There were a lot of stories to be told at the 33rd annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., this week. Conservatives from all over the country gathered to discuss immigration both legal and illegal, the economy, the size and scope of government, national defense and homeland security, all the favorite conservative issues. There were big ideas, big subjects, big questions of policy and basic political philosophy.
Which is why it's such a crying shame that the big story turned out to be a few intemperate words tossed off carelessly by a speaker more interested in making a buck than inspiring her audience.
On Friday, controversial conservative columnist and author Ann Coulter -- on her way to a well-attended book signing on the show floor -- addressed the assembled attendees at CPAC 2006 with a speech that blogger Sean Hackbarth called bad stand-up comedy with a conservative schtick. Sean was being too generous. In fact, Coulter sailed right past the bounds of good taste, past her usual tactlessness, past the furthest extent of what could be considered socially acceptable discourse.
During her prepared remarks, on the subject of Iran, Coulter said, "Maybe they do [have nuclear weapons], maybe they don't, but they're certainly acting like they do. ... If you don't want to get shot by the police, don't point a gun at them. Or as I think our motto should be, post 9/11," Coulter said, "'Raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences.'"
Six words. That's all it took. That's all it took to derail the entire conference. That's all it took to confirm every negative stereotype about conservatives. We're no longer smart, driven, sincere people who are trying to raise the level of public debate and shape the future of our country for the better. Now we're all just a bunch of bigots. Now that's the story.
Thanks a lot, Ann.
A prominent conservative blogger who's covering the conference with me describes Ann Coulter as a "gateway conservative." Because she's so controversial, Ann Coulter attracts the attention of people who wouldn't ordinarily find themselves drawn to conservative political thought. They start out reading her, then they get exposed to columnists like Charles Krauthammer and Michael Barone and George Will, and they "mature a little in their political philosophy."
I think that's a valid point. I think that there's something to be said for appealing to people who respond to vitriol and bile and righteous anger in order to get them thinking about more nuanced issues. But there are two major problems with that approach, and because of them I think figures like Ann Coulter end up doing more harm than good.
Every time Ann Coulter gets up and calls Iranians -- or Iraqis, or Jordanians, or Saudis or Pakistanis or Yemenis or Afghans or Sudanese or whomever because really, aren't they all pretty much the same anyway? -- "ragheads," she gets the attention of people who think she's right on. She gets thunderous applause from the members of her audience who share her anger at and disgust with the Muslim fundamentalists who are presently waging their diffuse little war against civilization.
But she also attracts the attention of people from both the left and the right who think that there are better ways of expressing anger than flinging outrageous and condescending ethnic slurs around. And at that moment, she's not just Ann Coulter. She's an icon of the entire conservative movement. She is the conservative movement. When she says "raghead" live on C-SPAN in front of a sign that says "Conservative Political Action Conference," she's speaking for all of us.
And a whole lot of us wish she'd just shut up.
The other problem is even worse, if considerably less obvious. Yes, conservatism is the big tent. Yes, ours is the political philosophy of pluralism and tolerance. Yes, we advocate a marketplace of ideas, where any reasonable position deserves to be heard and included.
But seriously, do we really want to include people who think that the best way to address geopolitical tensions is to throw the word "raghead" around? Are these the people we really want to invite to our party?
There are those out there who think that controversial speech should be controlled by the government. There are those who think that saying things like what Ann Coulter said -- or publishing editorial cartoons deemed by some to be sacriligious -- should be against the law. These people clearly have the wrong idea. But just because Ann Coulter should be allowed, by law, to say whatever she wants to whichever audience chooses to invite her, so also should she be held responsible for saying things that do more harm than good. And calling people "ragheads" to resounding applause certainly does more harm than good. Harm to the conservative cause, harm to east-west relations and harm to the national discourse.
Ann, seriously. From now on, just stay off our side.