Bernard Weiner: Taking On The American Taliban
Taking On The American Taliban
By Bernard Weiner
The Crisis Papers
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 a bit from it 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 fear-mongering, 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 HardRight 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 base.
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 about reality.
Certainly, Karl Rove understands how such genuine feelings of confusion and fear can be manipulated to the HardRight'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 HardRight 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 HardRight 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 already have.
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 HardRight future coming down the pike.
More and more 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 Crisis Papers ( www.crisispapers.org).