Senator Edward Kennedy is a traitor. So are Presidential candidate Howard Dean and Reverend Jesse Jackson, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Liberals, all of them. And, according to Ann Coulter, traitors.
In her new book, Treason, Coulter makes the blanket assertion that all liberals are disloyal to the United States. Don’t bother Coulter with a list of liberals’ accomplishments in service of their country. She doesn’t like to be bothered with facts. And besides, she’s always right. Just ask her.
Coulter makes her assertion that liberals are treasonous early in her book: “Whether they are defending the Soviet Union or bleating for Saddam Hussein, liberals are always against America. They are either traitors or idiots, and on the matter of America’s self-preservation, the difference is irrelevant” (16).
In order to make this argument, however, Coulter must apply the most liberal interpretation of the legal definition of treason, clearly stated in Article III of the Constitution: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Coulter focuses on the last word, “comfort.” To her, opposing the Administration’s foreign policy decision offers “comfort” to enemies of the U.S. The millions of Americans who opposed the war in Iraq or question Bush’s truthfulness regarding the need for the war are traitors, Coulter argues, because such opposition “comforts” Saddam Hussein. If he is still alive, Hussein must sleep better at night because Americans have the audacity to expect their Commander in Chief to be truthful.
The fallaciousness of Coulter’s logic is perplexing not only because of its incredible leap in causality, but because Coulter is an attorney and so, one might assume, has been versed in a more strict legal definition of such crimes as treason. A graduate of Cornell and the University of Michigan Law School, Coulter has worked as a legal aide to the House Judiciary Committee, clerk to the Honorable Pasco Bowman II of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, litigator for the Center for Individual Rights, attorney for the Department of Justice Honors Program, and legal consultant for Human Events magazine. According to her website, she has been honored by the Clare Luce Booth Policy Institute and was named one of the Public’s Top 100 Intellectuals by Judge Richard Posner. She’s best known as a syndicated columnist, best-selling author, and regular on news talk television.
And, according to her columns and interviews, she is so much more. Coulter is a psychic who can read the thoughts of others: “[Senator Joseph] Biden thinks if he gets applause from a student audience, he must have made a legal argument” (“Democrats Don’t Have the Constitution for Racial Equality,” 23 January 2003; unless otherwise noted, all Coulter quotes are from articles published on her website). She’s an historian bent on reframing public perception of Joseph McCarthy: “[Liberals] were systematically undermining the nation’s ability to defend itself, while waging a bellicose campaign of lies to blacken McCarthy’s name” (“I Dare Call it Treason,” 25 June 2003). Or, Coulter the fashion trendsetter: “Originally, I was the only female with long blonde hair. Now, [female political commentators] all have long blonde hair” (CapitolHillBlue.com, 6 June 2000). Or again, Coulter, the physician: “Anorexics never have boyfriends… That’s one way to know you don’t have anorexia, if you have a boyfriend” (Politically Incorrect, 21 July 1997). And don’t forget Coulter the dominatrix: “I really want to hurt [Representative Christopher Shays]. I want him to feel pain” (Hartford Courant, 25 June 1999).
Coulter subscribes to the theory that if you repeat an argument often enough, people will believe it, no matter how fallacious it may be. So, she repeats the myth of the liberal control of the arts and media. In July, she asserts, “Conservatives are openly blackballed in all the liberal professions—publishing, Hollywood, the mainstream media, education, and college faculties” (“We’ll Let You Know When You’re Being Censored,” 9 July 2003).
The most obvious hole in this argument is that, were it true, Coulter herself would have no career. Neither would Cal Thomas, George Will, Phyllis Schlafly, Armstrong Williams, Rush Limbaugh, Mona Charon, Tony Snow, Neil Cavuto, Laura Schlesinger, and dozens of other syndicated columnists. Television would be missing Bill O’Reilly, William F. Buckley, Robert Novak, John McLaughlin, and Sean Hannity. Charlton Heston, Delta Burke, John Tesh, Gerald McRaney, Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, Pat Sajak, Matt LeBlanc, Charlie Daniels, and Ted Nugent are only some of the celebrities who would find themselves out of work. And, as a college instructor, I can assure you there are plenty of conservatives teaching.
This old argument regarding the “liberal media” also disregards the fact the majority of publishers, newspapers, and television stations are owned by conservative corporations or individuals, such as Disney (owner of ABC) and Rupert Murdoch. A 2002 study of the media conducted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that 47% of all media citations (quotations, interviews, or press releases cited in news stories) of political consultants, think tanks, and organizations were from conservatives; liberals constituted only 12% of such citations, with moderates making up the remaining citations. The conservative think tanks, The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, had 6,007 media citations, whereas the three most quoted liberal think tanks, the Economy Policy Institute, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the Center for Public Integrity, had only 1,873.
But apparently, it isn’t convenient for Coulter to research the topics she discusses. In Treason, her discussion of Joseph McCarthy places her firmly in the category of the “revisionist historians” President Bush has criticized lately. In a recent speaking engagement to promote the book (aired on BookSpan, 26 July 2003), Coulter asserted that the source she used on McCarthy is the only accurate one available, because all other writers on McCarthy did their research by reading the archives of the New York Times. This is, of course, absurd, as countless historians and authors have read the personal papers of McCarthy, the complete transcripts of the Army-McCarthy Hearings, and copies of McCarthy’s speeches; they have also interviewed those who knew or worked with McCarthy and reviewed government documents relating to McCarthy’s entire term in the Senate.
Still, Coulter seems hell-bent on championing McCarthy in her usual fashion, by attacking those who don’t share her point of view. She argues, “The primary victim of outrageous persecution during the McCarthy era was McCarthy. Liberals hid their traitorous conduct by making McCarthy the issue. They did to McCarthy everything they falsely accused him of doing to them” (Treason, 104). She further asserts in her article, “I Dare Call it Treason,” that McCarthyism is “the greatest Orwellian fraud” in recent history, conducted by “liars” whose portrayal of McCarthy as a demagogue is “sheer liberal hobgoblinism.”
She bases her claim on the recently declassified Venona documents, government files of decrypted Soviet cables that reveal that there were, indeed, Soviet spies working in the United States government. Even though he never had access to the Venona files, McCarthy may have been closer to the truth than he realized. But this point misses the broader one, that liberals and Democrats haven’t been critical of McCarthy’s pursuit of spies, but of his unconstitutional methods in that pursuit.
In order to remake McCarthy into an icon of American patriotism, Coulter must overlook the fact that McCarthy lied and trampled the civil rights of Americans to promote his own self-interests. The following are well-established facts: McCarthy launched his crusade against the Army only after he was unable to keep a close friend from being inducted; he lied when he claimed in speech after speech to be holding in his hand a list of known Communists in the State Department (the number of “known Communists” changed from speech to speech); he interrogated witnesses in private before deciding who would be called to the public hearings, insuring that only those who were the most uncooperative would be making public appearances.
It is also a well-established fact that those who refused to give McCarthy the answers he wanted were often jailed, fired from their jobs, and labeled as “traitors” without specific evidence to back up the charge. The consequences of his actions were far-reaching; referring to the fact that she was unwelcome in Hollywood through most of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, French actress Simone Signoret said, “McCarthy was not dead, even if the citizens of [the United States] thought they had buried him” (qtd. in All About Oscar by Emanuel Levy, The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003: 342).
Coulter also ignores that Senators from both sides of the aisles voted, 67-22, in favor of censuring McCarthy. Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith went so far as to say of her colleague, “I don’t like the way the Senate has been made a rendezvous for vilification, for selfish political gain at the sacrifice of individual reputations and national unity” (“Declaration of Conscience” by Senator Margaret Chase Smith and Statement of Seven Senators, 1 June 1950, Congressional Record, 82nd Congress. 1st Session).
Twelve years after McCarthy’s death in 1957, author Earl Latham concluded the same in his book, The Communist Controversy in Washington: “Senator McCarthy as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations succeeded in transforming serious questions of fealty and public policy into obsession with self” (354). (It should be noted that, of the hundreds of sources Latham uses, he only mentions the New York Times four times, three times in reference to witnesses who cited the newspaper and once to cite an editorial critical of Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson.)
As Senator McCarthy introduced no significant piece of legislation outside of the realm of his search for Communists, it is odd that anyone might see his record as an example of commendable statesmanship. Still, it is not odd that Coulter would be attracted to him, since she emulates his style of slandering opponents. And this reveals the fundamental fault of her argumentative method, her unashamed hypocrisy.
Her 2002 book, Slander, criticizes Democrats and liberals (for Coulter, the same thing) for “calling names.” As she explained on Today, “Political debate with liberals is basically impossible in America today, because liberals are calling names while conservatives are trying to make arguments” (26 June 2002). Yet Coulter is the queen of name-calling, both in broad terms, such as her assertion that “liberals” are liars and “savagely cruel bigots,” and as direct attacks on individuals. Following is a sampling of her venomous phrasing:
Bill Clinton: “flimflam artist,” “celebrated felon,” “pervert”;
the editorial board of The National Review: “girly boys”;
Jimmy Carter: “Lord Haw-Haw”;
Janeanne Garofalo: “lemon pucker puss”;
Ambassador to France Pamela Harriman and political advisor Patricia Duff: “whores”;
the Justices of the Supreme Court: “philosopher kings”;
Princess Diana: “pathetic”;
Katie Couric: “an affable Eva Braun.”
Coulter’s double standard doesn’t end with name-calling. Far more troubling is her complaint, made to Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, that “People are hysterical about speech right now. Everyone’s comments are being taken out of context and wildly misinterpreted” (qtd in “The Wisdom of Ann Coulter, Washington Monthly, October 2001).
However, Coulter freely misquotes her sources and misstates facts. In “Women We’d Like to See . . . in Burkas” (6 December 2003), she criticizes New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd for referring to the workers at Ground Zero as “hunks,” citing letters to the editor that also criticized Dowd for claiming that “women get in a swoon when a hard-hat with a flag decal wolf-whistles at them” (“Hunks and Brutes,” New York Times, 28 November 2001) Actually, Dowd’s statement was a paraphrase of a story in USA Today entitled “The Hunk Factor,” a fact Dowd makes clear in the opening paragraphs of her article. Coulter didn’t note Dowd’s argument, that the Bush Administration was crowing about the liberation of women in Afghanistan while ignoring the reprehensible treatment of women in other Middle Eastern countries.
Coulter’s 26 September 2001 article, “Stop Persecuting Andrea Yates,” not only misrepresents the position of the National Organization of Women, it also implies that the feminist organization condones Yates’ murder of her five children). In a facetious “letter” from NOW to its members, Coulter contends that the group views the murders as “a late-term abortion procedure committed in her bathtub” which shows a “can-do spirit that made this country great.” NOW, of course, expressed no such viewpoint, and in a press release called for an examination of post-partum depression “in order to prevent the infliction of such misery on another family” (NOW President Kim Gandy, “Tragedy Focuses Attention on Postpartum Psychosis,” 6 September 2001).
Coulter also ignores the accomplishments of Democratic presidents. In her book promotion speech on BookSpan, Coulter asserted, “Liberals have been doing nothing when it comes to defending America for the last century.” Looking back at the last century, one quickly sees that all of the major wars the U.S. fought were overseen by Democratic presidents: World War I (Wilson); WWII (Roosevelt); Korea (Truman); Vietnam (Kennedy and Johnson). And the only president to use a nuclear weapon was a Democrat, Harry Truman.
Even when Coulter does get her facts straight, she often gets her sources wrong. In the article “Screed: With Treason, Ann Coulter Once Again Defines a New Low in America’s Political Debate,” Spinsanity columnist Brendan Hyhan notes at least eight instances in Treason where Coulter provides misleading source citations for her material, implying that the sources for the citations were news stories, when in reality, the citations were taken from editorials, book reviews, or weekly entertainment magazines. (30 June 2003)
The many mistruths, misquotes, and mistakes in Coulter’s work raise questions concerning her credibility. And yet, she is everywhere these days, on Fox News, Today, Good Morning America, Real Time With Bill Maher, Crossfire, This Week, and Larry King Live. Treason is on the New York Times bestseller list (perhaps the only section of the Times Coulter respects) and Slander reached number one on that list.
Her popularity can be attributed to two factors. First, she frames fraudulent arguments in inflammatory language. Noted scholar and rhetorician Kenneth Burke developed the theories of “victimage” and “god/devil terms.” According to Burke, when a speaker wants to motivate an audience, he blames others, arguing that your sad lot in life isn’t your fault, it’s the fault of those damn [Communists, terrorists, liberals, Democrats, etc.]. Coulter excels at pointing fingers. She also excels at using “god” and “devil” terms so emotionally potent that audiences miss the illogic. Her “god terms” would be “freedom,” “America,” “patriotism,” and “defense.” Her “devil terms” include the litany of insults she hurls, as well as “liberals,” “traitor,” “terrorism,” “Hussein,” and “lies.”
In fact, her use of this terminology gets her invited onto most talk shows; news talk shows have developed an appalling habit of inviting the most controversial guests, not the most intelligent. Coulter freely admits that she likes stirring things up. But stringing together negative phrases is hardly an argument.
Second, Coulter knows her audience, a population who gets information by soundbites. The shorter and more inflammatory the bite, the more likely it is to get airplay. Since most Americans are busy and distracted, they tend to accept what they hear on tv or read in newspapers at face value.
The danger Coulter poses does not lie in her conservative views. It lies in her use of deception and dismissal, which stifles any free and honest exchange of ideas. So, as Coulter the columnist, Coulter the psychic, and Coulter the historian travels the country hawking her books and agenda, keep in mind her true purpose, the glorification of Ann Coulter. But, that’s fine because she is always right. Just ask her.
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