Queen of Mean 

It was the provocateur vs. the preacher last Monday night at Vanderbilt

It was the provocateur vs. the preacher last Monday night at Vanderbilt

Remember Tony Clifton? He's the mustachioed lounge-singer character developed by Andy Kaufman in the late '70s, made infamous for his chauvinism, bad singing, insult slinging and overall abuse of audiences who paid perfectly good money to see him perform. The Clifton alter ego was just another way for Kaufman to pull a fast one on unknowing fans in the kind of reverse comedy he became famous for. The more riled up the audience got, the more the joke was on them.

Ann Coulter's shtick is a lot like Kaufman's—only less funny and maybe not so deliberate. At least, that's how she came across Monday night at Vanderbilt's Langford Auditorium, a venue that not 12 months prior had played host to that other luminary of modern conservatism, President George W. Bush. Suffice it to say Bush's invocation of "the army of compassion" last May to argue for health care information technology reform seemed more cogent, philosophically speaking, than anything that came out of Coulter's mouth on Monday.

She didn't bother to present a "Vision of America," the title of the night's event. Rather, she strung together a chain of one-liners and sound bites, riffing on Terri Schiavo's bulimia and Sen. Barbara Boxer's twin impairments, which are, according to Coulter, a learning disability and the fact that she's a woman. The attacks were rapid-fire and ad hominem. Maybe one out of every five was funny, and the rest were the kind of jokes you'd imagine suicide bombers make with each other—funny for fanatics, but angry and a little unsettling for the rest of us.

"I was tremendously disappointed," said T.C. Weber, a self-described "longtime rock 'n' roll bar manager," found Tuesday working at Crescent Oyster Bar near Vanderbilt. "I voted Bush and I can support Bush, but the mean-spiritedness that came out of Ann Coulter was just shocking."

If she was trying to antagonize her audience—which was mostly young and maybe two-thirds liberal—Coulter did a good job. Halfway into her routine, right after she took up the issue of academic freedom (by calling controversial Colorado ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill "Chief Lying Through Teeth"), someone in the audience shouted, "Talk about the issues!" The outburst drew wide applause, but she went back to her prepared litany, undeterred.

That's because Coulter peddles sensation, the kind of thing that gets attention on cable news networks and sells shrill hardback books, but a damn poor substitute for meaningful political discourse in America 2005. It was even more disheartening to witness her lame hit job as part of Vandy's IMPACT Symposium, an annual lecture series that dates back to the volatile and politically charged days of 1964. Previous guests have included Martin Luther King Jr., George Wallace, Robert Kennedy, Barbara Jordan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Jesse Jackson and Margaret Thatcher, to name a few. Next time, student organizers might consider inviting a real public intellectual to represent the right, not a self-promoting provocateur.

The greatest irony was the contrast between Coulter's performance and that of the evening's other speaker, Rev. Al Sharpton, a man who knows something about provocation and self-promotion. Sharpton's desire to achieve mainstream legitimacy in American politics these days is well-known, and he couldn't have paid Coulter to make him look more like a thoughtful, credible statesman than she did. Though he was guilty of using a few facile metaphors, Sharpton made sophisticated arguments, bolstered with statistics and tempered with humor. A preacher since childhood, he's an orator of the first order.

"How could I feel secure when the U.S. intelligence services can't find a man who has more videos out than Mary J. Blige?" he asked, referring to Osama bin Laden, in a big laugh line for college students. But it wasn't all jokes: when asked by an audience member for his 10-point vision for America, he recapped 10 specific points from his speech (he may have actually skipped No. 8), including a single-payer health care system, fully funded public education initiatives and the preservation of publicly funded Social Security, among other things. (Coulter barely attempted to answer the question.)

Sharpton contends that the Democrats failed to frame the terms of the debate in 2004, failed to be aggressive and hence got put on the defensive in an election they should have won. (Duh.) Having recently run for the Democratic presidential nomination, he offered political strategies for the resurgence of the foundering Democratic Party. "We've allowed the conservatives to take the Bible and the flag from us," Sharpton said in a press conference before his speech. He argued that the term "moral values" means more than abortion and gay marriage; education, health care, social security and fair wages are all moral issues, he said.

Sharpton is one of only a handful of black leaders, and of religious leaders of any color, willing to link the struggle for civil rights to that of human rights, including those for gays and lesbians. He is unapologetic, tackling issues of bedroom behavior head-on even as he says they alone don't define the Democratic Party. For Sharpton, it's a matter of rights, not religion: "Even if I feel that your choice may make you end up in hell," he said, "I'm going to fight for your right to get there." Sharpton criticized the religious left for failing to speak out in American political life and at the same time mounted a strong defense of the separation of church and state.

Sharpton spoke first on Monday, then Coulter, and then they did a joint question-and-answer session. Early in that session, Coulter gave the audience a glimpse behind the curtain. One young woman politely, if nervously, asked her why she didn't cite any positive examples of women, only negative ones, and what kind of role model she was for women. Coulter sneered and let out a horse-like snort. "That's not what I do," she said in her disdainful tone, insisting (like an NBA player) that she's not trying to be a role model. Is this what lies beneath the family-values conservatism that's taking over America?

Maybe Coulter doesn't believe all that stuff she says. Like Tony Clifton, or Andy Kaufman in the Memphis wrestling ring, the joke's on people who boo and hiss at her hateful rants, who take her seriously and end up looking like rubes. At least let's hope that's the case. But if IMPACT's organizers thought they were paying Sharpton and Coulter for an exchange of ideas, they got shortchanged by half.

"When Al Sharpton starts making the most sense, that gets scary. And last night he made the most sense," said Weber, the conservative. "When you look through the list of people they've had for this thing over the years, I don't think this is a watershed year. I don't think this is a year they'll look back and say, 'Man, that really kicked ass.' "

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