Monday, July 03, 2006

Wingnut in the family

I have a terrible family secret -- one of my close relatives is a ridiculously extreme right-winger. He used to call me to argue against evolution and for the theory that Bill Clinton is a serial murderer. He's good friends with Ann Coulter and some other famous-name righties. We aren't close. Despite of (or maybe because of) his manifestly nutty beliefs, he's doing very well on Wall Street.

At a recent family gathering I learned that he was involved in Coulter's latest plagarized expectoration, Godless. Apparently he's the one who started her off on the anti-evolution track that makes up a good third of the book. According to him, Coulter is "smart" and "insightful", while Richard Dawkins (who I pointed him at the last time we went over this ground, maybe five years ago) is "an idiot". To each their own, I guess.

He's got the argumentation style of Bill O'Reilly -- a sort of bullying, finger-in-the-chest style that has absolutely no interest in truth or discourse or discovery. I always feel kind of icky after these encounters, mostly because I'm anything but a docrtrinaire atheist, but his stance polarizes the conversation, not leaving a lot of room for exploring the interesting middle ground.

This guy is not super-religious or anything. As far as I can tell, his positions arise out of a kind of conservative contrarianism -- a desire to rebel against a perceived liberal establishment. If that means rebelling against science and common sense, well, that just makes their position that much braver. I think this sort of conservative-as-rebel stance is quite common and goes a long way in explaining the popularity of right-wing blowhards. Bush himself is mystifyingly packaged up as some sort of rebel, which makes no sense at all but fits into this general framing strategy.

The thing is, most intelligent people assume that the ones who propel Coulter to the top of the bestseller list are mouthbreathing morons, and that Coulter herself is an entertainer who doesn't actually believe what she says. My relative is not a moron, he's just in the grip of some form of nuttiness. I can't speak to Coulter's sincerity, but he seems to take her seriously. I wouldn't pay her any mind whatsoever if not for this family connection and the fact that her books routinely top the bestseller lists. It doesn't seem wise to ignore a phenomenon like that.

Here's a remarkably patient investigation into the sources of Coulter's misrepresentations on evolution, worth reading for some pointers into actual scientific literature. There's an interesting theory about the persistence of the appendix, for instance, and some recent studies that directly attack the "irreducible complexity" arguments by cleverly how a complex biochemical mechanism could have evolved by small steps from earlier, simpler components.

Geoff Nunberg analyzes Coulter's rhetoric of "flamboyantly gratuitous tastelessness". Her trick is saying nasty things in a semi-joking way, so anybody who complains can be accused of humorlessness. This fits into the conservative-as-rebel strategy -- her flouting of basic decency and common sense is made to look daring, while her opponents become sanctimonious apologists for the establishment.

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