I exhorted determined-to-attend friends to exercise restraint if they did in fact choose to go; I urged others to abstain completely. And then I saw the signs. On unassuming printouts of pink and white each simply entitled Ann says Coulters most controversial claims were quoted and then plastered all over campus.
Among other gems, the kicker was Coulters foreign policy prescription towards Middle Eastern nations post 9/11: We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We werent punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. Thats war. And this is war.
Puzzled, outraged and morbidly curious, I allowed Ann Coulter to get the better of me: I decided to attend her speech.
By the time I arrived at a packed Boe Chapel Sunday and tucked myself into a pew towards the center of the church, the crowd was already worked up. A liberal upperclassman seated directly in front of me could hardly contain his excitement: He had performed six hours of research prior to show time, preparing multiple questions and flipping his Rage Against the Machine shirt inside out to limit Coulters ammo against him during the question and answer session. A large group of Coulter supporters wore shirts inscribed with stark declarations of support: I Want to be Ann Coulter, Ann Coulter is Hot and my personal favorite, Ann, will you marry me? An elegantly dressed gentleman seated behind me urged those around him to show Ms. Coulter some respect, while my roommate contemplated the quickest way to get kicked out (impressively, Coulter hadnt even uttered a word before he got the boot). By the time Coulter finally sauntered onstage, the heat, tension and buzz had combined to unsettle my stomach. This wasnt serious political discourse; this was a spectacle. Of course, that was the point. The speech was everything everyone expected it to be, no matter how many feigned outrage at what Coulter said.
Coulters talk was called, Liberalism and Terrorism: Two Different Stages of the Same Disease. She presented no coherent thesis linking liberalism and terrorism. Instead, she chose to string together a group of disjointed one-liners that chastised liberals for general stupidity. The one-liners werent funny, but they didnt have to be; they just had to be provocative. And they were.
The abrasive nature of many of Coulters comments including an eye-popping exchange during the question and answer session in which she informed one Muslim student that she was going to send his name to John Ashcroft proved yet again that Coulter has nothing to offer besides emotional agitation. Whats worse is that liberals like me fell into her trap. Instead of maintaining our collective composure and refusing to legitimize the majority of her claims, liberals responded, well, with stupidity. The combination of derogatory questions and immature outbursts from liberal students only fueled Coulters already formidable fire. She lives and breathes this stuff. Its how she can write a book admonishing liberals for slander while engaging in slander herself. Its how she can deride liberals as idiots for calling names and not skip a beat. Coulters chutzpah is bottomless, but grounded in genius: As long as she can inspire hatred and contempt, she will remain in the spotlight. As long as she still matters in the minds of some people, she will continue to receive thousands of dollars for simply having the gall to be polemical.
However, conservatives have a reason to be upset as well. The Political Awareness Committee (PAC) booked Coulter for the sake of promoting intellectual diversity. The fact that the PAC chose Coulter to represent the voice of the conservative student body and paid her $17,000 to do so is reprehensible. Coulter represents a broader, more disturbing trend towards political commentary entrenched in ideology and presented as a combat sport. On Sunday, St. Olaf degenerated into a microcosm of the pundits politics as popcorn: cheap, fast, easy and over-saturated with salty one-liners and ham-fisted finger pointing.
The only way to combat the Limbaughs, Moores, Frankens, Hannitys and Coulters of the world is to actually take the only sensible piece of advice Coulter gave Sunday. Responding to a student who asked if she was trying to pick fights in her speeches, Coulter coldly answered: If you dont want to hear me, dont show up.
For once, Coulter and I agree: The only way to stop people of her ilk is to stop showing up. Now all I have to do is take my own advice.