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Book Review: “American Taliban”

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The other day, I received American Taliban, by Markos Moulitas of Daily Kos, as a birthday present from my wife (thanks!), and I began reading it with great hopes. Finally, a leading progressive was going to fight fire with fire, call it like it is, and prove beyond a doubt what many progressives and liberals believe in their guts – the right wing and the Boehner/Cantor/McConnell/Cheney/Palin-led Republican Party are, increasingly, morphing into an American version of the Afghan/Pakistani Taliban – intolerant, misogynistic, theocratic, totalitarian, violent, virulently homophobic, etc.

But that’s not what happens in “American Taliban.” Sure, there’s a case to be made here, but Markos doesn’t make it – at least not as effectively or rigorously as it should be made. That’s highly unfortunate, a missed opportunity extraordinaire.  

In reading this book, I kept thinking to myself, ok, now Markos is going to provide voluminous evidence and airtight logical arguments to prove his thesis.  OK, now he is going to – as Matthew Yglesias puts it – explore “a number of issues…that relate to the fundamental congruence of values between different forms of populist nationalist movements around the world.” And now, he’s going to do this without “eliding a huge number of morally and practically relevant considerations” that make the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban qualitatively different from the “American Taliban” and other “right-wing populist nationalist movements” out there.

Again, though, this isn’t what happens.  

Instead, we get essentially what amounts to a series of anecdotes, and well-worn/familiar anecdotes at that. We also get a large number of assertions that simply are not supported by the evidence presented in the book, or even are self-contradictory and internally inconsistent.

For instance, Markos refers to the Republican Party in its “pre-American Taliban days,” back in the Nixon era. Yet, many of the right-wing figures he cites as “American Taliban” — Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly — were active in that era, so how can it be “pre-American Taliban?”  In reality, Schlafly’s been at it since the 1950s, including a campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment (in the 1970s), opposition to the UN and arms control agreements, and a series of books with titles like “The Power of the Positive Woman” (1977) and “Pornography’s Victims” (1987). Pat Buchanan was a senior advisor to Presidents Nixon and Ford, and has been spewing his racism and anti-Semitism (on “respectable” TV shows) for decades, so certainly isn’t a “newbie.” Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were politically active in the 1970s and 1980s, well before today’s “American Taliban” phase, at least as defined by Markos. James Dobson founded Focus on the Family in 1977 and the Family Research Council in 1981. And, of course, we’ve had racists, anti-Semites, homophobes, nativists, misogynists, theocrats, war mongers, and others who would easily fit into Markos’ “American Taliban” thesis, for most of this country’s history.

The point is, whatever we’re examining here with the “American Taliban,” it’s certainly not a new phenomenon. In fact, ironically (?), pretty much every single person mentioned in Markos’ book has been active far, far longer than the actual (Afghan/Pakistani) Taliban, which got going in 1994, and which governed Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.  The point is, labeling everyone who has right-wing, anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-secular, or anti-modern views – as heinous and medieval as they might be – “Taliban,” while claiming simultaneously that there was a “pre-American Taliban” era, is internally contradictory and essentially too non-specific to be coherent, let alone “actionable.” So where does that leave us? Got me.

True, the book is entertaining at times. I mean, what self-respecting progressive doesn’t enjoy laughing at people who believe that there literally were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark?  The rejection of hundreds of years of scientific advancement, and the clinging to Biblical literalism, is beyond parody. Or how about freak shows like father/daughter “purity balls,” and the male equivalent of “purity balls” in which the guys get – seriously – a sword (phallic symbol alert!).

Then we have the tired cliche of closeted, self-hating, right-wing gays like Larry “Wide Stance” Craig, Ed “Very Buffed Up” Schrock, Ted “Meth with a Male Prostitute” Haggard, and many others.   No doubt, sexual repression plays a part in creating and/or fueling the “Taliban” – Afghan or American – mindset, although we don’t get a serious, in-depth examination of those common roots in this book. Also, I’d point out, the Roman Catholic church and many other religions have “issues” with sexuality; does that make them all “Taliban?” No, it doesn’t, but sometimes that’s what you end up with when you come up with an in-your-face thesis with a catchy title, but then don’t provide the evidence or conceptual framework to back it up.  

True, much of what Markos talks about in the book is fascinating – and bizarrely hilarious – in a dark, disturbing way. Purity balls?!? Dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark?  My god. But, to paraphrase the “double rainbow” dude, what does it all meeeeeeaaaaan? Specifically, exactly how and why has the political “right” in this country been “Talibanized,” more so than it was when Sen. McCarthy was running around finding commies everywhere in the 1950s, or when Father Coughlin was spewing anti-Semitism on the radio in the 1930s, or when Jerry Falwell was pushing for a “Moral Majority” and Ronald Reagan was along for the ride in the 1970s and 1980s?  After reading this book, I’m no clearer what the answer is to any of this than I was before reading the book.

By the way, other than emotional catharsis – and I’ve engaged in it myself, calling Bob McDonnell “Taliban Bob,” and yes it was fun (and probably accurate as well) to do so! –  what does it really add to the discussion to call the right-wing loons “Taliban,” anyway?  Does it clarify our thinking on what’s at stake in this political and cultural battle? Or does it confuse matters more than enlighten?  For instance, if these people are really the American equivalent of the Afghan jihadists, would that imply a natural alliance between the two?  As a review by Ben Crair in the Daily Beast says, “[Markos’] evidence never amounts to much more than putting something an American conservative said beside something similar an Islamic radical said, and declaring that they are “clearly” or “obviously” connected.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t find that particularly compelling, unless it’s placed into a serious, analytical framework and supported by a great deal of empirical evidence, which it isn’t in this book.

Given all this, I also tend to agree with Crair that “American Taliban” ends up as essentially “a liberal’s attempt at a conservative bestseller-complete with savage dismissals, unfounded assumptions, and a lack of coherent argument about the opposing side.” Certainly, the right wingnuts deserve “savage dismissals” — in spades! And no, I have no problem whatsoever with calling “them” what “they” are – “American Taliban.”  But who are “them” and “they” exactly, how large a group are they, how serious a threat? And, while we’re on the subject, what exactly makes them like the Taliban – the western, Christian equivalent of the violent, misogynistic, homophobic, medieval Islamic Afghan movement by that name?  Unfortunately, Markos doesn’t really spell any of that out in his book.  Instead, with regard to the “them” and “they” question, we mainly get a list of the “usual suspects” – Coulter, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Beck, Dobson, Schlafly, Santorum, etc.   But again, to quote double rainbow man, “what does it all mean?”

Another review of Markos’ book that’s getting a lot of attention is by Jamelle Bouie of the American Prospect, a self-described journal “of liberal ideas, committed to a just society, an enriched democracy, and effective liberal politics.”  No, this is not a conservative publication.  Which is probably why its negative review of “American Taliban” is so striking. Here’s a sampling:

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.

Ouch, that’s a bit harsh. But the thing is, as much as we all despise Rush Limbaugh – and most of the other characters mentioned in this book – that doesn’t justify quoting him wildly out of context. Thus, as Brendan Nyhan points out, when Limbaugh said “We all agree with the Taliban,” he “was noting the irony of the fact that he agreed with the Taliban and Iran’s opposition to President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, not stating that he agreed with the Taliban in general as the phrasing above suggests.” Uh, big difference there, and yes it matters.

In the end, my feeling about “American Taliban” is that it “coulda been a contender.” But it isn’t. Sure, there almost certainly are a large number of Americans whose values and behavior are not dissimilar from the Taliban and other extremist, authoritarian, totalitarian, theocratic, violent, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-democratic forces around the world.  But listing freak show after freak show, anecdote after anecdote, without any intellectually rigorous and well-documented framework to tie it all together, leaves us less with a crushing indictment – as promised by the book’s title and blurbs, and as is badly needed given what’s going on in this country right now – of the “American Taliban,” than with reductio ad absurdum.  

What makes all this particularly unfortunate – other than, as I’ve mentioned, the fact that progressives badly need a crushing indictment of the right wing in this country – is that, almost certainly, the evidence is out there, if an intrepid reporter, blogger or author would take the time and dig for it. But you won’t find much if any of that in “American Taliban.” Instead, what you’ll get is mostly a (sporadically) amusing, (sporadically) horrifying, chorus line of the right-wingnut “usual suspects,” with nothing particularly tying it all together.  Sure, Markos “fights fire with fire,” but how effectively he does so, particularly with non-hardcore progressive activists, is the question that remains to be answered.

  • Dan Sullivan

    I have not read her American Taliban yet, but your review just moved hers ahead of Moulitsas’s.

    One of the issues with understanding an organization like the Taliban or the “conservative movement” is that they are more an online presence than brick and mortar movements. But oddly enough these “traditional” belief systems have been in place from time immemorial. And that is apparently what Markos misses if he tries to associate a birthdate for the American theocratric strain of tyranny. It came across the seas with most of our forebearers. But I will get to his story after I read about John Walker Lindh, because, though he did not become a member of the GOP, he became a reactionary conservative of another breed. Everyone wants to belong to something.

    “The more interesting question, it seemed to me, was not HOW and WHAT, but WHY, E. M. Forster’s differentiation between story and plot.” – Pearl Abraham’s own description of her examination

    And sometimes the problem with the “why” when you find it (and this may be part of Moulitsas’s shortcoming) is that there is no physical evidence…it is only social more. In the case of the American right, it is a poisonous philosophy that “might makes right” reinforced by a belief that a higher power is on their side.

    Familiar?