Treason's poison: Coulter spews pure nastiness

Ann Coulter's popularity on the right is a phenomenon that has baffled me for a long time. As someone who shares many political views identified as conservative, I have always cringed in embarrassment whenever I saw Coulter on television purporting to speak (or rather, rant) for ''my'' side. Her stock in trade is venomous and extreme political invective of which the infamous comment about Muslims that got her fired from National Review– ''We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity''– is far from the most egregious example.

The worst of Coulter's venom, actually, is reserved for domestic rather than foreign opponents: ''Even fanatical Muslim terrorists don't hate America like liberals do.''

This kind of rhetoric permeates Coulter's latest tome, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, which has finally proved to be too much to stomach even for many of Coulter's erstwhile admirers. The book, which among other things attempts a rehabilitation of Senator Joe McCarthy, opens with this lovely passage: ''Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason. You could be talking about Scrabble, and they would instantly leap to the anti-American position. Everyone says liberals love America, too. No they don't. Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy. This is their essence.'' And so it goes for nearly another 300 pages. ''They are either traitors or idiots,'' Coulter says of liberals.

Some of the most scathing critiques of Coulter's screed have come from the right: The Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz, Andrew Sullivan, even the fiery polemicist David Horowitz. These critics are troubled by Coulter's practice of lumping together dissent and treason and of painting her targets with an extremely broad brush– for instance, declaring the entire Democratic Party to be ''functionally treasonable.''

Some of her fans lament the new book as a terrible lapse by a brilliant polemicist. Writes Horowitz, ''It is distressing when someone you admire gives credibility to liberal attacks.''

But in truth Coulter's viciousness and extremism should come as no surprise. She's not saying anything she hasn't said before. This is the woman who wrote that Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta is ''burning with hatred for America'' because of his opposition to racial profiling in airport screening. This is the woman who said, at a 2002 conference of the Conservative Political Action Committee, ''We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals by making them realize that they could be killed, too.''

For years, Coulter's admirers have excused such statements as satirical hyperbole or acid polemical wit. Her new book, it seems, has made some of them realize that she really means it. But even if she deliberately exaggerates her points, what is the purpose of this kind of ''satire'' except to demonize the opponent?

In his 1946 essay, ''The Prevention of Literature,'' George Orwell made the observation that Communists and religious fanatics ''are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent.'' This is a perfect description of Coulter's mentality, and if conservatives know what's good for them, they will distance themselves from this poisonous message.

Of course, demonizing the opponent is hardly the exclusive province of the right. Quite a few liberals who are appalled by Coulter's crude and nasty attacks don't notice the nastiness of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's recent swipe at Clarence Thomas, when she wrote of his dissent in the Supreme Court ruling upholding affirmative action, ''The dissent is a clinical study of a man who has been driven barking mad by the beneficial treatment he has received.''

Left-wing media critic Eric Alterman, who has lamented the rise of mean-spirited right-wing pundits, told Esquire magazine that he wished conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh had gone deaf because ''the country... would be better without Rush Limbaugh and his 20 million listeners.'' (He later apologized for the remark.)

Some years ago, Al Gore made this comment about critics of affirmative action: ''I've heard those who say we have a colorblind society. They use their colorblind the way duck hunters use a duck blind– they hide behind it and hope the ducks won't notice.''

This isn't just about nastiness and lack of civility. Demonizing the opponent makes reasonable debate impossible, and is thus detrimental to democracy itself. Our fellow citizens whose views on political issues differ from ours are not the enemy.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe, where this essay first appeared.