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May 1, 2017

Speak of the Devil

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Stephanie Dorris / The Chicago Maroon

In another universe, Ann Coulter is probably a gay icon. Maybe she’s putting her law degree to use as some sort of Gloria Allred or is in L.A. making a comfortable living as one of the ladies who luxuriantly swings her hair around for Dove commercials and has over 100,000 Instagram followers. I love that Ann Coulter. In our universe, though, she’s an esteemed representative of the radically xenophobic right, her rise to fame predicated at least partially on a thinly veiled disdain for non-white people. As of last week, she has been (informally) invited to speak at the University by the president of College Republicans.

Thus, this self-righteous and indignant piece from me, some cuck college snowflake. This invitation will likely be justified by some pseudo-intellectual philosophizing about free speech. In reality, College Republicans is doing it just for funsies. The invitation reflects the hollow underpinnings of the University’s wider championing of free speech as an end in itself.

The nominal reason behind extending this invitation likely runs along the lines of “something something discourse something Kalven Report.” This is a dubious claim at best, especially coming from the same leadership of College Republicans that has consistently refused to discuss or comment on, for instance, Donald Trump and his candidacy during the election (or after—since Inauguration Day, the UChicago College Republicans page has made a whopping zero references to Donald Trump). Think of all the lost opportunities for discourse! The shame!

Regardless, Ann Coulter is not a particularly strong candidate for promoting debate or useful discourse. In many ways, she is another Milo Yiannopoulos; her only truly distinguishing features are her acerbity and striking blonde hair. If her sponsors at Berkeley wanted to truly ignite discourse and discussion on the issue of immigration based on substantive fact, they ought to have started by inviting qualified speakers who are not Ann Coulter. Much like the president she loves, she is severely underqualified. Coulter’s opposite at Berkeley was Maria Echaveste, a former Clinton White House deputy chief of staff and presidential advisor on immigration, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, Democratic National Convention Executive Board member, lecturer at Berkeley School of Law, and at one point, the nominee for ambassador to Mexico. For comparison, Coulter worked as an Eighth Circuit law clerk and corporate lawyer for six years before quitting in the early ’90s to start writing books about how scared she is of Spanish speakers. Coulter is qualified to discuss immigration with people like Echaveste in the same way I am qualified to go to the Conservative Political Action Conference; as a hyper-partisan liberal snowflake, I am incapable of coherent reason given my religious devotion to progressivism, and my only contribution would be loud and self-righteous yelling.

If not actual discourse, the goal of the invitation, then, besides that standard “generate outrage for PR reasons and maybe a Fox News piece” strategy, seems to be just…free speech and attention. Indeed, that was what the wording of the College Republicans’ invitation implied—she should come to UChicago to talk about her experience at Berkeley, not immigration. And sure enough, here I am giving it attention. Ann Coulter should apparently come to campus because she could not go to Berkeley, and we want to show that we—UChicago, and Republicans—love speech (except when it involves criticizing “The Donald”). The University itself just eats this up. Who could forget that marvelous welcome letter? Ultimately, though, the University’s similar attitude toward free speech, where we pretend to celebrate it regardless of content or form, just leads to policy positions that are both hilarious and embarrassing. Therein lies the problem.

Case in point: When the free speech of literal neo-Nazis rode in on its blonde-haired, blue-eyed ponies through campus, leaving white supremacist posters in its wake, the University took action to remove the posters and punish those responsible, to the extent that it pushed for hate crime charges for the perpetrators. But if you ask Michele Rasmussen, the dean of students, it’s not because we didn’t like the posters, really—we do love us some good ol’ free speech—but rather because the posters “used adhesive glue.” At least they draw the line at sticky Nazism, right? Maybe I’m just conspiratorial, but it seems that the University is only willing to champion the free speech banner until it hurts their image, at which point the publicity gained from any controversy outweighs that gained from being able to market itself as a less liberal version of the Ivy Leagues. That sounds remarkably familiar to the College Republicans’s refusal to make any sort of public statement about Trump, ever, or their desire to invite Ann Coulter to talk about free speech without having to take responsibility for the speech she actually produces (or intended to produce at Berkeley).

To be clear—I think there is some benefit to be had by having conservative figures on campus to articulate their views and engage in productive debate. That does not mean everyone who can be invited ought to be invited. I am personally opposed to inviting figures on campus for the sake of stirring the pot, as if to make a point about free speech as its own exciting end. Free speech ought to be thought of as a commons—drawing from the “pool” of free speech to justify the ramblings of a vile liar who has been repeatedly accused of plagiarism to do so is detrimental to the broadly liberal value of free speech as an institution; the notion of “free speech” risks becoming like “family values,” a phrase that theoretically should carry little controversial baggage but has long since been weaponized to antagonize the progressive left. Both the University administration and College Republican leadership would do well to realize this. The College Republicans have every right to invite Coulter just for the sake of doing so, but is it really in their best interest? Or in anyone’s best interest? Or is it just a publicity stunt? I’m all for publicity—why else would I write nauseatingly center-left think pieces—but can we at least not pretend it is for the substantive goal of advancing the First Amendment rather than just creating noise?

Jake Eberts is a third-year in the College majoring in political science.

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