Seven days. Seven entire days with absolutely nothing to write about. Oh, I’m sure I could have found something, but frankly nothing really tickled my fancy, so I spent some time doing guest posts at Turning Down The Suck instead.
And then I got a message from Correspondent James Herbert, who asked me why I hadn’t written about the Ann Coulter debacle yet. Honestly, I don’t have a good answer for him, or for you my valued readers. Because I have to tell you: I did some research on this Coulter woman (I’d heard the name peripherally before, but I’d never really taken the time to find out what she’s all about) and boy oh boy I am going to have to tone down my characteristic rage for this one, or it’s going to end up totally unreadable.
For those of you not in the know, Ann Coulter is one of those strange American anomalies, in that she’s famous for no good reason. Graduate cum laude of Cornell with a BA in history, achieved her JD at Michigan Law, spent a good number of years inserting herself into key support positions throughout the American legal and political systems, all of which adds up to basically nothing in the grand scheme of things, right? I mean, who cares what some mid-level legal assistant thinks about foreign policy, the war in Iraq or gay rights?
Apparently a lot of people. Coulter has managed to shoehorn herself into no fewer than four book deals, several regular editorial columns and a host of television and radio appearances, not to mention speaking tours across America and beyond, which is where the thrust of this article comes in.
Anybody who’s ever heard of Ann Coulter knows she’s…well, she’s opinionated, let’s put it that way. She refers to herself as a polemicist who “likes to stir the pot”; she also contends that she has no reason to “pretend to be impartial or balanced”, and let me tell you: “balanced” is genuinely not a word I would use to describe this golden-haired darling of the conservative right.
Her entire history is rife with controversy, but here are a few gems I pulled from the interwebs.
She contends that if women didn’t have the right to vote, America would never see another Democratic president, because women tend to “vote stupidly”.
Initially an “unofficial” member of the legal team supporting Paula Jones (the first intern to bring sexual harassment charges against President Bill Clinton), Coulter later called Jones out as the “trailer trash [the media] said she was” when Jones agreed to pose nude in an adult magazine.
After 9/11, she was extremely vocal in her castigation of Muslim nations, suggesting America should “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”. She also suggested that a Muslim boycott of air travel would remove the need for airport security completely.
In response to the Iranian nuclear program, she advocated a harsh foreign policy: “Raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences.” In her syndicated column she went farther: “Sorry, I realize that was offensive. How about camel jockey? What? Now what’d I say? Boy, you tent merchants sure are touchy. Grow up, would you?”
During the 2008 nominations for Republican presidential candidate, she said she couldn’t talk about candidate John Edwards because “it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot’” (this in response to the earlier case of a Grey’s Anatomy cast member being subjected to a psychological assessment after using the slur on-set).
In 2008, she panned Barack Obama’s book “Dreams From My Father” as a “dimestore Mein Kampf” and openly stated that white people consider themselves superior to everyone.
And now, she’s lodging a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission over her recent trip to Ottawa. Apparently somebody thought it would be a really good idea to have this woman come and speak at Ottawa University, much to the chagrin of the Student Federation (who put together a comprehensive list of reasons why Coulter shouldn’t be allowed to go through with her speech) and pretty much everyone else in the whole country, so in an effort to preempt the inevitable outrage, Provost Francois Houle sent an email to Coulter gently reminding her of Canadian hate speech laws in the hope she might take the hint and tone down the kind of incendiary rhetoric I’ve outlined here. The email was widely disseminated, but the backlash occurred anyway: thousands of students showed up to protest Coulter’s appearance and the police wound up shutting down the event before it even happened. In response, Coulter is filing a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, saying her freedom of speech was violated.
“If a university official’s letter accusing a speaker of having a proclivity to commit speech crimes before she’s given the speech — which then leads to Facebook postings demanding that Ann Coulter be hurt, a massive riot and a police-ordered cancellation of the speech — is not hate speech, then there is no such thing as hate speech.”
I’m of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, I’ve been trying very hard to keep the rage and cursing and whatnot in this blog to a minimum, so I’m going to do my very best to ensure the only word that begins with “C” I’ll use to describe Ms. Coulter is her name. It’s no secret that I’m a reasonably progressive guy; I’ve always been a fan of the live-and-let-live mentality that I think defines the cooler people in the world and certainly defines my country’s official attitude towards religion, orientation, and life choices. So it really puts me in a weird spot to have to deal with somebody like Ann Coulter, who I think is a hateful, warmongering racist who likes to wrench the international spotlight around to her backwards, Troglodytic point of view by being intentionally incendiary for no reason other than ratings and attention.
Here’s the case-in-point: she responded to the situation in Ottawa on her personal blog, and while you should really go read the whole thing (if for no other reason than it’ll thin your blood with rage) here are a few keynotes.
Apparently the average IQ of a University of Ottawa student is zero.
“Ottawa” is an Indian term for “Land of the Bed-Wetters”.
Canadians are “a bunch of whining crybabies” who haven’t gotten this worked up about a function since the last Tim Horton’s opening.
Francois Houle needs a bikini wax, and he should go to jail for the letter he sent to Ann.
If you filter through the juvenile insults (“A-Houle”? Really?) I’m loathe to admit Coulter makes some reasonable points. She cites the fact that no such letters of warning (no matter how polite) were sent to the likes of former Black Panther and current Communist party leader Angela Davis, who spoke at UO earlier in the month, or radical Palestinian intellectual Omar Barghouti, who spoke last year. Okie dokie, Ann, you’re right – Communism, organized violence, and anti-Israel sentiments are hot-button topics the world over, and maybe we should have extended similar gentle warnings to those speakers as well. But the fact of the matter is that you’re known – well known – maybe only known – for being intentionally antagonistic and extremely offensive. When you build your reputation on harsh rhetoric you have to be prepared for people to take issue with what you say (believe me, I know this for an empirical fact).
The really interesting part of what Coulter had to say, though, was her discussion of “thought crimes”. She accused the University of condemning her for a speech she hadn’t yet made, and if you leave aside the precedent she’s set in the past – and I’m choking on this statement as we speak – she has a point.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Uncle Alex, I thought you called her a racist troglodyte! And yes, O attentive reader, I did. But there’s the problem with freedom of speech. Henry Rollins once said it’s important to know your enemy; to hear what they have to say; to learn from their ignorance so you can better combat it in your own life. I tend to agree with that.
Do I really want to hear what Ann Coulter has to say about Muslims riding flying carpets and how gays are evil, ad nauseum? No, I really don’t. But it’s my job to hear it. And it’s your job too. If all we do is silence people we don’t agree with, well, there’s the slippery slope Coulter illustrated in her article. Where does it stop? In the interest of defending individual rights, do we infringe on the rights of others in what they can and can’t say?
There have been court cases upon court cases about just this very subject here in Canada, and I have to admit it makes me question the line between what constitutes “freedom” and what constitutes “hate”. Once again I’ll reiterate that I don’t like or agree with anything Ann Coulter has to say about all those wonderful identifiable groups she so enjoys castigating.
Freedom of speech is only valuable if it’s extended to everybody. If you hear a “within reason” coming you’re right, because freedom of speech doesn’t translate in my mind to freedom of authority. If you’re a school teacher, you don’t have the freedom to espouse racist sentiments as hard fact to your class of ten year-olds, because you’re expressing opinion as opposed to empirical truth. And yes, I’m aware politicians do that all the time, but that’s a function of the shitty system we’ve developed. I’m only trying to operate within that system, and what that means is Ann Coulter can pretty much say whatever the hell she likes.
I don’t blame Provost Houle for trying to keep a little peace at his school by asking this hellish woman to keep her nasty tongue in check, but his sentiments tread on perilous ground. The bottom line is we can’t tell people what to think or who to listen to. Like I said, politicians might lie to us, but we kind of expect that at this point. We choose what to believe and what not to believe.
It’s the same thing with Coulter: she isn’t teaching children, to my knowledge – university students might not have a lot of life experience but they have enough brains to make a decision about whether or not they’ll buy into Coulter’s hatemongering. If we go forward with the understanding that University of Ottawa students are at least bright enough to make their own choices in life, then we have to let the woman say what she’s going to say.
In point of fact, I would much rather show up to an Ann Coulter speech, listen to what she has to say – take notes even – and then come back here the next day and go through piece-by-piece and explain why she’s a complete moron.
In the meantime, I don’t think it’s necessary for the university to issue an apology (a little too Canadian for my tastes, and the police shut down the speech, not the school) but I think it’s important for the future that we remember the Great Ann Coulter Debacle of 2010 and try not to let our own political leanings influence who we’ll let speak and who we won’t. My father always told me it’s better to keep my mouth shut and let people think I’m stupid rather than open my mouth and prove it. I say we let the Ann Coulters of the world prove what the rest of us already know.