As a liberal, I admire Markos Moulitsas. He has risen to national prominence thanks to his vision, dedication and hard work. He was a young Army veteran and became such an influential voice for progressive voters -- that his views are sought by Sunday talk shows such as Meet the Press. He has created several web sites that allow for the liberal/left to coalesce, exchange ideas and organize. I am one of those who has contributed to and spoken out on the mega political web site he founded Daily Kos. I also serve as a front-page contributor to a related site, Street Prophets, which he graciously hosts for us spiritual Lefties. Beyond that, I served with Moulitsas as an adviser (although I never conferred with him) to the 527 political group, Stempac.
But it is out of this very admiration and understanding of his important role in contemporary politics that I am at once disappointed by and concerned about the political impact of his new book, American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right. For a man who has done so much for liberalism, this tome does little, and may probably even be a setback.
My issue is not with Moulitsas, his philosophy, or the disinfecting sunlight he shines on many characters of the religious and political Right in this work. My concern is with the book's glib and ultimately false equation of the Afghanistani Taliban with any and all American conservatives.
"Taliban" has a precise meaning. In Pashto, it literally translates to "students." To Americans, it is the name of the political-religious movement that ruled Afghanistan from 1994 until it was overthrown by Coalition and Northern Alliance forces in late 2001; a military action brought on because of its hosting of Osama bin-Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist group. It regrouped about three years later after President George W. Bush's administration became increasingly distracted by the war in Iraq.
Murderers were subjected to public executions, a punishment that at times was inflicted by the victims' families. Thieves were subjected to public amputations of one hand, one foot, or both. Adulterers were stoned to death or publicly given 100 lashes...The stipulated punishment for those found guilty of homosexual acts was to have walls toppled on them.
We are probably all familiar with the Taliban's brutal opposition to girls and women seeking education and employment outside the home, as well as the zeal with which they punish, often by mutilation, open feminism. In short, the Afghanistan Taliban enforces its theology through cruel and unusual punishment.
What becomes immediately apparent in American Taliban is Moulitsas's glib exaggerations and unsupported premise. "Fact is," he declares in the introduction, "progressives hate the Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists precisely for the same reason we hate rabid conservatism at home: their fear of change, their contempt of nontraditional lifestyles, their mania for militaristic solutions, and their fascistic efforts to impose their narrow worldview on the rest of society"
Hate? Is that really a "fact"? I do indeed hate the Afghanistani Taliban for numerous reasons - including those examples stated above - but especially for giving aid and comfort to al-Qaeda while they planned and carried out the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
But I don't "hate" American conservatives. In fact, some of the people who hold views like those Moulitsas describes as American Taliban include some of my friends, neighbors and family. While I may not like their politics I care about them very much. More importantly, while I hope that they come to embrace more tolerant points of view, I also know that they do not advocate the stonings of eloping couples, the collapsing of walls upon gays (a 1998 incident in Herat, Afghanistan is discussed in the chapter entitled "Sex.") or the mutilation of girls trying to attend school. In fact, some of their Islamophobia is in response to such incidents. Beyond that, since Moulitsas, like me, objects to liberals being derided as "fascists" by the likes of Jonah Goldberg, then it is more than a little illiberal as well as hypocritical to lower himself to Goldberg's standards.
Moulitsas's discussion of the Herat execution of two gay Afghanistanis is an excellent example of his slippery-slope argument that all American conservatives have the same violent goals as the Afghanistani Taliban. "Many in the American Taliban, who must look at this cruelty with satisfaction," he concludes, "have fiercely fought the inclusion of anti-gay violence in our nation's hate-crime laws."
Many? I'll bet that few of them even know about the episode. Yes, there are certain Christian Reconstructionists who call for such literal but extreme Biblical sanctions. And yes, there are thugs who beat-up LGTB people for no reason but irrational hate. But such violence is the exception rather than the rule, even among the bigoted. I rarely come across conservatives who call for anything like the tumbling-wall execution of gays. Instead, the more common expression of LGBT intolerance I encounter is either a few derogatory off-the-cuff words or more like a response of "hate the sin but love the sinner." (Likewise, I have yet to meet any conservative who believes that eloping couples should be stoned to death.) This is not to say that American LGTB people have not as a group, experienced hatefulness and violence, and especially as individuals. And of course there is a dangerous anti-gay demagoguery that remains a significant wedge in public life. But all this is still nothing like what gay people experience at the hands of the Taliban.
Wherever we look in this book, the analogy of the title and the central premise of the book does not hold up. For example, Moulitsas calls Orly Taitz a member of the American Taliban. While she is clearly a crackpot birther, she is not a known theocrat of any sort (she is Jewish). I have not seen any proof that religious fundamentalism plays any part in her opposition to Obama's presidency, and Moulitsas does not provide any.
All of these problems are a direct result of Moulitsas's failure to offer parameters -- let alone a definition -- of the "American Taliban." Is it any particular religious affiliation or is it merely self-identification as a political conservative? Moulitsas never says. I suggest that this is much more than a forgivable error, and makes the book counterproductive -- a setback for our common task of building a larger liberal movement.
"When men are once inlisted on opposite sides," Enlightened thinker David Hume, observed, " they contract an affection to the persons with whom they are united, and an animosity against their antagonists: And these passions they often transmit to their posterity."
Incendiary epithets will win us no converts to liberalism. They are more likely to cause division among ourselves and backlash from other elements of society. I think it tends to make folks who sympathize with some, but not all of the ideas of the political and religious Right -- defensive and protective of their own, creating greater identity with "whom they are united." Ranks close and camps become further polarized. Tribalism takes over, and the discourse sinks deeper into the mud. And that plays right into the Right's hands.
When the cultural warriors of the Right trap us into shouting and name-calling contests, they have us exactly where they want us. Instead of using our resources to persuade voters that our philosophy has a proven track record of wealth creation and social inclusion, we are distracted by machismo-like gutter brawls over who is a liberal fascist or who is an American Taliban. Such sideshows may make us feel triumphant and morally superior but they are a waste of time.
I wish Moulitsas had explained why Keynesian economics - an economic philosophy against which conservatives since Reagan have railed against -- is far superior to the laissez-faire approach of the culture warriors. Better yet, I wish he had exposed some of the theocrats named in his book for their shameful abuse of faith to mask an oligarchic economic agenda. It is a far better thing to expose how these characters by explaining how they betray their ostensibly Christian values than resorting to demagogic name calling. Moulitsas would have served the liberal cause better by exposing the absurdities of malefactors such as Phyllis Schlafly and James Dobson in a more credible fashion. He could have then decoupled those uniting "affections" to show how the pecuniary interests of these well-financed pundits are out of sync with much of their constituency.
The Right does emotion far better than our side. In fact, far too much of their discourse is nothing more than fearful allegations designed to have the passions of the heart prevail over the coolness of the head. Liberalism, on the other hand, fires on all cylinders when it appeals to both heart and head in equal measure. Yes, righteous anger has its uses, but only when the energy it creates is channeled to constructive action. After getting us steamed by the words and antics of various theocrats, American Taliban offers no plan of action in response.
"We'll call them bigots-and they'll call us godless!", Bob Somerby of the web site The Daily Howler recently observed, "In the process, Oligarchic Power will dig its roots deeper into the soil."
I believe Moulitsas has it in him to write a much better book, one that moves us to action and points us in some constructive directions. That is the tome I hope to read someday.