Continued elsewhere

I've decided to abandon this blog in favor of a newer, more experimental hypertext form of writing. Come over and see the new place.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Explaining Coulter

So the library finally got me a copy of Ann Coulter's latest excretion, "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" (I refuse to buy it). Like all her books, it's a collection of semi-focused potshots at an imagined class of "liberal". These fabulous "liberals" hate science as much as they hate Christianity; they are equally responsible for "ugly feminists" as for "Hollywood ideals of beauty"; they are familars of both Hitler and Stalin. It's not worthwhile to attempt to engage the Coulter's extraordinarily consistent levels of distortion and misrepresentation-- others with more patience than I have already done so. Nor is it really worthwhile listing her cute little outrages -- the insults to 9/11 widows have been well publicized, but there's also a whole chapter attacking public school teachers ("taxpayer-supported parasites...inculcating students in the precepts of the Socialist Party of America"). Pages and pages of this stuff.

Coulter's prose bears an uncanny resemblence to that of another master propagandist, Adolf Hitler. Coulter of course hasn't committed any genocides, but neither had Hitler when he wrote Mein Kampf. Coulter has called for the bombing of the New York Times, the murder of Michael Moore, John Murtha, and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and threatened liberals in general with violent death. All in fun of course. Both propagandists work to create a demonic Other, a class that is wholly evil and pollutes the healthy body of society in general. The formal resemblences are remarkable.

The question often arises as to whether Coulter sincerely means the crap that comes out of her mouth. Is she just working a shtick as an entertainer, or does she really believe that everyone in the Democratic party is a traitor, that liberals favor murder and bestiality, etc? Of course I have no way of ascertaining her internal mental state (nor would I care to) but she's an apparently educated and intelligent woman, which suggests that it's all a big act. What's worse -- to be an actively conscious liar, or to be deranged?

Thinking about this made me recall Ron Rosenbaum's excellent book Explaining Hitler, which is something of a meta-study of the various historical studies of Hitler, and the vast varieties of conflicting frameworks that have been erected to try to come to terms with the embodiment of evil in our time. One of the main dividing lines among historians is whether Hitler was, in his own mind, doing good or evil. Was he "convinced of his own rectitude" (in the words of Hugh Trevor-Roper) or was he knowingly evil, an actor feigning anti-semitic passion in order to further his own power? Obviously this is impossible to answer, but the search for clues is fascinating. The actor theory, promoted by Alan Bullock, appeals to me more somehow, it seems more true to the facts than the alternative view, that Hitler's acts were insane efforts to do good. Hitler as a faker, a charlatan, a small-time grifter who made it big. A mountebank -- there's a word you don't see everyday, but it seems to fit.

It fits Coulter as well. She's got a grift and she's milking it for all it's worth. She seems willing to take it over the top, and her consistent rise to the top of the bestseller list is alarming in that it indicates a certain desire in the populace to go along with her. Fortunately I think the US does not have the ignition potential of Nazi Germany, and Coulter for all her success is a genuine small-timer, a minor-league political insult comic, without the mesmeric powers of a Hitler. If Hitler was a fraud, he was so good at it that he fooled a country and continues to baffle scholars, but Coulter is not at that level, her constant sniggering gives her away -- it's pretty obvious her main goal is to attract attention and live off the celebrity. Which makes her evil rather than deranged.

And there's the fact that her book was released on 6/6/6.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Nasal Immortality

It's Lesser Known Museum Week over at the Athanasius Kircher Society:

Housed in the Museum of Student Life at Lund University in Sweden, the Nose Academy is a collection of more than 100 plaster casts of noses belonging to distinguished Scandanavians. Included in the collection is a cast of Tyco Brahe’s legendary silver nose as well as an “Unknown Nose,” which according to one guidebook, “serves as a memorial to all those who didn’t qualify for nasal immortality.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Office uprising

Insurrection instructions, in helpful graphic form. Originally from a project to liberate/torment the poor drones who open business reply mail.

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.