Argument by Analogy, Cont.

Jamelle Bouie reviewing Markos Moulitsas new book, American Taliban, rejects the notion that Glenn Beck is like the Lich King:

Now, it's true that certain tendencies on the American right have analogues in fundamentalist Islam; for example, and as Moulitsas points out in his chapter on sex, right-wing conservatives share a hatred of pornography with fundamentalist Iranian authorities. Of course the similarities end there; conservatives boycott pornography, Iran punishes it with death. 

But, this gets to the huge, glaring problem with American Taliban; ultimately, any similarities are vastly outweighed by incredibly important distinctions and vast differences of degree. I'm no fan of the right wing, but the only possible way it can be "indistinguishable" from the Taliban is if conservatives are stoning women for adultery, stalking elementary schools to throw acid in girls' faces, and generally enforcing fundamentalist religious law with torture and wanton violence. 

The chapter on women becomes a joke when you realize that Moulitsas can't distinguish between the odiousness of right-wing sexism and the vicious amorality of permanently disfiguring "immodest" women. Likewise, there are magnitudes of difference between executing gays (the Taliban) and opposing a hate-crimes bill (Republicans).

Digby, in defense of Markos, claps back:

Bouie believes that the book is grossly unfair to the far right because they aren't exactly like the Taliban. Evidently, the use of hyperbole to make the ironic point that they have the same worldview as their proclaimed mortal enemies is verboten because it isn't literally true. But polemics often make use of such literary devices to make a larger observation, so I'm not sure that Markos is trying to convince people that the American far right is secretly cutting women's noses off but rather that in the context of our society, they are the nose cutters. (And frankly, I think it's fairly obvious if they could enforce their religious doctrine and political ideology on all of us, they would. No nose-cutting, so that's good. They'll just engage in old fashioned American slut-shaming, which I grant is an improvement over physical disfiguration but the deeper meaning of the act is exactly the same.)

Yeah, with great respect for Digby, I just don't agree. I actually think precision, of this sort, is extremely important. Rightly or wrongly I'm a liberal, in large measure, because I think liberals have more respect for my intelligence. I can't, in great detail, explain health care policy, or financial reform. But when I see one side's most potent voices arguing that health care reform is actually reparations, or their leadership winking at the notion that Obama is a Muslim, I take it as a caution. It's brand degradation, the sense that dishonesty and shading actually covers the lack of an argument. 

Digby argues that Moulitsas should have some kind of poetic license,and shouldn't be taken literally. That strikes me as squishy. This statement--"in their tactics and on the issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban"--is quite literal,  and one is obliged to ask if it's true or not. 

The notion that "slut-shaming" and "nose-cutting" have the same deeper meaning--presumably a fear of women's sexuality, though Digby doesn't say this--is true as far as it takes you. Likewise the notion that black people should be slaves, the notion that they should be shipped back to Africa, that they should be segregated in communities, that they should not be allowed to intermarry, also have the same root cause--that blacks are unequal to whites. At varying points, Abraham Lincoln, John C. Calhoun, William T. Sherman, and Ulysses Grant held one or all of these views, and all probably died thinking blacks were unequal to whites. But that doesn't make them interchangeable. Lincoln and Grant aren't "less evil" versions of Calhoun.

As is often the case, with arguments that lead with analogy, the point isn't to clarify anything, it's to turn heads. Perhaps I am wrong, but I do not think you claim that Glenn Beck is the white Malcolm X because you think it's a particularly astute analysis; you do it because it will get you on the Atlantic Wire. I don't believe you claim that the American right's tactics are "almost indistinguishable" from the Taliban because you think it's adroit and original. You do it to elbow your way up the best-seller list.

That's fine--it's an accepted strategy. But speaking only for me, if your committment is to making me look, as opposed to making me think, expect that I will only look once. Everything you say afterward is compromised in my eyes. Faulkner is still waiting.

Too many writers think clever analogy first, argument second. It's supposed to be the other way around.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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