American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right
Polipoint Press, 2010
In American Taliban, author Markos Moulitsas, founder of the left-wing weblog Daily Kos, attempts to highlight what he considers to be important similarities between America’s radical right and the Islamic fundamentalists with whom they have been waging a war with for the past decade. Moulitsas lays out his thesis in the first page of the book, claiming, “Yes, the Republican Party, and the entire modern conservative movement is, in fact, very much like the Taliban…The American Taliban—whether in their militaristic zeal, their brute faith in masculinity, their disdain for women’s rights, their aversion to science and modernity, or their staunch anti-intellectualism—share a litany of mores, values, and tactics with Islamic fundamentalists.” Is this a legitimate report on the worrying reality of the Radical Right? The answer is that it is in parts both, much like Moulitsas himself, somewhere between activism and journalism, and this balance both aids and hurts the book. While interviewing him, I asked about occupying this sometimes confusing space.
“I consider myself a media personality,” he said. “I operate in media. Everyone wants to make these really clean distinctions between ‘you’re a journalist’ or ‘you’re an activist.’ Yes I am and yes I am, and I’m also a concerned citizen. There are days that stuff that I write has a journalistic bent to it and stuff that I write that has an activist bent to it. The notion that I have to live with certain constraints, to me, is kind of absurd and antiquated. I can be whatever I want to be that day. I can do whatever I think is best for my ultimate goal, which is to see a more progressive America. Sometimes that’s journalism, sometimes it’s overt activism.” Such an admission, whilst endearingly honest and not invalid, creates problems for anyone choosing to review American Taliban.
Surely, Moulitsas was aware that the title of his book would generate a bit of controversy. Interestingly, most of the criticism has been doled out by members of the American Left, who Moulitsas calls, “weenie liberals.” The major concern voiced by the likes of Jamelle Bouie of the American Prospect is that Moulitsas is unfairly simplifying and generalizing his political adversaries in an attempt to make a controversial comparison. Bouie argues that this tactic is frustratingly similar to that used by activist-journalists on the right, like Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism (whose cover art Moulitsas plays off of for his own design). “Like Liberal Fascim, American Taliban is another entry in the tired genre of ‘my political opponents are monsters,’” claims Bouie. He goes even further in his disdain for the work, accusing Moulitsas of committing the “obscenity of comparing our political opponents to killers and terrorists.” However, it seems that Bouie and other critics are themselves doing some over-simplifying. First of all, the idea, as Moulitsas writes, that within the radical right “there is never a shortage of war lust,” is not incorrect, nor is it being stated simply to disparage adversaries. Americans from all vantages of the spectrum seem very hesitant to point out what should be obvious: we are warmongers (one need only think of our recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan), and many on the right are proud of that fact. To reject a comparison of the blood on American hands to the blood on the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, as Bouie does, not only simplifies things, it marginalizes many of the very real blights on the American record.
Another objection raised in the liberal blogosphere is that American Taliban fails to address what Bouie called “vast differences of degree” between the two groups. For example, it is ridiculous to equate the Taliban’s stoning of women with an American conservative’s “disdain for women’s rights.” The idea is again a simple one, where liberal writers try to take the sting out of Moulitsas’s argument by using the same sort of reductionism that they themselves condemn in his book. However, that does not make their critique wholly wrong. After all, it certainly is an important difference, and one which Moulitsas would have done well to address, as it would not have particularly damaged the core ideas of his book. When pressed about this issue, he said, “This is called the American Taliban, not Islamic fundamentalism comes to America; it’s uniquely American.” In this respect, the argument of the underlying similarities between the two groups seems more legitimate. In a blog entry on the Atlantic, senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates agrees with Bouie, claiming that Moulitsas is running too close of a comparison between them. He writes, “This statement—‘in their tactics and their issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban’—is quite literal, and one is obliged to ask if it’s true or not.” Without question, Coates makes a fair point, but if we are to fully expect that Moulitsas’s controversial statement be taken literally, we must also note that claiming one to be “almost indistinguishable” from the other amounts to admitting that there still are things that distinguish the two groups. This, perhaps a touch crudely, does at least show some respect for the notion of “differences of degree.”
The book itself makes for a fun read. It is filled with countless stories of right-wing insanity, which do not exactly have Moulitsas entering new territory, but hey, the book manages to make you think a little while laughing a little, so it’s hard to find fault with it for that. Also, the strategy Moulitsas uses of following quotes from the spokesmen of the American right with leaders of Islamic fundamentalist movements is interesting and effective. This technique is particularly strong when Moulitsas dares the reader to guess whether an Islamic or a Christian radical said, “There is no other alternative to victory in the challenge and confrontation except by standing firm with faith. There is no other alternative but to believe in ourselves and our chosen path. This is the only alternative. We must believe in our path. All the believers of this path must join hands and stand firm. We must demonstrate steadfastness. This is the path to progress and victory. If all the believers do so, their victory will be certain.” Well? What’s your guess?
Although overall this is a solid effort, and criticisms of the controversial title or comparison seem largely unwarranted, there are a couple of areas in which Moulitsas seems to let his activist side get in the way of the story. First, his treatment of liberals and Democrats comes off as far too kind. Reading American Taliban, one remembers that many heinous American wars were waged by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and that not only nutty conservatives are prone to exaggeration, paranoia, or conspiracy theory. Moulitsas’s portrayal of liberals during the Bush era seems to be touched with a rosy hue. “When George W. Bush was installed as president in 2000, California Governor Gray Davis didn’t call for secession to the cheers of his constituents. Rather, out of respect for the democratic institutions of our country, liberals worked to persuade the American people to vote differently in the next election.” That understates the case. There was more liberal opposition to Bush than simply putting heads down and working honestly for votes (one need only look at Moulitsas as an example of this resistance). Moreover, saying that liberal America let Bush be “installed” as president without a fight may be true, but it should never be painted as a compliment. It was a failing of our democratic system, not a respectful nod to it.
Finally, while one can think and laugh about this American Taliban, it is a bit of a chore to go all the way with Moulitsas’s assertion that these people are dangerous and could destroy the nation. The uncertainty actually came from his own stats and analysis. Particularly when discussing values and culture, this group seems less a threat, and more a desperate group of fools. Moulitsas presents poll after poll that reveal both conservative hypocrisy and a very real shift in national mentalities that are sending the socio-cultural outlook of the American Taliban into the American hinterland. As the country slowly moves toward equality for gays, lenience for illegal immigrants, equal pay for women, sexual honesty (do you really feel that the American Taliban’s stated objection to pre-marital sex still holds any weight?), this group lashes out in a bizarre attempt to stop the clock. It leaves the reader unsure if what we are seeing is a re-emergence and strengthening of the American Taliban, or if this strange dance on the political stage is a panicked bluster, sound, fury, and all that; the pained, dying breath of the American Taliban.
But that is not really Moulitsas’s concern. He is interested in his goal of a progressive America. Regarding the midterm elections, he seems less worried than other liberals. “We’re going to lose big. But we lose 25 Blue Dogs? I’ll clap.” That sentiment may make the liberal blogosphere cringe, but he doesn’t seem to care. Moulitsas is nothing if not true to himself, and he’s too busy fighting to placate. For that, he deserves credit.