Monday, December 6, 2010

Ann Coulter's How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must): Kicking At The Fallen.

The Good: One or two amusing lines, An occasional salient point
The Bad: Lack of citations, Hypocritical and contradictory arguing strategies, Riddled with logical fallacies, Lacks insight/depth
The Basics: With How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must) Ann Coulter returns to political commentary with a collection of columns weakly held together by beliefs she contradicts frequently.

I suppose if you live under siege long enough, you come to see the world through the perpetually narrow view from between your legs in your duck and cover position in the corner of your bomb shelter. After all, it is not an uncommon thing to read stories of people who lived through the Great Depression who never stopped using coupons or would continue to honor the Meatless Tuesdays long after such provisioning had ended. I write this at the beginning of my review of Ann Coulter's collection of columns and essays entitled How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must) because in reading it, I often found myself baffled by the defensive/offensive posture to it.

The introduction to How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must), which contains the eighteen pages of exclusive thoughts and writings only found in this book of largely reprinted material is a invocation to Coulter's conservative readers to cast off their fear of the liberals and fight back. Her stated goal of the book is to ". . . explain how to argue with liberals by example, not exegesis. But there are some useful pointers. . . First, don't surrender out of the gate. This is a highly controversial approach among Republican politicians, obviously - otherwise we wouldn't already have a bipartisan consensus . . ." (9) and when I read the book and considered the mentality of the new writing bridging together and introducing the columns, the tone was of one who was writing from a siege mentality. Coulter is exorting the conservatives to not be afraid of liberals and to fight them in any way possible (she gives ten suggestions for how to do this most effectively) and to take back the heart and soul of American politics and social discourse. I began to think about this more and more as I read the book because something did not sit quite right about the tone of the book and I looked again at the copyright date. This book was published in 2004, before the election.

And it hit me; Coulter is demanding that conservatives rise up and cast off the shackles of liberal oppression of them at a time when Republicans - many, if not a solid majority, of them conservative Republicans - controlled the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, the Presidency and were neck and neck in the Senate (2004 would see it swing back to the Republicans) and had more Governors than the Democrats. So when the Republicans had the lion's share of the political power in the United States, Ann Coulter was trying to rally the conservative troops to try to get them on equal footing. As I continued through the book, it became clear through the many ad hominem attacks, the consistent generalizations and the declarations of what liberals believe (which would more properly be labeled as what Ann Coulter believes liberals believe, as most of her statements grossly distort the stated and actionable goals and values of American liberals) in the most biased terms possible and the references to uncited events and sources, that this was not a rallying cry for conservatives to empower themselves. It's all about kicking the opposition when they're down.

The irony is this: Ann Coulter clearly defines what she sees as the intellectual villainy of liberals - she opens the book with a convenient list - but then she does in her writing exactly what she says makes liberals so heinous! From her smirking visage on the front cover, one might imply that she had some secret knowledge to impart or a tremendous methodology that would inspire conservatives to foil the liberals, but instead her writings adopt a terrible sense of "if you can't beat them, be badder than them!"

After complaining about Hollywood's presentation of liberals as heroic - I'm sure if a movie production company thought there were millions to be made in a film where Robert Redford as a President of the United States stood up to make a speech about the importance of keeping homosexuals from marrying and kicking the lazy poor people off welfare and letting them starve and die or a movie where Jude Law as president rises to sway the Senate over an important vote that will do away with Social Security or finally pass an anti-flag burning Amendment to the Constitution they would be on that action in a heartbeat (NOTE TO ANN COULTER: If you wish to invest some of the wealth you've made in books attacking liberals in a film like that, I would only be too happy to make it on your dime!) - Coulter goes into ten rules that she believes will allow conservatives to talk to liberals in order to win their arguments, if not treating them like fellow human beings. Because the book How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must) - which is further subtitled "The World According To Ann Coulter" on the cover and title page - is intended to follow these rules to bind her collection of columns together as a cohesive book, it is worth studying them in order to see how she applies them to her premise, which is that liberals are on the wrong side of leading the country in regards to the War on Terror, not supporting racial profiling for Arabs traveling by airplane, John Kerry's candidacy, environmentalism, use of congressional power, Christianity in the government-sponsored buildings and programs, the South and its post-Civil War legacy, the news media, Max Cleland, crime policy, Bill Clinton's memoirs, Elian Gonzalas, and gun regulation (despite the fact that the Democrats and liberals were out of effective power for the majority of these articles). As well, Coulter rails against the two sets of standards for liberals as opposed to conservatives.

This is an book that deeply believes that Democrats create a double standard, applying one standard to themselves and one standard for Republicans. Coulter states this explicitly on the inside front jacket to the book (it's in the book, too, but after half an hour of skimming to try to refind it in there, it seemed like it was time to move on with the review) when she declares that being liberal means, "The absolute conviction that there is one set of rules for you, and another, completely different set of rules for everyone else." This book is, in many ways, a study of the irony of underdeveloped arguments as Coulter declares that "If you can somehow force a liberal into a point-counterpoint argument, his retorts will bear no relation to what you said . . . In the famous liberal two-step, they leap from one idiotic point to the next so you can never nail them" (3). Investigating her pointers on how to talk to liberals and comparing it with the rest of the text, we discover that Coulter applies that same sense to her own view of conservatism; she creates rules of behavior, then does not follow them and rails against the faults of liberals and then uses the same flawed logic she accuses her opposition of using. Coulter undermines the principles of her arguments by contradicting herself frequently.

Coulter's rules - and the way she applies them are laid out in the book thus:

1. ". . . Don't surrender out of the gate" (9). This is a good rule that serves debators and legislators well, the idea that if you start out by compromising, you're liable to appear weak and not get what you want. Coulter applies this to the conservatives constantly throughout the book, vigorously defending the initial actions and instincts of conservatives like George W. Bush, Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond. She wants conservatives to fight. Yet, she expects that liberals will not behave the same way. In her column from November 10, 2000 on what she declares as "Day 2 of America Held Hostage" she complains that in regards to Gore not conceding the election, "The Democrats have declared war" (283). So, Coulter wants conservatives to stand up and fight, but liberals not to, that sounds an awful lot like one set of rules for one side and a completely different set of rules for the other.

2. "Don't be defensive" (10). This rule would be a good one for conservatives if they truly were under siege in the United States instead of being the party that controls every major branch of government (Coulter manages to neglect throughout her book that even though Clinton was president, the Supreme Court that served parallel to him was conservative and for the majority of Clinton's tenure, Republicans controlled the House and then the Senate as well). As a result, Coulter pins many of the evils of liberalism on Bill Clinton (personally), most obviously deriding him for his failures to prevent the September 11, 2001 attacks. Despite the fact that only Congress can declare war and the Republicans controlled Congress for six of the eight years of the Clinton presidency Coulter rails on Clinton's inactions in reacting with military force (pages 21 - 22) with the refrain "Clinton did nothing." The problem with this rule is this; you cannot credibly claim you and your views are under siege constantly AND not defend against attacks by them. In physical combat, this would be as ludicrous as letting your opponents stab you while you reacted solely by stabbing them back. And it is rings as a disingenuous rule when Coulter does apply it, as when she writes "In early 1991, Bush [the first president Bush] went to war with Iraq the way liberals like . . . Still a majority of Democrats opposed the war. Democrats demanded that our troops stop at Baghdad, but then after 9/11, absurdly complained that Bush didn't 'finish off the job' with Saddam" (21). She violates her own rule here (and throughout the book!) and acts defensively. But this quote is exceptional for exploring how Coulter portrays her icons favorably while her opposition is monolithically treated as abusive and wrong; note that it is BUSH who went to war, but Democrats who ended it. Again you can't credibly say that Congress both started and ended the conflict within its Constitutional mandates, so Coulter doesn't; she biases it with the heroism of being a warrior against the perceived cowardice of being a peacemaker. Then again, Coulter had already illustrated that you can't be defensive because you can't nail a liberal whatwith their subject jumping (see quote from page 3 above); ineffectively writing off her own defensive moments, that sounds an awful lot like one set of rules for one side and a completely different set of rules for the other.

3. ". . .You must outrage the enemy" (10). This is one that I like because Coulter has made her career out of outraging liberals and yet she is almost constantly writing from a place of outrage in How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must). Outside the creating a sweeping dialectic that pits all conservatives against all liberals with statements like "Democrats are always worse" (273), Coulter frequently writes in the anger of the moment. She is a woman who has been outraged and so she feels the need to outrage. She rails against the inequities of the national dialogue as a person who is deeply offended by them, like when she writes "Trent Lott's allegedly racially insensitive toast to Strom Thurmond in late 2002 was nothing compared with Senator Chris Dodd's ostentatiously racially offensive tribute to Senator Robert Byrd less than a year and a half later" (273). And Coulter continues to be so offended by the drunk driving death that occurred at the hands of Senator Edward Kennedy twenty years prior that she feels the need to reference it at virtually every opportunity. This rule is one that seems more in keeping with "do unto others as they have done unto you," which contradicts the idea Coulter sets forth that liberals are the enemy and conservatives carry the moral high ground. Despite her own premise, Coulter is encouraging her readers to get into the dirt with "the enemy," "In other words, both Republicans and Democrats engage in mud-throwing, gutter politics . . ." (277).

4. ". . . Never apologize, at least not for what liberals want you to apologize for" (10). This one is one that I'm going to gloss over some because it is a contradictory rule based on what Coulter sees as the liberal mindset. It assumes that she knows what liberals want conservatives to apologize for. Coulter apologizes for nothing in this book and she derides both liberals and conservatives who do. But the framework of some of her arguments - developed well after an incident has ended, beg the question, "what is it Coulter wants?" Ann Coulter devoted sixteen pages to the case of Elian Gonzalez and his being returned to Cuba written well after September 11, 2001 (272), specifically deriding Janet Reno for her actions two years prior. If not to try to get an apology from Reno (or others in the Clinton Administration), what is the point of laying out an intricate argument that Reno was wrong? Does Coulter merely want to prevent Reno from ever holding a high office again? Whatever, Coulter belabors arguments throughout the book that seem to lack a purpose other than to either assert her own worldview as correct or to evoke an apology, it must be the former because the latter would clearly be establishing one set of rules for one side and a completely different set of rules for the other.

5. ". . . Never compliment a Democrat" (11). Coulter introduces this rule by pointing out that when Republicans devote time on talk shows to complimenting members of their committees, Democrats respond by addressing the issues the interviewers asked about. Because this pointer is so closely tied with rules 6 and 7, I'll forge ahead and address them together:

6. ". . . Never show graciousness to a Democrat" (12). It's worth noting here that Coulter uses "democrat" and "liberal" interchangeably, something virtually no Democrat would do (Coulter herself marvels in her texts about how Democrats try to distance themselves from the word liberal) and most true liberals would refrain from doing (being that few Democrats are truly liberal enough for them),

and 7. ". . . Never flatter a Democrat" (12). Herein she cites many efforts made by George W. Bush to court the Kennedy's only to have them not call him smart or gloss over his foibles. In other words, Coulter wants conservatives to be ungracious to Democrats because, she alleges, Democrats are universally ungracious to Republicans. Coulter makes no mention of Republicans being ungracious to Democrats, a logical fallacy as gross as her omission of even a single example of Democrats flattering Republicans; and for a woman who so frequently criticizes Bill Clinton, this is an especially egregious violation of debate fair play as Clinton has many, many statements where he flattered Newt Gingrich. Gingrich is notably absent from How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must), as is any mention of Jim Jeffords. Jeffords was a Republican Senator who became an Independent when George W. Bush excluded him from a ceremony honoring the result of his efforts in Vermont because Jeffords did not support one of the Bush initiatives. Because Jeffords did not flatter his president with unqualified support, Bush punished him; in the same way Coulter accuses Democrats of being ungracious in the face of liberal attacks. But Coulter here omits facts in evidence that contradict her arguments, like when she asserts ". . . it is not true that George Bush would have behaved like Al Gore after the 2000 election had the situation been reversed. . . . I know how conservatives would have responded if Bush had lost the election while winning the popular vote" (278) (NOTE: Coulter frequently does what she accuses liberals of doing as far with the "liberal two-step," see quote above, with phrases like this: note that she changes the subject from Bush's reaction to conservative response, two very different things!). The problem here is that Bush acted exactly like Gore before Gore acted that way. Don't believe me? Check it out - it's one of the uncommented clips in Fahrenheit 9/11 where Moore's camera simply captures what people say and do, so it's not like there's propaganda or agenda involved - when Al Gore was determined the winner in Florida and thus the probable winner of the presidential election, George W. Bush said he didn't believe it and that he was sure that they had gotten it wrong. In other words, for all her claims that Bush would have behaved graciously if Al Gore had been declared president, the truth is during the brief time Gore had been declared the victor in the 2000 election, Bush was not gracious. But then, this is forgivable because Coulter has one set of rules for one side and a completely different set of rules for the other.

8. ". . . Do not succumb to liberal bribery" (13). This is another ridiculous rule that paints the Republicans and conservatives like they are not in the position of greatest political power in the country. The simplest response to this is that Coulter's counter to liberal bribery appears to be conservative intimidation. Back the Patriot Act or else we'll make you look soft on crime, profile only Arabs in allegations of terrorism or else . . . The liberals have nothing to bribe with and it's hard to both tout the Patriot Act, Bush's tax cuts and the unflinchingly religious view of Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ AND claim that conservatives give up on too much too easily. That's just terrible debating! The logical fallacy whereby one only uses establish facts that benefit their own side while omitting all opposing viewpoints is almost as bad a ad hominem.

9. ". . . Prepare for your deepest, darkest secrets to become liberal talking points" (14). Coulter's frequent references to Edward Kennedy's drunk driving and the death related to it, the fact that she mentions Monica Lewinsky's take on page FOUR of Bill Clinton's member (yet, bizarrely contradicts the insinuation of such on page 233 with Lewinski discussing her sexual satisfaction), and brazenly declaring that John Kerry's marital history was a result of a quest for financial gain (109) illustrates her fearlessness in doing the same right back. Deriding one's opposition for exposing the personal lives of their opposition and doing the same thing is establishing one set of rules for one side and a completely different set of rules for the other.

and 10. ". . . Always be open to liberals in transition" (15). Coulter is eager to convert liberals to conservatism (there is no middle ground in her debating methodology), yet deeply critical of anyone who goes the other way. For example, she derides David Brock as a "professional former conservative" (14) illustrating her contempt for conservatives in transition, which sounds an awful lot like one set of rules for one side and a completely different set of rules for the other.

And when all else fails with not following her own principles for what the book is about by clearly establishing one set of standards for fighting liberals . . . often by behaving in the reprehensible way she accuses liberals of behaving and engaging in debate, she simply resorts to ad hominem attacks. That's name calling for those not schooled in debate. I flipped open How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must) to a random page just now to see if I could find an example of a blatant insult without intellectual merit - in other words, an attack on the person, not their ideas. I opened to page 159, which opens a column on gay marriage, and I was getting a bit dismayed as I read the page; had I picked a page without an ad hominem attack? After all, Coulter carefully referred to democratic concepts of national defense as "insane ideas" (159), correctly attacking the idea, not the bearers of it. But then, she follows it up with ". . . the nut candidates who always forget to lie about their positions . . ." (159). Random page, ad hominem attack, that's one out of 344; most of the rest of the pages are like that.

Ann Coulter does no great service to conservatives or the conservative cause with How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must) in that anyone who actually reads the book will discover that Coulter is not actually presenting a coherent debate, she is opining about those making the policy in dialectic terms that are often completely inaccurate in reality. Conservatives might want to rally to Coulter and have her on their team, but in reading her work where she criticizes constantly without offering concrete solutions or anything remotely balanced as far as debate goes, one finds that she is not a player, she is at best a cheerleader. Coulter's purpose with this book is to rally the (conservative) troops with venom as opposed to substance, broad generalizations as opposed to cited facts (there are no end notes in this publication) and vague ideas and insults instead of intellectual discourse worthy of attention.

In other words, How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must) is a fine book, unless you understand the words in it.

For more books written by Ann Coulter and other political writers, please check out my reviews of:
If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans
High Crimes And Misdemeanors
Stupid White Men by Michael Moore


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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