Two seemingly unrelated stories - the flap over Ann Coulter's characterization of 9/11 widows and the suicide of three Guantanamo Bay detainees - highlight what our linguistically challenged president might call a "misunderestimated" feature of Republican rhetoric: the use of angry ridicule in defense of ruinous policies. With some historians concluding that G.W. Bush has descended to the ranks of our very worst presidents, with more people saying that Republicans have misled the country, we need to focus on how the right sold its flawed initiatives.
One easily overlooked persuasive strategy was on display in Coulter's media appearances. Each time the expected question about whether she had crossed a line of good taste and decency came up, Coulter was ready with barbed words and a confident smirk. And why not, since her original characterization of the widows reeked of cleverness?
In addition to calling them "witches," Coulter wrote, "These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV ... reveling in their status as celebrities and stalked by grief-arazzis. I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much." None of this is fair, of course, since Coulter is clearly projecting her own sense of publicity-seeking onto women who have used their unsought position to argue for an intelligent approach to post-9/11 security challenges. Still, the veneer of humor, like Coulter's know-it-all smirk, masks the folly of her ideas.
If the serious argument advanced by both the widows and the 9/11 commission were invalid, if the president and his party were marshaling and deploying sufficient federal resources to make our ports, borders, chemical and nuclear plants, bridges, tunnels and cities safer, Coulter's wit - though it surely added insult to injuries inflicted by the terrorists - could have passed with little harm. But since Bush & Company have proceeded recklessly - failing to raise needed funds in a sustainable way, misdirecting the military, undermining constitutional and human rights, and dividing the country - Coulter's game of three-card-Monte does the country a great disservice.
Coulter's partner in destructive comedy, Rush Limbaugh, has dealt with the issue of torture in Iraq and at Guantanamo (G'itmo) Bay prison in an even more egregious way. When news of the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, he led an effort to dismiss the horrifying images in banter. Straining for a light tone, on his May 6, 2004, broadcast, Limbaugh insisted that "the people who executed [the abuse] pulled off a brilliant maneuver," insofar as the infamous torture photographs were just "good old American pornography ... no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones [Yale fraternity] initiation."
Those who assume that Limbaugh quickly or remorsefully retreated from this dark satire must not have checked out the parodies he posted online in the succeeding months. In this humor campaign, "Club G'itmo" was promoted as a "one-of-a-kind Muslim resort paradise" where "Diet Korans and free prayer rugs" are distributed, and "Muslim extremists get together for relaxation." Pictures of the "Club" show orange-clad terrorists enjoying "in-room ethnically sensitive snacks," panoramic oceanfront views, and water sports. One doctored photo shows Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, munching on a "complimentary Islamist break-fast" and Osama bin Laden stretching out in a spa mud bath. Invidiously, a weather report, updated daily, contrasts overheated Baghdad with cooler Club G'itmo.
Perhaps Limbaugh thinks the United States can laugh its way out of the global publicity disasters of torture and abuse. If so, he, like Coulter, misses the two ruinous consequences of his raging mirth: that it distracts Americans from a serious analysis of pressing and complex problems and that it disgusts and alienates the rest of humanity. In the Kafkaesque world of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib - where one is judged guilty and punished without evidence or trial, where despair and frustration have made hunger strikes and force-feeding routine, and where three people have found the only escape possible - there is little for Americans to laugh about.
"When you're smiling," the old song says, "the whole world smiles with you." But humor, especially sadistic humor, operates in more complicated ways. Laughing at mistreatment, violation, degradation and murder is a symptom of a politics devoid of empathy. To the extent that such jokers are persuasive, they put our nation at risk. Is this the way the world ends? Not with a bang but a guffaw?
Paul Lewis (email@example.com) is a professor of English at Boston College and the author of "Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict" (University of Chicago Press), to be published in September.
© 2006 The Philadelphia Inquirer