In my last post, I opined at excruciating length about how so much of what makes one’s message in corporate life effective is the context and how one plays that context. It has to do with much more than appearance, which is just one factor; it’s about presence. That self-assurance that in some people seems arrogant or cocky but in others makes you want to defer to their judgment automatically.
Con artists use this very well. It’s a ‘confidence’ game, after all, and the con artist understands intuitively that confidence in oneself is necessary in order for others to have confidence in you.
Ann Coulter is one such con artist. She’s peddled her (relatively speaking, when compared to other political pundits) photogenic looks, rapier tongue and unapologetic attitude into a lucrative, powerful career as one of the most televised dilettantes alive. Oh, and she writes books too.
I have a hard time imagining Coulter sitting at a laptop surrounded by piles of meticulously perused research. I have an easier time imagining her spewing vitriol into a tape recorder and paying some hack(s) to edit it into something coherent, and run out and find anything in print that might be used as evidence. At least, that’s how her prose reads to me.
There’s a big difference between thoughtful, reasoned prose based on thorough research and crude polemic dressed up as respectable political opinion. That’s why I doubt Coulter would’ve gotten far in her career if she’d just written books. Like a trashy pop singer, it’s her TV appearances that make her career.
And it’s in those appearances where she performs brilliantly. Not that I think she’s brilliant. She’s a brilliant performer. She’s smart, certainly, but I think she actually believes she’s making intelligent, logical arguments, which signals to me that she’s not really as smart as she thinks.
That said, the lack of logical argumentation in her rantings doesn’t seem to be a problem. She knows she can get away with so much because she’s amazing at manipulating conversations. For example, on the rare occasion that someone argues with her or contradicts something she’s said, she weasels out of it by one of several strategems: 1. impugn the honor of the other person by making some outrageous, straw-man assertion about them because they would even think of contradicting her; 2. impugn the intelligence of the other person by quoting from “facts” that the other person doesn’t know, pointing to her book and squawking “I have XX pages of footnotes on this,” leaving the other person stammering and wondering if maybe they haven’t really done their homework; 3. making some other outrageous claim about someone not even in the room in order to derail the conversation. (This last one was evidenced most recently when she asserted that Clinton was a latent homosexual.)
Why does she get away with it? I think it’s in her delivery. In her utter and complete confidence. Couple that with a very quick mind (again, brilliant and quick are two different things) that can pop a comeback at an interviewer faster than the Williams sisters can nail a poorly lobbed serve, and time and time again you see people stumble over themselves trying to get around her. And she thrives on it; you can see it in her face. The television interview is her favorite element, and she plays it like a virtuoso.
This combination for an honest person would be admirable. But in someone who twists others’ words in order to fuel her unfounded pronouncements and allegations, it’s insidious.
The second trick works especially well. Claiming that you have numbers and research to back up your claims is a great way to shut other people up, especially if it’s during a TV taping or live interview when they can’t go and check your facts. She does it a lot, according to Media Matters.
This was hardly the first time Coulter and her defenders have offered the large number of footnotes contained in her book as “evidence” of the quality of her scholarship. Also on July 7, Terence Jeffrey, editor of conservative weekly Human Events, defended Coulter’s book on CNN’s The Situation Room by citing her “19 pages of footnotes.” And when similar questions were raised about her 2002 book, Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right (Crown, June 2002), Coulter repeatedly cited her “35 pages of footnotes” as evidence that her claims were accurate.
The same Media Matters article goes on to check these oft-cited footnotes, and finds them lacking.
Media Matters’ analysis of the endnotes in Godless revealed that Coulter routinely misrepresented the information of her sources, as well as omitted inconvenient information within those same sources that refuted her claims. Coulter relied upon secondary sources to support many of her claims, as well as unreliable or outdated information.
In addition to demonstrating her poor scholarship, this analysis also made clear Coulter’s lack of respect for her readers, who she clearly assumed would believe anything she wrote, as long as there was a citation attached to it.
That last bit is awfully accurate. People really do swallow a lot if it has the appearance of authority, and they rarely bother to look beneath the veneer. I’m guilty of it frequently. Who has the time? And if you’re predisposed to believe the points they’re making anyway, why not roll with it? We all walk around assuming that big publishing houses would never publish something that wasn’t well-documented.
I’m sure there’s plenty of left-leaning stuff published with similar weaknesses. What steams me about Coulter, though, is that she’s so hateful. She delights in polarizing people, and in objectifying and criminalizing her opposition. What she does is only a couple of tiny steps away from the sort of hate speech people use for minorities when they call them “vermin.” Calling ‘liberals’ things like “Godless” and “Traitors” is the sort of talk that one uses to start wars or pogroms.
What really disturbs me is that this woman is paraded as a real expert, as someone we should listen to, along with the other professional windblowers from both sides of the political spectrum, just because her antics grab viewers.
Obviously, the woman shovels a lot of crap; she’s got a real problem with that shovel. But nobody’s going to talk about it. I’d love to see the networks and news shows jumping on her about this stuff, but they didn’t do it about the last books so why this one?
It makes me nostalgic for the days when we had no 24-hour news channels that had to fill their hours no matter what. Back when the nightly news was 30 minutes, and that was it, there was at least some vetting of sources. Can you imagine CBS circa 1975 wasting even 15 seconds getting an opinion from a hack like Coulter? Not that things were perfect in 1975, by a long shot.
I don’t have a pithy wrapup for this post… just a pleading hope that, in the same way people get sick of so many other things and then move on, maybe we’ll all get sick of this and leave people like Coulter to the dust heap of “what were we thinking?”