Friday, January 14, 2011

Ann Coulter, Satirist

Even though I have not been particularly interested in this whole nonsense about the political rhetoric of the country and the almost certain fact that it affected Loughner in no way, shape, or form, I have managed to get dragged into it anyway. It's what I get for quoting Steve Horwitz on Facebook on why it's absurd to make the connection.

In the exchange, I ended up arguing with Gus Dizerega, who I know through the Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders conferences, who is a political scientist and Hayek scholar, and who is generally a Leftist. I at least learn a lot from arguing with him, at least, when it doesn't devolve into what I consider to be blind acceptance of the Left as good and conservatives as evil as well as accusations of my defending people I'm not actually defending. One can argue that the connection between Laughner and conservative political rhetoric is speceous at best and not support conservativism, or even the rhetoric.

The final straw, though, seems to have been my claim that Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are satirists. On the discussion listed above, that claim caused him to stop arguing with me. (I hope this posting doesn't make that permanent -- I figure since the original discussion was public, it should be fine to continue it in a public forum.) You will note that Shawn Darling got me to agree that Limbaugh was about half-polemicist as well -- but I stick by my argument that Ann Coulter is a satirist.

Let me give an example. I could give plenty, but I want to give an example of where she in fact is arguing almost the opposite point she seems to be arguing. The piece I will be analyzing is "Bradley Manning: Poster Boy for 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'.

She begins the article with a standard introduction which connects the two issues of the article: the discovery that Bradford Manning was the leaker to Wikileaks, and 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' She makes fun of the culture of sensitivity with the "who wants a hug?" comment, then launches into explaining what happened.

The first thing she does after this introduction is to make fun of the military for being unable (which probably really means, unwilling) to figure out that Bradford Manning is gay:

Bradley said he lifted the hundreds of thousands of classified documents by pretending to be listening to a CD labeled "Lady Gaga." Then he acted as if he were singing along with her hit song "Telephone" while frantically downloading classified documents.

I'm not a military man, but I think singing along to Lady Gaga would constitute "telling" under "don't ask, don't tell."

Do you have to actually wear a dress to be captured by the Army's "don't ask, don't tell" dragnet?
Her point here is that the military is hardly enforcing the DADT policy if they can't figure out that someone singing along to Lady Gaga is gay. Why even have it if they're not going to enforce it?

Coulter then goes on to point out that,

Maybe there's a reason gays have traditionally been kept out of the intelligence services, apart from the fact that closeted gay men are easy to blackmail. Gays have always been suspicious of that rationale and perhaps they're right.
She then goes on to tell the story of the Cambridge Five and the fact that "the Russians set Burgess up with a boyfriend as soon as he defected to the Soviet Union." Now, what is the point of this story? The story she tells of the Soviet spies takes place during a time when anyone who was gay was trying to hide it. They of course could be easily blackmailed. Now, however, the situation is radically different. Everyone is out and proud, and the only way that a soldier could be blackmailed would be due to . . . DADT! Without it, the last reason for blackmail would be eliminated. By telling this story, she is pointing out that the situation has in fact changed. There is little to no reason to fear blackmailing gays who would be out of the closet if it weren't for DADT. More than this, consider who is considered the "enemy" today. Is it likely that Islamic terrorists or the Taliban are going to set up a gay spy with a boyfriend in Afghanistan? What could be more absurd? One has to keep the current situation in mind as well.

Coulter next makes the argument that "Obviously, the vast majority of gays are loyal Americans -- and witty and stylish to boot! But a small percentage of gays are going to be narcissistic hothouse flowers like Bradley Manning." Of course, one could make the same statement about any group of people -- that the vast majority of them are loyal Americans, but a small percentage are going to be narcissistic and emotionally delicate. This should be obvious to anyone. Is it any more likely among gays? Even if it were twice as likely (just for the sake of argument), that would still be a smaller actual number than would exist in any other group one could come up with (other than perhaps Nauru-Americans).

Next Coulter asks:

Look at the disaster one gay created under our punishing "don't ask, don't tell" policy. What else awaits America with the overturning of a policy that was probably put there for a reason (apart from being the only thing Bill Clinton ever did that I agreed with)?
There is a lot going on in these two sentences. First, if we consider the context of her argument that DADT appeared to have no effect on Manning's life as a soldier, then she is obviously making fun of the idea that DADT had much of anything to do with it. However, to the extent that it did, isn't that really an argument for getting rid of it? Now, her next sentence is no doubt one that is going to be easily misinterpreted. She argues that DADT was "probably put there for a reason." Considering that she is a "conservative commentator," the natural instinct is to interpret this as, "to prevent Bradford Manning-type problems." But she then goes on to say that it's a policy she actually agreed with when Clinton implemented it. Now, many on the Left and among libertarians think of DADT as a terrible policy that needs to be overturned for the sake of gay rights. However, at the time, it was a policy which was intended as a move in the right direction. Prior to DADT, the military could ask, and if they found out you were gay, they culd kick you out. DADT made it so that the military could not actively go after gay soldiers. Thus, Coulter is here admitting that she was in favor of a gay rights policy -- but is doing it under the cover of current attitudes toward DADT by both sides.

What, then, do we make of the ending, where she argues that "Liberals don't care. Their approach is to rip out society's foundations without asking if they serve any purpose." Further, she argues that, "For liberals, gays in the military is a win-win proposition. Either gays in the military works, or it wrecks the military, both of which outcomes they enthusiastically support." Which is probably true for many liberals. Perhaps people might be willing to consider allowing gays to openly serve in the military if the main proponents of the idea didn't want to "wreck the military." What, then, is Coulter really criticizing here? The idea of gays in the military, or of liberals wanting to wreck the military? More than that, if liberals think that gays in the military would wreck the military, what does that say about those liberals who think that? Aren't they the ones who are in fact homophobic?

Finally, Coulter ends with, "Any discussion of "don't ask, don't tell" should begin with Bradley Manning. Live by the sad anecdote, die by the sad anecdote." Perhaps it should. Perhaps it would create an argument for repealing DADT in the direction of allowing gays to openly serve in the military (a point which is now moot, since the recent repeal of DADT).

Of course, the final sentence is a slam on politicians' tendency to use "sad anecdotes" to win over listeners. The exception does not negate the rule. Yet such sad anecdotes are highly effective. They tap into our emotions, overriding good sense or proveable facts or statistic which prove the opposite of the anecdote. Whic doesn't prevent an anecdote from being used to teach a lesson. But it has to be the right one.

Thus we can see that Coulter's argument is in fact much more complex than it at first glance appears. One has to take into consideration her use of irony -- sarcasm being an extreme version of irony -- to understand her actual message. I have little doubt that there will be those literalists out there who insist that she means what she says -- but my question to them is: what is it that she actually says? Why does she use the stories she uses? What do they prove?

The problem with satire is that it is so easily misunderstood, even when the person is so obviously a satirist. Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal" actually got people riled up and actually discussing it as though it were an actual proposal. The arguments are often hidden by irony and sarcasm. Irony makes works difficult. It is not surprising, then, that Coulter is so often misunderstood.
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