Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America
By Anne Coulter
Crown Forum, 368 pages, $28.99
Ann Coulter has a gift for exasperating even the people who agree with her, but she is also an underrated public intellectual and one of the few pundits whose collected work rewards close scrutiny. Among the book-length broadsides for which she is known, none is more enlightening than this year's Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America, which was released in June by Crown Forum, a subsidiary of Random House, Inc.
This time around, a recounting of the savageries wrought by the French Revolution becomes the centerpiece of a sustained attack on the mob mentality that Coulter asserts is always and everywhere the lifeblood of progressive politics. Coulter has had it with people who lump the French Revolution with the more civilized American Revolution simply because both upheavals happened within a generation of each other. "In the American Revolution," she points out, "fewer than 10,000 died in battle and another 10,000 died of disease or exposure during the war. And our king was fighting back!" In the French Revolution, she can't help but note, "France's king capitulated immediately, but the revolutionaries proceeded to liquidate more than half a million of their fellow citizens anyway, in what the revolutionary leaders themselves called the 'Terror.' "
Comes then the inspiration for writing a historical survey that might also function as a primer for the next election: "How did the nation of Voltaire, Descartes, Pascal, and Moliere transform itself into a bloody saturnalia overnight? This is a question liberals don't want us to think about," Coulter writes. That, of course, is reason enough to think about it, with "think" being the operative word, because it is mob leaders who traffic in images rather than ideas.
Case in point: If the anonymous folk who contribute hit pieces to the Los Angeles Times arts blog, "Culture Monster," had read Coulter's latest book, they might not have been as quick to join a hyperventilating colleague on the right coast in painting Michele Bachmann as a legislator who pines for the so-called "Dark Ages." Were mainstream journalists conversant with history, hacks on both coasts might also have recognized the scurrilous pedigree and libelous nature of "Dark Ages" as an impressively-visual-but-empty-headed label for the Early Middle Ages.
Our revolution was essentially conservative, Coulter observes, whereas Robespierre and his Jacobins set a benchmark for nihilism that would later inspire the Communists, the Nazis, the Viet Cong, the Khmer Rouge, and, yes, the Democrats. (When Coulter has her dander up, expressions like "oh no, she didn't!" tend to be leached of whatever surprise they imply for less controversial people.)
Her muse du jour is Gustave Le Bon, whose 1896 book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, apparently rivals Eric Hoffer's The True Believer for prophetic takes on what would come down the pike.
Demonic has an off-putting title, but it ought to be perused by conservatives, simply because it sets the record straight on so much that passes for conventional wisdom these days. Reading Coulter is like accompanying Annie Oakley to a shooting gallery:
• Afraid -- like Michael Crowley of Time magazine and other press release rewrite specialists who've never heard the Austrian critique of Keynesian economics -- because the Tea Party movement "treats longtime political verities as hokum"? (That's Crowley's phrase) Ping! Coulter contrasts imaginary violence from the right with actual violence from the left.
• Think of Bastille Day as little more than the French version of the Fourth of July? Ping! Coulter revisits 18th-century history in a way that will raise hairs on the back of your neck, while doing more to rehabilitate the reputation of the unjustly-maligned Marie Antoinette than any other popular author.
• Confused about which American political party nurtured the Ku Klux Klan and which did not? Ping! Coulter settles that question, too, and not just with her trademark zingers -- although they're pretty good ("These days,'civil rights' is nothing but a cat's-paw for the mob's left-wing social policies, such as abortion.… Back when civil rights meant rights for blacks, Democrats were standing in the schoolhouse door.")
No other writer working today has the temerity to claim that the tragic shooting of four students at Kent State University in Ohio nevertheless had the salutary effect of ending the student riots of that era. Very few are bold enough to suggest, as Coulter does, that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the best of civil rights leaders. Coulter questions the timing of King's famous march on Birmingham, which was staged over the objections of others in the civil rights movement after the citizens of Alabama had already voted its racist Commissioner of Public Safety out of office.
In her reckoning, Thurgood Marshall must be ranked ahead of MLK because he had a more positive impact on American society. There are people who will hate this book for that contention alone, but Coulter's blonde ambition is made of sterner stuff. Just to keep the ox-goring equitable, she also jabs Thomas Jefferson as unquestionably the "flakiest" of the Founding Fathers, and a man whose signature work was immeasurably helped by the take-no-prisoners editing of the other luminaries who helped to draft the Declaration of Independence.
The weaknesses of Demonic are real but not fatal, and they seem to be a consequence of Coulter's failure to avert her gaze even when it would have been advisable. Coulter spares nothing in her survey of the depravities associated with the French Revolution. Closer to our own time, a chapter on why it was wrong to vacate guilty verdicts thirteen years after five New York teenagers were convicted of raping a woman in Central Park reads like a stomach-churning paper on the politics of jailhouse confession. While the episode can indeed be seen as an example of the left's disdain for the rule of law, reading about it made me wonder whether Coulter would have done better to lean on something less despicable.
In a lighter vein, I'm glad that Coulter's forays into theology were short and defensible if not sweet. (You want sweet nonfiction, you read someone else -- All Creatures Great and Small is still in print.)
Yet "too analytical for her own good" is not the same as "heartless," which is why I question Coulter's judgment but applaud her motives, whether they include selling books, saving America, making good on her contract, or some combination of all three. In pioneering the genre of popular history-as-diatribe, defending the Christian foundations of the American founding, and voicing the kinds of opinions that the most genteel of progressives are sure to dismiss with a "bless her heart," Coulter has again put her fierce intelligence to good use. This is not the kind of book you want to be seen reading on a subway or in a lunch room, but it is an act of public service, and in spite of its occasional hyperbole, it's sure to outlive others of its type.