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.
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.
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:
Perhaps we can rank order the callousness and cruelty here:
1. al-Qaeda wanted and intended to kill thousands of innocent people — and did so.
2. Clinton (as you imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill thousands of innocent people. He simply wanted to destroy a valuable pharmaceutical plant. But he knew that he would be killing thousands of people, and he simply didn’t care.
3. Clinton (as I imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill anyone at all, necessarily. He simply wanted to destroy what he believed to be a chemical weapons factory. But he did wind up killing innocent people, and we don’t really know how he felt about it.
Is it safe to assume that you view these three cases, as I do, as demonstrating descending degrees of evil?
Chomsky responds to this portion with:
I’m sure you are right that Clinton did not want or intend to kill anyone at all. That was exactly my point. Rather, assuming that he was minimally sane, he certainly knew that he would kill a great many people but he simply didn’t care: case (2) above, the one serious moral issue, which I had discussed (contrary to your charge) and you never have.
As for the rest, you may, if you like, believe that when Clinton bombed Afghanistan and Sudan in immediate reaction to the Embassy bombings (and in retaliation, it is naturally assumed), he had credible information that he was bombing a chemical factory — which also was, as publicly known, the major pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (which, of course, could not replenish supplies), and he judged that the evidence was strong enough to overlook the human consequences. But, oddly, he was never able to produce a particle of credible evidence, as was widely reported. And when informed immediately (by HRW) that a humanitarian catastrophe was already beginning he ignored it, as he ignored the subsequent evidence about the scale of the casualties (as you incidentally did too).
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:
As for intentions, there is nothing at all to say in general. There is a lot to say about specific cases, like the al-Shifa bombing, or Japanese fascists in China (who you should absolve, on your grounds, since there’s every reason to suppose that their intention to bring an “earthly paradise” was quite real), and other cases I’ve discussed, including Hitler and high Stalinist officials.
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.
In a 2012 survey by the National Science Foundation, 25% of American respondents answered that the sun orbits the Earth . A recent AP-GFK poll found that as many as 4 in 10 American adults doubt evolution, over half aren’t confident that the Big Bang took place, just under 40% don’t believe that pollution is causing climate change, and 15% don’t believe in the efficacy or safety of vaccines. Surveys like these are good at eliciting disbelief and a laugh, but they beg the question: Why do so many Americans reject scientific theories?
Articles analyzing such surveys almost always cite religion as a root cause of disbelief in science. In a comprehensive study on the subject in 2009, the Pew Forum found that more religious Americans are less likely to believe in theories like evolution or the Big Bang, which they feel directly contradict their religious beliefs.
Background. Citizens of the United States are less likely than are citizens of Europe and several non-European nations to believe that humans evolved from an earlier species. Several theories have been proposed to explain Americans’ disbelief in human evolution, but empirical investigation has been sparse. Methods. Data on belief in evolution, on scientific knowledge unrelated to evolution, on socioeconomic status, on Christian religiosity, and on political polarity were identified in the General Social Surveys (GSSs) for 1993, 1994, and 2000. These data were then analyzed in bivariate and multivariate tests of theories about evolutionary and anti-evolutionary views. Findings. Christian religiosity was the strongest correlate of disbelief in evolution. Low educational attainment was another positive, but weaker, correlate, though disbelief in evolution was not related to general measures of scientific knowledge. Political liberalism and political conservatism predicted evolutionary belief even after controlling for religiosity, education, and other potential confounders. Subcultural differences in belief — those between blacks and whites, rural dwellers and urban dwellers, Southerners and non-Southerners, dogmatists and non-dogmatists — became insignificant under appropriate controls. Conclusion. Christian religiosity, especially in a fundamentalist variety, was the primary correlate of disbelief in evolution. Lack of education was an important but lesser factor. Independent of religiosity and education, political conservatism predicted disbelief.
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 should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime — as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day — but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.”
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:
Clearly, I was describing a case in which a hostile regime that is avowedly suicidal acquires long-range nuclear weaponry (i. e. they can hit distant targets like Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, etc.). Of course, not every Muslim regime would fit this description. For instance, Pakistan already has nuclear weapons, but they have yet to develop long-range rockets, and there is every reason to believe that the people currently in control of these bombs are more pragmatic and less certain of paradise than the Taliban are. The same could be said of Iran, if it acquires nuclear weapons in the near term (though not, perhaps, from the perspective of Israel, for whom any Iranian bomb will pose an existential threat). But the civilized world (including all the pragmatic Muslims living within it) must finally come to terms with what the ideology of groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIS, etc. means — because it destroys the logic of deterrence. There are a significant number of people in the Muslim world for whom the slogan “We love death more than the infidel loves life” appears to be an honest statement of psychological fact, and we must do everything in our power to prevent them from getting long-range nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, Harris’ left wing critics have repeatedly misconstrued this to mean that Harris is calling for a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Muslim world. In predictable fashion, these critics’ audiences simply accept this false narrative. Here are some example:
Chris Hedges has stated:
Harris, echoing the blood lust of Hitchens, calls, in his book The End of Faith, for a nuclear first strike against the Islamic world.
And you have in Sam Harris’ book, “The End of Faith,” a call for us to consider a nuclear first strike against the Arab world. This isn’t rational. This is insane.
Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, asks us to consider carrying out a nuclear first-strike on the Arab world. That’s not a rational option — that’s insanity.
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:
There is no doubt that the United States has much to atone for, both domestically and abroad. In this respect, we can more or less swallow Chomsky’s thesis whole….stir in our collision with a long list of modern despots and our subsequent disregard for their appalling human rights records, add our bombing of Cambodia and the Pentagon Papers to taste….The result should smell of death, hypocrisy and fresh brimstone.
We have surely done some terrible things in the past,. Undoubtedly we will are poised to do some terrible things in the future. Nothing I have written in this book should be construed as a denial of these facts, or as defense of state practices that are manifestly abhorrent….And our failure to acknowledge our misdeeds over the years has undermined our credibility in the international community. p. 139
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:
I have also been very slow to worry about NSA eavesdropping. My ugly encounters with Greenwald may have colored my perception of this important story — but I just don’t know what I think about Edward Snowden. Is he a traitor or a hero? It still seems too soon to say. I don’t know enough about the secrets he has leaked or the consequences of his leaking them to have an opinion on that question.
However, last night I watched Scahill’s Oscar-nominated documentary Dirty Wars — twice. The film isn’t perfect. Despite the gravity of its subject matter, there is something slight about it, and its narrow focus on Scahill seems strangely self-regarding. At moments, I was left wondering whether important facts were being left out. But my primary experience in watching this film was of having my settled views about U.S. foreign policy suddenly and uncomfortably shifted. As a result, I no longer think about the prospects of our fighting an ongoing war on terror in quite the same way. In particular, I no longer believe that a mostly covert war makes strategic or moral sense. Among the costs of our current approach are a total lack of accountability, abuse of the press, collusion with tyrants and warlords, a failure to enlist allies, and an ongoing commitment to secrecy and deception that is corrosive to our politics and to our standing abroad.
Any response to terrorism seems likely to kill and injure innocent people, and such collateral damage will always produce some number of future enemies. But Dirty Wars made me think that the consequences of producing such casualties covertly are probably far worse. This may not sound like a Road to Damascus conversion, but it is actually quite significant. My view of specific questions has changed — for instance, I now believe that the assassination of al-Awlaki set a very dangerous precedent — and my general sense of our actions abroad has grown conflicted. I do not doubt that we need to spy, maintain state secrets, and sometimes engage in covert operations, but I now believe that the world is paying an unacceptable price for the degree to which we are doing these things. The details of how we have been waging our war on terror are appalling, and Scahill’s film paints a picture of callousness and ineptitude that shocked me. Having seen it, I am embarrassed to have been so trusting and complacent with respect to my government’s use of force.
“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:
It is also true that poverty and lack of education play a role in all of this, but it is not a role that suggests easy remedies…But Muslims terrorists have no tended to come from the ranks f the uneducated poor; many have been middle class, educated, and without any obvious dysfunction of their personal lives. p. 132
The leaders if Hamas are all college graduates, and some have master’s degrees. These facts suggests that even if every Muslim enjoyed a standard of living comparable to that of the average middle-class American, the West might still be in profund danger of colliding with Islam. p. 132
On page 233 he writes
Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetuate suicidal atrocities against Chinese noncombatants? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes this difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam….As a Buddhist, one has to work extremely hard to justify such barbarism.
In the book he co-authored with Sam Harris in 2015, former Islamic extremist (now actively working to help reform Islam) Maajid Nawaz writes:
“For example, people often blame poverty, or lack of education for radicalization, whereas experts have long known that a disproportionate number of terrorists come from highly educated backgrounds”. p. 12
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:
I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion. So I don’t celebrate the idea that there’s a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. I certainly don’t support any Jewish claims to real estate based on the Bible.
Though I just said that I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state, the justification for such a state is rather easy to find. We need look no further than the fact that the rest of the world has shown itself eager to murder the Jews at almost every opportunity. So, if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state. Now, friends of Israel might consider this a rather tepid defense, but it’s the strongest one I’ve got. I think the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable. [Note: It is worth observing, however, that Israel isn’t “Jewish” in the sense that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are “Muslim.” As my friend Jerry Coyne points out, Israel is actually less religious than the U.S., and it guarantees freedom of religion to its citizens. Israel is not a theocracy, and one could easily argue that its Jewish identity is more cultural than religious. However, if we ask why the Jews wouldn’t move to British Columbia if offered a home there, we can see the role that religion still plays in their thinking.]
Needless to say, in defending its territory as a Jewish state, the Israeli government and Israelis themselves have had to do terrible things. They have, as they are now, fought wars against the Palestinians that have caused massive losses of innocent life. More civilians have been killed in Gaza in the last few weeks than militants. That’s not a surprise because Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Occupying it, fighting wars in it, is guaranteed to get woman and children and other noncombatants killed. And there’s probably little question over the course of fighting multiple wars that the Israelis have done things that amount to war crimes. They have been brutalized by this process — that is, made brutal by it. But that is largely the due to the character of their enemies. [Note: I was not giving Israel a pass to commit war crimes. I was making a point about the realities of living under the continuous threat of terrorism and of fighting multiple wars in a confined space.]
Whatever terrible things the Israelis have done, it is also true to say that they have used more restraint in their fighting against the Palestinians than we — the Americans, or Western Europeans — have used in any of our wars. They have endured more worldwide public scrutiny than any other society has ever had to while defending itself against aggressors. The Israelis simply are held to a different standard. And the condemnation leveled at them by the rest of the world is completely out of proportion to what they have actually done. [Note: I was not saying that because they are more careful than we have been at our most careless, the Israelis are above criticism. War crimes are war crimes.]
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:
We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith, which recounts the sayings of the prophet — p. 109
Sam Harris supports Torture
In The End of Faith (p. 192–198) Harris writes:
Consider the case of judicial torture. It would seem, at first glance, to be unambiguously evil. And yet, for the first time in living memory, reasonable men and women in our country have begun to reconsider it publicly.
Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs — in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity — it seems that there would be no harm in dusting off the strappado and exposing this unpleasant fellow to a suasion of bygone times….If a ticking time bomb doesn’t move you, picture your seven-year-old daughter being slowly asphyxiated in a warehouse just five minutes away, while the man in your custody holds the keys to her release.
It appears that such restrain in the use of torture cannot be reconciled with our willingness to wage war in the first place. What, after all, is “collateral damage” but the inadvertent torture of Innocent men, women, and children? Whenever we consent to drop bombs, we do so with the knowledge that some number of children will be blinded. Disemboweled, paralyzed, orphaned, and killed by them….
So we can now ask, if we are willing to act in a way that guarantees the misery and death of some considerable number of innocent children, why spare the rod with the suspected terrorists? What is the difference between pursuing a course of action where we run the risk of inadvertently subjecting some innocent men to torture, and pursuing one in which we would inadvertently kill far greater numbers of innocent, men, women, and children? Rather, it seems obvious that the misapplication of torture should be far less troubling to us than collateral damage; there are, after all, no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay…Torture need not even impose a significant risk of or permanent injury on its victims,; while the collaterally damaged, are almost by definition, crippled or killed….
…It is possible that we are simply unequipped to rectify this disparity — to be, in Glover’s terms, most shocked by what is most harmful. A biological rationale is not hard to find, as millions of years on the African veldt could not possibly have selected for an ability to make emotional sense out of twenty-first-century horror.
…..In any case, if you think the equivalence or torture and collateral does not hold, because torture is up close and personal while stray bibs aren’t, you stand convicted of a failure of imagination on at least two counts….
….WHICH way should the balance swing? Assuming we want to maintain a coherent ethical position on these matters, this appears to be a circumstance of forced choice: if we are willing to drop bombs, or even risk that pistol rounds might go astray, we should be willing to torture a certain class of criminal suspects and military prisoners; if we are unwilling to torture, we should be unwilling to wage modern war.
I believe that I have successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstance in which we would be willing to cause collateral damage. Paradoxically, this equivalence has no made the practice of torture any more acceptable to me; nor has it, I trust, for most readers…Still it does not seem any more acceptable;e, in ethical terms, than it did before.
In response to criticism that he was supporting torture, he further elaborated his points in his essay, Response to Controversy (emphasis added):
In one section of the book (pp. 192−199), I briefly discuss the ethics of torture and collateral damage in times of war, arguing that collateral damage is worse than torture across the board. Rather than appreciate just how bad I think collateral damage is in ethical terms, some readers have mistakenly concluded that I take a cavalier attitude toward the practice of torture. I do not. Nevertheless, there are extreme circumstances in which I believe that practices like “water-boarding” may be not only ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary. This is not the same as saying that they should be legal (Crimes such as trespassing and theft may sometimes be ethically necessary, though everyone has an interest in keeping them illegal).
……. It is important to point out that my argument for the restricted use of torture does not make a travesty like Abu Ghraib look any less sadistic or stupid. I consider our mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to be patently unethical. I also think it was one of the most damaging blunders in the last century of U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I ever seen the wisdom or necessity of denying proper legal counsel (and access to evidence) to prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay. Indeed, I consider much of what occurred under Bush and Cheney — the routine abuse of ordinary prisoners, the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” etc. — to be a terrible stain upon our nation.
…Although I think that torture should remain illegal, it is not clear that having a torture provision in our laws would create as slippery a slope as many people imagine. We have a capital punishment provision, but it has not led to our killing prisoners at random because we can’t control ourselves. While I am strongly opposed to capital punishment, I can readily concede that our executing about five people every month hasn’t led to total moral chaos. Perhaps a rule regarding torture could be applied with equal restraint.
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…).