So the reviews have begun to come in for Markos Moulitsas’ book “American Taliban,” which argues that American conservatives are just like the Taliban, and they’re…well, let me start with Jamelle Bouie’s review at the left-wing The American Prospect:
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.
As Bouie notes, “Moulitsas elides glaring contradictions in his argument and routinely misrepresents his evidence,” and is completely lacking in perspective:
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.
Bouie could have added that American feminists have also campaigned against pornography, which doesn’t make them the Taliban, either. Bouie’s conclusion:
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.
The whole thing is well worth reading. Kos’ sort of reductionism barely deserves the label “thinking”; it’s shtick, as Bouie observes: “Moulitsas seeks to classify right-wing conservatism as a species of fundamentalist extremism, for the purpose of spurring progressive action.” Matt Yglesias, a progressive blogging contemporary of Kos, reaches the same conclusion, and thinks it’s not even effective as shtick:
This stuff doesn’t win votes anyone [sic] 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.
Yglesias also notes that “the jacket copy heavily features a misleading out-of-context quote from Rush Limbaugh,” and on Twitter he’s even blunter about Kos’ thesis:
This is false: “in their tactics and on the issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban”
And mind you, this coming from a guy who has asserted that “Some day I will write a list of conservative writers who I respect. It will be a short list” and that “most liberals are not nearly condescending enough to conservatives.” But Kos’ shtick is a bridge too far even for Yglesias. Kevin Drum, who’s now at Mother Jones, likewise sniffs, “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.” The Atlantic rounds up more negative reviews from the Left.
I will give Yglesias and Drum the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re genuinely put off by Kos’ tactics, and not merely jealous that his visibility and influence have eclipsed theirs (although Kos has come down in the world of late; he lost his TV gig on MSNBC and is apparently bombarding his website’s email subscribers with messages touting the book, while releasing it only in paperback and planning a fairly modest book tour). Either way, it’s clear that even fairly committed activists on the Left aren’t buying what Kos is selling.
Where Bouie, Yglesias and Drum miss the mark, however, is in drawing a parallel to Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism, to the point where I wonder if any of them read the book, or even made it all the way through the introduction. Bouie at least notes that “Goldberg sought to make a historical connection between American liberalism and European fascism for the purpose of ‘clearing the record,’” but then blathers that “books like Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism or Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny present a world where liberals are the embodiment of cruel statism.” Drum asks, “Did Liberal Fascism get any similarly incendiary reviews from mainstream conservatives writing in any of America’s premier mainstream conservative publications?” Yglesias refers to the “apocalyptic ‘my enemies are totalitarian madmen’ strain of Birch/Beck/Goldberg conservatism.”
I haven’t read Levin’s book and won’t get into the other parallels, because this does an awful disservice to Jonah and his excellent, serious and thoughtful book. Goldberg’s starting point, of course – as you’d know if you’d read his columns for the decade leading up to the book’s publication – was defensive, against the decades of effort by liberals to characterize Nazism as a movement of the right closely akin to American conservatism. Goldberg took great pains, over and over and over again in his book, to note the very real distinctions between, say, the Nazis and modern American progressives, and to explain that he’s not calling anybody a Nazi (although he does make a fairly compelling case that the Wilson Administration during World War I was perilously close to a European fascist state like Mussolini’s Italy). While Goldberg is harsh in dealing with some of the truly disreputable characters he chronicles, like Margaret Sanger and Woodrow Wilson, he treats many modern liberals not as evil people but as fundamentally well-meaning but misguided people who don’t even understand the intellectual history of their own movement and its common roots with those of European fascists. His use of the smiley-face on the cover is explained explicitly as showing how “nice” modern liberals are, or at least believe themselves sincerely to be. That said, Goldberg’s parallels, such as they are, are sufficiently unforced that they continue to be predictive. The book was written in 2007, before the rise of Barack Obama (who merits only two brief mentions in the book), yet it perfectly captures the strains of both liberal and fascist rhetoric and policy that have recurred through Obama’s tenure. The rhetorical tropes Goldberg details at length are particularly on display everywhere in Obama’s speeches – the invocations of a nonideological Third Way, the veneration of youth, the insistent demands for the Man of Action (“the time for talk is over,” Obama so loves to say). Ditto for policies and ideas, from substitution of politics for religion, to the coopting of business and labor into an unhealthy symbiosis with government, to the persistent efforts to use government hectoring to create a New Man. But the purpose of these parallels is not to defame the good intentions of supporters of liberal politics or diagnose them as demented perverts, as Kos does, but simply to illustrate that ideas have consequences and these particular ideas are dangerous.
The correcting-the-record part of this is Goldberg’s point that conservatives are forever told to do daily penance (and nothing else) for the bad parts of conservative intellectual or political history, while the progressive movement doesn’t even address its own history. And indeed, the historical treatments of Mussolini, Wilson, Hitler, Sanger and FDR are the best parts of the book (especially the explanations of the roots of European fascism in the thinking of American progressives), careful and detailed in their presentation of both the commonalities and the divergences. Color me doubtful that Kos’ book has any similar historical perspective, especially on where the Taliban’s ideas come from; that I can pretty well guess even without reading the book, from the way he talks about the book and the blurbs from people who purport to have read it. Here’s an excerpt from an email from Kos:
The values and tactics that make Jihadists so despicable are the same values and tactics embraced by our own homegrown fundamentalists — the American Taliban.
That’s why I wrote the book American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right.
In the book, I show how similar both the American Taliban and Islamic Jihadists are — from their fetishization of violence and guns, to their love of theocracy, to their hatred of women and gays, to their fear of scientific progress and education, to their weird hangups about sex, to their disdain for popular culture.
That’s right: not only does Kos draw a direct parallel, he argues that conservatives are objectionable for exactly the same reasons as the Taliban. Which is ignorance of recent history so vast it can’t begin to be described.
Or consider the blurbs, from calm and unbiased commentators like John Aravosis and Amanda Marcotte and noted historians like David Coverdale of Whitesnake, lauding among other things the book’s “outrage and profanity”:
“It isn’t possible to understand American politics now without understanding the worldview and arguments of Markos Moulitsas. If you still believe the beltway caricature of the squishy, compromising, conciliatory American left, American Taliban should disabuse you of that notion.”
-Rachel Maddow, The Rachel Maddow Show
“Moulitsas alerts us to a clear and present danger in America: radical zealots who disregard our Constitution and our freedoms and who disguise themselves as patriots.”
-Roger Ebert, film critic
“I can’t remember a time in my life when anti-intellectualism and intolerance-from America’s prejudice against evolutionary science to its reactionary condemnation of a scholarly African American president-has been more pervasive. The time has never been more ripe for a book such as this. American Taliban reminds us that fanaticism isn’t always an import.”
-Brett Gurewitz, Bad Religion
“A thorough compendium of right-wing hypocrisy and selective memory that is either hilarious or tragic, depending on your mood. And it’s all lovingly couched in outrage and profanity.”
-David Cross, I Drink for a Reason
“While not afraid to laugh at the American Taliban, Markos Moulitsas sees the culture warriors for the insidious, dangerous force they present to a free and democratic society.”
-Amanda Marcotte, Executive Editor, Pandagon.net
“Markos writes with a conscience and armed with facts to let you know: no, you’re not crazy. What you suspected all along was true-America’s right wing lives on a myth of self-constructed lies about the Other, with a juvenile disregard for reality, and Obama’s presidency has further radicalized an already radical conservative movement.”
-Janeane Garofalo, comic and actor
“Markos Moulitsas vividly exposes how the radical right and many leaders in the Republican Party, contrary to their incessant claims, actually hate the cherished American values of freedom, justice, tolerance and diversity of thought and expression. With sparkling clarity, American Taliban sounds the alarm on the well-funded, highly-placed authoritarians in this country who work daily to strip away civil liberties and viciously malign gays, women and other groups, and shows why they are treacherous to American democracy. We better listen.”
-Michelangelo Signorile, The Michelangelo Signorile Show, Sirius XM Radio
“American Taliban makes it clear that in a blind taste test the only way you’d be able to tell the difference between the GOP and Taliban philosophies would be beard hair.”
-Sam Seder, author, F.U.B.A.R: America’s Right Wing Nightmare
“Markos Moulitsas exposes Limbaugh, Palin, Beck, O’Reilly, Boehner, Gingrich, the Teabaggers, and the Birthers as mullahs of a modern American Taliban hell-bent on imposing their narrow-minded political jihad on us all.”
-John Aravosis, editor, AMERICAblog.com
“American Taliban shines a blinding light on the conservative right’s dark agenda. Anyone who genuinely cares about America should read this book.”
-David Coverdale, Whitesnake
Nothing in there is anything like Goldberg’s declaration, right up front, that
Now, I am not saying that all liberals are fascists. Nor am I saying that to believe in socialized medicine or smoking bans is evidence of crypto-Nazism. What I am mainly trying to do is to dismantle the granitelike assumption in our political culture that American conservatism is an offshoot or cousin of fascism. Rather, as I will try to show, many of the ideas and impulses that inform what we call liberalism come to us through an intellectual tradition that led directly to fascism. These ideas were embraced by fascism, and remain in important respects fascistic.
As Goldberg writes today of the parallels:
While I do not smear all of my political opponents as monsters (people who say I do this, again, have either not read the book, are too blinkered to understand it, or are lying), it seems pretty clear that’s exactly what Kos sets out to do.
Kos’ book is getting poor reviews from his own side because his thesis is ridiculous, his tone excessive, and his perspective warped. But don’t throw Jonah Goldberg in the same remainder bin, as none of those things is true of his book.