These are strained times for the political left. Despite the historic rise of Barack Obama, the Democratic Party has for quite some time been struggling to re-imagine itself beyond Clintonism, beyond identity politics, and beyond the shallow ravings of MoveOn.org. Thus far, Obama has mainly succeeded at the last of these when he made a scolding reference to the “General Betray Us” ads, noting that, “a general providing his best counsel on how to move forward in Iraq was accused of betrayal.” But efforts to articulate a reasonable leftist polity aren’t getting any easier. No matter how much poise or good judgment Senator Obama has shown with regard to the media attacks on Sarah Palin, Juan Cole’s most recent piece for Salon magazine suggests that some of Obama’s most damaging foes may in fact lie to his left.
The title pretty much sums it up: “What’s the Difference Between Palin and Muslim Fundamentalists? Lipstick.” For the last eight years, as far as some on the left have been concerned, George W. Bush has been Hitler. Now Sarah Palin is bin Laden. Welcome to the new populist “progressivism,” brought to you by Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Keith Olbermann, and Juan Cole. Don’t like someone on the right? Just draw analogies between that person and some mass murdering tyrant (who yesterday you probably bent over backwards to defend as an agent of resistance to U.S hegemony).
But for all of Cole’s rhetorical extremism and brazen logical leaps, the most damning thing about his argument isn’t that he draws out similarities between the worldviews of those on the GOP ticket and those on the radical right wing of political Islam. To be fair, many of Cole’s observations bear serious consideration and should stoke some skepticism among the crowd of conservatives who are currently displaying something akin to the uncritical acceptance and swooning they so rightly chastised on the left in recent months. The most problematic thing about Cole’s argument is that he’s an apologist for Islamism.
It seems only yesterday he was lecturing us on the “nuances” of the Persian language, circulating the falsehood that the Iranian regime doesn’t actually call for the annihilation of Israel. If he were a logical man, and if Sarah Palin were a theocrat, he’d be apologizing for her as well. But nuance, however it overflows when he’s discussing Ahmadinejad, is conspicuously absent from Cole’s conversation about the governor from Alaska. Then again, how nuanced does one have to be to note that the very distinction drawn in the title of Cole’s piece is breathtakingly important? Where in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, or Iran might one find a self-made female politician who’s free to govern with her head uncovered, brandishing a Revlon smile? Whether or not Palin’s views are good or bad for women is a matter best discussed once she has come out from behind the McCain campaign’s handlers and started answering questions in real-time. In the meantime, Mr. Cole should perhaps be reminded that, as Obama so often acknowledges about himself, Palin’s story is one made possible by the very qualities of American democracy that separate us from the autocracies and theocracies of the world.
Mr. Cole claims that McCain and Palin’s values are more like those of Hamas and Saudi Arabia than the founding fathers. And how does he know this? Because of what they believe about Darwin, abortion, and global warming. Now, it’s arguable that the founding fathers were more steeped in the philosophies of Enlightenment thinkers than McCain and Palin (after all, the comfort gap between Obama and middle Americans has something to do with the fact that they imagine him as a fella who sits around reading Immanuel Kant for fun, while Palin and McCain seem like the kind of jovial folks with whom they enjoy after church barbecues.) However, the real challenge to our modern age concerns not whether the average citizen of Turkey or America entertains Enlightenment arguments and respect for scientific evidence — it has to do with the point at which these average citizens transition from one way of thinking to the next. It does not follow that, because some of the framers read scripture through a liberal or deist lens they would naturally carry their ideas all the way into matters of birth and creation. In fact, it’s likely enough that they too would have encountered the same threshold of belief that so many in the modern world run up against.
When Barack Obama talks about restoring civility to our politics, he’s not merely talking to the right wing hitmen. He’s talking about the Noam Chomskys and Juan Coles of the left who, no matter how they might clear their throat by saying that “Saddam was a bad guy” or that “terrorism is wrong,” do in fact have objectively more contempt for some of their own countrymen and women than they do for the advocates of religious violence. When Obama says repeatedly that more unites us than divides us, he means precisely that we need to recognize that we have more in common with George W. Bush than with bin Laden, even if we disagreed with the decision to invade Iraq. He means that we have more in common with Sarah Palin than we do with those who recruit suicide bombers in Palestine, even if we disagree with her views on reproductive rights. No matter how Mr. Cole might think he’s doing a service to democracy or Mr. Obama by suggesting that Sarah Palin is a mere tube of lipstick away from Hassan Nasrallah, he’s effectively obscuring Obama’s overarching message. One thing is certain: it won’t be John McCain who pays the price for the irresponsibility of brash zealots like Juan Cole.