The intra-liberal squabbles over Ann Coulter are back. Coulter, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on March 2, 2007 (after being given a warm introduction by GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney) said, "I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word 'faggot.'" Her comment was greeted with laughter from the crowd.
When the blogosphere erupted in horror, high-minded liberal commentators argued that we'd all be smarter to ignore Coulter and her shenanigans than to dignify them with a response. This argument has played out before. At the 2006 CPAC, Coulter said, "I think our motto should be, post-9/11, 'Raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences.'" Liberal columnist Eric Alterman has announced that he wants people to ignore Coulter. This year, in response to Coulter's remarks about Edwards, Alterman complained, "[T]his CPAC flap is really, really dumb. ...Coulter [wants] her name in the media and she got it." He advised liberals to "let Coulter rot in solitude." Kirsten Powers, one of Fox News' token liberal commentators, concurred on her blog: "I have long been an advocate of ignoring [Coulter], but nobody seems willing to take me up on that idea." And Ana Marie Cox, writing on Time's Swampland, said of Coulter, "I really only have one thought about her: That we should not think about her. ...[S]he, like any bully, will go away if you ignore her."
Of course they're right that Coulter is a publicity hound--more performance artist than public intellectual. And engaging her extremist policy stances, like her assertion (in her syndicated column) that "the government should be spying on all Arabs, engaging in torture as a televised spectator sport, dropping daisy cutters wantonly throughout the Middle East and sending liberals to Guantánamo," risks legitimizing them. But Alterman and others are wrong to pretend she doesn't exist. In fact, liberals should count their lucky stars that they have her, and they should publicize her every outrage--because, far more than it legitimizes her wacky notions, it advances the liberal cause.
Consider how it looks to moderate voters that a homophobic, anti-Arab zealot is so widely revered on the right. Her books sell hundreds of thousands of copies, she is praised by prominent Republicans, and she is welcomed at their events. When liberals highlight the bigoted or outlandish things she says, it is decidedly to their political advantage--reinforcing the queasiness that tolerant suburban swing voters feel about aligning with the right.
Conservatives don't seem to suffer from the same hesitancy that some liberals do to tar their opponents by blaming them for everything a controversial figure on their side says. Consider the case of Michael Moore. Moore, like Coulter, is brash and politically pugnacious; his films are widely watched and enjoyed on the left, though, as with Coulter, many of the more moderate members of his movement find him too strident. But the conservative pundits constantly try to paint the entire left as sharing every view that Moore holds.
For instance, the site www.rightwingnews.com named Moore the second-most-annoying liberal in America in 2003 and catalogued his offenses. It called him "delusional...paranoid," and "eaten up with hatred for Bush"; it backed up each epithet with a quote. Some, such as Moore's comparison of the Patriot Act to the rise of Nazi Germany, clearly deserve ridicule. Others, such as Moore's complaint that we were taken "to war based on a lie," do not. Yet all of his views were imputed to the left: "Michael Moore is perhaps the most beloved figure of the American left," the site said.
And it probably works. Many conservative commentators speculated that Hollywood liberals actually cost John Kerry votes in 2004 because regular Americans were turned off by Fahrenheit 9/11. For instance, writing in National Review Online a few months after the election, William J. Bennett claimed, "[W]hen Michael Moore was given a seat in a presidential box at the Democratic convention, people took note of those values as well--and voted on them." While it's hard to pinpoint a specific cause for Kerry's loss, it's certainly clear that conservatives have, at the very least, nothing to lose--and, most likely, a good deal to gain--when they demonize the left for every inappropriate or controversial remark a liberal makes.
Indeed, conservatives have been clever enough to realize that a target doesn't even need to really be a liberal--much less command a major following on the left or endorse the Democratic candidate--to effectively smear Democrats. The conservative blog Patterico.com, compiled "examples of hate speech by prominent leftist figures" that included Louis Farrakhan, who has as little influence on the mainstream left as David Duke does on the mainstream right. Or consider right-wing activist and author David Horowitz's Discover the Networks website, which catalogues "activists for leftwing agendas and causes" and includes absurdly marginal, illiberal figures like Sami Al Arian and Amiri Baraka. This sort of stunt helps drum up donations and support for Horowitz's advocacy group. Why shouldn't liberals do the same?
Is this fair? Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan obviously don't speak for all liberals, so why should we ascribe collective blame over Coulter? But it's not as if Coulter (or Moore) is some fringe wingnut twisting in the wind. Her homophobic line about Edwards took place at CPAC, a major movement conference--and it got laughs and applause. So, obviously, her views have a significant constituency on the right. In that way, it's also fair to infer from Moore's hatred for President Bush that many liberals hate Bush, too.
But there's an important distinction between Moore and Coulter. Conservatives see Moore jeering Bush and winning plaudits from liberals, so, when they think Moore is expressing hatred for America, they assume this is also something liberals believe. It's obviously false; liberals would never cheer a line proclaiming hatred of the United States. But Coulter regularly gets laughs and cheers when she deploys bigotry as part of her shtick. Liberals don't need to infer it; it's out in the open.
Luckily, best-selling right-wing authors and activists who give speeches at the Heritage Foundation make plenty of outrageous statements. Whether it's Michelle Malkin's argument in defense of interning Japanese-Americans during World War II, Coulter's defense of Joseph McCarthy, or anti-affirmative-action crusader Ward Connerly's acceptance of support from the Ku Klux Klan, liberals have plenty of material without having to make things up. And they should be willing to use it.
By Ben Adler