My colleague to the right --- to the far right, way over there at the edge of the earth, where you must be very careful not to lose what little remains of your balance and fall off --- and I disagree on almost everything. But I suspect we agree that Brainless does not do what its author hopes. Indeed, I'd bet we agree that Brainless misses its target so badly it amounts to a grudging commercial for Ann Coulter.
How could a full-frontal hatchet job turn into an endorsement?
Let's have George Lakoff explain. Lakoff, professor of linguistics at Berkeley, is the father of "framing," which is about using language to position an issue in a way that's favorable to your cause. Take taxes. If you say you hope to relieve the "tax burden," as Republicans do, you are communicating two things. One, you want to cut taxes. But the second communication is more important. By using "burden," you are implanting the idea that taxes are inherently unfair and that, however much you're paying, it's too much. Democrats ought to be saying, in response, that taxes are the "dues" we pay to live in this wonderful club of a country called the United States --- but they never do. So the Republican frame prevails.
Last week, when George Bush suddenly couldn't remember that he'd often said we should "stay the course" in Iraq, Lakoff wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times --- the newspaper that, Ann Coulter quipped, would have been much improved by a visit from Timothy Macveigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. In that op-ed, Lakoff said, "The first rule of using negatives is that negating a frame activates the frame. If you tell someone not to think of an elephant, he'll think of an elephant. When Richard Nixon said, 'I am not a crook' during Watergate, the nation thought of him as a crook."
So when Joe Maguire attacks Coulter for using sex --- short skirts and long blonde hair --- to obscure the fact that the words that tumble out of her mouth are vile, he is reminding the reader that Coulter is sexy. To say she talks trash is to underscore that she's an effective speaker. To say she slanders "liberals" is to lead us back to her argument --- that liberals can't take criticism.
If Maguire were a better reporter, there might be some hard news in his book that makes it worth the slog. But there isn't. Maguire is to the liberal side what Coulter is to right wing punditry --- a master of Google and of cutting-and-pasting. If anything, he's even lazier than she is. In 187 pages, he's reduced to quoting Coulter and then going: "Yeah. Right." This is not the mark of a champion.
There are two kinds of books about Ann Coulter that might attract an audience larger than the writer's girl friend. One is an investigation of her private life, featuring interviews with long-term boyfriends, one-night stands (please God, let there be thousands, all of them off-duty cops with vivid memories and no discretion) and friends she's betrayed along the way --- in other words, a book that reveals her character to be no better than that of the "liberals" she hates. The other is humor: to laugh her out of existence.
Joe Maguire fills his book with outrage and rebuttal. But on one page, he got me to slow my eye down long enough to read every word. Why? Because jokes were on that page. Letterman: "Here's what we know about Ann Coulter. She's blond. She's single. Maybe someone will set her up with O.J." And Jay Leno, explaining that Coulter has beefed up security before appearing on his show: "There is even restricted airspace over the studio --- her people are afraid that Dorothy's house could drop on her."
A book of mockery, a book of smut --- even a combination --- would have been a public service. What we have here is a book with nothing to quote from, a laundry list of Ann Coulter's ridiculous views and feeble factual responses. That approach has been tried before. It has never worked. And it doesn't work here.
The saddest fact of all: Maguire, a reporter at Reuters, was fired for writing this book. (It violated some "guideline" or another.) I have to think that given the choice between that job and this book, even Maguire would have voted for the job.
I don't want to get anybody in trouble, so I'll preface my remarks by admitting that I may be wrong. It looks to me though, after reading BRAINLESS: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter, that Joe Maguire has some kind of mad schoolboy crush on our girl Annie. I mean, if Coulter, on a whim, decided to style those lovely blond tresses of hers into pigtails, BRAINLESS would be the inkwell into which the author would be dunking them. And, unlike Maguire in BRAINLESS, I actually have evidence to support my conclusions.
Submitted for your perusal:
- The cover of BRAINLESS. Coulter looks wonderful. It's actually a nicer picture than she used for GODLESS, her own book. If BRAINLESS was the hatchet job it is marketed as being, Maguire would have photoshopped one of Coulter's photos to make it less flattering.
- Look at who is publishing BRAINLESS. William Morrow is an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, which is owned by News Corporation, which is headed by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns...FOX News Channel!!!
- Read the book. Maguire lovingly quotes Coulter over and over. If, at the last minute, Morrow had slapped a sticker bearing the legend "The Wit and Wisdom of Ann Coulter" over the book cover, you would never know the difference. Except, of course, for those intermittent passages wherein Maguire remembers that he is supposed to be writing an attack piece and verbally jumps up and down, venting against Coulter like a second grader who hasn't made that mid-morning walk down to the nurse's office for his chemical inhibitor.
Maguire actually does Coulter a favor here. What BRAINLESS ultimately does is present excerpts of some of Coulter's best work from her books and columns in one affordable volume. Those who have never read Coulter's work before will, on the strength of what Maguire reproduces in these pages. He may attack Coulter for her romantic linkage (jealous), slender figure (one can never be too thin or too rich) and education (she's an attorney). But reading BRAINLESS is like sitting in a middle-school classroom listening to an intelligent, beautiful girl read an essay at the front of the room while she pointedly ignores the class clown who simultaneously attempts to attract her attention and derail her train of thought, succeeding at neither and only, unfortunately, making himself look bad.
So too with BRAINLESS: you can pay attention to Coulter, ignore Maguire and get the most out of your time and money.
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 11, 2011