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Differences of Degree

By Matthew Yglesias on September 2, 2010 at 4:43 pm

"Differences of Degree"

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I’m with Ta-Nehisi Coates and against Digby on this:

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.

That’s quite right. When assessing political movements it’s crucial to be attentive to both similarities and differences. The view that we should regulate carbon dioxide emissions in order to reduce the odds of a climate catastrophe has some points in common with the eco-catastrophist views that inspired a guy to hold the Discovery Channel hostage yesterday, but for most purposes the differences outweigh the similarities. Similarly, all orthodox Muslims share some values with al-Qaeda but every liberal I know understands that in most contexts the argument that orthodox Muslims everywhere are only slightly different than Osama bin Laden is not a serious effort to explain the world. To simply note that right-wing American Christians share these exact same values too is not better.

So, yes, the Taliban is misogynistic and so are most religious traditionalists. And, yes, the Taliban is nationalistic and so are right-wing political parties in most democracies. And, yes, the Taliban is enthusiastic about war-fighting as a way to achieve policy aims and so is Bill Kristol. This is all true and somewhat important. But it’s also true that American progressives and American conservatives are peacefully coexisting in a functioning republic, whereas the Taliban is waging an extremely violent military campaign against its ideological antagonists. Even though that’s only a “difference of degree” between two strands of religiously inspired populist nationalism, it’s actually a lot more important than the “difference in kind” between secular cosmopolitan Americans and are religious nationalist antagonists.

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