Like a lot of people this week, I’m searching for the right name to call Ann Coulter.
During the final debate, Coulter referred to President Obama as “the retard” in a tweet. Two days later, John Franklin Stephens, Global Messenger of Special Olympics Virginia and a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome, responded by sending Coulter an open letter of staggering grace.
When I first read all this, I was in an office setting and had to resist the urge to spit. Then I started comparing her to a parasite. Because I do not possess staggering grace.
Why a parasite and not a beast or bat or bitch? Well, because people hate parasites. We see them as the lowest, ugliest, most vile creatures – things that should be defended against with medication, vaccination or immolation. Parasites suck the life out of good, hard-working creatures (like us, presumably) and give nothing back to the world. Or so the stereotype goes.
Furthermore, you could argue Coulter’s host of choice is the 24-hour news cycle. To start the feeding process, she needs only say something inane. This sets off a chain reaction wherein the host aims to surround the pathogen and fight it – public figures condemn her, shows like The View yell at her – but all the host has done is allow the parasite access to nourishment. Coulter gorges herself on the media blitz. Controversy sells books and speaking engagements. And in the end, as with the protozoan Leishmania brasiliensis, we look around only to realize our faces have been eaten clean off in the process.
Sure, the comparisons continue. Coulter’s beady little eyes are reminiscent of Cymothoa exigua, the tongue-eating alien louse of internet fame and you might say her writing creates tiny cysts of hate in our brains like Toxoplasma gondii. I could even argue that her pretentious enunciation is comparable to the strained yowlings of a cat beset by the paralysis tick of Australia (Ixodes holocyclus).
These are fun things to say. But good citizens of the internet, I implore you to hold off on branding Ann Coulter with the scarlet “P” as I have done. And not because name-calling is precisely the only sort of adolescent contribution Coulter offers our world.
The truth is, to compare Ann Coulter to parasites is to elevate her to a place of beauty and function – a place where life has existed for billions of years by gnawing its way into the biology of other creatures and lurking between the connective tissue. Despite their reputation for blood-sucking and face-eating, scientists have a few ideas about ways in which parasites actually benefit their host.
Take colitis and Crohn’s disease. According to Carl Zimmer’s itchy-brilliant book Parasite Rex, “some scientists think the spread of these diseases was caused by the eradication of intestinal worms.” Which is to say, colitis and Crohn’s are diseases nearly exclusively suffered by the first world – or people without intestinal parasites. This leads us to believe there may be some beneficial interplay between intestinal worms and the human bowel, at least in the case of colitis and Crohn’s. More from my hookworm-loving hero:
“In 1997, scientists…picked out seven people with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, who had gotten no relief from any conventional treatment. They fed them eggs from an intestinal worm that normally lives in an animal, one that wouldn’t cause any disease of its own in a human gut…Within a couple of weeks the eggs had hatched, the larvae had grown, and six out of the seven people went into complete remission.”
Remission! From worms! Which means even creatures like the wretched beasts that live in the hearts of puppies have a role to play in the web of life. So, too, do the gorgeous zombie-fying fungi at right. And frankly, I hesitate to afford Coulter the same level of purpose.
Wrapping up, it might do us well to look at the ancient Greek origin of the word “parasite,” back before it had anything to do with animals like the mosquito-borne worms that cause elephantiasis. Zimmer reminds us that the word is translated literally from “parasitos” to “beside food.” This word was used to describe the food-servers at temple feasts, but at some point it came to refer to the social “hanger-on” – a person who often earned his meal by providing a nobleman with entertaining conversation.
In any case, we might consider employing the same remedy to Coulter that we would to both the microscopic hitchhikers and the mealtime mooch.
Which is to say: if we stop feeding Ann Coulter, perhaps she’ll go away.
Did I make it clear that Parasite Rex is a wild ride worth reading? Sure, it’ll probably make your eyeballs twitch a little, but it includes enough tales of science, subterfuge, mind control and malice to make you geek out ‘til you pass out. There’s even a jazzy section about how parasite-like human babies are within the womb. Seriously, you owe it to your dinner guests to read this book.
I don’t recommend eating worms for weightloss, however.