Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter

By: Joe Maguire
Published by: William Morrow, 2006

I will set this up by saying that I read Godless, by Ann Coulter, and therefore have first-hand knowledge of what she wrote.

Secondly, I am out of patience with any and all writers who think there is something useful about writing how much they "hate" someone, how "ugly" that person is, what an "idiot," how "stupid," "dumb" or, well, pick a word that you're likely to hear in the playground at grade school recess and fill it in. Then don't use it when writing a book for publication, unless it's fiction.

And finally, I will acknowledge that Godless wasn't the best book I ever read, though I did think it made some points worth discussion. Unfortunately, Ann Coulter is not known for restraint in expression, and frequently sacrificed a good point to bad wit and hyperbole.

The much-touted "Jersey girls" comment was not so much a vicious swipe at poor, suffering widows as a slam at the way we sanctify anyone who suffers, whether they themselves did anything worthy of sanctification or not. And, of course, the way we, as a culture, have chosen to make private suffering public in the most tasteless and crude way possible. Ann, of course, suggests that we often go even further (a point with which I really can't argue), and, all too often, either the sufferers or their "handlers" or the press or some combination thereof, use a tragic event to promote a social or political cause. That, of course, was her point about the Jersey girls. That they were making political hay out of a ghastly event.

I'm the first to admit that Ann didn't do the greatest job of making her point. She sacrificed the point, which was worthy of being made (we really DO use human tragedy in the most disgraceful ways), for what she probably thought was a caustic bit of sarcasm. It was completely unnecessary.

Still, having acknowledged that, it hardly takes a scholar to get the point she was trying to make, and distinguish between a point, and a point badly made.

Clearly, poor Joe Maguire either can't make that distinction, or more likely, chooses not to.

In fact, his entire book seems bent on outdoing Ann for overstatement, personal attacks, crude jokes, and outright dishonesty.

Here's one wonderful example:

Joe writes: "In fact, much of what Ann writes shows her simultaneous fear of and fascination with the gay community. And it's finely phrased. In what is undoubtedly a brilliant piece of prose on page 15 of Godless, Ann reviles Rolling Stone writer Jeff Sharlet for interpreting a comment by Republican senator Sam Brownback as a slur against gays when he quoted a line from the Gospel of Matthew saying, "You shall know them by their fruits." Now, whether or not Sharlet misinterpreted the comment, or just saw an opportunity to criticize a Republican senator with whom his magazine's editorial board disagrees, doesn't really matter. The point - which Ann completely misses - is that Brownback's comment shows a complete lack of sensitivity to how words can be loaded with unintended meaning. Or, one shudders to think, an all-too-acute sense of what words can do. Maybe Ann is totally aware of how to sting the opposition in the guise of being misconstrued.

"In telling the tale of Brownback v. Sharlet, Ann goes on to complain that 'soon gay groups were demanding an apology from the senator. (All I can say is: how niggardly of them).'

"Outweighing points for proficient punctuation is Ann's complete misuse of the word "niggardly," which means "stingy." Given her Ivy League education, it's probably no much of a stretch to say she knows full well what that word means - and, thus, has used it just to provoke a response."

He goes on to suggest that Ann was clearly race-baiting in using the word.

Now, to be honest, I have no idea if Joe is trying to be clever here, or is really as obtuse as he comes across. Most of us are aware of the "niggardly" episode, in which David Howard, aid to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, was fired in 1999 because he used the word "niggardly" to describe how he would have to manage a fund's tight budget.

An ignorant assumption was made that the word, a very old Norse term meaning to fret over small details, was a racial slur.

Of course, it wasn't, and the uproar only embarrassed those who should have known better.

Ann, of course, was trying to be funny in suggesting that the use of the word "fruits," particularly in the context of a word for word quote from the Bible, could not be construed by any but the most insistantly ignorant, as an insult or baiting of gays. The fact is, that particular quote is used frequently as a way of saying that the things one does, the things one accomplishes, tell us more about the person that what that person says. Ann's use of the word "niggardly" was to link the two episodes of deliberate (?) misunderstanding together, pointing out how PC we have become that we are not even free to quote literature, or use a multi-syllabic word, without fear of "offending."

There are more of that kind of seemingly deliberate "misunderstanding" of Coulter's point. And then there are examples of damning Ann and doing the same thing.

Surprising to no one, Ann is anti-abortion. In Godless, she makes the point that there is a lack of balance between the number of abortions performed in this country and the few that are a result of rape, incest, or threat to the mother's (physical) life. In typical Coulter fashion, however, rather than just make the telling statement "Studies conducted by Planned Parenthood's Guttmacher Institute indicate just over 1% of all abortions performed per year are due to rape or incest," she snips about "stories of women carrying the babies of rapist - as if that's happened more than twice in the last half century."

Rather than engage Coulter on the point, Maguire prefers to write,"Well, if you're going to deride women who were widowed on 9/11, you might as well throw those who have been sexually assaulted into the mix."

Needless to say, Maguire is taking one exaggeration and using it to support another - precisely what he accuses Coulter of doing in his next sentence,"Rather than back up her statements with unassailable, or at least somewhat defensible, supporting evidence, she simply spews sarcasm. With regard to sex, Ann Coulter's hypocrisy is undeniable. Her avoidance of a stance on birth control is conspicuous, to say the least - especially given her dating habits in the context of her claims to Christian conservatism."

I also wonder whether Maguire questions his own sacred cows. Coulter makes the point in her book that Darwinism is the source of much moral relativism of today. This is not her theory, by the way, but has been discussed ad nauseam by others far more erudite and scholarly than she.

Maguire, in trying to explain away the notion of "transcendent human morality" by pointing out that Ann's fashion choices would have been considered "immoral" in times past or certain cultures, cites Sam Harris in his book The End of Faith, in which he writes, "If there are right and wrong answers to ethical questions, these answers will be best sought in the living present... The pervasive idea that religion is somehow the source of our deepest ethical intuitions is absurd. We more more get our sense that cruelty is wrong from the pages of the Bible than we get our sense that two plus two equals four from the pages of a textbook on mathematics."

Whether Harris is right or wrong about where we should look for ethical guidance, his analogy is faulty. A book on mathematics observes a truth - math - which it does not create, merely catalogues. Most "religious" people would suggest that the Bible does the same for ethical questions. It does not "invent" good and evil, right and wrong, but merely observes and catalogues them.

Most religious people would not say the Bible is the SOURCE of belief, but a guidebook to a "transcendent" truth, which existed before the Bible, and would exist without it. Like math would exist if we failed to observe it.

Finally, Maguire falls victim to the same kind of dismissive put-down and unsubstantiated characterization he finds Coulter guilty of, in particular in his refutation of her chapter on Darwinism.

The fact is, there are holes in the theory of evolution. Granted, it's the best we have for a scientific explanation of how life appeared on earth. Having said that, there are some "missing" parts (like why is there no living example of evolutionary change? The famous insect example is fine, except that absent noxious stimuli, insects, which "adapt" to that noxious stimuli, revert right back to type.) that can't be discounted. Coulter's point, however hyperbolically stated, is that as long as you don't have proof positive for evolution, isn't it possible that there is another explanation? She spends a good deal of time pointing out the ways and places in which the theory falls short of law. She also makes some connections between political/social orientation and the benefit of a theory like evolution.

For example: if, in fact, we are all evolved out of one primal cell, then there can be no differentiation between one life form and another in terms of importance. If the way that one species evolved was "survival of the fittest," then doing whatever it takes is fundamentally ok (what do "transcendent morals" have to do with anything?).

But again, Maguire refuses to engage the point and instead sniffs at Coulter's lack of scientific credibility, wondering how any enlightened person could take the notion of "creationism" as anything but uneducated quackery, and in so doing, proves that he's no better than the subject of his wrath.

I'd like to think that all this "Big Fat Liar," I Hate (So and So) With a Deep, Abiding Hatred," "The Worst Person Ever to Live" type publication is all just intended to sell books, and not really deeply felt animus towards the "other side." The sheer silliness and childishness of much of it would lead us to believe that that's the case. For the sake of civility, and wisdom, we can only hope that this kind of petty name-calling is not a indicator of the state of public discourse.


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