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Witless: Ann Coulter's Junk Science

By Jennie and Phillip Lightweis-Goff

10 July, 2006

Ann Coulter wants this essay to begin with a cheap shot about her appearance, her intelligence, or her self-lauded faith. Such an insult would self-justify her recent assertion to Lou Dobbs that there's far more name-calling on the left than on the right. Let's leave the ugly jokes to those few critics who call her a transsexual in lieu of making an argument. Coulter's faith, the subject of her newest book Godless, should be of little concern to her critics, though her devout remonstrations ought to reside in the private sphere, where Christ said they belong. As for her mind, her books provide no material with which to evaluate the merits of her intelligence. Perhaps that says enough about her writing to qualify as an insult.

The three adjectives often tacked onto Coulter's name – Ann the Pretty, Ann the Witty, Ann the Devout – are usually self-descriptions. Reading Coulter's columns provides the occasional queasy thrill of seeing her refer to herself in the third-person. In a column from August 2, 2004, she refers to "Ann Coulter, the witty, vivacious Human Events columnist and best-selling author." Later, putatively glam-checking the Democratic National Convention, she longed for her "pretty-girl allies" among the "hippie chick pie wagons they call 'women'" in liberal circles. Her June 7, 2006 column – a shill for Godless – swings wildly between "I" and "she." These days, the first person of Coulter's writerly voice is a collective – one part Coulter, two parts fan-boy, and one part PR flack. Perhaps the fractions are more widely spaced, with any number of money-hungry Random House execs in the mix. Everyone but the fact-checker is welcome in this Three Faces of Eve-pastiche.

Though it was less than ten years ago, it feels like decades since Coulter could make the pages of Salon with rumors of a run for Congress. Coulter's shtick has aged badly, and you can see her self-parody on the The Today Show and Hannity & Colmes, where she all but sings Gypsy's "Let Me Entertain You" to the cheap seats. Mercifully she omits the striptease. "Say something crazy," the publicist in her head seems to utter, and she always obliges. Her allegations that the Jersey Girls "enjoyed their husband's deaths" fit this formula. The comments have been played and replayed, while the mainstream media that Coulter purports to loathe guarantees sales for her book. News junkies are struck with the spectacle of Coulter responding to Cindy Sheehan, the Jersey Girls, John Murtha, and other "professional victims" by claiming that she's not allowed to respond to their claims. Coulter can never resist marketing herself as an insurgent voice in the wilderness, despite the fact that O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Hannity and others all fed on Sheehan and the Jersey Girls long before she did.

Leaving aside the absurdity that the above-italics illuminate, let's consider Coulter's words for what they are. Calling them "mean" is meaningless. Essentially Coulter claims that the "liberal doctrine of infallibility" elevates figures to iconic status and inoculates left-wing sentiment against criticism. If she wants to take down the ideologies in question, Coulter has to first make a political argument. Claiming that Murtha did not win his military honors honestly, that the Jersey Girls' husbands were on the verge of divorcing them, and that Sheehan doesn't look good in shorts are not political arguments. In her attempt to destroy the alleged doctrine of infallibility, Coulter asserts that the aforementioned activists "pull cheap parlor tricks to prevent any opposing arguments from being heard." Were Coulter to make a real claim, she would be welcomed to the public sphere to debate like the grown-ups do. Until then, she's sitting at the kiddy table.

Deploying her trenchant misogynist language, Coulter poses victimhood as a gender problem, with Republicans championing manliness and virtue, while the left props up sobbing hysterical women to do their bidding. But the right-wing has never been able to resist the temptation of elevating the victim to spokesman. While most people remember Coulter's post-9/11 demand to invade Arab countries, kill their leaders, and convert them all to Christianity, few remember that, as Keith Olbermann recently pointed out, she used the death of her friend Barbara Olsen at the Pentagon as the warrant for this latter-day Crusade. And, in her bizarrely named chapter "The Martyr: Willie Horton" (wouldn't Michael Dukakis be the martyr for his lost shot at the presidency?), she cannot resist lingering with fetishistic violence on the ordeals of Cliff Barnes and Angela Miller, Horton's victims. What would have been the solution to the failure of Dukakis's furlough system? According to Coulter, all he had to do was meet with the victims and talk policy. Like Sheehan at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Coulter is hanging out at the Governor's Mansion, years after Dukakis left it, demanding that he belatedly justify himself, as our current president will not.

The notoriety of her remarks allows Coulter two rhetorical excesses – the confident claim that she is a solitary voice against liberal victimhood and, as she recently told Sean Hannity, the certainty that no one will contest Godless's six chapters about science. These chapters, mostly recycled bits of Michael Behe's critiques of Darwin, will indubitably be absent from reviews and analysis. Few Americans actually know evolutionary science, so someone as uninformed as Coulter sounds like an expert. Consider her three-pronged definition of evolution, that "random mutations of desirable attributes [and] natural selection weed… out the 'less fit' animals… [and] lead… to the creation of new species." Like most creationists, she relies heavily on the strategic deployment of words like "random," "accident," and "mistake" to construct an ideology that challenges Christian definitions of soul, purpose, and free will. Creationists swallow this manipulation uncritically, failing to notice that all of those terms are morally loaded. Evolution is not a religion, and it makes no value judgments. Instead, it is a scientific model that describes millions of years of the development of living forms. As Stephen J. Gould wrote, religion and science are non-overlapping magisterial. Neither framework satisfies the other's concerns.

Social Darwinism – the prescriptive system that emerged primarily from the writings of Herbert Spenser, the Milton Friedman of his day –is nonetheless conflated with evolutionary biology in Godless. Coulter celebrates The Bell Curve as pure science, though the authors Charles Murray and Richard J. Hernstein were both implying the intellectual inferiority of African-Americans long before their flawed methodology "proved" their prejudice. Murray even acknowledged that their target audience was "well-meaning whites" who feared that their belief in their own intellectual superiority made them racist. Their financial backers included the baldly racist Pioneer Fund and the laissez-faire advocates at the Bradley Foundation. The Pioneer Fund in particular was an influential backer for eugenics research in both America and Germany. Yet, after cheerleading for The Bell Curve five chapters earlier, Coulter uncritically grafts eugenics onto liberalism in a circuitous route that also casts Hitler as a liberal and atheist. Like Coulter, Hitler identified himself as a Christian. "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord," he wrote in Mein Kampf.

Would that Coulter treated actual eugenicists with skepticism; instead, she enthusiastically claims that there are absolute differences between classes, races, and genders. Bemoaning Larry Summers's alleged martyrdom at Harvard, she says that university liberals fail to acknowledge that men out-perform women in math and science. Even in gender studies departments, Coulter will find few people who contest those findings. People have, however, asked why women and minorities do worse in science classes and standardized testing. The possibility of culturally conditioned difference is never one that Coulter makes room for. Rather she condescends to tell women and minorities that Christians have no concern for their naturally inferior minds, since it is the presence of soul that guarantees God's love. Even as she lionizes seemingly nature genetic difference, Coulter never acknowledges the contradiction that genetic is itself an indicator of the evolutionary lineage she rejects.

Like Behe, William Dembski, and the wedge-pedigreed scientists of the Discovery Institute, Coulter never really takes on evolutionary biology, presumably because she is unwilling or unable to read recent, peer-reviewed research by actual biologists. Coulter's interminable repetitions of Dwayne Gish's claim that few fossils pre-date the Cambrian age ignore the superfluity of soft-tissue jellyfish and worms in this epoch. Naturally the absence of a spine or hard tissue makes fossilization far more rare. In the absence of wide-ranging research, Coulter contents herself with criticizing Darwin's long-discredited claims about whales turning into bears, and vice-versa. Naturally Darwin is mistaken in many of his claims. This is not news to biologists, who have fleshed out the fossil record with the Ardipithecus ramidus , the Australopithecus "Lucy," homo habilis and other intermediary and branching forms while amending and expanding the claims of Darwin's one hundred and fifty-year old scientific treatise. Coulter's list of evolutionary hoaxes features little more recent than Piltdown Man, a long-discredited hoax fossil. Scientists based their assertions on the fundamental tenet of their discipline as contingent and self-correcting; consequently, Coulter's awareness of the hoax fossil emerges from the discipline she rejects.

Comically Coulter asserts that the lack of change in finches in the last century is the nail in the coffin of evolution, proving only that she is unfamiliar with the concept of geologic time. Like Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who recently said that evolution teaches that two mosquitoes can give birth to a human, Coulter's science is more often laughable than insightful. She defines punctuated equilibrium as such: "Your parents are slugs and then suddenly – but totally at random – you evolve into a gecko and your brother evolves into a shark and your sister evolves into a polar bear and the guy down the street evolves into a porpoise and so on – and then everyone relaxes by the pool for 150 million years, virtually unchanged." Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldredge specified, in their 1972 paper "Punctuated Equilibria," that species-creation is a rapid, rather than a gradual process, depending upon alternating patterns of stability and rapid change in environmental conditions. Conservative readers looking for definitions of scientific terms will look no further than Coulter, though they should look far, far away.

Re-read the last sentence, and apply it more generally to Godless. If you wish, imagine that this review takes the bullet for you, ensuring that you do not waste your money or your time. Do not suffer Coulter's factual errors – including her vacillating claims that the 1990s and 1960s were the most violent decades of American life. Apparently, blaming both Clinton and the counter-culture for violence was too intoxicating a possibility for Coulter to choose just one. Do not punish yourself by reading her outright lies, including the claim that liberals want to protect abortion rights so no one has to give birth to a child with cleft palate. Do not buy the lie that abortion doctors stick forks into the soft spots of still-breathing thirty-six weeks old fetuses. If you must read her book, read it for the comedy of her footnotes. She asserts that Inherit the Wind is taught in place of science in geography classes, then footnotes the claim to articles that talk about school districts banning the film.

You will learn all you need to know from Coulter's recent interview with Alan Colmes, in which she consistently asserted that she could not pinpoint liberals who defend Charles Manson, love abortion, and forbid conservatives from responding to Sheehan et al. A recent column repeats the injunction that interviewers need not "hector… the author to name names." In short, she says that Godless is not a book about liberals, but the religion of liberalism. Translation: Coulter invents a fictive ideology, calls it a religion, and is unsurprised when she fails to find a single person who adheres to it.

Jennie Lightweis-Goff is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Rochester. Her forthcoming single-authored publications include "Sins of Commitment" in Senses of Cinema (July 2006). Phillip Lightweis-Goff is a self-employed artist, an activist for social change, and an avid student of history and anthropology. They live together in Rochester, New York.









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