Friday, July 07, 2006

Oops, I Did It Again

Somehow, I made it through Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism.

I have learned my lesson, and I will never do it again.

As I mentioned last year, I read one other book of hers, Slander. I skipped several books in between but decided to look at this one, in part because the ostensible thesis, treating a political affiliation as a religion, interested me. I knew she was an inflammatory writer, a smart but unsophisticated thinker, prone to nasty and sarcastic ad hominem attacks, devoted to her views, a pundit. I did not know exactly how much plastic surgery she had had (if you look at all of her books in a row in the bookstore, the transition is abundantly clear and scary, on face and body; it's unsurprising, then, that a substantive part of an anti-Darwin chapter is devoted to debunking the research that has proven silicone is a health risk); I did not know the extent of her ignorance on issues of education; I hadn't really thought about punditry enough to realize why I was skeptical of her, aside from our fundamental philosophical disagreements. Now, having gotten through the book (with great difficulty on a practical as well as emotional level; I wouldn't buy it, and it's not in any of my local libraries, so I had to sit around in bookstores and read it, and I was always terrified that someone would see), I think I know.

The thesis turns out to be incredibly vague, and somewhat contradictory: Coulter basically claims that "liberalism" is "the state religion," based in particular on public schools teaching evolution, the power of teachers' unions, and the convoluted rhetoric surrounding abortion rights. She claims that "liberals" have the same fanatical devotion to these causes and the basic tenets of their political platforms that are ascribed to the Christian right. Where the logic falls apart is that she doesn't make a rational argument against religious fanaticism, period; she argues against the way "liberals" are fanatically devoted to their causes, and basically the problem is secularism. It's okay for Christians to be fanatically devoted because the Bible justifies their devotion, and is apparently not a "living document." Fanatical devotion is only a problem, apparently, when it isn't to a particular text, or when that text was not written by God. The thesis, then, doesn't have much to do with being a thesis; it's simply another forum for Coulter to stage venemous attacks on "liberal" views. It's a shame; I would've been interested in the thesis if she were consistent with it, as I think there's truth to it. But it doesn't come through the book, except as tacked-on ending sentences.

I put "liberalism" and "liberals" in quotes in the preceding paragraph for the same reason that I should probably put "conservatives" in quotes in my own writing: because Coulter really doesn't have a clue what she's talking about. She's intelligent, but she clearly stays in a room and watches and talks to Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly all day, and cannot possibly have any non-televised exposure to people who actually identify as liberal. More on that and punditry later; I'm going to stop using the quotation marks now, but please be aware that in this post I'm using the term as Coulter uses it, not as I do.

She makes only the vaguest allusions to gay marriage and to global warming, which I'd say are two of the liberal hot-button issues most worthy of lambasting by those who lambast these days. From my own interpretation, bias admitted, I'd say that means these are becoming less arguable, things Coulter feels she's less capable of backing into a corner than certain other ostensible tenets of liberalism. As climate change becomes undeniable, Coulter will no longer have grounds to dismiss environmentalists as "stupid girls who like birds," but that's pretty much all the commentary she's giving the environmentalist movement now. She succeeds in backing very few things into a corner, in my view, because she's not good at pulling her lens back. Which would, of course, make her incapable of saying much about global warming. The only topic on which she does pull her lens back is that of Darwin, on which she spends three solid chapters, and while her two main points—that there exist substantive gaps in the theory of evolution, and that eugenicists used Darwin to their own sinister ends, hence the term Social Darwinism—are noteworthy, they don't really prove anything she's trying to prove. Her focus, then, seems to be on things that aren't quite as important.

The first chapter of the book references our God-given right to flush toilets. Manifest Destiny much? For all the time that Coulter spends trashing Darwin and claiming it's liberal adherence to his theory that created Social Darwinism, for all that she claims it's liberalism that creates racism, she's certainly internalized Social Darwinism. If flush toilets are a part of our being made in God's image, undoubtedly societies with the wealth to provide flush toilets for the vast majority of their citizens are closer to God. Which gives us, oh, the Hamitic myth. She continues to try to pin liberalism on Hitler, and as these days it seems that anyone can pin Hitler on anyone, I'm not going to get into it, except to point out that Hitler was intelligent. Intelligence, like courage (according to Sontag, but I agree with her), is morally neutral. Coulter references a number of things that I think ridiculous, but they don't make her stupid. Unethical, perhaps—and if the Bible *weren't* a living document, not to mention the Constitution, disagreement would be impossible—but not stupid. Hence the moral neutrality.

There's also the fact that certain flames—claiming that a party is elitist, out of touch with the common man, or stupid, ignorant, or immoral—are used equally by both sides. Coulter uses the above listed claims in an openly contradictory fashion--if need be liberals are all out of touch with reality and went to elitist Ivy League colleges and only live on the East Coast, and it's the popular vote/voice that matters, while at other times an individual thinker's credentials are proven based simply on the fact that he went to Yale—but the fact is that it's been a long time since I read any liberal pundit as carefully as I just read Coulter, and I don't doubt that many liberal writers do the same.

The problem, really, is that I am sick and tired of punditry. I mean, what do pundits, on either side of the so-called political spectrum, *do*? They're good thinkers, but I'm getting sicker and sicker of good thinkers who leave it at that. They are intelligent in a measurement-of-IQ (a decent portion of Coulter's education chapter is spent claiming that IQ is absolute and praising The Bell Curve) fashion, but I'm with Albus Dumbledore in saying simplistically that it's not the qualities with which we are born, but our choices. And there's knowledge you simply cannot acquire by devoting a life to sitting back and commenting on things. I'd say the same about such leftist pundits as Al Franken and Michael Moore, but Franken, at least, gives signs of having genuine interactions with intelligent people who do things and could possibly change his thought. (With Moore I question the word "genuine.") Coulter shows no such signs; everything takes place inside her head, with the occasional worship of another punditry author. It's a relatively well-organized and pretty thorough head for the questions that interest her. I'm simply skeptical of pundits because of—what else?—the form-content divide. Form is, in this case, thought. Coulter's a logical thinker. One thing she says builds on the next, her assertions don't completely come out of nowhere. But her lack of content, the lack of any pundit's content, allows her to think such ridiculous things as "teachers only work from 8 am to 3 pm and get summers off, so they don't deserve our attention or money" and "a teacher's request for a lower student-to-teacher ratio is equivalent to a mailman's request for a lower package-to-postman ratio." Nobody who's touched the field of education could think that, but Coulter sells about six thousand times as many books as Michael Johnston, or Brendan Halpin, or Vivian Paley, or Deborah Meier, or Jonathan Kozol, to name just a few. The best a good pundit can have is top form. Those who also have content are doing things other than being pundits. So I will no longer waste my time reading them, liberal, conservative or anything else. It's worth noting that there are also people with content, the experience, and no form—that's what I'm seeing in what I've read of Phillip Done's 32 Third-Graders and One Class Bunny—but they tend not to claim expertise at the same level.

I'm not ready to rule out everything about partisan politics just yet. Certainly there are, as I've said before, differences in thought that tend to fall along party lines—the terms for the most part refer to the way one adheres to the capitalist system, liberally or conservatively, and some assumptions of underlying philosophies can be made in terms of inclusion and absolutism. Yet the ostensible spectrum of thought encapsulated by the two major American parties would be a single party in the parliaments of most other nations. While I'm certainly on the left in American thought, issue by issue I can't rely on anyone to agree with me just because they're a Democrat (or a Republican), and I can't rely on voting for Democrats to change the things that are most important to me. Funny that it took reading Ann Coulter to make that explicitly clear to me, but there you are.


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