Berkeley blogger Markos Moulitsas used the term "American Taliban" for about five years before making it the title of his first polemic. He deploys "Taliban" the same way most people do, as a shorthand for Islamic fundamentalism. But Moulitsas says it can apply to any kind of right-wing reactionary regime, including conservatives in the US. "Everybody sort of fusses about well, 'Jerry Falwell never executed anybody,'" Moulitsas said during a recent phone interview. "But the end goals are very much the same thing. They think guns and bullets are a way to accomplish those goals ... They're fighting to impose their version of reality."
So goes the thesis of Moulitsas' new book, American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right. While the title promises to align religious zealots at home with the people they criticize abroad, the book itself is a little more pedestrian. Really, Moulitsas has created a fast-paced, 233-page screed to say what's encapsulated best on the book jacket: that right-wingers are a bunch of hypocrites. They've turned gay marriage into a wedge issue, but some of them are gay. They're afraid of prurience, but obsessed with sex. They hate terrorists, but love militarism. They indulge in vice while spitting sanctimonious rhetoric. Moulitsas sees enough irony there to argue that Republicans aren't just crackpot idealogues with a lot of conspiracy theories. They're unified crackpot idealogues. By describing Coulter, Falwell, et al as members of a Taliban-esque movement, Moulitsas implies that all of their viewpoints are grounded in religious fundamentalism.
To that end, Moulitsas compiled anecdotes, quotations, and testimonials that show conservatives being vicious or stupid or shooting themselves in the foot. He took the "Taliban" theme as an operative metaphor and ran with it. On multiple occasions he refers to Rush Limbaugh as a "Taliban mullah." Not surprisingly, the book garnered a lot of harsh criticism from the very audience it wants to attract.
Most readers will concede Moulitsas' main point, that there is some similarity between conservatism in the United States and Ahmadinejad's regime in Iran. They'll agree with the book's six-part structure, with chapters organized by issue: power, war, sex, women, culture, truth. They'll even enjoy his gleeful castigation of sinners we already know about: Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, Glenn Murphy. What they won't countenance is title. To lump all right-wing conservatives under the "American Taliban" moniker is to imply that they're all theocrats. That's not quite true, wrote reviewer Frank Cocozzelli in "Street Prophets," an offshoot of Moulitsas' popular progressive blog, The Daily Kos. Actually, American conservatism is a political and cultural category, rather than a religious denomination. We may associate Red State politics with fervent Bible-thumping, but that's not unilaterally the case.
Others criticize Moulitsas for privileging tone and style over substance. The author is, after all, a born blogger: fast, chatty, opinionated, eager to hammer his points home. And he writes that way, too. "I think blogs are a more effective way to communicate with people," he said. "The medium has taken off precisely because people are drawn to pieces with more personality and viewpoints." Moulitsas wrote American Taliban in six weeks, clocking between three thousand and five thousand words a night, quoting from memory, and then checking the facts later. That's the way many journalists operate, especially in the blogosphere, where we tend to privilege volume over substantive content. But when you're writing a book, that bloggy style can seem a little snide. Reviewing American Taliban for The Daily Beast, writer Ben Crair argued: "[It] might have just as easily been written by Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter."
"The people who are accusing me of being shrill, it's sort of a declaration that there's certain things you cannot say," Moulitsas said. He thinks it's high time that liberals engage in the kind of aggressive, bruising rhetoric that right-wingers used to launch their movement. "When you look at our infrastructure, it's so woefully inadequate," he said. "Rush Limbaugh speaks to 20 million people. Daily Kos, the biggest progressive blog, reaches 2 million people a month. Keith Olbermann reaches one and a half million people a night." Moulitsas blames part of the problem on a historical lack of organization. But he's also frustrated with liberals' conciliatory attitude. "What struck me with criticism from the Left: They weren't interested in attacking my premises," he said. "They were more interested in attacking the fact that I wasn't polite, that I wrote a hard-hitting book."
Moulitsas is nothing if not persistent. He makes a big thesis at the front of the book, and spends the rest of it collating and sorting information. He shows flashes of anger and disappointment. He's wry: "While the lust for power and the flirtation with violence are definitely traits of the American Taliban, what really gets their panties in a twist is sex," Moulitsas wrote, as the opening sentence of his third chapter, "Sex." The author may be a ready-fire-aim type of guy (he can clock up to 5,000 words of unedited prose in five hours), but he's thorough, offering big block quotes and exhaustive anecdotes to back up each point.
Yet, the problem that bedevils Moulitsas is the same problem that plagues his enemies on the Right: There's a disconnect between his rhetoric and his data. Let's face it. If you're going to call your book American Taliban, then it better be a damn good book. And Moulitsas' book isn't. In fact, it's a bit more like a long blog post than a book: colloquial, stream-of-consciousness, larded with asides. Moulitsas regurgitates points that other writers have already made, and then brackets them with incendiary headlines. He says the blog methodology was intentional. "When I wrote my first book, I started off in a very serious voice," he said. "Since this book is my first true polemic, I decided from the beginning that I was going to have a lot of fun writing it. To me that makes it a more engaging book."
To Cocozzelli, though, it's a setback.