Coulter and Campos: Two sides of the same coin

One's right, one's left, but both often too shrill

Mar. 10, 2007

by David Kopel

 
They seem like opposites: she's tall, blond and right-wing; he's short, balding and left-wing. Yet both are extremely intelligent weekly columnists with a gift for turning a clever phrase. They attended the University of Michigan Law School together, where he apparently developed a lifelong hatred of her. Enmity notwithstanding, he lately seems to be modeling his own style after hers. The more I read Paul Campos, the more he reminds me of Ann Coulter.

One of Coulter's tricks is insulting upward. That is, pick somebody more famous than you. Vilify the person in some outrageous way. Ideally, the target gets upset and responds, and the press covers your public argument. By engaging in a public fight with you, the target has implicitly raised you to his own level of importance.

For example, on Friday afternoon, March 2, Coulter spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the most important annual conference for conservatives, held in Washington. She used the word "faggot" in connection with John Edwards. Predictably, the Edwards campaign and the Democratic establishment pitched a fit, garnering Coulter more attention.

The next day, Campos, in a move straight out of the Coulter playbook, spoke to a local meeting of the Young Democrats in Denver. Four times he called Coulter a four-letter word (which this newspaper won't print). The word refers to female genitalia, and it rhymes with "lame publicity stunt." For his Rockycolumn last Tuesday, Campos condensed his speech.

Like Coulter, Campos employed lawyerly verbal formulations in which he technically claimed that he was not directing his gutter language at his obvious target.

Unfortunately for Campos, Coulter - a wily veteran of the publicity game - ignored his vulgarity.

His column also insulted upward at University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse (bizarrely claiming that she is part of a conspiracy to protect Coulter). Althouse is far more famous than Campos on the Web and in academia; her record of scholarly publications in law journals is significantly larger than his. She responded to Campos on her blog, thus giving him more publicity.

A couple of weeks ago, Campos also successfully insulted upward when he accused University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds of advocating murder, and urged that the school censor Reynolds. Reynolds too has a vastly larger record of scholarly publication than Campos, and Reynolds' Web log, InstaPundit, is the most influential in the world (based on incoming links statistics at truthlaidbear.com).

The attack on Reynolds got Campos a lot of national attention, even though his legal claim was based on little, if any, research. Reynolds had advocated the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, which Campos declared to be a violation of the Geneva Convention rules against targeting civilians. Campos was apparently unaware that there is substantial legal authority for treating civilians who act in a military role (e.g., nuclear weapons scientists) as military combatants.

Another Coulter/Campos tactic is illogical charges against the media. Coulter's book Godlesssarcastically complained that "unbiased, objective newspapers report on prison building solely on the basis of what it will cost the taxpayer." As proof, she cited a Denver Postarticle. Yet the article was not a news report; it was a guest opinion article in the Perspective section. (The guest writer, incidentally, was Independence Institute scholar Mike Krause, urging reduced sentences for nonviolent drug cases.)

Similarly, Campos claimed in his column that the news media could hardly be called "liberal" because the Saturday New York Timescovered CPAC but didn't mention Coulter's insult, and because CNN "immediately invited" Coulter to appear. So by the Campos theory, the media are wrong when they do cover Coulter's latest insult, and when the media don't.

Campos/Coulter have virtually identical approaches on the Iraq war. She writes that people who oppose the Iraq war are stupid, irrational or evil. He writes that people who favor the Iraq war are stupid, irrational or evil.

Both writers make outlandish claims about other people. She insists that for the last 50 years, nearly all liberals have been on the side of treason. He compares Glenn Reynolds (who is a libertarian) and national radio host/blogger Hugh Hewitt (a mainstream Republican) to "fascists." (Disclosure: I attended Michigan Law School with Hewitt, and have co-written articles with Reynolds.)

In person, Campos/Coulter are likable, pleasant people. (I've known Campos since 2000, and Coulter since 1988; she spoke at the Independence Institute's annual dinner last year.) Yet in their public personas, they play mean-spirited, shrill characters.

Campos/Coulter demean themselves and degrade our civic culture with their outlandish rhetoric. They would do better to aim their writing and speeches at the adult, accurate level which they have each achieved many times in the past.

In the meantime, the Post'sleft-wing Diane Carman and right-wing Al Knight both set a good example for how to argue passionately for one's beliefs, while staying within the bounds of civil discourse.

 

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