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Book Review: American Taliban

October 28, 2010

American politics is fascinating in the same way a car-crash, invasive medical procedure or messy celebrity divorce is fascinating. You know it’s wrong to stare, but you crave every detail of the whole sorry business so you gawp dumbly at it, unable to take it all in.

Broadly speaking, there are two political parties in the States – the Republicans and the Democrats. When I was younger, my mental picture of the world had these mapped nicely to English equivalents – the Republicans were Conservatives (pro-business, pro-rich-people) and the Democrats were Labour (pro-social-equality, pro-poor-people in the sense of wanting to help them). A nice simple picture, marred by two facts, namely that the colours were the wrong way round (Republicans = red, Democrats = blue), and if it ever had any truth at all (doubtful) this mapping now is entirely wrong. A more accurate picture would have the Democrats as Conservatives (perhaps on the left of the party) and the Republicans – well, they’re just off the scale.

The central thesis of American Taliban is that despite the fierce anti-Islamic rhetoric from the US right-wing (which has risen in fervour even since the publication of the book), the ideals and aspirations of militant Islamic groups are surprisingly similar to those espoused and endorsed by the US religious right and therefore reflected in the positions espoused by Republical politicians.

Each chapter of the book captures a different aspect of the right-wing zaniness.

  1. “Power”. The American Taliban regard wielding power as a divine right. When they’re not wielding power, something is heinously wrong. They don’t really like the idea of democracy, unless it can be subverted to serve their ends (although they scream bloody murder when they think, however incorrectly, that it is being rigged agaist them).
  2. “War”. They love their fighting. Whether it’s against funny foreign people in another country, or tacitly encouraging nuts to murder funny foreign-looking people in their own country, they just can’t get enough brutality. All in the name of Christ, of course, that well known warmonger. No, wait…
  3. “Sex”. They love this. Or, rather, they love to hate this. Especially when the people involved are of the same gender. They’re all for liberty, freedom, and getting the hated Government out of peoples’ lives, but make a special exemption for what goes on in the bedroom, which they insist the Government should regulate to the n’th degree (both in America and abroad). And don’t be trying to tell any of the kids about sex and contraception neither! (But make sure abortion is not an option if they experiment anyway with unplanned consequences).
  4. “Women”. Not especially popular, unless they’re in the kitchen baking cookies. Curiously, some of the American Taliban’s chief women-hating voices are women themselves – Ann Coulter and Phyllis Schlafly (mother of Andrew Schlafly of comedy “Conservapedia” fame). Protecting women against rape? Not terribly high on the American Taliban’s agenda. Ensuring that, if a women is raped and becomes pregnant, she must have the baby? Well that’s different…
  5. “Culture”. In the land of the free / home of the brave, the American Taliban love to allege that Obama is leading America to some kind of totalitarian hell (I think it was Jon Stewart who pointed out the absurdity of the right-wingers claiming that the Nazi conspiracy to impose universal healthcare was being led by a black man and a gay Jew). But the people at the forefront of any movement to ban something? No prizes for guessing. One brief accidental glimpse of a nipple on the television and all hell breaks loose.
  6. “Truth”. The American Taliban are like the terminator (a product of liberal Hollywood values, don’tcha know) in one important respect – they cannot be reasoned with. This is because many of them flatly reject the idea of rational discourse, reasoned argument, appeals to evidence. It smacks of elitism and academia (something else they don’t like very much). Instead, they believe what they want to believe. Including the idea that the Earth is 6000 years old, that climate science (or science in general) is a hoax, and that there’s no economic problem that can’t be solved by cutting taxes for the rich. At least some of them acknowledge that they live in a fantasy world.

A common and lazy criticism which can be made of books like this would be to accues the author of quote-mining (the practice, beloved of creationists and other anti-science nuts, of taking someone’s words out of context to give a misleading impression of their position). To be fair,  But, as they say, by their actions shall you judge them. To take one example the American Taliban’s hatred of women is illustrated by Al Franken’s “the US government shouldn’t do business with companies which allow women to be raped by their co-workers” bill – 30 Republicans voted against this.

These forces have been around in America for a long time, but it’s only since Obama’s election that things have really started to kick off. The Tea Party rallies are ostensibly an expression of populist anger at the government, but are in reality overwhelmingly a right-wing Republican phenomenon, fired up by incendiary words from the American Taliban’s more noted intellectuals and bankrolled by shady characters for whom this is really all about tax. It will be noticeable how, next time a Republican is voted in as president, the Tea Party movement will simply melt away and the extremist rhetoric will diminish somewhat (though, sadly, it will be replaced by action).

Interestingly, amid all the gloom and despite the fire-and-brimstone imprecations of the demagogues, there are signs that the American Taliban may be losing the culture war on at least one front – the poll numbers suggest a general trend over the last couple of decades towards an increasing acceptance of gay marriage. The unreconstructed and primitive attitudes of the right are generally less appealling to the younger generation, though this hasn’t stopped various states’ Republican parties of adopting measures to try to stall this. Unfortunately, this has meant the right have needed to cast around for another group to persecute and it seems that Muslims have landed this uncoveted role. Since the book went to press, the whole kerfuffle about the “Ground Zero Mosque” has been stage-managed by the usual Republican talking heads, with the consequence that mosques and Muslims across the country have been the victims of attacks by dim right-wing “patriots”. Some of the American Taliban aren’t even bothering to be subtle about it, openly equating being Muslim with being a terrorist. Picking on a social group within society and making them scapegoats for whatever ills (or imagined ills) society is facing – where have we seen that before? Sadly, the irony of this posturing is lost on the rank and file.

The book is informal – it’s not pretending to be an academic tome, it’s just the author telling it like it is. As a reader of the Daily Kos (the left-leaning blog founded by the Moulitsas), I was already aware of some of the documented tales of bigotry, but it’s good to have them collected in one place. And, as I’ve said, he’s not picking words from fringe nutters – some of these people have real influence, from the senators who voted to deny raped women their day in court, to Don “standing up to the experts” McLeroy fighting to ensure schoolchildren across the nation are taught palpable nonsense in science classes.

Condemnation of this foolishness is not confined to the left, of course. There are conservative commentators who are equally aghast at the way the Republican movement is becoming (and allowing itself to become) increasingly disconnected from reality and abandoning itself to blind prejudice. A prime example is Charles Johnson who posted on his Little Green Footballs blog a list of 10 reasons why he wanted nothing more to do with the modern conservative movement and, since then, has been grimly documenting their flight from reality (for which, naturally, he receives quite a bit of hate mail).

In conclusion, if you heard vague things about Sarah Palin and had an idea that she would have been a mistake as vice-president, you should read this book. If you’re wondering why Obama’s efforts to fix the broken US healthcare system resulted in him being compared to Hitler you should read this book. If you are under the impression that American politics is anything like English politics (i.e. politicians who are basically smart, knowledgeable and capable of civilised, rational discourse), you should read this book.

For further information, the Daily Kos covers US politics from a left-wing perspective (a despairing left-wing perspective given how pathetic the Democrats are being at the moment). The aforementioned Little Green Footballs is also good, focusing recently on the anti-Muslim outpourings of Pamela Geller, a right-wing pundit. Episodes of the Daily Show and Colbert Report (the closest the US gets to decent political commentary, as far as I can tell) are often worth watching though you have to do nefarious things to persuade them to play in this country. I like Michael Tomasky in the Guardian, and whenever I’ve followed links to Paul Krugman in the New York Times, he’s been a voice of compassion, reason, and economic literacy. I will sign off with a quotation from a recent post by Ed Brayton on his Dispatches From the Culture Wars blog, which (though the post itself was not related to American Taliban) nicely sums up the situation.

If you took many of the provisions of even the most reactionary versions of Sharia law, substituted God for Allah and called it the American Family Values Protection Act, not only would most of the same people screaming about Sharia embrace it, they would claim that the failure to pass the bill was evidence of anti-Christian persecution.

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