Taking On the American Taliban
February 9, 2005
By Bernard Weiner, The
best and worst part about post-op recuperation is the freedom that
comes with not being bound to one's normal schedule. Here, confined
largely to bed, I doze, read the paper leisurely, meditate, listen
to music, surf the web, watch the crapola that passes for TV programming,
read books, work on my play, let my mind wander - and feel guilty
about none of it. Pain-management as liberation.
One of the books I've read, Khaled Hosseini's touching, best-selling
novel The Kite Runner, deals in part with the Taliban period
in Afghanistan. Yesterday, on a cable channel, I also saw the movie
"Osama," which likewise focuses on that period.
Taliban rule in Afghanistan was brutal, murderous religion run
amok, a return to the strict fundamentalism of 7th-century Islam.
Though such behavior turned my stomach, I could detach from it a
bit because it was Over There.
Harder to detach here in the USA. In a much more civilized fashion,
that kind of Know-Nothingism is infecting our culture as well, and
threatening to take down that which historically had made America
great - our driving curiosity, our tolerance for and celebration
of diversity, our institutions enshrining freedom for all our citizens.
THE ENERGIZING POWER OF FEAR
Many Afghans, frightened by and tired of constant civil war, welcomed
the Taliban because, finally, someone would take charge and bring
law and order to their ravaged society. (Similar to why so many
Germans welcomed Hitler during the inter-war chaos there.) Only
later did the Afghans realize what they'd let themselves in for
when the mullahs gained control and began their theocratic reign
of terror; something similar could happen in post-election Iraq.
Many Americans, frightened by terrorism and manipulated by the
Bush Administration's constant fearmongering, have in a sense welcomed
Talabani-type thinking into their consciousness and behavior.
No, we don't force women into burkas, we don't stone adulterers,
we don't beat non-bearded men on the street. But we do permit our
"mullahs" to set the social agenda and restrict our political freedoms.
We've even given tacit approval of their torture policy as official
state practice, and to the shredding of our Constitutional rights.
Our would-be Talabani are the Ashcrofts, Gonzaleses, Rumsfelds,
Cheneys, Bushes, Roves, et al. - along with their fundamentalist
backers, the Robertsons and Dobsons and Falwells and Bauers - and
the fawning Hard-Right pundits in the media who have become prostituted
by their proximity to power.
THE GENESIS OF CLOSED MINDS
But nothing emerges from nothing. Forces were at work in our culture,
and around the world, that set the table for backward-looking fundamentalism.
Let's be clear. In any society, and in the U.S. in particular,
there always have been strains between those more comfortable with
change and those more averse to it, between those more "loose" and
those more "tight" - those may not be the exact terms, but you know
what I mean.
In former centuries, change didn't happen, or seem to happen,
all at once. It took a long time before major alterations in societal
and personal patterns emerged - time for psychological and spiritual
adjustments to be made, time for ethics and politics to catch up
to the ramifications of the new social challenges.
But in more recent times, with scientific, technological, cultural
and ideological breakthroughs happening on top of another almost
daily, those seismic shifts come (or seem to come) at rapid rates
that make our heads spin.
Those who are disoriented by these sudden changes find succor
and personal stability in the way things used to be, and are frightened
and angered by the rapidity with which they're expected to adapt
to these seismic social shifts.
As the tsunamis of social change wash over their homes and families
and their own minds, they search for anchoring points. Fundamentalism
- Christian, Muslim, whatever - serves many as their rock-solid
THE DANGER OF KNOWING "THE TRUTH"
Finding the world outside too complex, the fundamentalist world
concentrates on simple Truths, with a capital T.
Once you know (or are told) "The Truth" - believing it to be passed
down directly from God/Jehovah/Allah - many of your anxieties disappear.
The container of that Truth provides all the answers you need to
know. You need pay little or no attention to the complex, confusing
distractions that bedevil the rest of us. God/Allah/whatever (as
interpreted by the mullahs, priests, spiritual leaders) has given
you all the tools you need, and nothing else needs to enter your
safe, secure little world.
So, fundamentalists across the globe denounce science and the
arts, for example, because they constantly open up the world - leading
to many confusing questions - and retreat instead to a quieter,
older, psychologically comforting way of examining and thinking
Certainly, Karl Rove understands how such genuine feelings of
confusion and fear can be manipulated to the Hard-Right's electoral
advantage. Just keep pounding on the key buzzwords - sexual licentiousness,
gay marriage, abortion, Bill Clinton's sex scandal, evolution, prayer
in school, gay marriage, indecency on TV, feminism, and, oh yes,
gay marriage - and your fundamentalist base will be there for the
GOP every time.
(As you may have noticed in that list, sexual identity and behavior
show up big time; there are so few solid anchor points in many folks'
lives that when some of those accepted certainties seem to be questioned
by the existence of different ways of acting and thinking, look
out. And thus the emphasis on personal virtue, but one often combined
with a blind indifference toward social justice.)
GOING BACK TO THE FUTURE
Progressives need to understand that by denouncing the sexual
attitudes of animated cartoon figures, the Christian Taliban is
more than merely silly. We are moving more and more into a theocratic-like
era of censorship and fear, where book burning by fundamentalist
Christian parents is encouraged, or tolerated, by school officials;
where Bush's new Education Secretary's threats can get PBS to censor
a cartoon series that shows kids the wide variety of things to learn
in this world (including the fact that there are many ways loving
families organize themselves); where the vice-president's wife can
denounce an informational history booklet for not toeing the Hard-Right
line and get 300,000 of them destroyed overnight. All of these,
and many more such, actually have happened recently.
Politically and economically, Bush&Co. are involved in weakening,
and eventually eliminating, many of America's popular social programs
from the New Deal and Great Society - with Social Security and Medicare
being the spearpoints - and in trying to destroy the Democratic
Party so that one-party rule is the norm.
Socially, Bush&Co., along with their fundamentalist allies, are
trying to establish a faith-based government, with policies about
science, social diversity, sexual behavior, artistic freedom and
so on that are retrograde, making the U.S. more and more into a
something resembling a backward, third-world theocracy.
With a second term, during which the Hard-Right can do much more
damage to the Constitution and its protections of civil rights and
civil liberties, while hyping the need to expand "freedom" and "liberty"
abroad - the situation doesn't look good.
BREAKING THROUGH THE POLITICAL BARRIERS
The situation will become even worse if the progressive/liberal/moderate-conservative
forces cede that social ground to the forces of Know-Nothingism
and fundamentalist retrenchment. We must tell it like it is - that
America (at least slightly more than half of America) is moving
our society inexorably toward an American form of social fascism
and one-party political rule.
Somehow, we have to break through to many 2004 Bush voters - those
who may have voted for Dubya on wedge issues, or because they were
led by the media to distrust Kerry, or whatever - but do not wish
to go whole-hog down that theocratic road.
We have to listen and try to understand their fears and confusions,
and respond with arguments that make sense on their terms; once
they see the full ramifications of some of the extreme right's programs
and positions - especially on privacy and other rights, the gargantuan
deficits being created, the constant wars being started - they might
be more willing to break away from Bush & Co. Many true conservatives
Some of those moderate Christians and traditional conservatives
- now known within the GOP as "moderates" or "liberal Republicans"
or "RINO" Republicans (Republicans in Name Only) - have even joined
their long-time boogeymen, the American Civil Liberties Union and
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, because they
see the Hard-Right future coming down the pike.
More and more of these authentic conservatives are alarmed by
the extremists who have taken over their political party, and might
well be open to alliances with welcoming Democrats and progressives.
Rather than lumping all Republicans in with the bad guys, let's
figure out a way to open up the communication lines and make those
potential alliances happen - without abandoning our core values.
Tricky, yes, but the risk of remaining a powerless minority fringe
for the forseeable future offers little alternative.
We are at the crunch point. We can't wait to organize until 2006
or 2008. The time is now.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught politics and international
relations at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with
the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The