American Taliban, Liberal Fascism, and Judging a Book By Its Title
Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas' new book, AMERICAN TALIBAN: HOW WAR, SEX, SIN, AND POWER BIND JIHADISTS AND THE RADICAL RIGHT, continues a long tradition in political polemics.
To their credit, Jamelle Bouie, Matt Yglesias and Ta-Nehisi Coates offer firm rebukes to Markos Moulitsas’ new book, American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right. Despite being ideological allies, all correctly argue that hyperbole so far removed from reality serves to inflame the passions of True Believers while doing nothing to advance their cause.
Like Liberal Fascism, American Taliban is another entry in the tired genre of “my political opponents are monsters.” Indeed, Moulitsas begins the book with the Goldbergian declaration that “in their tactics and on the issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban.” And he fills the remaining 200-plus pages with similar accusations. In the chapter on power, Moulitsas writes that “the American Taliban seek a tyranny of the believers in which the popular will, the laws of the land, and all of secular society are surrendered to their clerics and ideologues.” Which is, of course, why these American Taliban participate in the democratic system and hew to the outcomes of elections. Later in the chapter, Moulitsas argues that the right-wing hates democracy — they “openly dream of their own regressive brand of religious dictatorship” — loves war, fears sex, and openly despises women and gays. In the chapter on “war,” Moulitsas calls Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota a “high priestess of the American Taliban” — a veritable Mullah Omar, it seems! — and in the final chapter on “truth,” Moulitsas concludes by noting the foundational “kinship” between the two Talibans.
Now, it’s true that certain tendencies on the American right have analogues in fundamentalist Islam; for example, and as Moulitsas points out in his chapter on sex, right-wing conservatives share a hatred of pornography with fundamentalist Iranian authorities. Of course the similarities end there; conservatives boycott pornography, Iran punishes it with death.
But, this gets to the huge, glaring problem with American Taliban; ultimately, any similarities are vastly outweighed by incredibly important distinctions and vast differences of degree. I’m no fan of the right wing, but the only possible way it can be “indistinguishable” from the Taliban is if conservatives are stoning women for adultery, stalking elementary schools to throw acid in girls’ faces, and generally enforcing fundamentalist religious law with torture and wanton violence. The chapter on women becomes a joke when you realize that Moulitsas can’t distinguish between the odiousness of right-wing sexism and the vicious amorality of permanently disfiguring “immodest” women. Likewise, there are magnitudes of difference between executing gays (the Taliban) and opposing a hate-crimes bill (Republicans).
This stuff doesn’t win votes anyone because, after all, it’s a form of preaching to the choir. Which is fine—the choir needs some sermons. But there’s no real upside in lying to the choir. Political movements need to adapt to the actual situation, and that means having an accurate understanding of your foes. You need to see them as they actually are so that you know the right way to respond. Either underestimating or overestimating their level of viciousness and evil can lead to serious miscalculations. Which is just to say that getting this stuff right is more important than coming up with funny put-downs.
As is often the case, with arguments that lead with analogy, the point isn’t to clarify anything, it’s to turn heads. Perhaps I am wrong, but I do not think you claim that Glenn Beck is the white Malcolm X because you think it’s a particularly astute analysis; you do it because it will get you on the Atlantic Wire. I don’t believe you claim that the American right’s tactics are “almost indistinguishable” from the Taliban because you think it’s adroit and original. You do it to elbow your way up the best-seller list.
That’s fine–it’s an accepted strategy. But speaking only for me, if your committment is to making me look, as opposed to making me think, expect that I will only look once. Everything you say afterward is compromised in my eyes. Faulkner is still waiting.
Too many writers think clever analogy first, argument second. It’s supposed to be the other way around.
Conor Friedersdorf takes this a bit further:
I understand the financial incentives that cause authors and publishing houses to choose these kinds of titles. But I don’t know why anyone thinking strategically about political impact cheers them. It’s a marketing strategy that basically guarantees a book will never be read by anyone who disagrees with it. The emotional satisfaction some people get from extreme vitriol is an astonishingly powerful driver of counterproductive political behavior.
Now, it may well be that the likes of Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, Glenn Beck, and others who mass produce these sort of polemics are just in it for the cash. If you’re just trying to sell books, it makes sense to grab the free publicity that comes from a shocking title and then spoon feed an angry niche what they want to hear in order to get them to buy your book. But my strong sense is that Moulitsas and Goldberg are True Believers who actually want to convert people to their cause. And they’re both talented and financially successful. So what’s the point?
Kevin Drum sums up the likely reaction of all but the most rabid lefties:
I haven’t read American Taliban and don’t plan to. I figure I already dislike the American right wing enough, so there’s little need to dump another load of fuel onto my own personal mental bonfire.
Both Drum and Yglesias contrast the rebukes from some on the Left to American Taliban with what they recall as near universal acclaim for Liberal Fascism from the Right. I don’t have any comprehensive metrics available to me to do a useful analysis, but I do recall quite a few bloggers on the Right, myself included, pushing back on exactly the same grounds. In my February 2008 post “Goldberg, Coulter, and Savage,” I observed,
While I get the desire to rebut the notion that Fascism is right-wing phenomenon and therefore somehow comparable to American mainstream conservatism, the argument that American liberals are proto-Fascists is quite silly. The use of inflammatory titles, while an excellent publicity vehicle for selling books, is decidedly unhelpful if one’s purpose is to advance serious argument.
There is, however, a stark difference between Coulter, who seriously argues that liberals are traitors, fascists, or whathaveyou, than cutesy publicity stunts.
Contrast this, incidentally, with Glenn Greenwald and Yglesias, two others who managed to secure major book deals off the success of their blogs. Greenwald’s How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok and Yglesias’ Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats are both polemics. But they’re written in such a way that a serious person on the other side might actually read and engage.