“Look left and right, and be careful.” Your mother probably said those words to you when you were learning to cross the street. Her same admonition might apply to today’s political arena.
In one of the summer’s best-sellers, Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America (ISBN 978-0-307-35348-1, $28.99), author Ann Coulter argues, as the book’s flyleaf puts it, that “liberals exhibit all the psychological characteristics of a mob — practicing groupthink, slavishly following intellectual fashions, and periodically bursting into violence.”
Often justly accused of inflammatory writing — she is not only despised by liberals, but by many mainstream Republic pundits and politicians as well, who fear being tainted by what they regard as her extremism — Coulter here follows the pattern set in her other books, mixing broad statements (“Liberals speak with the fatuous lunacy of people in the old Soviet Union, passing out awards to one another for imaginary heroism …”), statistics, and somewhat generalized history. Whether on the left or right, most political commentators these days use the same formula, mixing fact and speculation to support their own presuppositions.
Evidence of Coulter’s own prejudices — ”Liberals bad, conservatives good” — begins with the title, Demonic, and continues throughout the book. For this reason, liberals will not read the book, and conservatives will come to it agreeing ahead of time with its main points, consuming it as intellectual comfort food.
Though touted by some conservative reviewers as Coulter’s best book, Demonic will not win any awards for its literary attributes. Coulter is a better columnist than a writer of books, a sprinter rather than a long-distance runner, and this quality shows in the book. Though she does write in a lively manner, she repeats her arguments and examples, and often paints her case with too broad a brush. Her training as an attorney shows here, as it does in her other writing, in that she builds a case for her client — in this instance, conservatives — while marshalling selected facts against her liberal opponents.
Yet Demonic does bring up two points which political and cultural liberals might ponder with some gain. The first has to do with political rhetoric and violence in America. Coulter makes a convincing case that much of the political violence in the last 40 years has come from the left rather than the right of the political spectrum.
We like to think of “right-wing extremists” plotting assassinations and toting guns, but Coulter draws our attention to the fact that assassinations and mob violence, ranging from shouting down speakers on campus to breaking up political rallies, are much more a legacy of the left. One startling example which she uses comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center, regarded by most conservatives as extremely left-wing, which concluded that “Extremists within the environmental and animals rights movements have committed literally thousands of violent criminal acts in recent decades — arguably more than those from any other radical sector, left or right.”
Both liberals and conservatives might also gain from reading Coulter on revolution and mobs. We Americans are fond of the word revolution — we just celebrated our own break from Britain and a king, and like to speak of a revolution in everything from computers to the foods we eat. Yet Coulter’s two-chapter look at the French Revolution reminds all of us, particularly those who read little history, of the cost in blood of a revolution. Here Coulter writes vividly of the executions, of the bloodthirsty pomposity of the revolutionaries, of the evil that humans may do in a good cause (In one case cited by Coulter, a woman arrested in a case of mistaken identity was proven innocent, but was executed “because she was there anyway.”) Revolutions nearly always mean the blood-letting of innocent people and consequences unforeseen, two circumstances that should always temper the welcome our government and our media give to such events as “the Arab Spring.”
In Liberating Liberals: A Political Synthesis of Nietzsche & Jesus, Vonnegut & Marx (Groucho, not Karl), Gandhi & Machiavelli (ISBN 978-0-557-68680-3), Bill Branyon has issued a call to liberals to become “free-thinkers” rather than doctrinaire politicos and to live with more joy in their lives.
The spirit behind Branyon’s book is enthusiastic and joyful. He is clearly a man who enjoys laughter, and his sense of humor carries onto the pages of Liberating Liberals. The book’s chief asset is it exhortation to liberals embrace this sense of joy and spontaneity. Branyon writes:
“Our efforts will be greatly enhanced by simply becoming more loyal to our freethinking ideals, by becoming more comfortable and happy with the current facts of political and personal life, and by insulating our imaginations and goals against the constant assaults of conservatives.”
Liberating Liberals is weak in its organization, its use of language and syntax, and in explaining the very thing which it espouses — “free thinking.” In one part of the book, Branyon attacks grammar rules as a residue of “the 18th century aristocrat” and goes on to state that grammar should not be taught until late in high school. “And even then,” he adds, “if it seems to inhibit someone’s desire to write, back off.” Liberating Liberals itself, which would have benefited from editing and clearer thinking, argues against Branyon’s case here.
This same problem — unclear usage coupled with loose thinking — runs throughout the book. Branyon calls for a 20-hour work week so that human beings may become more humane, but never tells us how we are to reach that state. (He does cite Denmark as an example, extolling its vacations and cradle-to-grave socialism, but fails to mention that European economies are falling apart). He mingles Biblical quotations with lyrics from Joni Mitchell and observations from Nietzsche, but these rarely hang together in an argument for any point.
Finally, Liberating Liberals needed to clearly define certain terms: “liberal,” “conservative,” and particularly free thinker (I have yet to meet one. If indeed “free-thinkers” ever existed, I suspect they have long gone the way of raphus cucullatus). Is a Marxist a liberal? Are liberals free-thinkers? Should we really scoff at men like Franklin and Jefferson because they used “pen and quill while we use word processors and the internet?”
“As prisoners of their own fundamentalism,” Branyon writes, “conservatives are extremely learning disabled.” If that is true, and if the freethinking view as presented in Liberating Liberals is the alternative, then we may all want to go to some other school for our education.