Sunday, September 19, 2010

The American Taliban, and American Leadership

Glenn Greenwald at Salon has written an interesting essay on "The "obscenity" of comparing Americans to "killers and terrorists"" - essentially as a defense of his own embrace of a new book, by Markos Moulitsas, titled The American Taliban.  I haven't seen (much less, read) the book, given that Mount Pleasant, MI, has absolutely ZERO serious bookstores, but evidently the author makes the point that those American pols and pundits who supported the invasion of Iraq along with the Bush-Cheney-Yoo et al. torture and rendition regime can - and ought to be - fairly compared to the extremist elements of the Taliban.  Apparently several progressive commentators have castigated Greenwald for defending Moulitsas' comparison, and in laying out his case, Greenwald makes some points that I find both reasonable and cogent:

The real obscenity are those who stand up and say:  how dare you compare my fellow Americans who did this "to killers and terrorists" (it should be noted that this chart reflects the most conservative estimate of the number of Iraqis killed).  That righteous objection is designed to minimize the breadth and depth of American crimes -- oh, it may be bad, but it's not that bad/American warmongers may be bad, but they're still Americans, and thus shouldn't be compared to those inhuman foreign Muslims over there -- and that's the real "obscenity." 
I believe what's driving the discomfort with the comparison is that we all know people who cheered for the attack on Iraq, America's torture regime, lawless imprisonment and the like.  They're our relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, political allies and sometimes even ourselves.  But few of us know supporters of the Taliban.  Thus, as is always true with people we don't know, we're perfectly comfortable with extreme, two-dimensional demonization of Taliban sympathizers and other Islamic extremists, while taking offense at the notion that the people we know . . .  could possibly be anything like them, notwithstanding their support for similar, extremist actions.  . . .

 I don't consider the Taliban "something utterly foreign, inhuman, and subject to entirely different drives than Us."  Therefore, I don't see the comparison of the American Right (as well as Democrats who support its radical policies) to the Taliban as a suggestion that "the GOP as a whole [is] 'something utterly foreign, inhuman, and subject to entirely different drives than Us'."  That's the whole point:  those who are so upset by this comparison (how dare you compare Americans to the Taliban) have ingested the tribalistic, propagnadistic delusion that no matter what we do, We are always fundamentally different and better than Them.

The cartoonish demonization of our Enemy is accomplished by mindlessly screaming inflammatory, manipulated labels at them --"Terrorists!" -- designed to rob them of their Humanness, obliterate nuances among them, and convert them into some incomprehensible Other.  That's how we justify to ourselves what we do to them.  But the reality is much more complex than that.  As even American military leaders acknowledge, "the Taliban" is composed of many diverse factions with different motivations, including a desire to expel foreign armies (i.e., us) from their country.  Many of their leaders are malicious extremists and monsters who advocate heinous policies and engage in incomprehensibly vile acts, while many of their supporters are motivated by innocuous or even reasonable fears and objectives which are easily exploited.  In other words, they are quite similar in composition and drives to most other political factions which end up endorsing and perpetrating heinous acts, even when those factions are American.

The insistence that this comparison between Us and Them is inherently invalid and even "obscene" lies at the heart of so much mischief -- it's the linchpin of exceptionalism and jingoism -- and it's very disappointing to see this claim being so casually invoked in reaction to this book.  The nature of tribalism is that one always thinks their side is better and the other side worse, and that comparisons between the two sides (or even equal application of standards to each) is deeply unfair and offensive ("moral relativism").  Tribalism is a powerful human drive, which is why even those who are aware of its intoxicating effects and even consciously try to avoid it -- all of us -- nonetheless sometimes succumb to its temptations.
Greenwald's points here I see exemplified almost daily as a professor at a major Midwestern university - specifically, in the vast, deep, almost prideful ignorance of so many young Americans about anything they haven't picked up on ESPN or network sports broadcasts, reality shows, MTV, CNN (and that's only if they're trying to learn something, sorta), their high-school coaches, their pastors' pulpits, or the crap that's incessantly hurled at them across the internet.  Despite my constant exhortations, my use of maps, maps, and more maps in class, too many of them find their way to the end of the semester still unable to locate Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Israel on a map - and if asked to try to do so, will even place them a continent away.  For many of them, as far as they can tell, nothing that happens outside the US really matters (well, perhaps except for those jobs they may be losing to kids in China and India, etc.).  Admittedly, I have seen some welcome improvement at least from those relative few who may be in ROTC or are (or have been) enlisted in the military.  But otherwise, when it comes to understanding the fellow humanity of foreigners who don't speak English, most of them seem to feel no need to even make the attempt. We've made it all too easy for them to lump thousands of human beings across the planet into some amalgamated category of Muslim/terrorist/Taliban/al Qaeda/jihadist/worthless/bad guys . . . Them.  And We are, by definition, without question, Good/Pure of Heart/Peace-loving/Smashmouth/Christian/Chosen/God's Own Warriors/Americans. On its own, that's sad enough.  But when such abysmal ignorance and lack of empathy characterize the majority of the population of a country that prides itself on possessing - and using - the most powerful and far-reaching military on the planet, and that claims to be the nation best suited by its government and values to lead the entire planet to peace and prosperity . . . well, IMHO, that's when all of us need a reality check.

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