only be defended with assurances that the speaker
"doesn't really mean it."
No, Mr. Gurley. It's not OK to hate people for their political
beliefs. No Ms. Kaylan. It's not OK to pretend to hate people
for their political beliefs.