Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Break On Through

A long time ago I read a Letter to the Editor regarding the Patriot Act's surveys of our library records. The letter itself was trivial: a liberal woman decided to check conservative books out of the library both to bone up on her debating skills and to fuck with the minds of those who chose to look at those library records. I thought it was a good idea, and have had it on my mind ever since--but how to go about this when I'm embarrassed even to be seen touching Sean Hannity's book in Borders? (Seriously.) Finally, I checked out Ann Coulter's SLANDER: LIBERAL LIES ABOUT THE AMERICAN RIGHT as well as Nat Hentoff's THE FIRST FREEDOM: THE TUMULTUOUS HISTORY OF FREE SPEECH IN AMERICA (which I've yet to read), that I might look kind of weird rather than simply conservative. Yeah, go figure. (By the by, would someone please teach me a bit of HTML so I don't have to capitalize titles all the time anymore?)

So, in the privacy of my own home, because I was absurdly embarrassed to be seen with it in public, I read SLANDER. And it's been quite enlightening.

Coulter's thesis, of course, is one that I fundamentally disagree with--that the media is controlled by liberal elites, that the NEW YORK TIMES is a bastion of anti-conservative hate speech, that every major television network save Fox is controlled by a conspiracy of liberalism while Fox News is fair and balanced. One of my major problems with her logic in that sense is that her main source of evidence for saying the NEW YORK TIMES journalism is biased in the liberal direction is the op-ed page, which does, after all, stand for opinions and editorials, and is therefore intended to be biased. I can see how one might believe that knowing the opinions of editors tend toward one political direction might lead you to believe that the entire newspaper leans that way, but she rarely cites articles not from the editorial pages, and I doubt there's an editorial page in the country that doesn't lean in one political direction or the other. Despite what Coulter says, I imagine they're about balanced.

The first things I found myself criticizing, in my head, were rather nit-picky. For example, she footnotes single words, as if citing the fact that the word "Dangerous" was at one point mentioned in an article about Tom DeLay honestly means/proves anything about bias in the press--she does this consistently, and there are many other such quibbles to be had if you desire them. However, I eventually realized that I was playing precisely into her stereotype of liberals--that they want to see conservatives as ignorant without taking on the substance of the debatable point. And in the case of my reading the book, that was reasonable. So I aimed to move on.

Coulter's a pundit--Lawrence and I had an interesting phone conversation the other night which included my talking about this, and when I honed the explanation, it came out to be that a pundit's social role is simply the things they say about politics, they're not supposed to be anything in the world but someone who says things about politics. As I explained it to my mother, Coulter is around the intellectual level of Al Franken with a much less compelling (to me) sense of humor--she bases what she does around her mean-spiritedness, and damn she is very good at that, rather than her sense of humor, as Franken does. She is not an academic intellectual, but she is by no stretch of the imagination dumb. In other words, her book is worth getting into a debate with. I even found myself agreeing with her on a few points: I also think Maureen Dowd is an annoying and not very politically productive writer, for example, and while I do respect a group's right to be named as it wants within limits, I think political correctness movements tend to go way too far way too fast. I had to check to make sure the book wasn't hypnotizing me, and it was to a degree--when the writing is of decent quality, how can you help but be absorbed in what you're reading, suspend disbelief at some level?--but Ann Coulter and I do have some opinions in common.

And yet, at the same time, reading SLANDER proved that some topics are simply not to be debated; that is to say, that there really is a difference between liberalism and conservatism that cannot be overcome. I found it more fiscal than social, though certainly there were some social issues. But there were times when I found myself thinking, "Ann Coulter, your logic is completely sound here; I follow exactly what you're saying. And if I honestly believed that the profit margin was the bottom line of art or newspapers or anything along those lines, I would agree with you. That is not what I believe, but you are taking it as a postulate, and I can't argue." For some of my life, I think I operated on the assumption that if liberals and conservatives were honestly willing to sit down and *talk* to each other instead of just politicking and grandstanding, eventually they would almost always find that they were in agreement. Now I don't think so. In some ways that's a relief, to know that the entirety of political debate in this country is not based on semantics, but given how limited the political range of our two parties is compared to that of other nations with elected assemblies it certainly makes me wonder about living in places like South Africa.

In addition, SLANDER made clear to me the level at which institutionalized politics is the province of the elite, since liberals and conservatives both seem to spend an inordinate amount of time accusing one another of being elitist; while both sides seem to make very good arguments that their opponents are elitist, neither's successful at representing itself as non-elitist. (I recognize that in this case I'm using Coulter to represent the entirety of conservatism, and that's unfair; I'm sure Coulter represents the entire spectrum of "conservatism" no better than Franken represents the spectrum of "liberalism." However, I imagine that with her, as is the case with Franken, most of the objections will come regarding the presentation rather than the fundamental substance of opinions--i.e. while details may vary and points may be contentious, a lot of what she has to say, as with what he has to say, will show the basis of what conservatives who see themselves as part of a group of conservatives believe.) And yet, at the same time, I did feel very challenged by, and don't yet have an answer to, her arguments regarding Ronald Reagan. I'd love help here. Coulter claims that his popular support, his consistently skyrocketing approval ratings, belie claims liberals made regarding his idiocy, and that the same can be said of Bush. And that is where her claim that liberals are elitist holds a little bit of water for me; dude, we consistently win only the coasts and a few states with either major cities or numerous university communities. In saying that these presidents are idiots, we are fundamentally calling an inordinate number of our country(wo)men idiots for supporting them, and how is that fair, what right do we have to claim that? Often we dismiss approval ratings, majority opinions, offhandedly, without fairly taking on what it is that makes so many non-us people share these opinions. And on some level that's what Coulter does too, but that doesn't make it any righter. Can we figure out why so many people loved Reagan, and why half the country loves Bush, without belittling those large numbers of people?

Amanda, one of the other students in my group in South Africa, once cited an older relative as saying, "If you're not liberal when you're younger, you have no heart; if you're not conservative when you're older, you have no brain." And I wonder. It's not that I don't know an inordinate amount of extremely intelligent older liberals; I do. And yet . . . In Beth Bosworth's (wonderful) short story, "Cassidy One Two Three," the narrator, recalling a college friendship in the '70s while eating breakfast in a troubled marriage in the '90s, tells us, "It used to be that everything came down to sex. Now, it seems, everything comes down to money. I should have listened, I should have understood: money." And that is what liberals and conservatives, in my mind, are liberal and conservative in relation to: the capitalist system. Conservatives are more conservative in their adherence to capitalist philosophy, and thus see finances and the free market as the bottom line, and by defining things in the same frame see popular support for an idea as an infallible marker of its quality. Liberals interpret the philosophy more liberally, and thuswise are a little looser in their definitions of what makes something good, since its market value doesn't necessarily define it. (Equating popular support with market value makes sense, right? I'm actually not sure.) I don't think I'm old enough to think capably about what that has to do with age, but I thought I'd put it out there for my older readers. I can see why age would sometimes bring on a stricter adherence to any system, more conservative interpretations, and yet that does imply, from my perspective, that I've more respect for the people who don't do that. Which is absolutely true, but why?

In conclusion, reading conservative writing is utterly worthwhile, particularly when you don't know a lot of conservatives. Ann Coulter's limitations are clear from the first chapter, but accepting the book for what it is and trying to be in its mindset was definitely a worthwhile exercise. If a little overwhelming at times.


At 8:15 AM, Anonymous Milligan said...

<i>This is how to italicize things</i>

<u>This is how to underline them</u> but blogger won't allow that in a comment. Should work in a post, though.

<b>This is how to make them bold.</b>

I wouldn't worry too much about the Regan thing; after all, it bugs conservatives to no end that Clinton was and is highly popular as well. My impression has always been that the vast majority of the populace (on both sides) has neither the time or the inclination to engage meaningfully with the substance of politics. For that segment, slick presentation and the appropriate attitude will do.

And of course liberals will always win college towns, just as conservatives will always have the CEO vote. Like you said, it's about profit being the bottom line. If you've got the brains to get into academia you've got what it takes to kick ass the boardroom, too, in general. So those motivated by profit will do that, and those less so will go for the intangibles of higher ed. (Again, not uniformly, but it only takes a several-percent effect to swing demographics.)

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Well, having hit the magic AARP entry age of 55, I guess I can identify as one of your elder readers.

I am socially more liberal in many ways than I was when I was younger. Interestingly, though, I am fiscally conservative, so maybe the money thing fits in somewhere. I do believe, however, having spent thirty years of my life in a monastery -- vowing not to base my life on possessions, exclusive relationships or power -- that the bottom line is not any of these. So that just makes me a minority no matter where I stand.

When I was a young liberal weirdo in East Texas, I always disliked the fact that my former-KKK-member grandfather thought the government was the source of all evil. Now I find myself in danger of falling into the same attitude, but from a contrary angle. Maybe the age thing is more complicated than liberal/conservative or heart/brain. But then everything is, don't you think?


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