Commentary: Just when you thought discourse had fallen as far as it could
Editor's note: Author Ann Coulter's new book, "Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism," was second Thursday in Amazon.com's sales rankings, behind only the new Harry Potter volume. The article below is condensed from a longer article on Spinsanity.org, a Web site that seeks to set the record straight when public figures -- liberal, conservative or any other political flavor -- play with the truth.
By Brendan Nyhan
With her new book, syndicated pundit Ann Coulter has driven the national discourse to a new low. No longer content to merely call liberals "terrorists" or a "cult" who "hate democracy," she has now upped the ante, accusing the entire Democratic Party as well as liberals and leftists nationwide of treason. But, as in her syndicated columns (many of which are adapted in the book) and her previous book, "Slander: Liberal Lies Against the American Right," Coulter's case relies in large part on irrational rhetoric and pervasive factual errors and deceptions.
The accusation of treason is one of the most grave that can be made against a citizen of any country. Article III of the U.S. Constitution specifies that, "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort."
In latching onto a powerful word with a specific legal meaning and casually leveling the charge as a blanket accusation against a wide array of people (as she did with "slander"), Coulter is attempting to smear virtually anyone who disagrees with her views on foreign policy as treasonous. "Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy," she writes on the first page of the book. "This is their essence."
At times, Coulter portrays liberals and the left as engaged in a grand conspiracy to destroy the United States. "Betraying the manifest national defense objectives of the country is only part of the left's treasonous scheme. They aim to destroy America from the inside with their relentless attacks on morality and the truth."
Other times, she insinuates that disagreeing with her about U.S. policy toward various hostile foreign countries or taking any action that could be construed as favorable to those countries' interests is equivalent to treasonous support for those countries. Democrats "opposed anything opposed by their cherished Soviet Union," she writes. Later, she adds that Democrats "would vote whichever way would best advance Communist interests."
"Liberals are always against America," she writes. "They are either traitors or idiots, and on the matter of America's self-preservation, the difference is irrelevant. Fifty years of treason hasn't slowed them down."
Of course, Coulter must engage in a complicated set of rhetorical tricks to accuse liberals of "fifty years of treason." The book is primarily focused on the controversy over real and alleged Soviet espionage in the post-World War II era. We can certainly stipulate that Soviet agents who worked covertly inside the United States government did commit treason. But Coulter broadens the term to include virtually every liberal, leftist, Democrat or member of the media.
Coulter implies that nearly every person who was left of center is culpable for failing to take action to prevent a small group of Soviet agents and their willful collaborators from infiltrating the U.S. government. In her mind, attacks on Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the alleged hysteria of McCarthyism were nothing more than an attempt to cover up this widespread treachery. The press is labeled as "traitorous" for what she perceives as unfair criticism of the House Un-American Activities Committee, while the Democrats are called the "Treason Party" and accused of "treasonous stupidity."
These cartoonish ad hominem attacks obscure key distinctions between individuals based on their involvement in these debates and the differences in motives that guided their actions. Put simply, being wrong about the scope and severity of the Communist threat or being part of the same party or political movement as a Soviet spy does not make one a traitor.
After a long examination of this so-called "McCarthy era," Coulter jumps to Vietnam and the period since, and tries to lump liberals of today in with those of the past due to their supposed sympathy for the enemy and attempts to undermine U.S. foreign policy. Yet in contrast to the well-documented presence of Soviet spies in the U.S. government in the 1930s and 1940s, she provides no evidence that any liberals have taken actions intended to aid foreign enemies in the periods since (with a couple of possible exceptions). Instead, she attempts to leverage the McCarthy era to tar contemporary liberals and Democrats using guilt by association and innuendo, implying that any opposition to U.S. foreign policy is de facto treasonous.
"Democrats' gutless pusillanimity has emboldened America's enemies and terrified its allies," she writes. During Vietnam, liberals "rolled out all the usual arguments for treason. . . . The traitor lobby was ascendant and very loud. The media did its part, too, sowing fear and trying to undermine patriotism." In Coulter's world, it's simply not possible that anyone could have had a legitimate reason for opposing the Vietnam War.
After a history of the Reagan presidency and the American victory in the Cold War, she moves on to the post-9/11 era, writing that liberals nearly "went stark raving mad at having to mouth patriotic platitudes while burning with a desire to aid the enemy" and "clamored for America to be defeated" in Afghanistan.
Coulter even implies that Democrats secretly support the terrorists who attacked America. "Unable to root for al-Qaeda openly, Democrats lodged surly objections to the Bureau of Prisons for listening to the conversations of prison inmates suspected of plotting terrorist attacks."
On the facts, Coulter is just as bad. The specifics of her analysis of the McCarthy era require close scrutiny by an expert in the expanding scholarly literature on the period, but those factual claims that can easily be checked, particularly those that pertain to contemporary politics, are extremely suspect.
Throughout the book, Coulter engages in a series of deceptive practices in quoting people and sourcing her claims. Most commonly, she distorts the authorship of articles she's citing, attributing outside book reviews, magazine profiles and op-eds to media outlets as if they were staff-written news reports to feed perceptions of bias.
Coulter also repeatedly cites quotations out of context from the original source material. In one particularly dishonest case, she claims that the New York Times "reminded readers that Reagan was a 'cowboy, ready to shoot at the drop of a hat' " after the invasion of Grenada. However, the "cowboy" quote is actually from a Reagan administration official quoted in a Week in Review story who said, "I suppose our biggest minus from the operation is that there now is a resurgence of the caricature of Ronald Reagan, the cowboy, ready to shoot at the drop of a hat."
More seriously, Coulter makes factual claims that are indisputably false. First, she writes, "When the United States made an alliance with mad mullahs in Afghanistan against the U.S.S.R., no sensible American would go sign up with the Taliban." However, the Taliban did not form a militia until 1994, several years after the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan and its subsequent collapse.
Later, she denounces Congressmen Jim McDermott, D-Wash., David Bonior, D-Mich., and Mike Thompson, D-Calif., for their trip to Iraq in late September 2002, asking, "Weren't any Democrats the tiniest bit irritated that members of Congress were meeting with a tyrant as the United States prepared to attack him?" The group did not meet with Saddam Hussein, who is obviously the tyrant in question, though they did meet with former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and the president of Iraq's parliament.
In one bizarre case, she misrepresents the reasons for President Jimmy Carter's Nobel Peace Prize, stating that it was awarded "for his masterful negotiation of the 1994 deal [the Agreed Framework with North Korea] though, in candor, he got the prize for North Korea only because the committee couldn't formally award a prize for Bush-bashing." But the Nobel committee's award announcement cites the award as recognizing Carter's "decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development." North Korea wasn't even mentioned in the speech presenting him with the award.
In several other cases, Coulter thoroughly twists and misrepresents her source material to support her claim that the media engages in "total suppression" of the religion of Muslim terrorists who kill people. She criticizes the New York Times for not including the religion of the man arrested for the first World Trade Center bombing in the headline of its story on his arrest, but neglects to mention that the article's first paragraph states that the man was "described by the authorities as an Islamic fundamentalist." In addition, on the same day, the Times ran a 1,100-word article detailing how he "is said by law-enforcement officials to be a follower of a blind Muslim cleric who preaches a violent message of Islamic fundamentalism."
Coulter offers a similar denunciation of coverage of the Washington, D.C., sniper case, saying, "You need a New York Times decoder ring" to find out that "John Allen Muhammad was a Muslim." But on the same day that the suspects' capture was first reported, two separate stories in the Times prominently described Muhammad as a Muslim. Two days later, the newspaper ran an entire story about the role of religion in the shootings, though it framed the issue mostly in psychiatric terms.
In short, Ann Coulter has once again revealed herself as one of the most destructive forces in American politics, repeatedly making outrageously irrational arguments and demonstrably false claims. "Treason" is the culmination of a dismaying trend toward factually misleading and inflammatory books from pundits such as Michael Moore, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage. These authors may delight partisans and make their publishers rich, but their work impoverishes our political discourse.
Brendan Nyhan is the co-editor of Spinsanity (on the Web at http://www.spinsanity.org
),the nation's leading watchdog of manipulative political rhetoric.
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