Ann Coulter’s Treason is a difficult book to read. Not because the subject is too dense or complex or because it is one we would rather avoid. No, the book is difficult because it is an angry, hyperbolic, disorganized, and disorienting rant – one that goes on for almost three hundred pages.
Coulter’s look at post-World War II American history is a mix of revisionism, satire, and polemics. Her basic premise is that liberals are not misguided but well-intentioned idealists but instead, traitors who hate their country and oppose it at every turn. In attempting to make this rather controversial point she touches on everything from espionage in the Roosevelt (FDR) administration to the attacks on (the current) President Bush; from Alger Hiss and Whitaker Chambers to racial profiling after 9/11. Although she moves in a roughly chronological direction she jumps back and forth between time periods with abandon.
It is a wild ride but one that leaves you exhausted rather than persuaded. The underlying problem with Coulter’s approach is an attempt to overturn a simplistic and warped view of history with an equally simplistic and warped view of history. The failure of large parts of the left to see communism for what it really was – a totalitarian ideology that brought death and destruction in its path – is a serious issue. It is an issue that has not been dealt with in any real way by large swaths of the culture and by much of elite opinion in this country. And that is a problem, but Treason takes that issue and smothers it in over-the-top rhetoric and confusion. Coulter has many valid points to make but her ability to communicate the message to anyone not already on her side is severely limited by her imprecision and her sophomoric tone and language.
It is important to note, however, that buried underneath all of this rhetoric is a number of valid points. Coulter is absolutely correct to point out that Joseph McCarthy was not the dangerous ogre and destroyer of lives that he is made out to be by the media and in all too many textbooks. In fact, McCarthy was right in his essential point that the American government failed to take Communist infiltration and espionage seriously enough. McCarthy’s main failing was his inability to be precise and not over-reach knowing that the media and elite establishment would do anything to cut him down. In one of her better chapter conclusions Coulter asks a valid question:
Maybe it would have been better if McCarthy had been more measured in his rhetoric. And maybe it would have been better if Ken Star had the savoir-faire of Cary Grant and if Linda Tripp looked like Gwyneth Paltrow, and Monica – no, Monica was perfect. But were there Soviet spies in the State Department?
Despite its snarky tone, this is a valid question and one that if answered honestly places McCarthy in a very different light.
Another area where Coulter’s underlying point is well taken, is the utter idiocy of pundits and politicians. This is where Coulter is at her best. She resurrects the quotes of pundits, academics, and politicians over the last fifty years and reveals just how wrong many of the “best and the brightest” really were. As I stated above, it is a fact that much of the left was tragically wrong about communism and its ramifications. Coulter’s quotes also reveal that all too often liberals defended their own no matter what the circumstances and that their idealism rarely had limits.
Even given these strengths, the book fails to make its case. It does so for a number of reasons: it is sophomoric, it is overly simplistic, and it is imprecise. With a subject matter this controversial and emotional those are fatal flaws; unless of course you are only seeking to preach to the choir and wind up the faithful.
The first problem is one of tone. The book becomes tiresome as the reader is forced to wade through the insulting and smart-ass language. If you expect to be taken seriously you need to write with a certain amount of seriousness. Coulter accuses liberals of going into a “diarrhea panic” and describes them as “sniffling pantywaists.” She claims that the Iran Contra Affair was “one of the most stirring episodes in U.S. History.” She calls actors “sissy-boys who put on little-girls’ plays.” She describes the accidental bombing of a French Embassy as having been motivated by a “puckish sense of humor” and with “Pow! So sorry, our mistake.” The entire book’s tone is one of angry superiority and condescension. This can get old very quickly.
Related to her far from serious tone, is the tendency to over-simplify and exaggerate. Coulter starts with the hyperbole right from the top. Her first sentence reads: “Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason.” She follows that up closely with: “Everyone says liberals love America, too. No they don’t.” See how simple history can be? Liberals are treasonous people who don’t love their own country. Seeking further explanation, at one point Coulter seems to claim that treason is a natural trait of elite WASPs:
Protecting traitors was part of the bonhomie of the ruling class. It was as if the WASPs had developed some XXY chromosome that led to overt treason. They had ruled magnificently for many years, but there blood had gotten thin. Angry ethnics like Joe McCarthy made much better Americans.
Her love for overly broad and over-the-top statements never ends until you close the book. Here are a few additional quotes:
– Time and again, in all crucial matters of national self-defense, the Democratic Party has shirked the honor of leading this country in war, be it cold or hot. Such a party must not be allowed in the Oval Office.
– Because of Democrat incompetence and moral infirmity, all Americans lived under threat of nuclear annihilation for half a century.
– The only important lesson from the Vietnam War is this: Democrats lose wars.
– It is a fact that the Democrats have been responsible for every unmitigated foreign policy disaster since World War II.
– Conservatives are devastatingly clear, consistent, and logical, while liberals are whirling dervishes of inconsistent positions.
Coulter lives in a black and white world, conservatives are always right and liberals are always wrong.
One might forgive Coulter her black and white worldview if she was at least clear and concise about her own argument. Instead she jumps back and forth between decades without considering that things might have changed between Truman and Reagan. She uses liberal and Democrat interchangeably with no real attempt to explain what liberal means or how it might be different from others on the left or how the Democratic party might have changed in the post-war era. She doesn?t even seem cognizant of the changes within conservatism during the post war period. She holds up Reagan as the only authentic conservative president since World War II but fails to explain how that affects figures like Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford. Were they on the devils side with the liberals or were they on the side of the angels with the GOP? Were liberal Republicans better than liberal Democrats?
If her rhetoric is confusing, her history is no better. Because she is stuck at 10,000 feet she fails to consider the policy going on at a much lower level. This is the “Great Man” theory of history taken to the extreme. Coulter’s obsession is with the party leaders and the talking heads in the press so she ignores any policy making below the level of President or Senator. She ridicules containment and praises the concept of roll back or “nothing but victory,” but fails to mention that there was a great deal of policy going on behind the scenes that was aimed at rollback and victory before Ronald Reagan came along and under Democratic Presidents too. She rightly points out the treasonous activities of many of the liberal elite, especially under FDR, but she never acknowledges that there were honest liberal, and even leftist, anti-communist intellectuals and politicians. She mentions Reagan’s secret meeting with the Pope but she fails to mention CIA funding of liberal non-profit groups and newspapers in Europe during the Cold War. Coulter writes as if the Korean War would have been won if Truman hadn’t fired Macarthur. She assumes that the U.S. could have won in Vietnam if Democrats hadn’t hamstrung the military. These points might be arguable, and many conservatives believe them to be true, but Coulter fails to offer a compelling argument, instead blaming the failure on liberals. Adding to the incongruity and confusion is her insistence on trying to wrap the entire post-war period into one neat argument. The sections on the War on Terror and Iraq, not to mention the chapter on celebrities, seem tacked on and superfluous. Plus, it is maddening trying to follow the arguments as she jumps around in time, castigating liberals in the forties one minute and Al Gore the next.
After ranting and castigating and poking fun for nearly three hundred pages Coulter ends where she began, claiming: “They [liberals] instinctively root for anarchy and against civilization. The inevitable logic of the liberal position is to be for treason.” These grand statements certainly bring a sense of gravity to Coulter’s accusations but it the end she fails to back them up. To be sure, she does expose much of the left for their hypocrisy and dishonesty in dealing with communism and espionage in this country.
The book clearly reiterates the conservative criticisms of many American foreign policy choices in the post-war era and makes a strong case that the public’s tendency to trust Republicans with defense and foreign affairs is well founded. But given her over-the top rhetoric and ridiculously simplistic view of history, it is not surprising that she fails to carry her argument. In the end it is not really an argument anyway but an emotional diatribe. Coulter may sell a lot of books with this tactic but I doubt she wins many converts. And on this critical subject shouldn’t we be aiming for the later?