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What Ann Coulter And Others Are Saying About Ann Coulter

March 25, 2010
ann coulter books, ann coulter books, susan estrich, joe macguire

CC image provided by 'lgwright.'

As a kind of follow-up to my previous post on Ann Coulter’s non-speech at the University of Ottawa, I thought I’d highlight a few nuggets from the vast rockslide of commentary that her adventures in Canada seem to have triggered.

Parts of the conversation are wearily predictable. Ezra Levant suggests that the “abusive student culture” that supposedly led to the cancellation of Coulter’s appearance  is part of a general problem with censorship and lack of respect for ideological diversity on Canadian campuses. At the other end of the spectrum on attitudes to free speech, Susan Cole insists that Coulter’s “extremely toxic ideas” have no place on a university campus, and defends the idea of shouting down voices she happens to disagree with. I couldn’t help detecting a certain whiff of intellectual fascism.

Other viewpoints are more interesting. Kelly McParland compares Ann Coulter to George Galloway, as I did in my original post, and notes that both Coulter and Galloway got plenty of attention and publicity out of the controversies surrounding their respective visits to Canada. The clear implication is that media frenzies over such marginal figures are little more than a waste of everyone’s time, although the process “keeps us [McParland is presumably speaking for the entire tribe of pundits] off the streets”. South of the border, someone called Mark Warren writes from a similar perspective, and complains that Canadians “have exalted Ann Coulter, of all people” by making her into a free-speech martyr. He wryly begs us not to invite David Duke to speak in Canada next, although I have to admit that might be kind of interesting.

Ian Hunter, a professor emeritus at Western, harrumphs that universities these days are merely “finishing schools in political correctness”, which I suspect and fervently hope is an exaggeration. I doubt things have gone that far downhill since I was a student at UVic and U of T in the nineties, and I remember political correctness as an annoying if sometimes pervasive buzz in the background rather than a centrepiece of the curriculum. Then again, I was studying biology and the earth sciences, so perhaps Hunter has a point with respect to the humanities.

Ann Coulter herself serves up a column that represents an unsurprising hash of the almost endearingly childish (“University of Ottawa, average student IQ: 0”), the simply rude (“How about sending a letter to all Muslim speakers advising them to please bathe once a week while in Canada? Would that constitute a hate crime?”) and the admittedly rather cutting (“At least the students didn’t waste 7 ½ hours on something silly, like their studies”). Apparently it took a group of students 7 ½ hours to draft a statement condemning her appearance at the University of Ottawa because she was “a hateful woman”.

My favourite bit of commentary, though, is a post from the reliably provocative American blogger Razib. Unlike a discouraging number of Americans, and not a few Canadians, he acknowledges that his local values may not be universal imperatives:

American absolutist stances on free speech are not shared by most Western societies, so demanding total free speech is quixotic and culturally tone deaf. Granted, Europe or Canada are not barbaric like China or Muslim societies when it comes to speech, so that communication about this issue is possible.

Razib makes it clear that he is using “barbaric” to simply mean “fundamentally different” from America, not necessarily inferior. Recognising the existence and legitimacy of such differences, he goes on to argue that America should cherish its unique commitment to free speech without trying to impose it on others:

Though seriously, I’m expressing a very cultural biased viewpoint here, an American one, and I’m of conscious of this. I really don’t see a point in castigating Canadians for being Canadians, they’re not China or Syria, but neither are they the United States. Even the British have insane libel laws which stifle speech operationally, though there’s a chance that the law might be tightened up. We alone should be the City upon a Hill where the blasphemers and peddlers of bigotry can take refuge, because we’re already the last best and only hope.

Quite frankly, I wish more Americans would take this attitude. Of course a large constituency for near-absolute free speech exists in Canada anyway, but it’s simply irritating when Americans indulge in cross-border pontification on the subject without stopping to acknowledge that the debate in Canada is underpinned by different premises and cultural assumptions. It’s intriguing to hear American perspectives, in much the same way that it might be intriguing to hear Chinese or Syrian ones, but our southern neighbours should understand that the battle against Susan Cole and other Canadian apologists for the buzzing tyranny of political correctness is not really theirs to fight.

UPDATE (March 26): Commentary continues to appear, and I would be remiss if I did not draw attention to a particularly nice defence of free debate and intellectual openness by University of Ottawa philosopher Graeme Hunter.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    March 27, 2010 11:11 am

    I know a lot of people for example who have no religiosity but who define themselves as “cultural” muslims. Or folks who identify with aspects of muslim identity as part of heritage.

    Maybe I should have said “ideas, attitudes and practices”, or something similar. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Muslims are a cultural category (taking religion to be simply an aspect of culture) whereas blacks are a biological category. Jewishness can be defined either culturally or biologically.

    Biological categories like “the black race” are notoriously fuzzy around the edges, and there are reasonable arguments (although I personally don’t find them persuasive) for thinking of a continuum of variation rather than recognising any distinct categories at all. However, it’s still true that I could become a Muslim (even conceivably a queer or feminist one!) by changing my mentality and behaviour, whereas I could not possibly become a black person in any meaningful sense at all. This is what makes biological/racial categories fundamentally distinct from cultural/religious ones.

    • Ahmed permalink
      March 28, 2010 12:03 pm

      You may be interested to read Shlomo Sand’s fascinating book “The Invention of the Jewish People”.

      • corsullivan permalink*
        March 29, 2010 11:58 am

        I’ve seen reviews, and yes, it does look interesting. However, the reviews at least give the impression that Sand is arguing that there are no significant genetic links at all among the world’s various Jewish communities, which is simply not the case. Of course there was intermarriage with local populations, but there really was a Jewish diaspora (a process of dispersion, not necessarily a discrete event) whose traces can be picked up by genetic studies. The history of the Jewish people comprises a combination of conversion and propagation through the generations. Accordingly, the ethnic or genetic dimension of Jewishness is not the whole picture, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as Sand (if his reviewers are being fair) seems to want to do.

  2. Ahmed permalink
    March 25, 2010 3:40 pm

    Also would these issues of free speech be debated had Coulter slurred say Jews or blacks the way she did Muslims in her speech. Im talking about the issue of forced conversion and telling a seventenn year old muslim women to ride a camel as opposed to a plane. Would the reaction have been the same? Just an open question.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      March 26, 2010 12:33 pm

      Yes, the reaction would probably have been different, in that many commentators would have been a lot less enthusiastic about standing up for free speech. And that would have been somewhat hypocritical, although I would argue not entirely. One important difference is that Islam is just a set of ideas (many of which are silly, in my view, but that’s another debate) held by significant numbers of people on almost every branch of the human family tree, whereas blacks are a racial category and Jewishness has both religious and ethnic dimensions. Accordingly, Coulter’s attacks on Muslims are really no different in principle from her attacks on liberals. She’s just bashing ideas, and the people who hold them.

      However, some free speech advocates, including me, would absolutely have stood up for Coulter’s right to express herself if she had “slurred” Jews or blacks rather than Muslims. I really do think that the line should be drawn only at personal libel (quite narrowly defined, especially in comparison to the scandalous situation in the UK), incitement to specific acts of criminality, and various forms of conspiracy and fraud (including fraudulent emergency signals like the famous cry of “Fire!” in a crowded theatre).

      • Ahmed permalink
        March 26, 2010 1:47 pm

        Oh I dont know about that. I know a lot of people for example who have no religiosity but who define themselves as “cultural” muslims. Or folks who identify with aspects of muslim identity as part of heritage. Islam can like Judaism or Chritiniaty mean a multiple amount of things to different people. I’d argue for example that after 9/11 in particular “islam” came to ccupy not only a religious but also political form of catagerisation. You can find people who would self identify as secular muslims, feminist muslims, queer muslims, orthordox, et cetera. Trying to pin down this identity to a fixed set of ideas tends to miss the point and comes across as reductionist. Just saying

  3. Ahmed permalink
    March 25, 2010 3:37 pm

    I have a long list of political differences with Galloway who has a tendency to be demagogue while serving occasionalyl as an apologist for any regime deemed by him to be anti western. At the same time I respect his consistent and morally principled defence of Palestinian rights, which he, an old fox, and product of the tough British Parliamentary system, articulates well. The man is a very skilled polemcist and unlike Coulter, a kind a media driven creation, is open to debating others. My question to you though is why you call him marginal? He has been elected to the Brtish Parliament five times and has a very large international following. It seems to me that the position, which I’ve seen elsewhere, to say that Coulter is like Galloway, is rather silly and a kind of posturing move done by someone intent on situating themsevles in the rational middle in between two supposed extremes. AS national post writer for example said Coulter is no worst than Judy Rebick or Hedy Fry. Also stupid

    • corsullivan permalink*
      March 26, 2010 12:16 pm

      Being one British MP out of more than 600 doesn’t necessarily make one non-marginal. George Galloway is certainly a long way the political orthodoxies of either Canada or the UK, in the sense that few politicians and mainstream pundits are willing to publicly agree with his best-known positions. With that said, I do have a lot more respect for Galloway than for Ann Coulter. I’d consider the two comparable only to the extent that their respective visits to Canada (planned in Galloway’s case, and actual in Coulter’s) both led to big, unnecessary controversies, ultimately because each of them espouses views that are somewhat outside the Canadian mainstream. Note, however, that I’m generally a fan of non-mainstream thinking in principle; I would never use “marginal” as a term of abuse.

  4. March 25, 2010 2:48 pm

    Thanks for this well-written summary of some of the Canadian dialogue around Ann Coulter’s appearance in Canada, Corwin. As an expat American I’ve been following it quite closely and it’s nice to see, for once, a fairly unbiased account of everyone’s opinions about her and her “fanning the flame” tactics regarding an American political world that is already much too polarized and based on the sensational.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      March 26, 2010 12:01 pm

      “Fairly unbiased” is the best I’m ever going to be able to do when it comes to this issue, I’m afraid. Intellectual freedom is something I feel very strongly about, although I do try to be fair to the defenders of human rights commissions, hate speech laws, and other such nonsense (oops – did I say that?).

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