Viewpoint: Why Ann Coulter Matters

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Ann Coulter's new book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, has just been published by Crown Forum. With predictable celerity, it has inspired another multiplatform media conflagration between her admirers and her opponents, some of whom don't seem to understand that controversy doesn't hurt book sales.

I had resolved never to write about Coulter again, after my cover story on her from last year received 6,360 letters - most of them not warmly positive, to say the least. So I figured I had done my part to get people thinking about how someone as divisive as Coulter had become, as I wrote then, "such a totem of this particular moment. Coulter epitomizes the way politics is now discussed on the airwaves, where opinions must come violently fast and cause as much friction as possible. No one, right or left, delivers the required apothegmatic commentary on the world with as much glee or effectiveness as Coulter. It is almost impossible to watch her and not be sluiced into rage or elation, depending on your views."

I think now that I was actually understating the case. Americas obsession with loving or hating Coulter is a psychological phenomenon almost unique in our culture. Her various epigones on Fox News can't quite match her ability to induce people to take deeply seriously what is obvious satire. I'm not saying Coulter doesn't believe what she says — if you talk with her mother, whos even more conservative, youll know that she does — but she knows that outrage is the blunt cousin of argument, that irony is more accessible than a thousand position papers. She knows that saying what no one else would dare to say will get her attention. It works every time, as it did this week when Coulter attacked one of America's most hallowed, untouchable figures — the 9/11 victim.

In her book, Coulter writes that Democrats "choose only messengers whom we're not allowed to reply to. That's why all Democratic spokesmen these days are sobbing, hysterical women. You can't respond to them because that would be questioning the authenticity of their suffering." As an example, she cites the Jersey Girls, four World Trade Center widows who argued for the commission to investigate 9/11. Then she directly questions the authenticity of their suffering, saying they are "reveling in their status as celebrities... I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' death so much." The comments caused an all-too-expected firestorm, even ensnaring Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who should have known better. "Perhaps her book should have been called Heartless," Senator Clinton said. "I know a lot of the widows and family members who lost loved ones on 9/11. They never wanted to be a member of a group that is defined by the tragedy of what happened."

Of course they didn't. But Clinton went some way toward confirming the very thing Coulter had alleged: that certain kinds of discourse — caustic, yes; outrageous, yes; illiberal, certainly — are not allowed.

The same day I was reading Ann Coulter's book, I read Margaret Talbot's excellent New Yorker piece from last week on Oriana Fallaci, the Coulteresque Italian journalist who has written that the "art of invading and conquering and subjugating" is "the only art which the sons of Allah have always excelled." Fallaci has said that Muslims "breed like rats," and she has complained that Muslims have left "yellow streaks of urine that profaned the millenary marbles of the Baptistery" in Florence. As it happens, it's illegal in much of Europe to say such outlandish things: Fallaci currently faces trial in Italy for defaming Islam. At least in the U.S., Coulter is not threatened with prosecution for being Coulter, but as I read Talbot's piece I wondered why the de rigueur intellectual response to Coulter in the U.S. is to dismiss her automatically.

Talbot quotes French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut objecting to some of Fallaci's extreme rhetoric. But he also commends her for taking "'the discourse and the actions of our adversaries' at their word and — in the wake of September 11th, the execution of Daniel Pearl, the destruction of Buddhas in Afghanistan, and other atrocities committed in the name of Islam - not being intimidated by the 'penitential narcissism that makes the West guilty of even that which victimizes it.'" Talbot herself concludes that Fallaci's "ferocious courage, and the willingness to say anything... can amount to a life force." I don't think it takes great courage for Coulter to sit safely behind her Mac, buzzing on Nicorette in the wee hours and inventing new insults for Ted Kennedy and Osama Bin Laden. But no American public intellectual would dare read Coulter's polemics so closely as some read Fallaci. Instead, they prefer to call her a "skank," as essayist James Wolcott did.

I don't agree with much of what Coulter says, but I find it bracing to read, for example, her cold-eyed assessments of Bill Clinton's treatment of the women in his life. I find her slurs against Muslims offensive, but I do laugh every time she refers to Islam as "the Religion of Peace." In the new book, she is right to belittle the ridiculous overreaction in the press after the mother of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito stated something obvious: "Of course he's against abortion," Mrs. Alito said of her son. Coulter unearths 25 years of public statements by abortion-rights supporters who stipulated that, as a Planned Parenthood official said in 1978, "Strictly speaking, no one is for abortion... We are pro-choice." But apparently Mrs. Alito shouldn't be allowed to say her son is against abortion, which everyone knows anyway.

Still, Coulter undermines her own case with her sloppiness. As early as page 4 of Godless comes this assault on grammar: "The core of environmentalism is that they hate mankind." A few pages later she indelicately misplaces a modifier: "Whether Jews or Christians, liberals are always on a witch hunt against people who appear to believe in God."

Coulter also once again betrays her own blinkered urbanism, which — try as she might to appear like a regular 'Merican — naggingly resurfaces every few pages, reminding us that she has lived nearly all her life in the Northeast and much of it in Manhattan. She writes: "Environmentalists' energy plan is the repudiation of America and Christian destiny, which is Jet Skis, steak on the electric grill, hot showers, and night skiing." Only someone who has virtually never lived more than 100 miles from the East Coast could concoct a list of such suburban Americana. (For that matter, who anywhere cooks steak on an electric grill?) The book jokes about fisting, mentions a 1961 Kurt Vonnegut story, and offers a Michael Moore fart joke. It's all a little dizzying, but could you imagine such stuff from a humorless hack like Mona Charen?

But in the end the most interesting thing about Coulter is still the way people respond to her. There's a scene in a documentary about Coulter in which a young woman, sputtering with rage, gets in Coulter's face and shouts an obscenity with such force it was chilling, even on tape. Anyone who can inspire that kind of passion is surely worth writing about again.