By Jack Downey
As the emotional rollercoaster of election week thankfully found gravity again, Obama enthusiasts rejoiced, speculating with renewed energy about how to address a constitutionally obstructionist House of Representatives. Straight, white, men came to the earth-shattering realization that they no longer get to unilaterally dictate the nation’s political agenda. Disaffected, politicized Catholic bishops puzzled over the dissolution of autocratic clericalism, while reactionary paranoiacs bemoaned the impending dismantling of religious liberty. The rest of the world got on with pressing practical concerns – such as helping the thousands who are still displaced or without basic living necessities after Sandy. Members of the greater Fordham University community, however, were thrown into a disorienting tailspin upon hearing this: Ann Coulter, one of civility’s arch-nemeses, had been invited to lecture on campus.
What began as an internal online calendar notation went public on last Thursday via a single-sentence-long teaser from the Young America’s Foundation – a multi-million dollar conservative non-profit that promotes youth organizing through outreach and
indoctrination education, — and fetishizes the memory of Ronald Reagan and all things fashionable in the radical GOP playbook. Without any actual public acknowledgement from Fordham, and in an age where images from a Dennis Quaid film are plausibly passed off as news updates, speculation instantly arose as to whether or not the story was even real. Some suspected the College Republicans – the undergrad organization responsible for bringing Karl Rove to campus for some sage council in 2011. But, while some may consider Rove immoral – even evil – he is at least historically relevant. Coulter – whose most recent contribution to U.S. culture is her intransigent refusal to backpedal on her characterization of the president as a “retard” – inhabits a very exclusive stratosphere of incendiary malice.
In a month that had witnessed the ethically dubious – certainly undignified – exercise of the Catholic ecclesiastical bully pulpit, many hoped that this was just a practical joke. After the dust had settled post-election, giving rise to calls for unity and cooperation from both sides of the political aisle, the prospect of Coulter darkening Fordham’s doorstep seemed a dramatic lurch in the opposite direction and reeked of the sort of exhausted mania that precipitated the bourbon-spokesperson-cum-GOP-operative Mary Matalin’s verbal assault of an olive-branch-toting Van Jones. And as if the bounds of decorum weren’t already strained enough – on account of the worst natural disaster to hit New York in a lifetime and the steroid-injected political climate – the Fordham community still carries fresh emotional scars from last spring’s profoundly painful incidents of on-campus racist graffiti. In this tense atmosphere, the prospect of Ann Coulter descending on campus to unleash her signature hate speech on the university community seemed particularly disturbing – although the somewhat moot distinction is one of degree, rather than kind.
The vast cornucopia of Coulter opponents from virtually every point west of FOX News rarely focus their criticism on her actual intelligence; rather, they overwhelmingly point out that – regardless of her substance – she is simply cruel. For a privileged talking head who once announced that “Christianity fuels everything I write,” Coulter often seems a grotesque parody of Karl Rahner’s philosophical symbolism – that is, she is herself a toxic manifestation of spite and misanthropy who makes present and intensifies those very emotions in her audience, whether or not they are sympathetic to her political orientation. Her baseline method of discourse is pure ad hominem, and takes a plausibly admirable stance that media objectivity is a deceptive smokescreen to its evolutionary extreme as a living, breathing hyperbole. She exhibits the same narcissism and steadfast denial of reality that seems to be Donald Trump’s recent modus operandi. But others speculate that maybe she is just an opportunist, realizing that she’s got a niche, and that in today’s media, moderation doesn’t sell. And David Brooks has already cornered the market on thoughtful conservatism. But neither of these options, cruel or opportunist, take her seriously in the way that she purports to take herself seriously – they are both dismissive of her agency as an ideologue. And yet to take her seriously is to submerge oneself in the kind of Manichean worldview that permeates her own thought and which engenders its own kind of cognitive dissonance.
As it turned out, it was the Fordham College Republicans that had booked Coulter, and by mid-afternoon on Friday, things had escalated considerably: at least two Facebook protest pages had been formed – the hallmark of culturally-relevant controversy – and undergraduates from the Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan opened an online petition on change.org. Alumni threatened to withhold financial contributions, and the petition garnered over two thousand signatures in less than 24 hours. Plans for a protest of the lecture started to church – perhaps inspired by the memory of 2010, when Coulter was effectively run out of Canada by unsympathetic students. The collective sigh of relief that it wasn’t an official university event, quickly morphed into speculation about how the administration would (and should) respond, especially given that university funds allocated to student groups would potentially be involved in the event itself, if not the actual honorarium.
By Friday afternoon, Fordham’s president, Fr. Joseph M. McShane, SJ, responded, carving a diplomatic, but by no means ambivalent, middle path between the university’s commitment to free and open dialogue and its ethical responsibilities to the broader community – not to mention its reputation. While vigorously disavowing the Coulter invite, invoking the memory of the springtime on-campus racist binge, and expressing a clear displeasure with the whole episode, McShane balked at the idea of actually banning her from speaking:
To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans, however, would be a tremendous understatement. There are many people who can speak to the conservative point of view with integrity and conviction, but Ms. Coulter is not among them. Her rhetoric is often hateful and needlessly provocative—more heat than light—and her message is aimed squarely at the darker side of our nature.
As members of a Jesuit institution, we are called upon to deal with one another with civility and compassion, not to sling mud and impugn the motives of those with whom we disagree or to engage in racial or social stereotyping. In the wake of several bias incidents last spring, I told the University community that I hold out great contempt for anyone who would intentionally inflict pain on another human being because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed.
By this time, and unbeknownst to the majority of interested parties, the whole debate had been rendered rather moot, as the College Republicans took the flashbang controversy to heart, and the group’s president, Ted Conrad, penned an internal memo to the CR’s executive board and members – almost simultaneous to McShane’s statement – announcing second thoughts on the Coulter invite:
The College Republicans regret the controversy surrounding our planned lecture featuring Ann Coulter. The size and severity of opposition to this event have caught us by surprise, and caused us to question our decision to welcome her to Rose Hill. Looking at the concerns raised about Ms. Coulter, many of them reasonable, we have determined that some of her comments do not represent the ideals of the College Republicans and are inconsistent with both our organization’s mission, and the University’s. We regret that we failed to thoroughly research her before announcing, that is our error and we do not excuse ourselves for it. Consistent with our strong disagreement with certain comments by Ms. Coulter we have chosen to cancel the event and rescind Ms. Coulter’s invitation to speak at Fordham. We made this choice freely, before Father McShane’s email was sent out and we became aware of his feelings – had the President simply reached out to us before releasing his statement he would have learned that the event was being cancelled. We hope the University community will forgive the College Republicans for our error, and continue to allow us to serve as its main voice of the sensible, compassionate, and conservative political movement that we strive to be. We fell short of that standard this time, and we offer our sincere apologies.
The announcement was greeted by waves of alleluias from the thousands of concerned citizens across the internet – including McShane himself – although some predictably bemoaned the perceived triumph of liberal “persecution”… or, conversely, the lost opportunity to demonstrate against Ann Coulter in person. The 48-hour sizzler came and went – all without any indication of direct conversation between any of the parties involved – including, it seems, the group and Coulter herself, since their mea culpa indicates that they essentially had no idea who she was (which in itself should be troubling, either for its disingenuousness or its indication of profound ignorance). Perhaps Coulter will handle her uninvitation with a modicum of grace, dignity, self-reflection, or simply precious silence. However, it’s at least as likely that she’ll spew forth some choice venom[?] about Jesuit fascism, God-given constitutional rights being trampled, and the limp-wristed [timidity?] of Fordham’s College Republicans – or, what most people would call sound judgment and compassion.
Jack Downey is an activist and Assistant Professor of Religion at La Salle University. His research investigates modern asceticism and the Catholic Worker movement. Previous writing has appeared in Tricycle Magazine: The Buddhist Review and American Catholic Studies.