Friday, April 13, 2007

In defense of Ann Coulter

sometime comment-poster Brian Shapiro is today's guest poster... (the lazy wikipedia links are mine). I asked Brian for a short intro or bio. Brian was kind of enough to provide the following:

Currently on leave from school for about 7 years, I was pursuing a philosophy major at UC Berkeley. Philosophy as an academic department isn't really a closed interest, I study history and art history; I know science and politics; I draw and I write. But to me these aren't pursuits, these are part of life. In fact, I wanted to be a writer before I ever wanted to write philosophy. But I found writing always brought me against the wall of politics. And then I found politics always brought me against the wall of philosophy. And philosophy and art and every other academic discipline sees itself on shaky grounds, which always returns to a political debate which happened in the 19th century between bourgeois and radical elements. I think most people look at philosophy today in a wrong way, and at the same time look at art in a wrong way. Philosophy is as an art, and art is a philosophy. How they become defined themselves is a matter of politics. Politics in America today centers on a contest between liberals and conservatives, but the question is who really are the bourgeois class, the liberals or conservatives? This dialogue itself needs to be attacked, this dialogue itself is the status-quo. Politically, I've been involved in third party politics, primarily the Reform Party, which has nominated both Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. What happens when you challenge categories of liberals and conservatives, is you end up challenging categories of the West and the East, of art and philosophy, and everything else that becomes so umbilically connected to these political debates.

the essay i wrote is addressing old news and written for a certain audience, so here's a kind of preface

The thing which offended me the most about the recent Imus scandal is how fake it is. Nobody is really offended, they're just pretending to be offended. Everyone knows what happened. Everyone knows Imus wasn't being malicious, and everyone knows the reaction is political.

Everyone comes on TV and talks about how offended they were and justifies their offense, and even people who think Imus is being crucified preface every statement of theirs with saying "he said an awful despicable thing." But nobody can actually say for sure that he said an awful despicable thing. Time Magazine has an article inspired by this scandal on the topic of "who owns words?". They can't figure out whether he has the right to use the word or not, so they hired a columnist to write their opinion on it, and the opinion is forced and the writer struggles through it.The issue isn't whether there's still a stigma in using slurs, as much as it is that the confusion at all in the first place on whether the slurs are stigmatized or not, takes away their definite meaning, and everything becomes political. The Imus scandal isn't a real event but a media event, a textbook example of what Baudrillard called hyperreality.

The Imus scandal has built up from many other media events, and a over time a script was written. You can expect that after maybe two weeks coverage of this, some talk show will have the topic "is the media covering this too much?" but will justify the coverage by saying its become an important issue, which they, of course, made important.

When the scandal with Ann Coulter was news, I had my own response, and someone who themselves hated Coulter suggested that I try to get it published, so I sent it to the New York Times, even knowing they would have some problems publishing it. Basically, I think Coulter is in a similar role to what H.L. Mencken was in a century ago, and her politics is just like shock art,
shock politics, people who get puffed up and shocked by her and take her seriously are the butt of her joke.

The thing about the recent pseudo-scandals with Coulter and Imus is that even though I don't like them or listen to them or encourage others to, or think they have good commentary, is that I think there's something wrong with how the intellectual reaction has been to them. The reaction should not be to buy into the media event, but attack it.

In defense of Ann Coulter

The punch line to Ann Coulter's humor is peoples' reaction to her.

If you actually go into Ann Coulter's actual political beliefs and her defenses for them, they're rather shallow, and often her jokes are also shallow. USA Today was right when they refused to publish one of her commentaries on the grounds that it was poor writing and incomprehensible; sometimes her jokes are so particularly tailored to her way of thinking, which itself is abstruse, that they aren't even understandable to anyone who doesn't know her.

But when Coulter touches a raw nerve of people whose political beliefs are completely spurious, the result can be comical. I didn't even get Ann Coulter's importance until I saw a news story of how when she spoke at a university, there was a mass of people outside holding signs and protesting her as a "bigot". I found myself laughing, because I realized that was the punch line to her joke. If anyone seriously believes she's a bigot, it reflects more on them than on her. The fact that these college students didn't know better--and are supposed to--and took her seriously, shows that they really have a shallow level of thinking.

Everything Coulter says she says half-jokingly. She has a serious point to everything she says, but would not seriously commit to the exact thing she suggests when she says them. For example, at one point she made some comment about how we should invade the Middle East and convert everyone there to Christianity. When asked about it she admitted "of course we shouldn't, of course we can't", but the serious point is that we should look seriously at whether there's anything fundamentally wrong with the Muslim religion, or fundamentally right with the Christian religion, and not brand everyone a bigot for suggesting there may be.

It's the same thing with her comments about John Edwards being a "faggot". This time, she was making fun of the fact, first, that anyone who speaks off-color like that is expected to go into rehab, because of the Victorian mentality where everyone enters a state of shock when they hear a word like "nigger". People who get shocked hearing "nigger" are like Victorians who got shocked when a woman revealed her legs. Both are not completely 'proper etiquette', but both are common in everyday life and not necessarily harmful. It's a similar case for "faggot". Except it's also a comment on how slurs like "gay" and "fag" that have no reference to homosexuality at all cause people to puff up in offense, call them a bigot, and say they're responsible for the death of some gay person who got dragged behind a car. The reason homosexuals were referred to as "gay" in the first place, was because the word "gay" started taking on a negative connotation before it had anything to do with them.

But part of the funny thing, is that the college students who protested her would think she was a bigot by the fact alone that she doesn't agree to gay marriage. They didn't need her to say things like "faggot" or make other half-serious remarks like that. Anyone who disagrees with their political cause is a bigot. But this, coupled with the fact that they can't really tell most of her comments aren't completely serious, is what drives and exposes their shallow thinking. The political activism involved is completely knee-jerk driven and defensive.

The more activist oriented college students pride themselves on being to be able to recognize and respect complex opinions and rhetoric. This is for instance their defense for supporting avant-garde or subversive literature or art. In a similar way, though, what Anne Coulter is doing is an avant-garde form of politics. Shock politics. Not much less than a cruder, more relevant, TV version of H.L. Mencken. If Marxist professors and activists can understand agit-prop, which was a constructed and controlled form of politics, they should be able to understand what Coulter is doing. But in a way that may not even matter, since, because they view Coulter as an opponent, they take her as a threat to be countered. Among people who realize what's happening, the defense is always, anyone who opposes any liberal politics--whether they're modest or militant--unconsciously or consciously reflects some sort of politics of bigotry, and will result in gay people being dragged from the back of cars. Or, on a different political issue, when anyone questions any settled facts on the Holocaust it will lead to a revival of the Third Reich, or some sort of 'softer, gentler' Third Reich, which is supposed to be the same thing. It's a kind of intellectual hysteria. A kind of hysteria they should recognize leads to the problems they're trying to avoid on the other side.

Even so most of her critics don't understand it this way, they don't understand the satire. They take her completely seriously, and don't understand that their reactions to her become the butt of her joke. The reason Coulter ends up so funny to some people is because she's both completely outrageous and harmless at the same time.

But college activists who don't understand her as a satirist but are so eager to defend subversive art, fit into the cliché that conservatives believe in that academia is controlled by political bias and indoctrination. Why do they understand to defend subversive art in that way? Because their professors taught them how to do it. Why don't they understand how Coulter can be defended? Because their professors didn't teach them how. When anyone involved in liberal politics claims that academia is dominated by liberal views because liberals are smarter, the right thing to ask them is "did your professor teach you that?"

Unfortunately, there is always politics involved in academia, and there always has been. There was politics involved in academia in the late 19th century, which revolutionary thinkers pegged as being controlled by 'bourgeois interests'. Those bourgeois interests in academia--referred to as "third rate professors" by some--are what H.L. Mencken took the great pleasure of shocking. The political interests in academia are no longer what we recognize as conservative, but liberal; which is a kind of conservativism all unto itself. Left-wing activists are certainly no less self-righteous than puritanical activists in 19th century America. That's the audience that Ann Coulter takes great pleasure in shocking. And unfortunately, in this environment, students interested in activism become political pawns. This is the main target of academic critics like John Horowitz, who propose all sorts of ham-handed and distastefully byzantine methods to try to readjust this. What Horowitz is right about is--looking at responses to him from established professors who discuss how they can best mould their students--is that academia, and education in general, should be treated as a service as much as an intellectual environment, and not intend to talk down to the students' beliefs.

That all said, Coulter doesn't add anything serious to the real meat of the political debate, and I don't know that she helps progress it at all. Her actual views, on grounds of argument really are shallow, but they do represent a contingent of people who really have legitimate perspectives to consider, some of which can argue for them much more intelligently. Postmodern schools of thought are supposed to respect this, but don't do much to, because they can't respect everything at once. When I watch Ann Coulter, I don't find her interesting or entertaining or compelling, because she doesn't really offer anything but insults. It's easy to dismiss that as gutter politics. But what she does do, from reactions, is expose how spurious people's political beliefs are. If anything, that helps reshape and broaden the dialogue. Just like the original goal of avant-garde art.

-- Brian Shapiro

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