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Comment too perilous to ignore

ANN COULTER is buzzing from one talk show to another these days, peddling her new book. Our era values mindless contention as a kind of entertainment, and we don’t just reward relentless self-promotion -- we admire it. Thus, Coulter’s phenomenal success at marketing distasteful, mean-spirited books -- poorly written and spottily researched -- that otherwise would go all but unremarked upon by everyone except the rhetorical ghouls who haunt the political fringes.

Now, no Coulter promotional campaign would be complete without a calculated outrage -- a call for the forcible conversion of all Muslims, for example, or a demand for revocation of women’s suffrage, an insult hurled at gays or the grieving widows of Sept. 11 victims. As more than one political consultant has remarked, the American far right is a carnivorous constituency, and it needs to be regularly thrown red meat. Coulter’s singular genius has been to ignite tightly focused and timely controversies, thereby getting her ideological opponents to toss the scraps to her fans.

So if you know what’s coming, why play ball and deliver the denunciation that validates the Coulter strategy?

In part, it’s because this time Coulter didn’t intend to ignite the firestorm that’s currently raging around her; in part, it’s because the implications of these latest remarks simply are too threatening to be allowed to stand.

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Earlier this week, Coulter went on “The Big Idea,” a talk show aired on CNBC, the cable channel devoted to business news. Its host, Donny Deutsch, is a preternaturally affable businessman who invites successful people on to talk about how they turn their ideas into money. Coulter was there to describe how she had -- in our vulgar commercial argot --"branded” herself. At one point, Deutsch asked her what an ideal country would be like, and she replied that it would be one in which everyone was “a Christian.” Deutsch, who happens to be Jewish, protested that Coulter was advocating his people’s elimination. She responded that she simply hoped to see Jews “perfected” through conversion to Christianity.

Deutsch, to his everlasting credit, wasn’t having any of it, and the full transcript of their extended and -- on Coulter’s side -- vilely offensive exchange on the matter is widely available online. Reaction over the last couple of days has been swift.

The National Jewish Democratic Council weighed in with a petition asking other broadcast news organizations not to give Coulter a forum. “While Ann Coulter has freedom of speech, news outlets should exercise their freedom to use better judgment,” said council Executive Director Ira N. Forman. “Just as media outlets don’t invite those who believe that Martians walk the Earth to frequently comment on science stories, it’s time they stop inviting Ann Coulter to comment on politics.” (Sadly, too many Americans now believe the only way to confront offensive or dangerous speech is to silence it.)

Rabbi Marvin Heir, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that Coulter’s “remarks that Jews needed to be perfected and America would be better off if everyone was Christian are deeply offensive and have been the classic language of anti-Semites throughout the millennia. She may have been a guest on CNBC’s ‘Big Idea,’ but what she invoked is the oldest ‘Bigoted Idea,’ and she should apologize.” (Good luck on that one, rabbi.)

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Perhaps the best response came from the Anti-Defamation League, which called Coulter’s comments “outrageous, offensive and a throwback to the centuries-old teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism. The notion that Jews are religiously inferior or imperfect because they do not accept Christian beliefs was the basis for 2,000 years of church-based anti-Semitism. While she is entitled to her beliefs, using mainstream media to espouse the idea that Judaism needs to be replaced with Christianity and that each individual Jew is somehow deficient and needs to be “perfected” is rank Christian supersessionism and has been rejected by the Catholic Church and the vast majority of mainstream Christian denominations. Clearly, Ann Coulter needs a wake-up call about the power of words to injure others and fuel hatred. She needs an education, too, about the roots of anti-Semitism.”

That she does. As the league points out, “supersessionism,” the theological notion that Christianity “completes” or “perfects” Judaism is, along with the deicide libel, anti-Semitism’s major theological underpinning. Indeed, in Central and Western Europe between the world wars, there was a substantial body of purportedly “respectable” intellectual opinion that held “supersessionism” made possible a “reasonable” theological anti-Semitism that was entirely licit, as opposed to the Nazis’ and fascists’ illicit, “racially based” anti-Semitism. It is fair to say that the rails leading to Auschwitz were greased by precisely the opinion Coulter expressed on American television this week.

It’s a scandal that in this pluralist nation it falls to the voices of organized Jewry to make this case, because it is a case whose outcome is of the greatest consequence to us all. For too long we’ve pretended that the brutal political rhetoric that now characterizes our partisan politics can be quarantined, that it won’t inevitably leach over into every other aspect of our lives. In fact, it’s doing just that, and soon the coarse and vituperative language of the war between red and blue -- with it’s instantaneous imputations of bad-faith and utter disrespect for minimal civility -- will begin to color aspects of our civil society where mutual respect is too crucial and hard won to tolerate this sort of risk.

Here, for example, is what transpired on the airwaves Friday. Deutsch went onto NBC’s “Today” show and called it “scary” that, in this instance, Coulter was not being deliberately provocative. “We’re playing with dangerous words in our society -- there’s no accountability, there’s a glibness that we in the media kind of elevate.”

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Meanwhile, Coulter was on the Kevin McCullough radio talk show, making the utterly absurd case that Deutsch somehow had ambushed her. On his blog later in the day, McCullough agreed. Deutsch, he said, “is an angry anti-Christian bigot, looking to make a name for himself by biting into Christian icons.”

How many Americans really want to follow Ann Coulter into this sort of confrontation? Not many, one suspects. But are enough of them willing to give up, once and for all, the sort of dangerous fun she and her rhetorical fellow travelers provide?

timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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