Homegrown Mujahideen

Observant readers (or bookshelf scanners) will notice that American Taliban, the new book by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, shares its smiley-face cover art with Liberal Fascism, the controversial 2009 book by conservative writer Jonah Goldberg. Indeed, there is a sense in which American Taliban is the left-wing counterpoint or spiritual successor to Liberal Fascism. But whereas Goldberg sought to make a historical connection between American liberalism and European fascism for the purpose of "clearing the record," Moulitsas seeks to classify right-wing conservatism as a species of fundamentalist extremism, for the purpose of spurring progressive action.

This is not new ground for Moulitsas. In 2005 he wrote a short post slamming the conservative movement for its similarities to Islamic radicalism: The Taliban, he wrote, "are exactly what we see in the Republican Party as the GOP continues to consolidate power -- creeping theocracy, moralizing, us versus them, embrace of torture, the need to constantly declare jihad on someone, hysterics over football-game nipples, control over 'decency' on the airwaves, lyrics censorship, hostility to women freedoms, curta[i]ling of civil liberties, and so on."

In the time between that post and this book, Moulitsas has become an important force on the activist left. The site he founded, Daily Kos, receives more than 20 million visitors a month and is a massive platform for bloggers and activists. In 2006, Daily Kos raised more than $1.4 million for "netroots" candidates, two of whom are now serving in the Senate -- Jim Webb, John Tester -- and six of whom are serving in the House. In addition, Daily Kos has spawned a major political convention and attracted the attention of major Democratic lawmakers, including President Obama.

Given the subject matter and his own influence, Moulitsas is sure to find a large audience for American Taliban. This wouldn't be a problem if the book were a careful comparison of populist nationalist movements, highlighting similarities, underscoring differences, and generally documenting points of congruence between the U.S. conservative movement and populist nationalist groups around the world. But it isn't.

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).

It doesn't help that Moulitsas elides glaring contradictions in his argument and routinely misrepresents his evidence; in one instance, Moulitsas brandishes Ann Coulter's infamous quotation from 2001, where she declared that "we should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity," as evidence of the right's bloodthirsty ways, while ignoring the fact that she was fired from National Review (an organ of the American Taliban) for that exact quotation.

In another chapter, Moulitsas quotes a sermon by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay: "Only Christianity offers a comprehensive worldview that covers all areas of life and thought, every aspect of creation. Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world -- only Christianity." And how does Moulitsas respond to that banal statement of exclusive truth, heard weekly by millions of law-abiding, patriotic Americans? With this comically reductionist conclusion: "For DeLay, only Christianity offers a methodology for daily life, whereas for Osama bin Laden, only Islam does." Also, Hitler was a vegetarian.

Now, to be sure, American Taliban is clearly meant for activist consumption. Unlike myself, Moulitsas isn't a journalist, and his job isn't to be an honest broker for ideas; no, it's to rally progressives and score points against conservatives. Moreover, the right doesn't hesitate to smear progressives; books like Goldberg's Liberal Fascism or Mark Levin's Liberty and Tyranny present a world where liberals are the embodiment of cruel statism. To these writers, liberalism is a mere stone's throw away from national socialism or Soviet totalitarianism. Given that, why not fight fire with fire?

Here's why. Conservatives haven't actually gained from their willingness to bend and misrepresent the truth. For starters, Republicans are still deeply unpopular; according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, only 24 percent of Americans gave the GOP a positive rating, a historic low. At best, with their constant attacks on "socialism" and "tyranny," conservatives are responding to a gross caricature of liberalism; after years of taking down liberal straw men, conservatives can neither respond to actual liberals nor offer the public anything other than decades-old dogma. Indeed, their likely electoral gains notwithstanding, movement conservatives are still incapable of making an affirmative case for their governing philosophy. Their "new ideas" are anything but, and to most informed observers, it's clear that "no" is the only functioning weapon in the Republican Party's paltry arsenal. Put another way, there's a reason why the movement's leading voices are quasi-religious charlatans, rent-seeking celebrities, and failed ex-governors.

Progressives aren't immune to this degradation, and we can expect something similar if we succumb to temptation and emulate the right's disregard for truth and context. Yes, progressives are depressed and despondent about the future, but that's no reason for dishonesty and scaremongering, and it doesn't excuse the obscenity of comparing our political opponents to killers and terrorists. As reality-based members of the American community, we have an obligation toward the truth, even when it isn't particularly convenient.

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