June 15, 2006
Ann Coulter Hurts the CauseBy J.R. Dunn
Let me ask you this: when, prior to last week, was the last time you heard of the Jersey Girls? I can't give a definite answer, which in itself is telling. Not that I was paying any large amount of attention, but there was a lot of noise in between the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns, intense media play building up to the 2004 election, which they did their damndest to throw to Kerry, and then... nothing.
They'd shot their bolt, they had their fifteen minutes and more, and that was the end of it. Until last week when Ann Coulter, acting unilaterally, put them back on the front pages with an attack so obnoxious that it immediately (and unjustly — it was the Girls themselves, after all, who debased their victim status for political purposes) threw all sympathy in their direction. A free ticket to a second act. Not to mention providing Madame Hillary with an opportunity to pose as, of all things, the defender of civility.
Thanks a lot, Ann.
Conservatives used to be known for this kind of thing. Much of this was the media's doing — at any conservative gathering, be it a gun show or a political convention, reporters will make a beeline for the guy in full camo gear or wearing two dozen anti—UN buttons. But conservatives played their part.
The classic figure here is Coulter's idol, Joe McCarthy. Bellowing about Communists you couldn't produce (and it cannot be repeated often enough that McCarthy bagged nobody — the Party infiltrators had been cleaned out by the time he showed up) was bad enough. Doing it in an ill—cut Chicago gangland suit with a five—o'clock shadow and fifth of Jim Beam under your belt simply turned it into a circus.
And in short order McCarthy's circus act became the alpha and omega of what the press liked to call 'the right wing.' Ill—mannered, shrill, ignorant, obsessed with bizarre trivia such as fluoridation, subject to fits of paranoia and hysteria, not exactly the kind of person you wanted representing you in Washington.
Sure, there were classy and urbane conservatives around, William F. Buckley being the paradigm (and for that matter, people like Russell Kirk, who almost made Buckley look like a Hell's Angel). But they were simply ghettoized. Nothing easier, with only three networks, a handful of companies owning the major papers, and no Internet or talk radio. And that remained the status quo for nearly thirty years.
The mouth—breathing, near—psychotic rightie was a staple of movies (Seven Days in May, Dr. Strangelove, Joe, and many lesser—known chestnuts), television (Archie Bunker), and popular culture at large. The concept became so pervasive that it began distorting real—world events.
In 1963, the media (as the press was in process of becoming) convinced large swathes of the country with next to no effort that JFK had been murdered by a 'right—winger,' fueling myriad conspiracy theories. (Lee Harvey Oswald was in fact a convinced Castroite.) A year later, Barry Goldwater, a Western gentleman of the old school and the Senate's honest man, was shoehorned into the role for the 1964 presidential race.
Goldwater did not help himself with ill—advised comments easily taken out of context ('extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice'), but the media coverage was disgraceful, remaining unmatched for viciousness until the election of George W. Bush. At one point, Goldwater, who was half Jewish, was widely reported to be traveling to Bavaria to meet with a 'group of neo—Nazis.' In fact, he was meeting the leaders of the Christian Democratic party, many of whom had survived Hitler's concentration camps.
Throughout it all figures like Buckley, George Will, and Norman Podhoretz did yeoman work to change the public image of conservatism. In the end, they succeeded. Conservatism today is largely viewed through the lens they fashioned — as intellectual, well—grounded, and bracingly sane. But it was two other figures who upended the public conception of the conservative.
The first was Ronald Reagan. Try as they might, the media could not pierce the affable, easygoing, and competent persona that Reagan presented to the world. They couldn't pierce it because it was the real Reagan. I recall the moment I realized, late in his second term, that Reagan had never, under any circumstances, answered back to his detractors. They slandered him with every insult in the book, attacked his wife and his family, yet he never answered in kind. Such a sense of decency and strength of character is impossible to fake, and equally impossible to ignore. Reagan did more than any other individual to bury the image of the addled, vicious right—winger.
The other crucial figure was Rush Limbaugh. Often portrayed in the drive—by media (a term he coined) as a shouter, Limbaugh has always epitomized civility. Though he occasionally might cut off an abusive caller, Limbaugh is well aware that there is no better method of annoying a confirmed fanatic than simple politeness, which he uses with the skill of a Renaissance swordsman. Throw in his easy sense of humor, and you have a new image for the American conservative, one more palatable to the country at large than even Buckley or Will. There could have been no better choice for the voice of conservatism.
Since the late 80s, the left has been the shrill party. There are so many examples there's no point in going into them —— it would simply turn into a list. Conservatism has set both the argument and the tone. But in the past few years, there have been worrying developments. We've seen the appearance of people like Michael Savage and yes, Ann Coulter. People who don't seem to think before they speak. People who don't understand tactics. People who seem to believe that shouting or insult wins arguments.
This wasn't invented on the right side of the fence — it's the product of Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, and James Carville, none of whom can be called conservative. But it has, in a kind of cultural osmosis, seeped through. There is no way this can be called a good thing.
For one thing, it's self—defeating. If McCarthy accomplished anything, it was to give American Communism a new lease on life. When McCarthy made his first public reference to the CPUSA in 1950, Communism was on the ropes. Party membership had plummeted. Postwar prosperity had gutted most of its economic arguments. The exposure of the Soviet spy rings had appalled the country. The leadership had either fled overseas or were in jail.
Then came Tailgunner Joe, who allowed them to pose as victims. There being nothing on earth that appeals to a liberal more than a victim, the liberal elite, who had feared the Communists for years, came to their rescue.Through a kind of intellectual judo, the anti—Communists turned into villains, even as the doctrine became more and more bankrupt with the revelations of Stalin's crimes, the Hungarian massacre, and the Berlin Wall.
The long—term result was that a dogma that should be as forgotten as technocracy still reigns in the academic world and other segments of society. We see the phenomenon in miniature with the Jersey Girls. From here on, anyone attacked by Ann Coulter is going to be awarded sacred victim status. What this does to Coulter's effectiveness — and as we all know, she can be very effective — speaks for itself.
Insults do not replace tactics.
This insult mongering is playing into leftist hands. The image of the loutish right—winger ( A term that conservatives must go to any lengths to disavow. Matt Drudge never did anything smarter than insisting that he be termed 'right of center' in media accounts. Learn from that.) is very much a leftist conception. It fits their notion of what conservatism is. So why adopt it?
Is there any question as to why the legacy media is headlining Coulter's remarks? Is it because they agree with them? Because they think that they deserve wide hearing? Or is it because they believe that they discredit Ann Coulter, and beyond her, conservatism at large? Which would you venture to guess?
There's something very strange about this tactic right now, because conservatism is not on the skids. We have established, over the past quarter—century, that this country is a center—right polity, and nothing will ever erase that. We have destroyed the intellectual basis of leftism — they are now obliged to argue issues on our ground.
To make any impact at all in the public sphere, they are forced to grotesque extremes — gay marriage, global warming, and the like. Even the rough patch of the last couple years has been lightened by a string of shutouts in judicial appointments, quiet victories on the legislative front, a steady progress against Jihadism. And just this week, the media has been scratching its collective head over the unprecedented renewal of George W. Bush (I can give 'em a clue —— he was never hurt that badly in the first place. They were convinced by their own polls and headlines.) There is no reason for desperation. The sense of bitterness one gets from Coulter has no political explanation. What's actually behind it I'm sure I don't know.
That was Reagan's way. It should be ours as well.
J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor