The Mouths that Roared

To anyone who ever tried to understand why the political left has played such a large role in American intellectual life, or why the term “anti-communist” ever became an insult, or why so many allegedly clear-thinking people feared Joe McCarthy more than Josef Stalin, Ann Coulter’s new book will certainly prove thought-provoking.

I should reveal here that I have spent a great deal of time — perhaps the better part of the last 10 years — writing about communism, Stalinism and the West’s relationship to both. Yet about halfway through Treason, an extended rant on these subjects, I felt a strong urge to get up, throw the book across the room, and join up with whatever Leninist-Trotskyite-Marxist political parties still exist in America. Even the company of Maoist insurgents would be more intellectually invigorating than that of Ann Coulter. More to the point, whatever side this woman is on, I don’t want to be on it.

It isn’t very difficult to explain why this book is so bad. A few quotes from the opening chapter will do it:

“Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason.”

“Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy.”

“Liberals attack their country and then go into diarrhea panic if anyone criticizes them.”

“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. Fifty years of treason hasn’t slowed them down.”

The rest of the book continues in that vein. Aside from becoming rather tedious after about page 10, Treason fails to explain a number of pertinent points. For example: Who’s a liberal? And what is “the left”? Coulter appears to believe that these terms are synonyms, and further confuses both of them with the Democratic Party — which has, she claims, been suffering from “pusillanimous psychosis” since World War II. But Scoop Jackson was a Democrat, Jeanne Kirkpatrick was a Democrat, even Ronald Reagan started out as a Democrat (and this was after World War II). Robert F. Kennedy actually worked for Senator McCarthy, as Coulter herself mentions, but fails to elaborate upon. Half the members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities were Democrats. The Truman administration prosecuted Alger Hiss. Kennedy stood up to the Soviet Union in Berlin and Cuba.

Indeed, there were members of the left who were active anti-communists. Coulter actually quotes George Orwell a couple of times without mentioning that he was a socialist, presumably because she doesn’t know. She doesn’t mention the anti-communists in the American trade union movement, presumably because she hasn’t heard of them, either. Her cartoonish, childlike interpretation of history allows for no nuances — nor can it help her explain the present. She is notably silent on the subject of Democrats who supported the war in Iraq, for example, making only two glancing references to Sen. Joe Lieberman, and implying that every single Democrat who voted in favor of the resolutions to invade Iraq did so for crude political reasons. But if you tar everyone with the same brush, how can you know, really, what actually happened?

All of this, of course, might be funny if it were meant to be funny, but it doesn’t seem to be. Coulter hasn’t got an ironic or witty bone in her body. Her insults are crass and dull-witted, and her jokes fall flat. She has no sense of history and skips back and forth from the Truman administration to the Reagan administration, as if 40 years made no difference. She quotes liberally from newspaper cuttings, television interviews and other conservative diatribes, apparently having done no actual research at all. Worst of all, this is the kind of rhetoric that will allow everyone else to dismiss her as a crank, putting off real debate about these issues for another decade at least.

And the more successful she becomes, the more damage she will do to her own cause. If her ravings become confused with the work of serious historians, it’s possible that the serious reading public will wind up dismissing all of them. I noted, after finishing this book, that a number of prominent conservatives have dissociated themselves from it. With any luck, others will too. Coulter will, of course, start screaming that she’s become the latest victim of the left’s ongoing secret campaign against McCarthy, but at least that will prevent her from spoiling serious historical investigation into anything else.

As I say, it’s easy to explain why this book is bad. What is much, much harder to explain is why so many people think this book is good, or at least why so many people are buying it. After all, if you want to read a book about why the left was wrong and Sen. McCarthy was right, far better ones are out there. Making use of Soviet archives, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have teamed up to write several excellent books about the American Communist Party over the past several years. Even if you prefer to get your history from a female conservative columnist, Mona Charen published a far more thoughtful attack on the post-war left last fall. In Useful Idiots, Charen covered some of the same ground as Coulter, but she did it logically, chronologically and without failing to notice that there were some important differences between Robert Kennedy and, say, Abbie Hoffman.

For that matter, even if you want to read a conservative rant, there are better ones — Tammy Bruce’s The Death of Right and Wrong, for example. If Coulter’s shtick is that she’s a right-wing blonde, Bruce’s shtick is that she’s a right-wing lesbian. The formula is the same: quotes picked out from newspaper articles, research that consists largely of extensive Internet surfing. But because Bruce is writing about pop culture, and not accusing the entire post-war Democratic Party of high treason, the end result is somehow less irritating.

Her points are familiar ones: that Hollywood and television have produced a culture of amorality, that the judicial system rewards criminals instead of victims, that — thanks to the continued dominance of the left — our children are not being taught the difference between right and wrong. But her examples are good ones: I certainly warmed to her when she attacked the open nihilism of the loathsome film “American Beauty,” which inexplicably won five Academy Awards.

Still, it isn’t hard to imagine using the same methods to write the same book from precisely the opposite point of view, and indeed someone has already done it: Michael Moore, in Stupid White Men. Moore’s book calls for U.N. observers to monitor American elections, accuses pretty much everyone on the right of corruption and venality — and has been a major bestseller both here and in Britain. The real question, then, is not what makes so many people buy books by Ann Coulter, but what makes so many people lap up the Coulter-Bruce-Moore formula. Perhaps it’s a longing for clarity, a reflection of the deep human need to find a straight path through the modern jungle of information. Perhaps it’s laziness. We all have media overload nowadays — too many sides of the story are too easily available.

But while some people go mad trying to absorb everything, others seem to go mad trying to eliminate any information that doesn’t fit their predetermined stereotypes. And the looniest of all — they wind up as bestselling authors.

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