Ordinarily, I just ignore the Ann Coulters of the world. Life's too short, and it is clear that giving such people attention is exactly what they want. But there are occasionally eruptions from which we can learn valuable cultural and political lessons, and the shrill, disagreeable (and increasingly pathetic) Ms. Coulter has recently provided us with one.
Speaking at a meeting of far-right political operatives, Coulter was quoted as follows:
"I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word `faggot-so....'"
Her choice of epithet is instructive: suggesting that a man is gay, or has characteristics that seem gay, is evidently to suggest that he is less than a man--that he is unworthy of our regard and certainly unworthy of our votes. After all, how can we have confidence in someone who is gay, or lesbian or transgendered? Clearly, there are a whole lot of people who don't think we can--witness the firing of a city manager in Florida for embarking on sex reassignment surgery. The individual in question had held the job for sixteen years, and from all accounts was highly regarded and competent. Ability to do the job, evidently, was immaterial.
What is ironic is that bigots like Coulter always take pains to wrap themselves in the American flag. They always accuse others--liberals, Democrats, whoever--of being patriotically deficient, at the same time that they are failing Americanism 101. Just as we shouldn't look at Ann Coulter and see all women, or all white women, or all blond women or even all conservative Christian women, we should judge all our fellow citizens on the basis of their behavior, not some aspect of their identity. Coulter is just one white, blond, conservative Christian woman who behaves very badly--not an example of a damaged or inferior category. We can condemn her behavior without generalizing it to other members of groups to which she might belong. People who believe that "Jew" "Christian" "gay" "black" or any other identifiers are put-downs are betraying their fundamental anti-Americanism.
This unpleasant episode also provided an instructive lesson about the field of Republican candidates, several of whom were in the audience and reportedly laughed and clapped, and none of whom has repudiated her slur. Mitt Romney (whom Coulter has evidently endorsed) was one of them, despite the fact that the people enjoying the insult are precisely those who've been looking askance at his Mormon faith. Any candidate who doesn't get the connection, who doesn't understand why all such group libels are profoundly anti-American, is clearly unfit to hold public office.
It isn't very civil of me, perhaps, but I would suggest that people like Ann Coulter have not only forfeited the right to be taken seriously (no one does) but have also forfeited their right to engage in public dialogue with the rest of us. I don't advocate censoring them (in addition to all the other reasons not to do so, they are very good examples of what is wrong in American life), but I do think that the periodic efforts by progressives to engage all points of view--no matter how vile--at the bargaining table are misplaced.
Some people don't belong at the American table, and when we include them as real or potential conversational partners, we legitimate their poison and pollute the public square.