Attempted murder on Ann Coulter’s dead reputation

No, Ann Coulter did not say that blacks needed to earn the right to be treated as volitional human beings.

Update In comments, the Daily Kos diarist whose work is discussed here gracefully retracts. Kudos to him!

The law concerning false and defamatory statements recognizes a category of victims who cannot sue because they cannot show damage: their reputation is already so poor that it can’t be harmed. Such victims are colloquially referred to as “libel-proof.”

When it comes to racism, Ann Counter is libel-proof. If a specific allegation against her turns out to be false, that doesn’t really change your beliefs about Coulter.

But it does, or should, change your beliefs about the people making and repeating the allegation. (It’s a version of the standard law-school hypothetical about shooting someone who is, unbeknownst to the assailant, already dead; no, it doesn’t do the intended victim any actual harm, but it’s still attempted murder.)

With that background, consider the latest outrage from Coulter, which has been zipping around the intertubes. (E.g., a Daily Kos piece on it is featured in today’s Daily Kos promo email. But I’d already seen it.)

Perhaps, someday, blacks will win the right to be treated like volitional human beings. But not yet.

Pretty outrageous, huh? But my native suspicion of believing things that reinforce idea I already believe led me to the bold and outrageous act of actually reading the offending column. (I’m a trained blogger, folks; I know how to do such things safely. DO NOT try this at home.)

In the column, Coulter is discussing a previous case of a young black man gunned down by a white man, in that case an off-duty cop. She asserts (I don’t know the case) that the NYT portrayed the victim – a prep school grad – as “a prized symbol of hope” and tried to whip up a fury about the evil cop who had wantonly murdered him, until a bunch of eyewitnesses testified that the dead man had actually attempted to mug the shooter. Writing about her favorite target, the “liberal media,” Coulter then says:

When the facts were unknown, the cop was a racist. When it turned out Perry had mugged the cop, it was no one’s fault, but a problem of “violence,” “confusion” and “two worlds” colliding.

Perhaps, someday, blacks will win the right to be treated like volitional human beings. But not yet.

So what we have here is not an outrageous statement, but a perfectly standard-issue conservative attack on the liberal media for treating minority-group members as hapless victims rather than as actors with choices about their actions. Coulter is the master of the art of deliberately making bomb-throwing comments in order to pretend to be the injured party when those comments are correctly interpreted, but this is not such a case. Her account of the Trayvon Martin case is tendentious in the extreme; it never deals with the undisputed fact that the interaction started with Zimmerman pursuing Martin, first in his car and then on foot. But the key sentence, in context, clearly means the opposite of what it’s being represented as meaning: not that Coulter thinks that black need to earn the right to be treated as volitional human beings, but that she thinks that the liberal media are culpably denying them that right.

The Kos diarist updated his original piece, noting that commenters had offered him a more “charitable” interpretation. On his own blog, he goes further, saying that the original diary was “almost certainly wrong” (and pointing out the analogy between what he did to Coulter and racial profiling: both instances of Bayesian reasoning gone bad).

I was glad to see the corrections, though I think the one on Daily Kos is inadequate. But of course the correction never catches up with the accusation; the Google search “Ann Coulter” AND “volitional human beings” gets 3300 hits. Ann Coulter will always have said that blacks need to earn the right to be treated like human beings, just as Dan Quayle will always have said that he should have studied Latin to speak to the people in Latin America.

The first three times I saw this, I believed it, because it fit my view of Ann Coulter. That’s a dangerous habit. (The technical term is “confirmation bias.”) One of the moral lessons of Bayesian thinking is that you can’t actually learn anything from material you’re already inclined to believe; learning is the always-painful process of changing your prior probability distribution.

I finally clicked through because I’ve learned to distrust the Blue Team outrage machine almost as much as I distrust its Red counterpart. (Media Matters for America, for example, does great service, but as often as not when I follow their links I find that the story was either hyped or substantially misreported.)

Cocoons are comfortable places to live, but they’re not actually safe: ask Mitt Romney. The fundamental progressive act – because the only act that allows humanity to make real progress – is challenging one’s cherished beliefs.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

18 thoughts on “Attempted murder on Ann Coulter’s dead reputation”

  1. Thanks for this correction. Coulter’s public voice is despicable, and she is too often dishonest, but it serves no one’s best interests to falsely report and misinterpret her statements.

    1. “Coulter’s public voice is despicable, and she is too often dishonest, but it serves no one’s best interests to falsely report and misinterpret her statements.”

      And in the end she is still despicable and dishonest. I pay little attention to statements attributed to her because I’ve had friends who were at times psychotic and it didn’t do either of us any good to worry about what was said in such moments. Given Ms. Coulter probably hasn’t had a truly lucid thought since pre-puberty, I fail to pay much attention even to things that reinforce something I already know, regardless of their veracity.

      Tell me something new…

  2. “I’ve learned to distrust the Blue Team outrage machine almost as much as I distrust its Red counterpart”

    A question for the community: do we benefit from the Outrage Machine because it generates energy, or does it do a disservice to the cause by whipping up a frenzy with transparently bogus evidence?

    As a science-minded progressive with a foot in the financial industry, I wonder about this a lot. Today’s news brings an example in the NYT story about Goldman shuffling aluminum ingots around their warehouses for some unclear reason. But over on Mother Jones and Salon the OM is in full swing on the comment boards, though the unclarity is unclarified. Similar stuff abounds on articles touching, however tangentially, on GMOs or Monsanto. The stupid, it burns. And yet, I wonder all the time whether the energy is helpful to progressive causes overall, or whether, like the idiots with hammers smashing windows at Occupy marches in Oakland, it tarnishes the whole movement.

    Community: go.

    1. Do we benefit from the Outrage Machine because it generates energy, or does it do a disservice to the cause by whipping up a frenzy with transparently bogus evidence?

      Both. But probably more of the former.

      I suspect the Outrage Machine is an emergent property of all the genes responsible for social behavior. Sort of like God. The vast majority of human beings will never rise above Outrage Machine or learn to mistrust it as Kleiman now does. We swim in it. It serves a purpose akin to a bee’s dance in alerting all the other bees to something of importance. An exaggerated dance helps catch jaded eyes.

      All that being said we are running a vast national experiment on your question. The entire Republican Party has devolved into one giant Outrage Machine. Some of us thought that outrage unsustainable and gave it a name: Peak Crazy. Which implies a summit and then downhill movement towards a valley. Will the Republican Party move to the center again? Or will we continue to read of things like this:

      Over the Fourth of July weekend, when it got little attention, House Republicans drew up their list of debt-ceiling ransom demands, and they are positively insane. They’ve come up with this sliding scale of demands. If Obama wants a four-year increase in the debt ceiling, all he has to do is … agree to Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Social Security. Republicans are generously willing to let Obama accept smaller concessions, like cutting Social Security benefits, in return for shorter-term increases in the debt ceiling, but then of course he’d have to come back to the House Republicans to be jacked up again next year.

      This is still peak crazy time. Many people on Social Security vote for Republicans. So who exactly are these Republicans in Congress representing?
      And while all this rage aimed at a program the vast majority of Americans are utterly happy with?

      John Boehner’s Coming Sharknado — Daily Intelligencer

    2. The purpose of the Outrage Machine is to generate money. The number of pleas for money I’ve received, to do something about the Texas abortion law, is probably about the same number that Brett B has received from the NRA to do something about gun control laws.

      1. IOW, whole forests have been decimated?

        Actually, these days most NRA funding appeals are all about rolling back gun control laws, instead of fighting them. It’s a nice change…

  3. Had I encountered Ann’s quote anywhere other than in this blog post, I would have checked it immediately, not because (stripped of its context) it sounded like something she would write, but because it DIDN’T sound like the sort of thing she would write, If anything, it sounds like the sort of thing that a left-wing stereotype of Ann Coulter might write.

    She makes some pretty outrageous statements, but her message stays pretty consistent.

    By the way, Mark. I did the Google search you suggested and this post came up second from the top. First if I search Google News!

      1. I could be wrong, but Coulter may have bitten off more than she can chew with this one. She actually said that the black race is sub-human. Coulter crossed the line of defensibility, even from racist Conservative politicians and pundits.

      2. Perhaps rachelrachel’s ear is better tuned to the sort of thing that a left-wing stereotype of opponents’ views sounds like.

        While the right seems fond of quoting verbatim statements out of context, the left’s preferred method seems to be to put words their opponents’ mouths through hyperbolic mis-characterization of their positions. It’s not lost on me that you are defending even Ann Coulter’s use of the method as “a perfectly standard-issue [] attack”.

  4. Well,

    I am quite appreciative of Miss Coulter. And while I appreciate this attempt at charitable fairness. In either vain, the suggestion that black people seem incapable of being volitional unless granted the same by Miss COulter, whites, the media, by other blacks for that mater or whether Miss Coulter’s twist was a bit of sarcasm —

    It was loaded in a manner that suggested an all to familiar innuendo.

    And I took issue with her on the matter. Little so annoying than you back slapping media gurus.

  5. I’m the person who wrote the Daily Kos piece. Moral: don’t fire off a piece when reading a line upsets you; cool off; reread the article slowly and read it as if it were written by someone you’d give the benefit of the doubt to. I didn’t do that.

  6. Gotta disagree with the point of Mark’s post: i.e., the confirmation bias is bad and a person should always challenge their cherished beliefs.

    If rationality were cheap, Mark would be right. But rationality–in anybody’s head–is in pretty scarce supply. As Brad DeLong says, we’re a bunch of hopped-up apes. Our monkey brains are pretty good at doing a lot of things, and they’re damned fast at doing them. I’m not going to waste the time to give Ann Coulter a fair hearing: confirmation bias is wonderfully economical, if managed correctly. Yes, occasionally she might say something true or interesting, but I don’t have the time to filter it. A Ramesh Ponnuru could be another matter. He’s sometimes as tendentious as Coulter, but sometimes has something useful to say. Reihan Salam is something else: often useful and seldom tendentious.

    The trick–and it is hard–is to have our sluggish human brains manage our monkey brains well. A certain amount of confirmation bias is part of the management.

Comments are closed.