US Politics

A Bundle of Sticks on Fire

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 07, 2007

So Ann Coulter, speaking at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) convention, called John Edwards, a Democratic Party presidential candidate, a "faggot".

The less said about the remark itself, the better, though Andrew Sullivan gets it just about exactly right in his analysis of Coulter's insistence that it was only a joke.

More interesting to me is the way Edwards responded:

Ann Coulter's use of an anti-gay slur yesterday was un-American and indefensible. In America, we strive for equality and embrace diversity. The kind of hateful language she used has no place in political debate or our society at large.

I believe it is our moral responsibility to speak out against that kind of bigotry and prejudice every time we encounter it.

Coulter's slur was a typical Republican tactic: an attempt to portray Edwards as a sissy, a weakling, a pretty boy, not man enough for the job, and his petulant response played right into that tactic.

For two case studies on how - or how not - to deal with these kinds of slurs, consider the recent kerfuffle between US Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

1. The Morass of Outrage

In an interview with Jonathan Karl of ABC News, Cheney said:

I think, in fact, if we were to do what Speaker Pelosi and Congressman [Jack] Murtha are suggesting, all we'll do is validate the al Qaeda strategy. The al Qaeda strategy is to break the will of the American people. In fact, knowing they can't win in a stand-up fight, try to persuade us to throw in the towel and come home, and then they win because we quit.

It was typical macho right-wing posturing at its best: Doing what Pelosi recommends generates the weasel words and phrases "break the will of the American people", "throw in the towel", and "quit".

Pelosi took real umbrage with the statement:

You cannot say as the president of the United States, 'I welcome disagreement in a time of war,' and then have the vice president of the United States go out of the country and mischaracterize a position of the speaker of the House and in a manner that says that person in that position of authority is acting against the national security of our country.

This opened the door to a he-said, she-said back and forth that buried the real issue in a morass of charge and counter-charge. Cheney retorted:

I didn't question her patriotism. I questioned her judgment. If you're going to advocate a course of action that basically is withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, then you don't get to just do the fun part of that, that says, we'll we're going to get out and appeal to your constituents on that basis.

You also have to be accountable for the results.

Well, she didn't actually accuse him of questioning her patriotism, but that, like most actual facts, is beside the point. The details get lost in the back-and-forth, and the tendency of journalists to give equal weight to each side in the interest of "balance" means the debate ends up as a wash.

2. The Power of Ridicule

Around the same time, Senator Barack Obama, another Democratic candidate for president, chose a different way to fire back at Cheney. Speaking about British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to start withdrawing troops from Iraq during an outdoor speech, Obama scored some rhetorical points:

Obama, speaking at a massive outdoor rally in Austin, Texas, said British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision this week to withdraw 1,600 troops is a recognition that Iraq's problems can't be solved militarily.

"Now if Tony Blair can understand that, then why can't George Bush and Dick Cheney understand that?" Obama asked thousands of supporters who gathered in the rain to hear him. "In fact, Dick Cheney said this is all part of the plan (and) it was a good thing that Tony Blair was withdrawing, even as the administration is preparing to put 20,000 more of our young men and women in.

"Now, keep in mind, this is the same guy that said we'd be greeted as liberators, the same guy that said that we're in the last throes. I'm sure he forecast sun today," Obama said to laughter from supporters holding campaign signs over their heads to keep dry. "When Dick Cheney says it's a good thing, you know that you've probably got some big problems." [emphasis added]

Can you see the difference? Pelosi's approach trips right into the Republican playbook, giving the GOP bought priesthood the chance to portray the Democrats as a bunch of hysterical sissies; whereas Obama's approach uses humour and ridicule to shift the context over to Cheney's own record on Iraq.

Controlling the Terms of Debate

In US politics, the Republicans control the terms of debate. They're the ones framing the issues in their interest. To the extent that they lost some ground in the November election, it's because the split between their words and actions is getting too big for voters to ignore, not because they've lost control over the framework.

Psychologically, Americans are torn between narcissism and prudentry. They want to be titillated and simultaneously to feel outrage over the source of the titillation.

The Republicans have managed to play off both sides of this unstable equation through a very careful, very savvy communications program. Thus Coulter is able to call someone a faggot even as she scolds her listeners about Christian values.

Until now, the Democrats have been playing catch-up, essentially falling right into the Republicans' trap, again and again. When Edwards reacts with something that can be described as petulance to an attack on his masculinity, he simply reinforces Coulter's slur among her followers. Look at that whiny bitch, they're saying about him.

The difference between the Edwards/Pelosi approach and the Obama approach is that the former accepts the Republican framework and tries to operate inside it, which simply reinforces the framework itself. The latter weakens the framework by subjecting it to ridicule and exposing its shaky connection to reality.

There's nothing like laughter to break the spell a charismatic bully holds over his or her stooges. What bullies hate more than anything else is to look ridiculous, and Obama made Cheney look ridiculous.

The Obama Approach

Now imagine the difference if Edwards had responded the way Obama did. The next time an interviewer asks him why he thinks he should be President, he could say, "Well, Anne Coulter says I'm a faggot, so I must be doing something right."

Alternately, he could examine the context of her remark for a way to highlight its hypocrisy. Something like:

So Anne Coulter says I'm a - let me make sure I'm quoting her correctly - a 'faggot'. To robust applause from the Conservative Political Action Conference, no less. Interestingly, CPAC grew out of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which was founded by Terry Dolan, a militant homophobe - and closeted homosexual. Hey, you're welcome to your opinion on Coulter's sense of humour, but her sense of irony, however unintentional, is clearly firing on all eight cylinders.

Okay, so I'm not very good at writing political speeches, but Edwards is an experienced trial lawyer, so I'm pretty sure he knows how to make a case.

The point is that rrogressives are barely winning by default when they should be sweeping American politics. They won't start beating the reactionary bullies and thugs until they break out of the Republican ideological framework and impose their own framework on the issues.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By markwhittle (registered) - website | Posted March 07, 2007 at 20:00:12

Holy smoke Ryan, you seem to have the American Political System down pat as such a ripe young age.

A real whiz kid.

Although, it’s amazing what you miss in your own pack-yard while picking through the entrails of a hunt for the Presidency once George goes over the side.

You must know how to speed read just to take in that entire ironic political nuance, especially that Wiley Obama Brain-trust.

He's the only one fit for office, a man who can break the glass ceiling on the "old white men’s club" that really runs the joint.

As Obama rises in popularity watch for the slew of "political" retirements to escape culpability in the old "Regime" and the folly of war.

Scooter Libby is just the tip of the ice-berg Ryan, mark my words.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 07, 2007 at 21:31:09

For all his charm, Obama is still a politician at heart. He's just more savvy than most. I was disappointed when he apologized for telling the truth about the lives of American soldiers that have been "wasted" in the Iraq debacle:

http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/02/13/o...

Libby just took one for the team.

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By markwhittle (registered) - website | Posted March 08, 2007 at 14:16:57

That was a groveler wasn't it, and so unlike Obama, but what can you do, please everyone all the time, no way that would pass the smell test.

Wars not always wrong but the reasons sure can be, especially after the fact. Dancing aroung that blast crater is proving who has it, and who doesn't.

Obama is a bigger man for it, if he's true to his heart. I say that he is, bad advise aside.

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By missmythrift (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2007 at 02:00:10

If Ann Coulter showed up, on camera without her
long blond hair & make-up, I wonder how tolerant her own fans would be of 'Ann au Natural'?

Much of what she says is posturing, & just plain nasty. I see her as a poster-girl for the Right, & not much of a journalist. Let's see if she still has a show when the crow's feet start to kick in.

She has a similar attraction for the same kind of men as Maggy Thatcher did,(but without the power). They want a girl who Was dear old Dad.

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