Democratic Underground  

Explaining Coulter
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 appeal.

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.

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