Wealthy Frenchman

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Think Naughty, Think Small, Think Not

Ann Coulter’s use of the epithet “faggot” to slur Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards last week took me back to the schoolyards of the 1970s, when Coulter and I were both young.

There were plenty of words like “faggot” being thrown around back then. There was “faggoty,” for example. “Retard.” And “spaz” — or “total spaz,” the rhythm of which rang through her words last year, when Coulter dismissed Al Gore on MSNBC as a “total fag.”

The world of playground insults hasn’t altered much since Coulter’s schooldays, but the larger world has changed a bit. She made her remarks during a major gathering of conservatives in Washington that drew most of the major Republican presidential candidates, and commentators of the left, right and center soundly denounced her.

Even Michelle Malkin, Coulter’s fellow pinup girl on the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute’s 2007 “Great American Conservative Women” calendar, blasted her words as “rhetorical fragging” and a “tired old schtick.”

We shouldn’t be content, though, to let it go at that.

Leaving the issue of not-so-latent homophobia aside — dwelling upon it, in this context, is a matter of shooting ducks in a barrel — what I found particularly shocking in Coulter’s comments was their studied juvenility, the sheer idiocy of their language. “Faggot” and “total fag,” like other political pearls of our time — such as “bring it on” and “girlie men” — are just epoch-making in their stupidity. In fact, they sound like lines out of Mike Judge’s 2006 film “Idiocracy,” a political satire that I rented a few months ago and can’t seem to get out of my mind.

In “Idiocracy,” a man the Pentagon has chosen for his perfectly average intelligence is sent into the future and finds the America of 500 years hence inhabited by people so grotesquely moronic that they can barely grunt utterances greater than “Man, whatever!”

Those future Americans have, however, held on to a full arsenal of obscenities and repeatedly tell the hero, who speaks in full sentences, “You talk like a fag.” As the film plays out, it’s the People vs. the Fag — the very dynamic that Coulter establishes when she connects to her audience via their inner 13-year-olds.

All this led me this week to think of Frank Luntz, the hot political consultant and wordsmith who wrote the lyrics for the 1994 Republican revolution. In his new book, “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” Luntz puts forth the argument that using the “uplifting, ennobling tone” of famed political scribes like Ted Sorenson and Peggy Noonan is not the best way to capture the attention of Americans today. Instead, to communicate with the people — the real people of “small town, middle America” — and to speak straight to their hearts, minds and entrails, you’ve got to put “yourself right into your listener’s shoes.”

In other words, think small. “Use Small Words” is Rule 1 of his strategy for successful communication. Rule 2: “Use Short Sentences.”

Luntz has a doctorate from Oxford; Coulter has degrees from Cornell and the University of Michigan Law School. Conservatives generally like to run with the idea that liberals are elitists, living “in a world of only Malibu and East Hampton,” as Coulter’s recent blog posting on the “crock” of global warming put it. But isn’t there something elitist, if not wrong, I wondered aloud to Luntz, about condescending to — or coddling or enabling — the imagined verbal limitations of the less-educated “other”?

Luntz did not much appreciate the question.

“It’s not condescending — it’s pandering,” he said of Coulter’s most recent performance. “Everything about the book says what she did was not just wrong but reprehensible. Those aren’t words that work. She broke every rule.”

“God, I really hate it every time she speaks,” he fumed. And, he added, if I were to even think of mentioning him in the same breath as her, “I will really, seriously raise hell.”

At a Conservative Women’s Network lunch at the Heritage Foundation last week, a question was raised, over dessert, about how conservative women should deal, “as women,” if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination for president. The guest speaker, Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer in Washington, hemmed and hawed, shared some thoughts about Wellesley College and Barbara Bush, blushed, then concluded, “We’ll let the redneck guys who just aren’t ready to vote for a female commander in chief take care of the woman thing.”

Sounds like a plan. Sounds to me, too, like the Republican noise machine may just have a monkey wrench in its machinery.

Judith Warner is the author of “’Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety” and a contributing columnist for TimesSelect. She is a guest Op-Ed columnist this month. Maureen Dowd is off today.


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