Thinking about my Uncle Grumpy’s tirade against cable news last week reminded me of Ann Coulter, and the way she makes a living.
In this country, it’s virtually impossible to criticize how a person earns their money. Barring the illegal stuff – and even that’s kind of a gray area, considering the warm feelings some people – Sopranos fans among them – have for the Mafia, and the generally benign response to the Eliot Spitzer hooker – in America, you can do just about anything to make a buck. Or a killing.
It’s all just business.
So Ann Coulter gets to make a living any way she chooses. And she chooses to make it tearing the country apart with unsubstantiated and ugly inflammatory remarks.
I was trying to think of who Ann Coulter reminded me of. And then it hit me.
Back in the 50’s, there was a Bad Guy wrestler, named “Killer” Kowalski. “Killer” Kowalski was really bad. How bad? He’s reputed, during a wrestling match, to have bitten off “Yukon” Eric’s ear.
“Killer” Kowalski wrestled on TV and toured the circuit, playing his Bad Guy persona to the hilt. When he’d climb into the ring, the crowd would go crazy, booing and jeering and taunting and shaking their fists. What did “Killer” Kowalski do? He did the same thing back. Taunting. Shaking his fist. Threatening to come into the crowd. Some thought his “act” was funny, but the majority were legitimately incensed. They hated the guy.
And it made him a fortune.
Ann Coulter is the “Killer” Kowalski of political commentary.
You wonder about the appeal of Coulter’s “act” – or at least I do – Coulter’s and Limbaugh’s and O’Reilly’s and Hannity’s. Their ranting and their “crusades”, the extremism of their language and their point of view, it just sounds crazy. And it’s not just the commentators.
Some minister blames Hurricane Katrina on the gay lifestyle in New Orleans, or Pat Robertson proclaims that God is punishing our sinfulness by making people from another religion fly planes into the World Trade Center. You listen to this foolishness and you wonder, “Have these people completely lost their minds? Who’s going to believe any of this?”
The answer to that question is this:
People who aren’t like you.
These leaders and commentators are speaking directly to their followers, who not only believe in their leaders’ pronouncements, they totally agree with them. As a bonus, our outrage at their ridiculous comments reinforces their certainty, because the believers believe that we – the passionate critics of their leaders – are going to hell.
Of course, this blinkered perspective works equally well on the other side of the political spectrum. I’ve heard that in 2004, there were people who said, “I don’t know why Kerry lost the election. Everybody I know voted for him.” That was unquestionably true. Everybody they knew did vote for Kerry. And everybody who follows Pat Robertson thinks his pronouncements are on the money.
Even though there seemed to be, maybe there was never was a clear distinction between “right” and “wrong.” Maybe I just thought there was because, as a kid, I watched a lot of westerns, and in westerns, “right” and “wrong” were always crystal clear – the guy in the white hat was right, and the guy in the black hat was wrong. Maybe my belief about the world was simply a movie illusion (though, it seemed to me, the movies were just reflecting the times.)
Today, the idea that something can be unequivocally right and unequivocally wrong seems so…not anymore.
The times had changed. And so had the truth.
Once, when my TV writing career was sliding down the tubes, I self-pityingly wrote an essay, trying to describe what I was going through. My first line was, “I’m brown.” I chose a color, brown, and I used it to represent the essence of my talent. “Brown” was the my uniqueness, the thing that made me me.
This was not an arbitrary color choice. I felt “brown.” A lot of my clothes are brown. I have a brownish point of view. I’m just, overall, a “brown” kind of a guy.
At the height in my career, “brown” was greatly in demand. “Get me brown!” the studio heads would cry, and in I’d come, to plaudits and big contracts. I’d do my “brown” thing, and everybody’d love it. I was on top of the world.
Everyone wanted “brown”, and “brown” was what I was.
Then, as every color inevitably does, “brown” lost its popularity, and down I went. I didn’t understand it. “Brown” had always been my drawing card; now, it was driving people away.
I couldn’t switch colors. I was “brown.” And that was the end of the story.
I showed my crybaby piece to my wife. She liked it okay, but she told me to change the color. She didn’t like my choice of “brown.”
“Because it might be offensive to African Americans.”
I disagreed, but that was her view. Maybe it was a legitimate concern, maybe, an expression liberal guilt. Whatever. She believed it. Move on.
And I did. Until a series of ads came on TV for UPS. The catch phrase for the commercials?
“What can “Brown” do for you?”
The argument was back on the table. I pointed out the national ad campaign to my wife. Her response?
“Okay, I’m wrong.”
“You’re not wrong. You’re right, for a small amount of people.”
That’s what “truth” seems to be today – (insert adverb of choice here, from “horribly” to “thrillingly”) fragmented. Somewhere along the line, the Truth Pie got carved into millions of slices, some substantial and some small, each slice representing, to somebody – maybe a large group, maybe a tiny one – the truth.
You can’t find much, if anything, that everyone agrees on. Even scientific truths aren’t universally accepted. And that stuff’s got evidence behind it.
There are probably dissenting groups opposing the most established scientific beliefs.
“Just because nothing’s fallen up so far, doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.”
That hurts my head, but I’m sure there’s some splinter group out there that believes that.
And if people can’t agree on longstanding scientific beliefs, you can forget about their coming together on ideological stuff, where there was never any agreement to begin with.
Your group believes one thing, another group believes something different, maybe even the opposite. There’s no final authority, and there’s no mediatable middle ground. Consensus is impossible. When you listen to them, they sound totally unreasonable. And when they listen to you, you sound like you’re going to hell.
Here’s what you need to remember. When leaders – religious, political, whatever – appear on national television, and you reflexively think, “They’re on national television, that must mean they’re talking to everyone” – don’t do that. Why? Because when they start saying outrageous things, you’re going to immediately think that they’re nuts. They’re not.
They’re just not talking to you. *
* They may be nuts too.