Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

In Defense of Good Comedy

The timing was unfortunate, but that doesn't make it offensive.

Conan O'Brien topped even his last stint hosting the Emmys with a fantastic performance. One of the funniest bits was a seven minute pre-recorded opening reminiscent of some of Billy Crystal's better outings as Oscar host. Conan, in a tux and sipping a drink, is in a plane heading towards the Emmys. When the stewardess asks him if he's nervous, he replies "Nervous? What could possibly go wrong?" Of course, that's a cue for the plane to crash, predictably landing him on the Lost island. From there, he tours through several shows – the American version of The Office, House, 24, South Park, and one of those many Dateline NBC installments on child predators. He flees that show and emerges on stage for the Emmys.

Because I was working all day Sunday, I didn't hear anything beyond perhaps a cursory report on the tragic plane crash in Kentucky of Comair Flight 5191, which killed 49 people and has been called the worst airplane accident in five years. I taped the Emmys and watched them late Sunday night. The writing for the opening segment was very sharp and the segment was very funny. I laughed. It was only afterwards, watching the news, that I saw footage on the Kentucky flight and learned more details. Surely most people, whenever they found out, paused for a moment to consider with sympathy the victims of that accident and their families.

This morning, The Kentucky Herald-Ledger reported that the local NBC affiliate's president and general manager, Tim Gilbert, was stunned and dismayed by the segment. The AP version of the story is running with variations on the title "Emmy Plane Crash Skit Called Insensitive." Both accounts relay:

"It was a live telecast -- we were completely helpless," Gilbert said of the Emmys. "By the time we began to react, it was over. At the station, we were as horrified as they were at home."

He said he'll complain to NBC, but he said an apology won't make up for insensitivity.

"They could have killed the opening and it wouldn't have hurt the show at all," Gilbert said. "We wish somebody had thought this through. It's somewhere between ignorance and incompetence."

For people in Kentucky, with feelings especially raw, it might have made sense to cut the segment, or at least give Gilbert a head's up about it to give him that option, or the option of running a brief warning prior to it. Last year, in the wake of Katrina, NBC and ABC ran warnings before the pilot episodes for their shows Surface and Invasion, because both depicted hurricanes. But Kentucky is also not the rest of the country. Had I known about the crash in more detail, I'm sure I would have thought briefly, "that's unfortunate timing," but the segment's also clearly comedy, referencing a popular TV series, and hardly was a realistic depiction of a plane crash. There's a sufficient degree of remove there. Most critics I've read or heard have expressed pretty much this sentiment – unfortunate timing, perhaps, but not a huge deal.

Interestingly, while a few readers express outrage in Herald-Ledger's comments section ("the most insensitive thing" on TV they've ever seen, etc.), most take the "no big deal" view as well, and several criticize Gilbert. At least one reader bristles at the idea that any station manager would decide what he or she can or can't watch, and several point out that if you're watching the Emmys versus, say, grieving, you're probably detached enough anyway. Conan O’Brien is also not a “mean” comic, really. He has an edge, he can be biting, but his persona is goofy and self-deprecating. No one familiar with Conan and his show could possibly think he would seek to be cruel.

Meanwhile, I'm not familiar with Gilbert, but let's be charitable and assume that his outrage is sincere and not merely a local public relations move (as some locals charged). It's fine for NBC to apologize for the timing or for no notice to Kentuckians. But it would be silly to apologize for the segment itself, and ludicrous to apologize for airing it in the rest of the country. Airing it was neither "ignorant" nor "incompetent." This was a pre-recorded segment. The wheels were in motion. The plane crash happened the day of the Emmys. The host really only does about twenty minutes of material during one of those shows, so yes, killing a seven minute segment would have hurt the actually entertaining section of the show (the lengthy Aaron Spelling tribute section, on the other hand, could have been cut or at least trimmed). And while some viewers, especially those in Kentucky, may have had raw feelings, and are deserving of sympathy, the segment was not inherently offensive. I know others may feel differently, and they are entitled to their feelings. However, there’s a crucial difference between saying, “That upset me” or “That offended me,” and “that is offensive.” There’s a difference between expressing one’s feelings or making a direct appeal to someone, and trying to invoke some greater principle or universal law to condemn and prohibit another’s action. The latter approach doesn’t really hold water here, especially since the motives involved were innocent.

There's a saying that comedy is tragedy plus time. Thus, "Besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?" is funny now, whereas it would have been the height of bad taste in 1865. I doubt 9/11 jokes will be in vogue for a long time. For that matter, not every one wants, or can bear to watch, serious material dealing with 9/11 such as World Trade Center, United 93 or any of a number of news documentaries. It's responsible for movie studios to let 9/11 families websites know which movies, in which theaters, will be showing trailers for 9/11 films ahead of them. (In fact, some of this did happen, even though the studios could do a better job of it.) But this does not mean the studios should not make these films, or that good comedians should be curtailed from doing their job either. It's fine and sometimes appropriate to call for good taste and sensitivity, and in some cases to call for someone's resignation, but there is not, nor can or should there ever be, a right to not feel offended.

Personally, my criteria for judging any artistic endeavor is aesthetic, not emotional, even if there's inevitably overlap. Let's be completely honest – Conan O'Brien's performance was satire in the vein of Jon Stewart (a double Emmy winner last night!) and Stephen Colbert, not some crass commercial exploitation in the vein of the inevitable John Mark Karr-Jon Benet Ramsey TV-made movie crap that surely must be rushing to production as we speak. I prefer to judge 9/11 films, as with my comedy, by how good they are, and find no difficulty with simultaneously feeling sympathy for the victims of a plane crash and their families, and appreciating sharp comedy. While the world surely could use more compassion, we also direly need more comedy (albeit not the unintended sort practiced by public officials). I would argue that compassion and laughter can actually be closely connected.

Update: The Washington Post’s Lisa de Moraes fielded many questions on this subject in an online chat. I was frankly surprised by how many people thought the segment was incontrovertibly offensive, since it seemed they appeared in higher ratio than in Kentucky (at the time I read through the comments, at least). You can read the entire chat here. I found myself agreeing the most with Moraes' first response to the issue:

Gaithersburg Md.: ...So you didn't find Conan's plane crash skit offensive? Even though 49 Americans had died in a plane crash hours before the show?

Lisa de Moraes: Absolutely not. I know I suffer from acute non-PC-ness. But of course the skit was created long before the crash. If I lose a relative tonight should all references to stroke victims be wiped from the TV landscape lest I be offended? I think people need to put things in perspective and stop with the bashing where absolutely no offense was intended. If they'd made jokes about that crash, sure I'd think it was in poor taste. But it was CLEARLY a reference to the show "Lost" and absolutely nothing more.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Matthews Grills Schlesinger

Over at TPM Café's Election Central section, there's a clip of Connecticut Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger on Hardball with Chris Matthews. Matthews is an odd bird, very ego-driven and opinionated, and has said more than his fair share of stupid, false or misleading things over the years (Media Matters for America named him their 2005 "Misinformer of the Year," beating out some stiff competition). However, at his best, he's a bulldog on getting straight answers and is not afraid to call bullshit on his guests. Many a blog commentator has observed that Matthews is much more deferential to "established" Beltway insiders (his fawning over Tom Delay here, here and here is embarrassing, and why does he no longer grill Ann Coulter with the same tenacity?). Still, interviews such as this one show what Matthews can do and should do more often.

Ned Lamont: "Good judgment is an essential part of good governance"

One of the cardinal rules of writing is "Know your audience." Penning an op-ed for the conservative, business-oriented Wall Street Journal, Ned Lamont wisely focuses on his credentials as an entrepreneur and stresses how these principles shape his policy positions. He leads with his fiscally conservative views, and later folds his support for social programs and his opposition to Bush's continuing policy in Iraq into these fiscal views. He carefully weaves in the I-love-America theme throughout, and overall goes for a "See? I'm a moderate, not a radical" subtext. Even when he attacks Bush (and by association Lieberman), rather than invoking lies and deception, his accusations focus on their poor management and judgment:

Good judgment is an essential part of good governance. But we're bogged down in Iraq, and hamstrung in the war against terror, by leaders who lacked judgment, historical perspective, openness to other cultures and plain old common sense. We offer something different.

The one sentence in the op-ed I find a bit annoying is that in the run-up to the primary election, the people of Connecticut spoke to Lamont "every day with a simple eloquence and urgency about the country we love." "Simple" eloquence seems to be a "jes folks" pander that's a bit insulting, and might not go over as well with the blueblood crowd in Connecticut, nor the working class if it's taken as condescending. But this is a quibble. Bloggers, activists and Lamont supporters of all shades are not likely to take offense.

We'll see how Lamont delivers, assuming he wins the general election in November. And we'll see how his op-ed is received. However, his language in the op-ed is carefully crafted, hardly the rhetoric of a "burn the castle!" radical. One of the best methods for selling effective social programs such as universal health care and education to the conservative crowd is by selling the business angle - it will save them money in the long run, and without it they'll lose their competitive edge against foreign companies. Of course, the purpose of education in particular is not to train better workers for companies, but if that's a byproduct and if it gets the business community to support better education, hey, that's good politics.

Moving beyond Lamont, most Americans favor Democratic positions on policy matters, but many will still vote against their own economic interest and put social and psychological factors first ("Do I feel safe?" "Are the gays and immigrants encroaching?" "Is this politician a Christian like me?" "Can this politician be trusted to protect me?"). Republicans have long put all their energy into building a juggernaut of a political machine, focusing on image and public relations, although a few of the most honest in the party have confessed (mostly anonymously) that their party as whole doesn't know how to govern. The Democrats have their share of scoundrels, too, but as a whole know how to govern, and have done a far superior job on fiscal and social issues on the national stage. Just as the Republicans very badly need to focus on actual performance and job competence (assuming they care about their constituents and not just corporations), Democrats badly need to get better at the politics. Ideas do not sell themselves, and having a better policy does not guarantee victory. Democrats need to speak the language of compassion and human impact with voters (paint a picture of the minimum wage worker and how the refusal to raise the minimum wage affects her), and of enlightened self-interest with the business community. But Republicans long ago realized that many voters choose their candidates due to legitimate but intangible reasons, or due to truly irrational factors. The person, the candidate expressing the ideas, matters a great deal. The Democratic party has some fine talent, but there's not really anyone dominant on the national stage with the raw charisma and eloquence of a FDR, MLK or JFK. Howard Dean is wisely employing a 50-state strategy of resurrecting and cultivating the Democratic party in "red states" that had previously been largely abandoned (he is also targeting more funds for specific, key races). Yet even while Dean sagely works for the party's future, and Lamont and other candidates focus on winning local, specific elections, the Democratic party would do well to consider better cultivating its talent and crafting a winning message of "intangible" appeal.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Simile as Brilliant as, Err…

The Onion has a great piece called "My Use Of Simile Sucks As Bad As The River Tide." Having just penned a lengthy post with some suspect similes, I find this article as timely as a clockwork walrus. Or, err, something.

(Hat-tip to MR.)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Aryan Minstrel Show

I. The Aryan Minstrel Show

Such smiling rogues as these
Like rats oft bite the holy cords atwain
Which are too intrinse t’unloose; smooth every passion
That in the natures of their lords rebel,
Being oil to fire, snow to the colder moods;
Renege, affirm, and turn their halcyon beaks
With every gale and vary of their masters,
Knowing naught, like dogs, but following.

— Kent, about Oswald, in King Lear, 2.2, 70-77

Comedians take many forms. There’s the crass insult comic, the observational humourist, the reflective raconteur, and the incisive satirist. Perhaps the most sublime is the Shakespearean fool, who can tell truth to power in the form of a joke, imparting wisdom while still avoiding a beating (most of the time).

Many conservatives find Ann Coulter amusing. Most liberals (and many moderates) view her as a vile hatemonger. Regardless, she’s no fool. In King Lear’s terms, she’s instead a knave, sucking up to a dishonest ruling class. In modern terms, she’s no idiot since her act as right-wing attack dog makes her ever richer. The persona of deliberate provocateur she’s created could potentially work on stage at a comedy club (at least a right-wing one), but while Coulter and her fans think she’s funny, she consistently claims she wants to be taken seriously and not merely as an entertainer. She plays the role of “public intellectual” on TV. But this is just part of the act. Hers is a performance art of hatred, a vaudeville act built of bile. She is the modern, Aryan version of a minstrel performer.

Comedy possesses a very strong anti-establishment tradition of mocking those perceived to be in power. There’s something unseemly to most people, for instance, in mocking the poor simply because they’re poor. In comedy, women are more likely to triumph over men, children over adults, employees over bosses, mice over cats, and so on. There’s a long tradition in many cultures for some sort of “lord of misrule” that allows for the release of social tensions. In contrast, the minstrel performer reverses this comedic tradition and mocks those not in power. Alan Colmes recently suggested to Coulter that he had misjudged her, “I realize this is all comedic satire and that you're actually a liberal who's doing this to mock and parody the way conservatives think.” Coulter once again insisted she was serious and defended a few of her most outrageous statements. In Coulter’s minstrel show, she does not employ black face (or white face!) and rather than she herself playing some cartoonish version of a liberal, she instead plays, as Colmes suggests, what in civilized society would be the ugly caricature of a rabid conservative. Her performances nonetheless employ the same minstrel show techniques, throwing out a relentless array of insulting stereotypes to amuse her target audience and infuriate her critics. While the Shakespearean fool surreptitiously slips the king some important truth and ideally makes him think, the minstrel performer merely assures the audience of its superiority and reinforces long-standing prejudices. The battle lines are drawn and immutable. One can no more have a productive discussion with Coulter on politics than the NAACP could hold a conference on race relations at a KKK rally.

II. Calculated Provocation and Marketing Bile

Back in early February, Ann Coulter was a featured speaker at The Conservative Political Action Conference, one of the most important conservative gatherings of the year. She did not disappoint the faithful, stating "I think our motto should be post-9-11, ‘raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences.’" Rather than gasps and boos, her rhetoric drew applause. A few prominent conservatives had the decency to condemn her afterwards, however reluctantly, while others conservatives remained silent, debated how bad her words really were, or blamed it all on the liberals. Why was condemning her a difficult decision at all? Don’t such words automatically prohibit someone from appearing on any media platforms in the civilized world until an apology is offered? But complaining that Ann Coulter has coarsened the public discourse is a bit like complaining that the Exxon Valdez oil spill spoiled the view. As Cenk Unyger points out through a series of Coulter’s most inflammatory comments, “In a World Where Ann Coulter has Credibility, Credibility Has No Meaning.”

Many writers have observed that if Coulter said about any minority group what she says about liberals, she would be overwhelmingly shunned. For her devoted fans, that’s a key selling point. They welcome every outrageous thing she says because they just know it will infuriate liberals. She may indeed say publicly what they’re thinking, but it’s that adolescent “piss-off-your-parents” angle that’s her chief appeal. It’s the thrill of the trangressive act, the excitement of combat, and the joyful release of finding and assaulting a scapegoat. This is precisely why she always tries to inflate the rhetoric and one-up other conservative “vaude-villains.” When junior hatemonger Melanie Morgan said she “would have no problem with [New York Times editor Bill Keller] being sent to the gas chamber,” Ann Coulter felt the need to do her one better and suggest a firing squad (she also approved of sending the New York Times anthrax). It's sort of a tag team version of the two-minute hate. (All of this is in perfect line with her earlier statement, sure to comfort victims’ families in Oklahoma, that her "only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building.") When pressed on her ludicrous charge that Bill Clinton, the very man she’s long derided for being a “horny hick” with Monica Lewinsky and other women, was actually gay, rather than apologizing Coulter escalated matters by saying Al Gore was “a total fag.” True to form, Chris Matthews and the audience, in a familiar pattern, laughed rather than condemning her and Matthews even welcomed her back (only other performers responded to her appropriately.) Her goal is not to be thought-provoking, but only to provoke (and slip in a new sound bite to keep the spotlight on herself). The New Republic’s Michelle Cottle describes the underlying dynamic of Coulter’s shtick:

So what's an angry, frightened populace to do with all that pent-up desire to name-call and finger-point? Easy: Channel it at folks in the opposing political camp. For hard-right wing-nuts this means attributing every filthy characteristic imaginable to Democrats/Liberals/the left, ascribing venal motives to their every action, and blaming them for every misfortune to have befallen your beloved country over the past half century. Under the new rules of the game, you still can't deride Mexicans--but it's perfectly acceptable to deride liberals for pushing policies that allow Mexicans somehow to screw up your life. Ditto blacks, Asians, Eskimos, Episcopalians, and lesbians named Jackie. As a bonus, partyism can be rationalized as a more thoughtful brand of bigotry--since theoretically your hatred is an expression of political philosophy: You don't loathe liberals (or conservatives) for who they are but what they do. As practiced, of course, the phenomenon increasingly goes well beyond hating the sin into the realm of hating the sinner.

Viewed this way, Ann Coulter performs a valuable public service with her minstrel show. She offers her fans catharsis for their constipated rage. She’s the ex-lax of conservative punditry.

Speaking in September 2002 about selling the war in Iraq, then White House Chief of Staff Andy Card famously said, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” Similarly, Ann Coulter is savvy calculating when to roll out her latest outrage. Back in late December 2005, when she had no book to sell, she offered Matt Lauer her usual baseless swipes at liberals but still managed, at moments, to resemble a human being. Contrast this with one of her most infamous statements to date as she promoted her latest, err, effort, Godless: The Church of Liberalism. Sitting down with Lauer again, she petulantly, stridently defended a section of her book that deals with the 9/11 widows known as the “Jersey Girls.” Lauer read from the book:

"These self-obsessed women seem genuinely unaware that 9-11 was an attack on our nation and acted like as if the terrorist attack only happened to them. They believe the entire country was required to marinate in their exquisite personal agony. Apparently, denouncing Bush was part of the closure process." And this part is the part I really need to talk to you about: "These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV and in articles about them, reveling in their status as celebrities and stalked by griefparrazies. I have never seen people enjoying their husband’s death so much."

Lauer did press her, but he was at an inherent disadvantage, because unlike Coulter, as a media host he is compelled to play by guidelines of civilized discourse. Still, as Peter Daou pointed out , Lauer should have said,

“There are two possible explanations for your statement. Either you believe it, in which case you're deranged. You don't believe it but said it for shock value, in which case you don't belong within a thousand miles of this network. Choose one.” (Daou’s most comprehensive Coulter post is well worth the read.)

Sadly, Coulter and her ilk are rarely challenged that forcefully, directly, and fairly. Certainly it never occurred in her flurry of subsequent appearances, on Tucker Carlson, Hannity & Colmes (where she claimed Jesus would approve of her attacks on liberals!) and finally on Jay Leno. Tellingly, having stirred up controversy to promote her book on the Today show, and after fanning the flames for a week, she toned it down for Leno. Conservative reaction to Coulter was again mixed. Some denounced her, while others defended her. Most went the route of Mary Matalin (always good at blaming the victim or claiming victim status) and said something to the effect of Matalin’s “I take her larger point.” (See, for example, O’Reilly and Cavuto.) If Matalin were honest and responsible, she’d say something like:

”Ann Coulter made a valid point in that it's very hard to debate someone that's been the victim of a tragedy. If you challenge them, you can wind up looking like a monster, regardless of the validity of your argument.

"However, what she said was artless at best and frankly, reprehensible. Saying that a widow is happy at her husband's death defies common sense and oversteps the bounds of all decency.

"This was not an off-the-cuff remark. She wrote this down. She thought of it beforehand. She had an editor look over this. And not only did she defend it on TV, even after she's been directly challenged on this, repeatedly, she still refuses to back down or apologize. Until she does so, I can't have any respect for her."

Of course, Coulter never apologized, and still will not, despite repeated opportunities to do so. An apology — admitting to being wrong — would make her appear weak to her rabid fans. It’s anathema to pundits, but especially to conservative commentators. Admitting error is one step removed from Dolchstosslegende and treachery for those who worship in a cult of authoritarian personality, namely social conservatives, social regressives, the neocons, and other belligerati. However, with Coulter the stakes are much higher. If she ever apologized, the mask would crack. She would break character and the suspension of disbelief. Her minstrel show is as fake as pro wrestling and her fights with supposed liberals similarly designed solely for entertainment (albeit for only half the national audience). Habitual liars and professional hacks will continue to lie even in the face of overwhelming evidence proving them wrong, but they always try to bluff their way through regardless. If Coulter acknowledged it was an act, the illusion would be shattered and her central appeal destroyed.

III. The “Scholarship” of Demagoguery

Many commentators (such as Al Franken and David Brock) have observed that Coulter’s core complaint about the 9/11 widows is that she can’t engage them in personal attacks — despite the fact that she does anyway! In a fair, moderated debate based on substance, a smart high student would eviscerate Coulter because all she has is ad hominem arguments. Coulter complains “we can’t respond” to victims, but of course any civilized person can. All that’s required is to say, “With all due respect to Mrs. Smith’s loss, I have to disagree with her on this policy point because...” However, this would require Coulter to observe, if not normal human compassion, at least basic civility, to refrain from demonizing others in time-honored propagandist tradition, and to actually possess a substantive argument. Of course, it’s easy to see how Coulter would quickly be on shaky ground if she was forced to argue, “A moderate, bipartisan committee engaging in a full and frank investigation of 9/11 would be bad for the country because...” Given Coulter's own modus operandi and history of politicizing 9/11, she's essentially arguing for the right to attack others while simultaneously excluding her targets from the dialogue. Not only does she coarsen the public discourse, she wants to control the terms of engagement and prevent anyone else from elevating the public discourse. She's an enfant terrible actively trying to squelch adult discussion in an audacious powerplay of shameless hypocrisy. On the few occasions Coulter has been challenged her response is to change the subject, offer another attack, flip her hair even more often, or literally shriek. In sharp contrast, the Jersey Girls, formally responding to Coulter’s attack, addressed her vileness in just a few sentences and then moved on to adult matters.

The biggest travesty of Coulter’s appearances is the compliments she receives about being smart or her book being well-researched. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even without the multiple charges of plagiarism, or her inflated and suspect legal acumen, Coulter defines slapdash, shoddy pseudo-scholarship. She’s sloppy with citation no doubt in part due to laziness. But additionally, she belongs to an ideological camp who feel no need for consistency or coherence of thought. An argument exists only to score points or draw blood and thus needs no real support. “Facts,” as dubious as they may be, are merely rounds of square shot to be feed into the machine gun aimed at heathen liberals.

If one tries to read the one hundred hastily-penned paragraphs that comprise the first chapter of Godless and rebut it point by point, it quickly becomes an exercise in masochism — it's just not worth the trouble (one brave soul undertook this for a previous Coulter book, Slander). Coulter said as much when she told Jay Leno, to deflect his question about her using the word "broads" versus "women," "If we're getting to that level of parsing my language, there will be no end to this." Coulter often employs a "blunderbuss" debate technique – namely, she rapidly shoots out a wide variety of outrageous statements, and if not all of them are rebutted, she will smugly declare herself the victor (not that she ever acknowledges error or defeat, anyway). She's repeatedly crowed that no liberal seems to have taken offense at her deliberately insulting title, Godless. But whether it's her title or one of its many variations in her book, how does one respond to such an obviously ludicrous claim as “liberals are godless”? “No, they’re not”? Coulter will just respond, “yes they are.” The starting point is not an adult conversation, and Coulter will fight against elevating it. It’s no coincidence that many a commentator has compared Coulter's rhetoric to schoolyard taunts. In a fair fight Coulter has no chance, but when it comes to mud-slinging she and her ilk typically have the edge. When one person is trying to play fair and the other isn’t, the dirty fighter has the advantage. The media as a whole is so afraid of being accused of liberal bias it will not play referee, fact-check, or book anyone on with Coulter who will dare call bullshit. Several researchers have shown that Coulter uses footnotes solely for the purpose of appearing scholarly, and many if not all of them do not support the assertions she makes. In fact, one researcher redacted all of Coulter’s unsupported assertions in chapter 2 of her book Slander and the result was a handful of sentences amidst pages of near solid-black. She’s repeated the same pattern with all her books, including her most recent one, Godless. While Coulter can fairly be called a liar for her intentional distortions, it’s more accurate to say she’s what Harry Frankfurt calls a bullshitter, because the truth of her assertions is completely irrelevant to her. But as Joe Conason puts it, “The likelihood is that Coulter's many avid fans are as conveniently ignorant of the past as she seems to be,” thus making her task much easier.

It's no surprise Coulter simply cannot support her assertions in person either, since little to no thought has gone into them. She will demonize liberals in a style of straw man rhetoric taken to the level of boogeyman. But she cannot name a single godless liberal to Alan Colmes, nor to Donnie Deutsch, nor explain why Darwin is wrong to Jeremy Paxman, nor with Chris Matthews can she name a single liberal leader who is actually a traitor. She will make a broad, insulting statement, and then attempts to use her very inability to point to a single example — as proof of her veracity! It's a faith-based punditocracy for Coulter.

One of her typical "I'm rubber-you're glue" gambits occurred when Matthews, in one of his periodic lucid interviews, actually challenged Coulter on the core statements of her then-recent book Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. It’s an interview that warrants a significant look. Matthews starts by pushing Coulter on her charges that Presidents Truman and Kennedy were traitors, then presses her further on her use of the term “treason” since it is, of course, a capital offense:

MATTHEWS: Well, should they be prosecuted? Should anybody in the [Democratic] party be prosecuted either today, or should have been prosecuted in the past? I mean, it’s a criminal charge of treason. Should anybody be charged with it?

COULTER: I wish it were that easy a problem, but that trivializes the point...

MATTHEWS: No, it’s a crime.

Coulter trivializes "treason" and "terrorist," in slapping these labels on liberals, then claims Matthews is trivializing her overheated hyperbole when he asks her to back it up. Matthews relentlessly presses Coulter on a central hypocrisy of her book, thus exposing her rank partisanship:

MATTHEWS: Were the Republicans willing to oppose World War II before Pearl Harbor right? And they vigorously opposed getting involved in the war in Europe.

COULTER: As I describe in my book, they were wrong and I have to describe this...

MATTHEWS: The Republicans were wrong?

COULTER: Yes, they were.

MATTHEWS: Were they traitors?

COULTER: No. They came around...

MATTHEWS: But when liberals oppose wars, they are treasonists.

Leaving aside Matthews' odd favoring of the word "treasonist" over "traitor," Coulter simply cannot defend herself. It’s fine to accuse Harry Truman and JFK of treason in a book for her fans, who will lap it up, but Matthews will have none of it:

COULTER: I’ll give you my thesis again. My thesis is, that the entire Democratic Party cannot be trusted with the defense of the nation.

MATTHEWS: Start with a name, please.

COULTER: It is not to start trying a few individuals. I wouldn’t...


MATTHEWS: OK. We’re not getting anywhere here because you don’t want to give me any names.

COULTER: That is because I am talking about the Democratic Party. That is the name I am trying to give you.

MATTHEWS: Okay. Half the American people, roughly, in most elections averaged over the last 50 years have voted Democrat, let’s face it, for president. Those people who vote for Democratic candidates for president after hearing their case with regard to foreign policy, why would they vote for someone who you say is a traitor?

COULTER: Because this story has not been told, because I have what has been systemically excluded from history books in high school and college, and that is why I wrote this book, to prove to Democrats, as Joe McCarthy said...

MATTHEWS: But half the people in the U.S. Army are probably Democrats. You say they vote for Democrats out of treasonable reasons?

COULTER: I am saying, as Joe McCarthy said, the loyal Democrats of this party no longer-or of this country no longer have a party. This is a party that cannot defend America, that loses wars, that loses continents to communism-that nay say Ronald Reagan’s response to the Soviet Union, and then they keep turning around and say, oh, it was inevitable. No one lost China. Anyone would have lost Vietnam...

It’s hilarious that Matthews asks Coulter to 'name names' and she can’t, especially since her book praises Joe McCarthy! She also lies about her own thesis! To close the interview, Matthews asks her another passage that implied that Arabs smell bad (not the only time she's made such a statement). Coulter is cowardly enough to not explain her statement, but honest enough to state its purpose:

MATTHEWS: ...”The principal difference between fifth columnists and the cold war versus the war on terrorism is that you could sit next to a communist in a subway without asphyxiating.” What does that mean? I just want to know. What does that mean? I want to know.


COULTER: It means what it says. The second difference is, that in far more time the enemy that we’re up against now has killed far fewer people.

MATTHEWS: So, but the enemy smells. Is that your knock against Arabs? I mean, that’s your point here. You sit next to them and you are asphyxiated while sitting next to them.

COULTER: I’m just drawing the differences between the old war and the currents war.

MATTHEWS: Is that a way to win friends in the Arab and Islamic world by saying they stink.

COULTER: I think it is a way to get people...

MATTHEWS: Is that deep?

COULTER: ... to read my book, so I thank you.

As repulsive as Coulter’s bigotry is, that’s relatively easy to spot. It’s her simultaneous assertion and disavowal of her own thesis that’s so characteristic of the “public intellectual” Coulter, what she so typically gets away with, and the heart of why she is a complete fraud. In the Matthews interview, after being hammered on her use of “treason” and “traitor,” she says “My thesis is, that the entire Democratic Party cannot be trusted with the defense of the nation.” That’s still a tenuous assertion, but at least it’s in the realm of reality. However, she only offers it as a concession and distraction to Matthews. It is not her thesis, which is, “liberals are traitors.” Here’s the first paragraph of Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism :

Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason. You could be talking about Scrabble and they would instantly leap to the anti-American position. Everyone says liberals love American, too. No they don't. Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy. This is their essence. The Left’s obsession with the crimes of the West and their Rousseauian respect for Third World savages all flow from this subversive goal. If anyone has the gaucherie to point out the left's nearly unblemished record of rooting against American, liberals turn around and scream "McCarthyism!

Lest one somehow think this is an isolated incident, Amazon allows one to read most of the first section (when its "look inside" function is working), and here’s a few of Right Wing News’ “Best Quotes From Ann Coulter's 'Treason'”

"While the form of treachery varies slightly from case to case, liberals always manage to take the position that most undermines American security." -- Ann Coulter, P. 203

"Only a war that serves no conceivable national interest gets the New York Time's endorsement. Liberals warm to the idea of American mothers weeping for their sons, but only if their deaths will not make America any safer." -- Ann Coulter, P. 212

"The portrayal of Senator Joe McCarthy as a wild-eyed demagogue destroying innocent lives is sheer liberal hobgoblinism. Liberals weren't cowering in fear during the McCarthy era. They were systematically undermining the nation's ability to defend itself while waging a bellicose campaign of lies to blacken McCarthy's name. Everything you think you know about McCarthy is a hegemonic lie. Liberals denounced McCarthy because they were afraid of getting caught, so they fought back like animals to hide their own collaboration with a regime as evil as the Nazis." -- Ann Coulter, P. 10

Ah, where would prime hyperbole be without some mention of Nazis? (Salon’s Joe Conason performs an excellent dissection of the lies and distortions of Treason.) Every Coulter “thesis” is essentially the same: liberals are bad, conservatives are good. Only the details change. Still, Matthews’ grilling confirms several factors. One is that, for Coulter, any politician’s position is superfluous. Only his or her partisan standing matters, and that and only that determines a position’s validity. More importantly, with Matthews, Coulter’s trademark pattern emerges. When questioned on her latest outrage du jour, she typically claims she stands by everything she’s written or said. However, in the rare event she is challenged on the substance of her assertions, she refuses to support them and will change the subject, make another quip, or, as with Matthews, change her thesis and hope no one notices. When Deutsch and Matthews refuse to accept her central, ludicrous assertions, she is thrown completely off her game. Coulter wishes to get full credit for saying “outrageous” things, but simultaneously fights against being held accountable for them. It’s a cowardly display.

Sadly, Matthews does not always grill Coulter as he did on Treason. And while Alan Colmes has challenged Coulter on occasion, he’s not allowed to go far off script; Hannity, the commercial breaks or Colmes’ paycheck will always save her. In a courtroom, proving someone definitively wrong is a virtue, but on talk shows, convention holds that would be — rude. Ultimately, the viewer should be allowed to decide for him or her self, but most viewers fairly expect networks to uphold some basic commitment to accuracy that allows for informed decision-making. If a guest’s preposterous statements or demagoguery are left unchallenged, the host abdicates an important responsibility and does the viewers a grave disservice. Unfortunately, while Coulter gives her opponents lots of rope to hang herself with, it rarely happens. Even Matthews and Deutsch butter Coulter up with nauseating compliments and never, for instance, directly state, “So your entire thesis has no basis in reality.” When Coulter makes a preposterous claim, such as her reply to Colmes that Jesus would indeed approve of her hateful rhetoric, everything should grind to a halt. She should be grilled on such a statement until she confesses it’s idiotic (although her preferred tactic these days is make an even more outrageous statement). Either it’s hyperbole, in which case she’s being irresponsible, or it’s a serious assertion, in which case she’s insane. The key method for dealing with overheated conservative rhetoric is to be a bulldog about a specific statement and force conservatives to either put up or shut up (as Bernie Ward demonstrates here). Every interview with Coulter should contain some variation on Peter Daou’s suggested response:

“There are two possible explanations for your statement. Either you believe it, in which case you're deranged. You don't believe it but said it for shock value, in which case you don't belong within a thousand miles of this network. Choose one.”

IV. Pay No Attention to the Bigot Behind the Curtain

Coulter's statements fail under the slightest scrutiny, but she also possess no internal consistency. Her hypocrisy is so vast it’s hard to chart. She claims liberals are “godless” and poses for her book cover wearing a low-cut top and a cross. Yet she is unknown at the church she claims to attend. Her brand of Christianity, such as it is, is odd if not unrecognizable. And, as the fictional, satirical Mrs. Betty Bowers muses, “After all, who wants to be lectured about not being Christian enough by an almost-50 year-old boozehound in a black leather miniskirt who has never been married? Count me as having a healthy skepticism over whether Miss Coulter has saved herself for marriage. Or anything, for that matter.”

Coulter exhorts liberals for hating the military, but it’s clear she only respects the military who agree with her views. She refused to believe that Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who she had previously lionized, opposed the Iraq war and read Noam Chomsky. She insisted that Democratic Congressman and military veteran John Murtha was “the reason soldiers invented ‘fragging.’” In 1997, she told disabled Vietnam veteran Bobby Muller, a peace activist, "People like you caused us to lose that war." For that, she was fired by MSNBC. (Apparently her Murtha comment now passes for civilized, insightful analysis.) Even though Coulter shrieks about liberals giving aid and comfort to the enemy, after 9/11, she infamously wrote "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." Such xenophobic, imperialistic, anti-Muslim rhetoric surely gave Osama bin Laden more ammunition for his propaganda machine than anything any liberal has ever said. National Review editor Rich Lowry, to his credit, dropped Coulter after she wrote that column and she also aggressively defended it (as she has repeatedly done). Alas, rather than condemn Coulter, other conservatives chose to put her statement on T-shirts.

No sane, intelligent person who follows the news can pretend not to have a grasp of Coulter’s act by now. Her comments are occasionally so appalling that even some of her buddies at Fox News feel comfortable condemning her (even if they admire her somewhat), while other stalwarts such as the laughable David Horowitz will try to defend her but can’t even keep a straight face. But even when some Republicans and conservatives condemn Coulter, it’s mostly due not to disagreement, but only because they see one of her specific excrescences as bad public relations and harmful to their cause. As Digby points out, conservatives have been more than happy to let Coulter’s vile rants stand unchallenged when it suits them, and as Taylor March argues, Ann Coulter is the Republican Party. Some have labeled Ann Coulter as analogous to Michael Moore, but any objective survey of the punditocracy and blogosphere must conclude that hate speech and fantasies of violence are overwhelmingly the purview of the right. It’s mainstream for conservatives in a way it just isn’t for the left. Hilariously, Ann Coulter took offense to Bill O’Reilly’s suggestion that she was the right’s version of mild-mannered, fact-checking Al Franken. There is no liberal figure analogous to Ann Coulter, none. She is their minstrel show and theirs alone, even if she’s foisted on the rest of us.

Professor Geoffrey Nunberg compares Coulter’s shtick on political shows to the casting dynamics of sitcoms, sagely observing that “the drama of the political talk show is character-driven rather than plot-driven.” He also notes:

Coulter's celebrity is a good measure of what has become of political discussion. You'd scarcely describe her as a political thinker, no more than you'd describe Simon Cowell as an critic of the arts. But like Cowell, she has an unerring gift for media theatrics. It isn't just her penchant for making snarky or outrageous remarks. Plenty of people do that without being invited onto the Today Show, and in fact Coulter doesn't get a lot of national attention for her run-of-the-mill ruminations about giving rat poison to Justice Stevens or fragging John Murtha. But the remark about the 9/11 widows was irresistible for its brazen and gratuitous tastelessness and the obvious pleasure Coulter took in consternation she created.

Is Coulter is sincere about the things she says? That's a silly question, like asking whether schoolchildren are sincere in the taunts they throw at each other across the school yard. But that doesn't make her a satirist, as her defenders like to claim -- usually with the implication that her literal-minded liberal critics don't get the joke.

Satire depicts things as grotesque in order to make them seem ridiculous -- what Stephen Colbert does in his Bill O'Reilly persona or Christopher Buckley does with the pointed caricatures of Thank You For Smoking. But Coulter isn't actually sending anybody up -- not herself, certainly, and not the targets of her remarks. Her fans may enjoy hearing her talk about poisoning Justice Stevens or say that it's a pity Timothy McVeigh didn't park his truck next to the New York Times building. But that's not because the remarks make either Stevens or New York Times seem particularly ridiculous. It's because Coulter seems to be able to get away with unbridled aggression by presenting it as mere mischief, leaving her critics looking prim and humorless. ("Perhaps her book should have been called 'Heartless,'" said Hillary Clinton after Coulter's remarks about the widows, inviting the response, "Oh lighten up, girl.")


It's that underlying comic framework that creates the opportunity for political smut. However rude or offensive a remark might sound in the abstract, it's all in the spirit of entertainment. And as Coulter and other adepts of the genre understand, the ultimate effect is to aggravate the affront, not alleviate it. You not only get to offer an insult, but to discredit the anger or outrage it evokes as prim political correctness: "My, we're touchy, aren't we?"

The grand irony of Coulter is that she depends on the tolerance of others to preach intolerance. Were the media truly liberal, she would not be allowed a platform. The minstrel show long went out of fashion, but her brand of minstrelsy positively thrives. The “shed heat, not light” model of political discourse so famously skewered by Jon Stewart can help ratings, and above and beyond any liberal or conservative bias, media corporations possess a commercial bias. Also at work is the media’s love for a simplistic, reductive, "he said-she said" storyline that appeases conservatives by appearing balanced and obviates such time-consuming activities as fact-checking or making a judgment.

V. Media Platforms: Who Needs Talent When You Have a Good Promoter?

Ann Coulter of course has the right to say just about anything she wants, and it’s demagogues such as her that most sorely test the very same essential First Amendment rights she’d ferociously strip from others such as The New York Times. The question is, since she has no value whatsoever except as a provocateur, why the hell do the rest of us have to be subjected to her?

A common argument on liberal blogs is that liberals should just ignore Coulter. It’s a respectable position. However, it’s not really possible except on an individual level, and to cede the field to her and her ilk is dangerous. Once upon a time, for instance, ”liberal” was not a dirty word. Words and language matter, and we ignore abuse of them at our peril. Coulter only gets away with her shtick because she’s allowed to by the media outlets where she appears, and they grant her a legitimacy she simply does not deserve. She was just a crackpot and not particularly dangerous back when she was merely a “cable network sideshow,” as Joe Conason puts it, but now she’s a “full-fledged media star.” Even if her book sales are inflated through bulk purchases by organizations such as NewsMax, who will then offer her $28 book for only $5, she does well on bestseller lists (although interestingly, so do Al Franken and other liberals). Liberals are not buying her books, except perhaps to review them. Coulter is the screeching face of a significant portion of the modern Republican party.

Fox News will of course rarely call her on anything, but if she was contained there, with sanctions in place and a no-air-time zone enforced by other networks, it might be all right. However, legitimate outlets such as NBC and its associated networks continue to give her a platform! Dateline NBC will advertise a show on pornography by promoting salacious details while simultaneously pretending to condemn the content. Similarly, NBC and other outlets have promoted Coulter’s latest outrages with a “Don’t Miss What She Said This Time!” approach. Since her horrendous comments about the 9/11 widows — condemned by NBC news anchor Brian Williams — NBC’s associated networks have nonetheless had her on six or seven times! As Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz observed [emphasis mine]:

But are news outlets being shameless in giving Coulter a platform for her inflammatory rhetoric, knowing it will boost ratings and circulation?

"She made news," says "Today" Executive Producer Jim Bell. "I think our audience is smart enough to figure it out and reach their own opinions. It's not our job to censor people." Besides, Bell says, "she's good television."


Coulter, who made the rounds at Fox, CNN and MSNBC last week, remains unabashed, telling Time: "I'd say my 'name calling' has been a smashing success." So when the staff of "Today" or any other program books Coulter, they know exactly what they're getting: a woman whose vituperation they can decry even as they milk it for market share.

Of course, since even bad publicity is still publicity, this column, too, will probably make the Coulter cash register ring a few more times.

Still, perhaps the most appalling promotion of Ann Coulter came from two pieces in Time magazine. As Eric Boehlert reports in his book Lapdogs (excerpt here):

The Time love-fest began in the April 18, 2005 issue when the weekly, compiling its list of the world’s most influential people, found room alongside past and present international leaders Ariel Sharon, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama to include Coulter, a cable TV pundit. Time’s James Carney, who five months later was promoted to the magazine’s Washington Bureau Chief, did the honors, typing up the Coulter valentine, headlined "Gleefully Making the Left Squirm":

"In her books, Coulter can be erudite and persuasive, as when she exposes the left’s chronic softness on communism. But her signature is her gleeful willingness to taunt liberals and Democrats, to say out loud what some other conservatives dare only think–that Bill Clinton is a "horny hick," for example, and his wife "pond scum." It’s what makes Coulter irresistible and influential, whether you like it or not."

As Boehlert points out, if a liberal said the same about a conservative, it simply would not fly. What does this say about Carney and Time? However, worse still was the puff piece cover story she received from Time the following week. Time simply refused to fact-check Coulter and trumpeted her as a “public intellectual.” The piece’s author, Jack Cloud, actually wrote:

"Coulter has a reputation for carelessness with facts, and if you Google the words "Ann Coulter lies," you will drown in results. But I didn’t find many outright Coulter errors."

As Boehlert points out:

In order to print that, Time had to ignore not only the corrections Coulter’s own publisher had to make in subsequent editions of her books, but also the tens of thousands of words posted at blogs such as the Daily Howler, Spinsanity, Mediawhoresonline, American Prospect’s Tapped, and Scoobie Davis Online, just to name a few, that carefully chronicled the blatant misstatements by Coulter.

Indeed, The Daily Howler and Howard Kurtz, among others, dissected or critiqued the Time article in short order.

This matters a great deal because while serious news junkies may make fun of much of the coverage in Time and Newsweek, both magazines are widely-read and typically represent the conventional wisdom of the Beltway’s chattering class. Errors in these two newsweeklies will cause greater harm to the public understanding than will an error in an erudite journal (meanwhile, bad arguments in neoconservative publications such as The Weekly Standard cause greater harm to administration policy!). The average American simply does not expect a bigot and liar to be accorded such respect. NBC and Time pursue a short-term commercial gain by booking sideshow acts such as Coulter, but also sacrifice trust by doing so, because lending Coulter undeserved credibility damages their own. Evidently, they believe appealing to Coulter’s fans outweighs the harm it does to both their brand and the public discourse (as if the corporate heads give a damn about the latter!).

And this faux legitimacy causes real damage. Blogger Hume’s Ghost relates a key story on this point[emphasis mine]:

Not too long ago a friend of mine told me she was trying to become more politically informed. To do so, she continued, she had begun reading Ann Coulter's How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must). Think about that for a moment. This was an individual who did not know much about politics, was a non-ideological independent and the first person she could think of to learn more about politics from was a hate-mongering hack. This should have never happened, because Coulter should have been exposed for the vile, bigoted, intellectually bankrupt propagandist that she is by journalists a long time ago. In this regard, my friend was failed by a mainstream media which is more interested in using Coulter as a figure to drive up ratings than they are in doing their jobs of promoting a responsible national discourse.

So yes, Ann Coulter needs to be condemned every time she says something foul. Prominent conservatives need to be condemned every time they fail to condemn Republican spokeswoman Ann Coulter for something foul. And media platforms that allow her to spew hatred need to be condemned until they stop giving her legitimacy and air time.

VI. The Future of Minstrelsy

There are essentially five responses to Coulter. Number one, ignoring her, is perfectly respectable but really only works for individuals. She’s far too ubiquitous to avoid. Number two is outright mockery, and may be the most effective and (ironically) fair approach. David Letterman, Robin Williams, and many an editorial cartoonist has employed this approach, and true satirists such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can often deliver scathing critiques while simultaneously making an audience laugh. Number three is scolding her for her tone and excessive rhetoric. Brian Williams and many a politician or public figure used this tact in response to her tasteless 9/11 widows statements (Keith Olbermann uses this approach as well, although laced with plenty of mockery and critiquing as well). Number four is to directly challenge Coulter on the substance of her statements, as in a serious debate, interview or book review. Joe Conason’s review of Treason was superb in this respect, Al Franken debunks her on the air all the time, and many a columnist or blogger has done the same. The problem is, much of this work will only reach those who are already clued in to Coulter’s game. She is, above all, a creature of television, spewing venomous sound bites, and there she is rarely substantially challenged. She’ll earn a perfunctory “tough” question, but will wriggle free in protean fashion because seldom will anyone pin her down. This is the most severe deficiency in the mainstream media’s treatment of Coulter, except perhaps for number five. Number five is to deny Coulter a media platform from whence to disgorge her hatred. It’s encouraging that newspapers continue to drop her column. But she still gets a free pass from too many news organizations. As with cigarettes, the children of America would be much better off if they didn’t have to see Ann Coulter on television.

Most accounts of the minstrel show report that the form started to die around 1910 but didn’t really disappear in America until the 1950s. Apparently, there was no audience anymore for it, due to changing tastes or outright shame at watching such a spectacle. With Coulter, it’s quite possible that she’ll merely be supplanted by some other figure who plies more of the same in search of the same notoriety and profit. Or, as Michelle Cottie predicts, many more Coulters may spawn as other types of bigotry become further socially unacceptable. It would be naive to believe that Coulter and her ilk will ever completely vanish. But hope remains that conscience, taste, and a common sense of decency may eventually push them to some venue in the boondocks and off center stage.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Bush Quiz

(Via Froomkin) The New Yorker's Paul Slansky has a fun, frightening and enlightening piece that's now online, "The Bush Quiz: The Twentieth Hundred Days." It's a good reminder of certain incidents, especially some of the rhetoric. Can you, for instance, spot the Cheney and Rumsfeld quotations in a thicket of Bush's? Did Condeleeza Rice really imply that, as disastrous as the Bush administration's policies have been, we should count ourselves lucky because they could have really fucked things up? One entry (#13) impressively manages a rather devastating critique of the Bush administration's national security performance and political techniques, all in multiple choice format! (Them Commies is smart.)

(And yes, I will be attending News Junkies Anonymous. I got 19/19, although a couple were by process of elimination.)

Friday, August 04, 2006

Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason

Bill Moyers always finds interesting people to interview. I kept on meaning to check in on his new series, Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason, and finally did! Tonight he spoke with Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. The website allows one to watch all the installments.

His other interviews in the series include Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Mary Gordon, Colin McGinn, David Grossman, Annie Provoost, Richard Rodriguez, Salman Rushdie, Will Power, Sir John Houghton, and Jeanette Winterson.

The Holy Fight to Eradicate Evil Progresses in Doubleplusgood Fashion

Digby's penned a short, incisive post that's so brief it's silly for me to excerpt it. But I find Digby expresses many of my thoughts in typically eloquent fashion.

There's a huge difference between machismo and true toughness, and between coercive fantasty and idealism. We need adults back in charge of our country and the world.