Of all the nation’s pundits, there are few as successful or as controversial as Ann Coulter, who subscribes to the “kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity” school of foreign policy. Bringing in such a quote may seem unfair, but it’s nigh impossible to talk about Coulter in a rational tone. Journalist Joe Maguire, to his credit, tries.
At the start of “Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter,” he says his book is not “an attack on Ann Coulter the person. Rather, it is a full frontal assault on her methods, her mischief, and her madness.” In other words: hate the sin, not the sinner. Such is Maguire’s aim; how well he hits, however, is a harder question to answer.
Certainly, ad hominem is not the primary concern. Maguire’s chief target is Coulter’s arguments, specifically the contradictions within her arguments. This includes frequent references to Coulter’s life, which serve chiefly to underscore such contradictions. Her complaints that liberal publishing houses have stifled conservative authors, for example, are called into question by her own success. Other examples of contradictions are based on her footnotes, such as her attempt to imply that The New York Times called Clarence Thomas a “house Negro.” Or the way she constantly complains about The New York Times, only to cite it exclusively in her footnotes.
At other times, and this is the best part of the book, Maguire ignores everything about Coulter, attacking the argument with no weapon but the truth. When Maguire tears into Coulter’s discussion of evolution in her most recent book, “Godless,” it is a thing of beauty. While there are dozens of in-depth debunkings on science blogs, few have the wit or the passion that Maguire employs.
The risk that any book runs when criticizing a public figure (a risk Maguire is well aware of) is that there is a narrow, dangerous line between debate and insult. Maguire walks beside this line, occasionally stepping over it for an instant, as though it were a game of Capture the Flag. More than once he dredges up old jokes about Coulter’s being a transsexual (a joke Maguire relays in a footnote, only to remark that it is nothing more than a joke), the uncertainty of her age or her writing to the editor of The Washington Post to say that she’d dumped her boyfriend, rather than the reverse. Other insults are scattered about; a sidebar, for instance, recounts a “Hardball” episode that decided that Ann “doesn’t pass the Chris Matthews test.”
Many of these jokes are actually rather funny, but none pertain to the central topic of Coulter’s misleading, contradictory propaganda-unless, of course, Maguire uses them as an echo of the crass insults Coulter employs. Maguire is either clever or oblivious. The former is more likely. This book is not only a look at and debunking of Coulter, but a guide to the pitfalls of political rhetoric.
Perhaps a greater problem with the book isn’t its crassness, but its title. “Brainless” is as provocative a title as those Coulter chooses, which works nicely if the goal is to preach to the choir. But if Maguire’s goal is to prove that Coulter isn’t worthy of public attention, he needs to sell to those for whom this would be a revelation. And for those people who wouldn’t be driven off by the marketing tone, any random Coulter quote would do.