Sam Harris’ Quotes in Context and Smears Addressed

“Waking up with Sam Harris.” Who chose that name!?

As someone who could both be labeled as a “leftist” AND a “new atheist,” I’ve been baffled by this alleged schism between the two subjective labels. It’s mind-boggling because a Venn diagram of the two labels probably looks something like this below. It seems to me that “leftists” generally take most or all “left-wing” positions. “New atheists” simply don’t believe in God and generally speak out against religion. There is nothing about being a “New Atheist” that commits one to take any specific position on foreign or domestic policy, be it right or left. On social issues, it does seem to have the effect of pushing one to the left since the commitment to Abrahamic religions is what generally holds people to the right on these issues.

There is a lot of overlap between the left and new atheists

So far as I can tell, the left wing YouTubers are blanketing “New Atheism” based on what Sam Harris and a few Atheist YouTuber have said (making said left wing YouTubers no different than the right wing and “classical liberal” YouTubers who conflate the entire left with a handful of angry University students).

So, given that Sam Harris appears to be the focus of constant attention from left wing channels like Majority report and lately, Secular Talk (Kyle Kulinski), I’ve been working to get my head around this, especially since Harris clearly falls comfortably into the left side of the Overton Window. Having carefully reviewed the criticisms against Harris, vs what Harris has actually said, I think I understand the confusion. The criticisms fall into two basic categories, and I am listing them in the order of credibility. The criticisms are that Harris:

1-Places too much emphasis on one problem vs another (ie. Islamic terrorism vs US foreign policy atrocities)
2-Takes specific stances (that he actually doesn’t…ie. he “supports torture”)

I’ll dive into these shortly, but first I want to unpack what I see as the source for the mess contained in the above three categories.

Strawmanning vs Steelmanning

Sam Harris tends to steel man ‘the other side.’ In fact, it’s not always presented as sides. He gives a fairly accurate representation of different points of view, and then gives you his point of view and why he holds it. Michael Brooks of the Majority Report has taken instances where Harris repeats arguments that Brooks personally disagrees with and portrays this as some sort of double-speak where he’s surreptitiously throwing a bone to the racists. In reality, Harris is simply giving an honest assessment of various positions/opinions (including the ones he doesn’t agree with), and making the case for his own position.

On the other hand, channels like The Majority report straw man positions they disagree with. Even though I find myself usually agreeing with Sam Seder’s or Michael Brooks’ positions, it’s pretty clear to me that they’re giving a dishonest assessment of the viewpoint they’re “debunking.”

In fact, the bulk of their videos consist of playing 10 seconds of a clip, then pausing it so they can deliberate for 5–10 minutes on how stupid the person is. Meanwhile, they are using a straw man version of the position that person actually holds, and lambasting them for holding a caricature of the position that they actually hold. Then they’ll play another 10 seconds. Rinse and repeat.

Sam Harris is often taken out of context

So, from the point of view of someone like Michael Brooks, Sam Harris’ honest assessment of views he disagrees with probably does look like “playing both sides,” given that his own style is to give a highly dumbed down version of the actual position of whomever it is that he’s criticizing, and then deliberating for the next 5–10 minutes over how ridiculous this (non-existent) position happens to be.

Admittedly, Harris himself can be frustrating, as he prefaces his actual point with 48 caveats, and sometimes you’d just wish he’d get to the point. That said, this would seem to be the intellectually honest thing to do. In any case, these wordy deliberations make it very easy for one to cherry pick one thing Harris has said and ignore everything else he’s ever said on the topic. This appears to be the bulk of the criticisms.

1-Sam Places too much emphasis on one problem (ie. Islamic terrorism) vs another (ie US foreign policy).

Many left-wing commentators seem frustrated that Harris spends more time commenting on the relationship between specific concepts in the Q’uran and the Hadith and terrorist attacks by terrorists in the name of Islam. I find this about as honest a critique as criticizing someone for spending so much time on animals rights instead of focusing on human rights. The world is full of problems that need to be addressed. So even if problem X is clearly more relevant that problem Y, there is no reason a person can’t focus on problem Y. They are not mutually exclusive.

Harris has clearly given criticism on both US foreign policy and Israeli expansion (more on this below, where I address the false claim that Harris doesn’t criticize either of these).d\

Center-Left vs far Left — and Noam Chomsky

Harris’ foreign policy critics appear to agree 100% (or close to it) with Noam Chomsky’s narrative. Harris clearly isn’t that far left on his foreign policy, and may even lean slightly right here. However, any reason Harris gives as to WHY he doesn’t quite agree with Chomsky, looks like manifest destiny to those who agree entirely with Chomsky. They see no difference between Harris’ highly nuanced positions and the rantings of someone like Sean Hannity.

In an email exchange with Chomsky, Harris attempted to clarify any similarities or differences he had with Chomsky regarding the role of intentions. Harris was trying to get clarity as to how Chomsky gauged the bombing of what the Clinton administration ostensibly believed to be a chemical plant in Sudan. He gave room for both Chomsky’s and his own interpretations:

Chomsky responds to this portion with:

In other words, he refuses to rank atrocities by intention even when granted both his own and Harris’ interpretations of the reason and knowledge behind them. If Chomsky is correct, then Harris’ interpretation of the Clinton administrations knowledge of the bombings is incorrect, but Harris is allowing for this and is clearly open to that. He is simply trying to get clarity as to where Chomsky stands on the role intentions play in terms of the level of atrocity. Chomsky is responding without actually answering Harris. I’m also not sure how these statements by Chomsky are compatible:

1- I’m sure you are right that Clinton did not want or intend to kill anyone at all.

2- Rather, assuming that he was minimally sane, he certainly knew that he would kill a great many people but he simply didn’t care

I don’t understand how it’s possible to bomb a plant neither wanting or intending to kill anyone at all while knowing it will kill a great many people.

Another one of Chomsky’s responses that suggest he’s not engaging honestly:

Here Chomsky is merely shifting the area of relevancy. Japanese fascists KNEW they were torturing and killing the Chinese. The concept of an “earthly paradise” would be an end goal. But the process, the actions still include killing people. What Harris is asking is how Chomsky views instances where the US didn’t know they were killing anyone in order to attain their end goal. It baffles me that so many leftists see this as some sort of win for Chomsky, and treat his positions as though they were axiomatic. It’s clear that Chomsky has a far more robust breadth of knowledge of foreign policy than Harris. Yet it seems he was avoiding the very meat of his inquiry and engaging in non-sequiturs (and condescendingly so).

Hence, it’s difficult to take Chomsky’s “truisms” at face value the way so many leftist YouTubers appear to. So far the claims that Harris doesn’t take a dim enough view on US foreign policy appear to be either false claims (that he doesn’t criticize it, and that’s false, as I’ll show below), taking his statements out of context (ditto), or mere incredulity at the knowledge that he doesn’t simply fall in with the Chomskian view (so far, I believe this view has its merits but is somewhat held together by selective reporting and omissions, but perhaps my mind will change on this as I learn more).

2-Sam Harris takes specific stances that he actually doesn’t (ie. he “supports torture.”

The First bullet point may have had some merits; certainly, if it turns out that the Noam Chomsky narrative is as (or nearly as) unassailable as left-wing Youtubers appear to believe. However, at this point, I remain unconvinced and perhaps someone will enlighten me in the comments. Now, this second portion is tedious and depressing because these are ridiculous accusations by people who are engaging in 100% intellectual dishonesty.

I have taken the most common assertions regarding what Harris has allegedly “said” or “believes.” In most of these cases, they can be refuted by merely pointing out what he wrote in End of Faith (meaning, what he wrote in 2004, so no chance that these quotes are an example of him “backtracking”). There are more Harris quotes I could pull from his video interviews and from his Waking Up with Sam Harris podcast, but I decided to stick to what he’s committed to writing for now. That said, it should be noted that Harris discusses much more than Islam. He has produced quite a bit of content on AI, free will (or lack thereof), meditation, mindfulness, and IQ.

“Sam Harris thinks social justice warriors are the worst problem in the world”

In a recent interview with Sahil, Michael Brooks and Sahil spent some time talking about Sam Harris (I’ve noticed he claims to not want to talk about Sam Harris, yet can’t stop talking about him).

Brooks’ opening salvo was “if you think again the biggest problem that the biggest problem in society is SJW’s or PC or whatever, you have no economic analysis of the world…” This would be an excellent criticism of someone like Dave Rubin or Sargon, but it hardly applies to Sam Harris. It’s true he took a crack at the SJW’s but he moved on from it and kept it in proportion. As for no economic analysis, he was writing about economic inequality in 2004, before it was generally understood and the term “class warfare” was still effective at shutting down any discussion on the topic. He recently had Andrew Yang on his show to discuss universal basic income.

This is a topic he’s been discussing for some time.

Brooks also minimizes Harris’ criticism of religion, as if the religion didn’t have any effect on foreign policy or science. This is odd given 1- Brooks’ strong anti-Israel stance and 2-The tie between American religiosity and support for Israel.

Brooks also derisively mentions creationism as if 1- Harris has spent any significant time on the subject (he hasn’t) 2-Creationism (or rather, non-acceptance of evolution or science in general) has no real world effects. Religiosity is clearly tied to an overall lack of science education and mistrust of science in general. This has tangible effects on policy.

From Unbelievable: Why Americans Mistrust Science on Nature.com

Believers and Disbelievers in Evolution (Abstract):

Unfortunately, Brooks isn’t alone in his inability or unwillingness to see the connection between religious belief and its effects on how Americans view foreign policy and deny science.

Here are some other false statements that have been made over the years.

“Sam Harris wants to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Muslim world”

In The End of Faith (2004) Harris writes:

It’s quite clear that Harris is expressing a worry over a problematic game theoretic situation where the US is faced with an Iran that’s fully equipped with a nuclear arsenal. In this scenario, the actors on the other side aren’t deterred by the concept of mutually assured destruction, which worked well with the secular Russians, as they weren’t under the belief that death would lead them to paradise. Harris is hoping to avoid this difficult juncture.

Harris responded to subsequent criticism in his article, Response to Criticism:

Chris Hedges has stated:

It’s important to keep Hedges’ dishonesty in mind when he and other regressives complain that they are being deplatformed. He is clearly not acting in good faith, at least not in this instance. The tragedy here is this: he may very well be making excellent points in other areas. But his dishonesty in this case makes it difficult to consider him an objective or even credible source.

“In his criticism of Islamic terrorism, Sam Harris doesn’t account for American Foreign policy

In The End of Faith (2004) Harris writes:

Then in 2014, Harris apparently had a revelation after watching Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars. He wrote about this in his article, The Pleasure of Changing my Mind:

“Sam Harris is Racist”

Part of what gained Harris some notoriety was his appearance on Bill Maher’s Real Time in 2014. The topic turned to Islam, and when Harris commented on the general blind spot on the part of liberals in regards to certain atrocities and dangers linked to Islam, Affleck decided he would have none of it. Oddly enough, this was at a time when Harris was on his recently-released book on mindfulness/meditation, Waking Up. In any case, Ben Affleck accuses Harris’ and Maher’s criticism of the doctrines of Islam as “racist” (Affleck is conflating criticism of specific doctrine with hatred towards people who have simply been born into these doctrines without any choice and apparently he thinks all Muslims are Arabic).

Lawrence O’Donnell subsequently had Harris on his show and gave him a chance to lay out his positions in a format where he’d be allowed to actually finish a sentence.

The inanity of any racist or even dislike of Muslims is made even more insane when we consider the fact that Harris is actually doing work to try and help reform Islam.

“Sam Harris doesn’t account for the situation many Muslims find themselves in

In The End of Faith (2004) Harris writes:

On page 233 he writes

In the book he co-authored with Sam Harris in 2015, former Islamic extremist (now actively working to help reform Islam) Maajid Nawaz writes:

Now, contrast the above sections with Sam Seder’s “slam dunk” on Sam Harris’ analysis.

Notice how much time is spent on deliberating in this straw man and the dragged out sense of derision over a complete strawman.

“Sam Harris believes in racial profiling Muslims (Arabs)

Also one of the more easily-refutable claims. Here, Harris is referring to negative profiling (in other words, instead of searching specific people, avoid a narrow range of people who have virtually no chance of being terrorists). In other words, don’t search an Okinawan old lady. Don’t search Jerry Seinfeld (literally Jerry Seinfeld, not just someone who somewhat resembles him). Why? Because allocating attention to people who are clearly not terrorists limits the attention that can be placed on those who might be.

“Sam Harris says we shouldn’t criticize people who look/dress like Jerry Seinfeld”

In an interview with Dave Rubin, Harris elaborates on this “reverse profiling” position by explaining that there are certain profiles (old Okinawan ladies and little girls from Norway) and specific people (Jerry Seinfeld) who are obviously not planning on blowing up an airplane. His critics respond by claiming he was suggesting we not search people who merely look (or dress) like Jerry Seinfeld. That’s clearly not what he was saying.

What he literally says (emphasis added):

So we’re not looking for 80-year-old women from Okinawa, we’re not looking for little girls from Norway. If Jerry Seinfeld is going to the airport and he gets the same search as someone who looks like Osama Bin Laden does, that’s a crazy misuse of resources…there are people who you absolutely know at a glance are not terrorists, right? And any moment spent scrutinizing them in this security theatre we’ve all witness at the TSA…my view is you have $10 worth of attention. If you spend $1 over here, you have $9 to spend elsewhere. It’s just a zero sum game…

He is literally referring to actual Jerry Seinfeld. Here is how dishonest critics responded:

Sam Harris doesn’t criticize Israel

Harris has criticized Israel several times. In his article, Why don’t I criticize Israel, he writes:

So it’s clear he has some criticism for Israel. Many on the left will say it’s too tepid and doesn’t go far enough. I’m not in a position to say if this is correct as my view on the Israel-Palestinian problems goes back and forth. Generally, I agree that the Palestinians have been wronged overall, certainly in a historical sense, but also that the current situation leaves Israelis in a bind.

For my fellow lefties who think the Israel-Palestinian issue is a black and white issue with Israel overwhelmingly in the wrong, I suggest you watch this debate between Dave Rubin and Kyle Kulinski. I chose this video because 1- I don’t consider Rubin to be that intelligent and 2- Kulinski, I think IS very intelligent, is very passionate on this issue and talks about it non stop. Hence, the fact that Rubin makes Kulinski look like a fool on the topic should ring some alarm bells.

Sam Harris is against Muslims

It’s been pretty clear from the outset that Harris’ criticism is in regards to the doctrine of Islam, not of Muslims themselves. The problem here (at least, as Harris sees it) is that these doctrines push people to do terrible things, not that there is something inherently bad about these people in the first place.

In The End of Faith (2004) Harris writes:

Sam Harris supports Torture

In The End of Faith (p. 192–198) Harris writes:

In response to criticism that he was supporting torture, he further elaborated his points in his essay, Response to Controversy (emphasis added):

It’s quite obvious that Harris is merely stating that torture should rightfully be illegal in general, but there should be some sort of loophole for extreme situations. What I find interesting here is that so many liberal critics focus on Harris’ mention of torture and ignore his criticism of “collateral damage,” which, as Harris notes, is far more atrocious than torture.

Kyle Kulinski Relitigates his interview of Sam Harris

In 2015, Harris went onto Kyle Kulinski’s Secular Talk for the sake of addressing accusations Glenn Greenwald had recently made against Sam Harris on the same show.

Kulinski would later relitigate this discussion by strawmanning what Harris actually said. For example, the discussion became about intentions, and Harris claimed that Dick Cheney wasn’t as bad as his counterparts in the world of Islamic terrorism. Why? Because whereas Islamic terrorists want to impose Shariah law (which includes throwing gay people off of roofs) Dick Cheney merely wanted to turn Iraq into Nebraska.

Now, the idea of turning Iraq into Nebraska can likely be taken multiple ways. Kulinski relitigates this by assuming that this would be pure altruism. While I don’t know what goes on in Sam Harris’ head, I don’t think the act of turning Iraq into Nebraska is as innocent as Kulinski seems to believe. Turning Iraq into Nebraska would essentially make them a client state, giving the US access to their resources, which is what Kulinski believes is the backbone of American foreign policy in the Middle East (and I think he’s probably right, although I don’t believe it’s the only reason).

There is another reason to suspect that Harris is correct. As he points out, we’ve seen what the US does after completely annihilating its opponents. What did the US do with Germany, Japan, and South Korea? Arguably, the US helped prop them up with western-style economies. So, the ‘Nebraska’ comment would seem to hold, at least in those instances.

Also in his relitigation of the discussion, Kulinski criticizes Harris for saying that Glenn Greenwald isn’t a real journalist and he “shows” how silly this is by citing the journalistic awards Greenwood received. Whether he simply doesn’t remember or he is being disingenuous, Kulinski is leaving out the fact that Harris was saying that Greenwald didn’t have journalistic integrity and simply “won the lotto” when Edward Snowden came to him (which is WHY he won said awards).

The Left is finding its own disingenuous footing

It seems to me that left-wing commentators are finding their footing in the world of intellectual dishonesty. The right has been doing it for decades on radio and on Fox News. The newer generation of people like Steven Crowder and Ben Shapiro are doing it on social media. It seems like the left has perhaps found a way to monetize accordingly: simply become as dishonest as right-wing commentators. We are certainly seeing this with people like Jimmy Dore, Cenk Uygur, and now Kulinski. As commentators, there is simply little/no money to be made in intellectual honesty. So left-wing commentators are mirroring their right-wing counterparts and abandoning rational discourse.

The depressing part is that they take it a step further. They’re engaging in character assassination. When right-wing shills like Shapiro and Crowder misrepresent their opponent’s views, they leave it at that. Their left wing counterparts take it further and “unpack” a myriad of hidden motives that the target of their derision apparently contain.

That said, kudos to Jimmy Dore for spitting in Alex Jones’ face (if anyone deserves it…).

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Huxley C

Gay, Progressive, Gun owner. Concerned with people’s stubborn, personal biases and aversion to complicated information. I’m not actually Gay.