Sunday, March 28, 2010

Shut Up and Listen

I had a Voltaire moment earlier this week. It was one of those moments when I paused to realise that my education had not been in vain, but it shocked me nonetheless because I actually found myself defending Ann Coulter.
Not that I like or agree with anything Ann Coulter might ever say or venture to say, you understand, but on this occasion, I felt she was worth defending.
I had read about her speaking tour of Canada and of how the president of one of the three Canadian universities where she’d been scheduled to speak, had written her an e-mail warning her that freedom of speech in Canada wasn’t quite the same thing as it was in the United States; therefore, basically, Coulter should tone her message, and the words used to convey it, down a decibel. The e-mail left a subtly understood phrase “or else” hanging at its end like a dangling participle.
This e-mail prefaced her tour, but the next thing I heard was that this selfsame president had actually cancelled Coulter’s appearance, due to an incident that had happened at the university where she spoke immediately before his institution.
Coulter had been speaking at the University of Eastern Ontario, when – during a Question and Answer sesson at the end of her speech – she was confronted by a 17 year-old Muslim student who asked that Coulter justify a remark made in one of her previous books, asserting that Muslims should be forbidden to fly, post-9/11.
Whilst I’m no fan at all of Coulter’s and I’ve never read any of her books (nor do I plan to do so), even I understand that, more than anything, Coulter is a satirist – albeit, a satirist from the Right end of the political spectrum. The satire in her works is extreme, to say the least, but a lot of political satire pushes the extreme in its limits. Even pundits such as Joan Walsh and Alan Colmes have recognised this facet of her work. The fact that most people from both sides of the political coin, who’ve read Coulter’s writings, don’t recognise this as satire and buy into a serious reading of her message, marks her out on the Left as a whackjob and on the extreme Right as the Queen Mother of the message they hope to convey.
The plain truth is, I imagine, that she’s neither.
I’ve no doubt that she’s a Republican or that she’s a conservative, but I’ve every doubt that she drinks the koolaid she sells. Coulter’s schtick, like most pure satirists, is to provoke a reaction, and her works certainly do just that. They provoke horror and revulsion amongst the Left. On the Right, these people recognise her as giving voice to a lot of thoughts they’ve harboured, but never found the courage to express vocally. To the people on the Right, Coulter’s their Bill Maher, who happens – in real life – to be a particularly good friend of Coulter. In fact, Maher’s said on several occasions, that once someone’s spoken with Coulter, and taken the politics out of the situation, it’s easy to see exactly from whence she’s come and where she hopes to take her message.
And that’s directly to the bank.
In truth, I don’t suppose Maher or Coulter differ very much in real political perspective: they both support the death penalty and racial profiling, they are both anti-union, don’t approve of government-controlled healthcare and are virulently against government funding of the arts. Both have been extremely vocal critics of George Bush. Yet Bill is considered and calls himself a Progressive, and Ann is readily identifiable as a Republican. Maher’s espousal of the legalisation of pot and same-sex marriage saves him from being branded as a Republican, but doesn’t exclude him from being accused of being a closet Blue Dog.
Anyway, the serious Canadian adolescent demanded Coulter justify her remarks about Muslims not being allowed to fly. As if she were unable to believe the content of the question, Coulter paused for a moment, before replying, “And here I thought it was only American schools that produced ignorant students.”
The nuance in the reply was clear. The remark was satirical and not meant to be taken literally. Maybe this was the first time Coulter was presented with someone taking the supposed veracity of the statement to heart, and that someone happened to be a po-faced first-year university student. In retort, the student took the argument one step further.
“I’d just like to know,” she began, “how I’m expected to travel, being a Muslim.”
Coulter gave a wise-assed reply that summed up her estimation of a sublime moment descending into the realm of ridicule.
“Flying carpet,” she quipped.
It was snark.
But still, the student demanded mollification. “But what if I can’t afford a flying carpet?” she continued. (I mean, why not ask “how long is a piece of string” while you’re at it).
Finishing off what had evolved into a conversation truly worthy of theatre de l’absurde, Coulter finished by telling the student to “take a camel.”
The next day, Coulter was informed that her second engagement, at the University of Ottawa (whose president had sent her the e-mail), had been cancelled.
Allegedly, students raised a protest, demanding that she be allowed to speak, but the president wouldn’t be budged, even though several of this group recognised the fact that she should be allowed to give her point of view in the speaking engagement already booked.
Local publications and the Huffington Post implied that the cancellation was due to the exchange with the student at the University of Eastern Ontario, which was pretty silly to say the least. It was a conversation, based on a question posed by a pretty intelligent kid, who’d probably never read anything Coulter had actually written and who’d pounced upon the remark taken out of context and taken personal umbrage at it on face value. Understandable. I, quite often, take umbrage at the blanket assumption of many people on my own side of the political fence that all Southerners are Rightwing, incestuous, fundamentalist Christian and stupid. I’m certainly none of those things, and I take exception to the inference.
But the kid, having never read whatever book from whence that statement came, either didn’t understand that Coulter’s works were satirical (and straight satire is, quite often, not intended to be funny), or – if she had read the work – she didn’t understand satire in general. Was she wrong to have asked the question? Probably. Certainly, she was wrong to challenge someone on a statement made in a published work, without either having read or understood the work, in question.
And Coulter was probably wrong to give the answers she gave – certainly, the initial answer, which implied that American students were stupid and inferred that Canadians were also. In actualy fact, a remark like that reeked of something Bill Maher would say – only in that instance, the audience intended, both sides of the 44th Parallel, would have howled with glee and nodded in agreement.
Huffington Post reported the incident in an article, which was repeated on their Facebook page. Immediately it appeared, the article was inundated with comments from both Canadians and Americans, alike, the majority of them calling for Coulter to be silenced, commending the Canadians on quelling Coulter’s voice and wishing there were some way America could shut her up. Some clever clogs, an American, remarked that the fact that the Canadians had, effectively, denied Coulter her right to speak, implied that they were actually better than Americans, and this comment was followed by several, expressing a desire to move to Canada.
Or the fact that the Canadians appear not to have anything remotely resembling a First Amendment, so they can silence any remark they deem to be particularly offensive anytime they choose?
On Bill Maher’s MySpace page, a regular Canadian commentator dove in, feet first, with a gloating remark, pungent with sarcasm, at the triumph of the Canadians not to tolerate racist remarks and condescendingly explaining to the Americans peopling the forum that in Canada, they have race hate laws that forbid this sort of thing.
Well … wait a moment.
Let’s look at what Coulter said.
She actually didn’t declare during the speech, that she thought Muslims should be prohibited from flying. This was something brought up by a member of the audience. Her initial response – that Canadian students were probably as stupid as Americans, which surprised her – held no racist or racial content. Was it rude? Yes. Offensive? Most definitely, to Americans as well as Canadians, and the exchange should have stopped at that point, and Coulter should have moved on; but she allowed the student to persist, in what proceeded to become an almost surreal conversation.
Were the “flying carpet” and “camel” remarks racist? I think they were intended to be sarcastic, and their intent was probably to shut the kid up, implying that the initial question wasn’t worth a serious answer. Coulter could have stopped and laboured a point with the student that her work and the comment, therein, were satirical; but Coulter’s a single woman, pushing fifty, who’s never been married or around students since she was one, herself. She’s the product of a private education and the holder of an Ivy League degree. She probably assumed that anyone attending a university ought to have some concept of satire, or she should have realised that the kid had probably never read the book she was querying. A good reply would have been to ask the student if she’d read the book, and to suggest that she do so before attempting to analyse and question a controversial remark, taken out of context.
So were the remarks racist? Not really. Stupid. Ignorant. Almost puerile, yes, but racist, no.
Anyway, the gloating Canadian commentator on the forum was just advertising his own ignorance in his remarks, because Muslims are not one particular racial group. A Muslim is a follower of Islam. “Muslim” is a religious term, not racist. Keith Ellison is an African-American (by race), who is a Congressman and a Muslim. His religion is Islam. Sarah Joseph is a British author and lecturer, who is Caucasian (by race) and who is also a Muslim. “Jihan Jane”. John Walker Lindh. Mike Tyson. Salman Rushdie.
If you take Coulter’s remark literally, all of those people would be denied access to travel by aeroplane.
Did Coulter’s remarks imply or incite religious hatred? Not at all.
Canada probably does have race hate laws, much in the same way the UK does – laws, which prohibit direct incitement of hate against people for reasons of race. There are also laws in the UK, which do the same, regarding religion. Maybe this is true in Canada as well, but Coulter, in this instance, was guilty of nothing more than silly, snarky remarks.
What is disturbing about this entire incident is the readiness, the eagerness of the people on the Left to silence any sort of controversial viewpoint that isn’t in lockstep with their own views. Lockstep is supposed to be something identifiable with the Rightwing. We’re supposed to be the Big Tent. Yet when I made a remark, recently, on another forum, in support of Markos Moulitsas’s view that Dennis Kucinich’s eleventh-hour obdurance, which threatened passage of healthcare reform, was not helpful to the cause, I had several people, who prided themselves on their own tolerant image, go viral on me. This is tolerance? Not much.
The Coulter incident reminded me of an observation Coulter’s sparring partner, Bill Maher, made about a year ago in an interview with Howard Kurz – how it always shocked and alarmed him that the people most vocal in wanting to deny First Amendment rights to opposing viewpoints were young college-aged people who purported to be from the Left.
These seem to be the same demographic of people who are expressing a longing to move to the Canadian Utopia, more or less, for what they perceive to be “free healthcare”. That’s another fallacy being promoted by Canadians, who should know better, one of whom is the selfsame Mr MySpace, who pronounced upon Coulter’s remark. He’s gloatingly gone on record, as have many other Canadian commentators I’ve read, staking bragging rights to Canada’s “free healthcare”.
It’s not, and he knows it. Free at source, yes, but “free at source” doesn’t mean “free.” It means you pay for it, beforehand, via taxes, doofus. Regrettably, a lot of Americans buy into the “free lunch” notion attached to this, so maybe Coulter does have a point about American and Canadian stupidity.

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