Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Simply embarrassing, continued ...

For a while there, Ann Coulter was off the radar. Considering what a fixture she had been on Fox News and elsewhere as a Bush/Cheney cheerleader, it was odd that once Obama was elected she sort of faded into the background. My pet theory is that the rise of Glenn Beck's particular brand of batshit insanity stole her thunder: beside Beck's running-off-madly-in-all-directions paranoia, his weepy exhortations, and his trademark chalkboard, Coulter's schtick loses much of its edge and becomes merely an increasingly familiar set of snarky snipes at liberals.

No wonder she's embarked on a Canadian tour.

I love my country, but damn can we be a thin-skinned bunch. As if Francis Houle's email wasn't enough to stoke the Coulter furnace of righteous indignation, her appearance at the University of Ottawa last night had to be cancelled because of "boisterous demonstrations outside that sponsors of the appearance feared could turn violent."

This is appalling on several levels. The first, as I argued in yesterday's post, is that it plays perfectly into Coulter's hands: it allows her to portray herself as a martyr to free speech, and to paint liberals and leftists as thugs and hypocrites who only value freedom of expression if it agrees with their own views.

Second, it makes for the galling truth that—on this point, at least—she is correct. After watching the drama of the health care debate in the U.S. last summer, in which Tea Partiers disrupted town hall meetings by drowning out any possibility for actual discussion, sought to intimidate their opponents by coming armed, and vandalized Democratic district offices, numerous voices on the left rightfully decried such thuggish tactics. Canadians, who are supposed to be the more moderate and reasonable nation, just helped their political kin south of the border cede some of their moral high ground.

Third, the principle of free speech is easy if those speaking are only ever those who you agree with. The true test comes when you're obliged to give time to those who infuriate you. Protesters are U of Ottawa? FAILED.

Finally, it is deeply ironic that this all happened more or less at the same time as Republican obstructionism, fear-mongering, mendacity, and extremist rhetoric lost a huge battle as health care reform passed the House of Representatives. Since Obama's election, the American right embraced a strategy of demonizing the new administration and went all in against health care reform legislation on the assumption that killing it would mortally cripple the president and his agenda. Emphatically in their corner were (and are) the Coulter coterie—Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, Bill O'Reilly, and all the rest of the crew at Fox News. Arguably, the bullhorns wielded by these bloviators are what has kept the GOP so resolutely hewing to their all-or-nothing strategy—any time any Republican has attempted to distance him or herself from the Obama-is-antichrist (or Hitler, or Stalin, or grandma-killer) line or critique the extremist view, they have been firmly whipped back into place. The threat of Tea Party primary challenges alone has been a serious check on any Republican bipartisan tendencies.

The point is that they lost, and lost big. In what has quickly become his most-quoted words since he (apparently) penned the phrase "Axis of Evil" as a Bush speechwriter, David Frum laments that the GOP has allowed itself to become so influenced by the Rush Limbaugh crowd:

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother? ... Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush's listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

All this is by way of saying that over the next few months, as the moderate nature (and indeed Republican nature) of the new health care bill becomes apparent, all the Coulter-style dishonesty infecting conservative discourse about the Obama presidency will become more apparent.

Again, I reiterate my point from my last post: Coulter's speech may be hateful, but it isn't hate speech. And even if it was, censoring or shutting it down only gives it credence. Practically nothing she says stands up to even halfhearted analysis and critique, and her principal rhetorical strategy is to misdirect by attack and insult. She's best ignored, and if she's invited to give a talk at our universities, don't give her the satisfaction of letting her know you care.

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