By now nearly everyone on this planet has heard Ann Coulter's name-calling at the Conservative Political Action Conference a few days ago. Whether you have heard it or not, I invite you to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxgVuB3TyaU" target="_blank">take one more look now and concentrate first on her facial expressions and then, more importantly, on the evolution of the response of the audience.
The first time I saw a video of the event, the connection was not good and it stalled many times right through the "f*ggot" statement. Coulter's face goes through some very interesting changes leading up to and during the delivery of her punchline. You will notice, too, that her ending has a huge amount of tension in it.
The first tenths of a second of the audience response is pure surprise, then quick nervous acceptance, then a group dynamic of come-on-along for this ride! Apologists then and now are saying that "f*ggot" was only a metaphor, and perhaps it was. And, perhaps, it was something quite a bit more complex.
Reporters and bloggists and commentators all over the country have given their renditions of the event and nearly everyone has called it foul and ridiculous and hateful, but the Right has been slow to say so, while the Left has been quick and quite exercised. I think the Left has missed the point of Coulter's remark.
What is the point of making a ridiculous statement like calling John Edwards a f*ggot? He is not literally a gay man, nor is Al Gore, whom she called "a total f*g" a while back. What is the point?
The semantic explanation is that "f*ggot" is a much cruder form of "gay," and contains more venom and hatred. Calling Edwards a "queer" would not have been as effective because "queer" requires a moment's thought to separate it from other meanings not homophobic. Coulter was going for a decisive metaphor ... which just a touch of literalness.
She wanted to convey that Edwards was clearly among those bleeding hearts of the Liberal culture who, like stereotypically solicitous Eleanor Roosevelt actually cared about other people and their well being. Coulter wanted to castrate Edwards, make him appear effeminate and soft. But, she also wanted to tell the audience that everything they hate about gays is appropriate for Edwards, too. He is different from them, strange, and not to be trusted.
Coulter's remark was calculated to evoke homophobia because it stimulates the in-group/out-group mentality in which those who were receptive to the comment live their daily lives. This is the key to the use of all this hate-mongering language by Coulter, Limbaugh, O'Reilly and others. They are welding a sense of belonging among those in their audience, by systematically excluding targeted groups and associating others with those targeted groups. The Nazis were quite good at this to the horror of the Jews and Gypsies and Slavs and gays and many others.
Remember, among Conservatives in the Republican Party, the world is seen to be a theater of vicious competition, and for some among these tooth-and-claw social darwinists a place where worthiness for an afterlife in heaven is proven by earthly prowess.
How in-group/out-group dynamics works is pretty well understood from a practical point of view. There have been practitioners on every American playground and in every high school class since children have been herded together from their various backgrounds into a common experience. Some become the odd-kids-out and the rest identify with one another by excluding them. Soon there is an elite group among whom the leader will probably not be the spokesperson, but clearly abetting the speaker, the metaphor maker, the hate monger.
The hate monger gets to be part of the elite despite certain characteristics which might otherwise exclude him or her from the group entirely. In Ann Coulter's case her physical appearance is (on first blush) that of a hottie, a willowy blonde worthy of a second glance, a double take. What is important to this, however, is how Ann looks at herself, and it is likely, given her history so far, that she has some problems with it. It could be the jaw line or the thickness of her neck or anything imperfect that she has not reconciled herself to. In other words, Ann needs to do this sort of thing to reassure herself that she is acceptable. It seems like an odd conclusion that uttering contemptable slurs makes her acceptable, but we have long since learned that needy people will take negative attention in preference to none at all. Habituated to negative attention they do what they can to repeat the experience. This is the essential Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh.
The other side of the equation—the more important side—on the playground or high school cafeteria or in Republican politics is the audience. Like the proverbial "Flies" groups silently select leaders and spokespeople. Sometimes it is done in a quick moment, sometimes it takes years. The selected ones are set off into a realm where the permissible is extended, but not infinitely elastic. Being set off and lionized means also that a different law of the jungle obtains. In situations like this the leaders and spokespeople can be sacrificed quickly and with little real concern. After all they have enjoyed privilege; now they can deal with ostracism or worse. Leaders know this and this spurs them onward to ever more "endearing" behaviors.
Group psychology of hatred is a fertile field. Coulter understands it inately, probably because of her own putative self-loathing. She understands intuitively that people who respond to hate speech are inevitably defending themselves from something, a fear of something inchoate like homosexuals or of something quite tangible and vivid like the sons and daughters of slavery. As we have said many times, Conservatism is fundamentally involved in Fear. It is the essential metaphor of conservative thinking—the caution, the hesitancy, the lack of confidence, the unconvincing bravado, the skepticism of one's own motives and, especially, the motives of others with whom one is in perpetual competition.
Modern Republicans need Coulter and Limbaugh and O'Reilly because they understand that their coalition of racists and homophobes and corporate ladder climbers and militarist-imperialists could not possibly hold together without a constant reinforcement of the essential bond—the exclusionary definition of the out-group as weak, effeminate, untrustworthy, eggheaded, and uncompetitive, and the in-group definition as strong, virile, masculine, and decisive. Hatred is the common emotion, a glue so effective that it ceases to be remarkable among them!
Hate mongering is not new. Lucius Accius (170-86 B.C.E.) is given credit for this observation
— Oderant, Dum Metuant —
Let them hate, so long as they fear.
This is the ugly truth about modern Republicanism in our epoch. It is the harbor of hatred and the fountain of fear, an ideology bereft of compassion and cooperation, the harness of the worst features of humanity.