Friday, December 4, 2015

Sam Harris's Increasing Absurdity

If, say, a year and a half ago, you'd asked me my opinion on Sam Harris, I wouldn't have said anything very positive. However, I would not have described him as a raving lunatic whose comments have the intellectual merit of the screeching of a chimpanzee. Perhaps it's just my perception, but it seems to me that Sam Harris has gotten increasingly bad recently. Again, I was never a fan, but there was certainly a point where I could at least respect his intellect more than I can now.
Sam Harris (Peter Yang, taken 
from Wired)

First, let me say what nice things I can about Harris; they are few, but not insignificant. For one thing Harris is articulate and is a good writer; even when I've thought his arguments were absurd or completely ludicrous, I've rarely thought his writing, or his manner of presenting his arguments, was poor. Also, when he actually sticks to the one field he's unquestionably an expert on--neuroscience--he's quite informative. I read his essay Free Will a while back, and thought he made a strong case for the nonexistence of free will (a position he and I happen to share).

I've long thought, though, that he's used his skills in writing and arguing to attract followers to an ideology that's far from the rationalism that he pretends to espouse. Now, however, he seems to have to have kind of stopped even trying to sound intellectual a lot of the time. Rather, he increasingly just sounds as irrational and deluded as he actually is.

Let's start back in October of this year, where Harris was interviewed by YouTuber Kyle Kulinski. It was an interesting interview. For one thing, Harris said the Tsarnaev brothers should have had "nothing but gratitude" toward the US. Now, of course, the Tsarnaev's terrorist attack should be condemned; but by Harris's standard here, had they even nonviolently protested US foreign policy they would have been guilty of some sort of sin.

Glenn Greenwald, Harris's
perpetual nemesis (from
In the same interview, Harris went into a thought experiment (those familiar with Harris will know he has a seemingly endless supply of largely superfluous such experiments) where he imagined a terrorist holding hostages and a sniper whose goal is to kill the terrorist in order to save the hostages, but who misses and accidentally kills a hostage. Under the logic of Glenn Greenwald (one of Harris's major foes), claims Harris, the sniper would be "just another murderer." This is in response to the fact that Greenwald rejects the argument that when the US bombs or invades another country, we can say it's not accountable for innocents who die just because the US "didn't mean" to kill any innocents. Anyone who honestly thinks the US government is as benevolent in its foreign policy as a sniper trying to rescue hostages has either followed the news very poorly over the past decades or is insanely tribalistic. Neither possibility reflects well on Harris, as a pretended public intellectual.

A few minutes later, he says that the goal of the Bush administration in invading Iraq was simply to turn Iraq "into Nebraska" (given that that's what he thinks they would do with the entire Middle East if they had the powers of God). Harris could learn something from conservatives Stefan Harper and Jonathan Clarke, who argue that the real motivation was "[t]he security of Israel...and access to Middle East energy resources." That sounds a little different from turning Iraq into Nebraska. We should also note that by Harris's account the intentions of the neoconservative Bush administration were surprisingly quite a lot more benevolent than those of the Eisenhower administration, which unquestionably helped throw out Iran's democratically elected, secular reformist prime minister in order to protect Western oil interests. Not many liberals would argue that the Republican Party is more concerned with human rights now than it was under Eisenhower, but apparently Sam Harris is one of them (unless he'd simply deny the facts of the Iran coup, which is also possible).

Harris's more recent podcast with British neoconservative Douglas K. Murray was the real kicker, though. There were a few quotes that were enough to get attention all by themselves. For one, Harris defended Ted Cruz's argument that we should only let in Christian refugees from Syria, criticizing those who would deem Cruz a bigot. There are, well, many problems with that. For one thing, Ted Cruz almost certainly is bigoted against Muslims, which of course would motivate his thinking on this issue. Secondly, if we open the door to wholesale discrimination against Muslim refugees on the basis that they're "dangerous," why not atheists, too? After all, there are a lot of people who perceive them as being dangerous. Thirdly, this essentially means discriminating against thousands and leaving them in a war-torn region because if we let them in they could maybe commit an act of terrorism which could maybe kill a likely pretty small number of people. That's a little selfish. And, of course, contrary to what Harris asserts, jihadism is not the only security concern when taking in refugees; Christian Syrians could commit acts of violence, too. So the question to whether Cruz's proposal is crazy is definitely not the resounding "of course not" that Harris gives. Since then, Harris has claimed he wasn't defending Cruz's "categorical exclusion" of Muslims, but does seem to grant that he's okay with at least some preference for non-Muslim refugees.
Neocon Douglas Murray

Worse than that, though, Harris stated that, given the choice between Ben Carson and Noam Chomsky, he would vote for Ben Carson every time because "[h]e understands that jihadists are the enemy" and has a better "understanding of what’s happening now in the world." That's right: Sam Harris prefers a man whose own adviser has said he's clueless on foreign policy to one of the top intellectuals and foreign policy experts in the world. That speaks for itself.

But it gets worse. I had low expectations for the podcast from those couple quotes alone, but they could hardly prepare me for the ugliness of the actual affair itself. A particularly nasty moment came from Murray, who went on a sickening rant ridiculing and belittling anyone who identifies as transgender without having gender reassignment surgery. Harris guffaws throughout this rant and calls it "hilarious" when Murray finishes, going on to praise him for it. "Liberal" Sam Harris, everyone.

Later on in the podcast, Harris says that "obscurantism" on the issue of radical Islam (i.e. presenting any narrative he doesn't like) needs to become as socially unacceptable as racism. This is from someone who constantly poses as wanting to have a rational, open-minded discussion about the issues, and yet he's saying that people who make the arguments that Glenn Greenwald or Noam Chomsky do need to be abhorred in the same way that outspoken racists are. That's rational and open-minded?

Due to the reaction to his podcast, Harris put a seventeen-minute-long addendum at the end of it where he sounds less like a Ph.D. in neuroscience and more like Donald Trump. He starts off by referring to Max Blumenthal of AlterNet as a "fake journalist" (whatever that's supposed to mean). He then states that Cenk Uygur of the web show The Young Turks seemed be to be having a "breakdown," given the videos he made responding to Harris. (I'll let you be the judge of whether Uygur is having a breakdown in the two videos, found here and here, which have predictably been swarmed and downvoted by Harris's hordes of sycophantic followers online). Addressing his support for Ben Carson over Noam Chomsky, he boasts that he would nonetheless be "far more articulate" in explaining why Carson shouldn't be elected president than Blumenthal or Uygur. How professional.

Moving onto Chomsky (whom he's been eager to repeatedly attack since he published a widely ridiculed email exchange between Chomsky and himself), Harris notes that Chomsky is a self-described anarcho-syndicalist, snidely commenting that "how that differs from Marxism, you're welcome to write your dissertation on that. Good luck." Meaning what, exactly? Does Sam Harris not realize that red-baiting went out of style with the end of the Cold War, except in circles of far-right nutjobs? Or is he just stooping to base anti-intellectualism, and mocking any radical leftist who bothers to make a distinction between their ideology and Marx's?
Activist Noam Chomsky
(from Guernica)

He then dubs Chomsky an "anarcho-masochist" ("masochist," followers of Harris will know, is one of his favorite terms for anyone who thinks Western foreign policy has played a large role in creating the problem of Islamist extremism). Harris goes on to comment, particularly ludicrously, that if aliens invaded and began to exterminate the human race, he'd "half-expect Chomsky to get on Democracy Now! and say that we deserved it." This is truly idiotic. Chomsky has never said that the United States "deserves" the problems of jihadism or terrorism. To claim he has is exactly the sort of misrepresentation that Harris constantly claims, ad nauseam, that his critics are committing against him.

Sam Harris's recent behavior toward his critics, as should be clear already, is especially reprehensible. Virtually any criticism of Harris is now certain to be deemed "defamatory" or a "misrepresentation." Take Jeff Sparrow's recent criticism of New Atheism, which Harris deemed "defamatory drivel" (per the usual, not bothering to cite any particular instance of defamation within the article). Read it for yourself and see if there's anything that could reasonably be called defamatory. Or look at this series of tweets from Glenn Greenwald, which Harris also calls defamatory (see what I meant about ad nauseam yet?), in which Greenwald (accurately) quotes Harris and links to articles written by him, along with making a few mocking comments about Harris and his followers' intellectual dishonesty. Sam Harris seems to sincerely believe that defamation is synonymous with simple mockery or insult. One is strongly reminded that Sam Harris has a degree in neuroscience, not in law.

That smear is not enough for Sam, though. He's also accused critics of endangering his and his friends' safety. In a recent Salon interview, he stated that those who speak out against Ayaan Hirsi Ali (a close ally of his) "make her life more dangerous in the process." This mirrors the time when, late last year, he stated that in retweeting an image that quotes him (again, accurately), Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan were "consciously misleading their readers and increasing my security concerns in the process."

Harris made much of the fact that the original tweet had stated that "this isn't a rational thinker, this is a genocidal fascist maniac." However, it's in no way clear that Greenwald and Aslan retweeted it because of that rather than the accurate quote from Harris, superimposed on a (pretty creepy-looking) picture of him. In any case, the quote--justifying killing people for "dangerous" beliefs--is exactly the sort of thing you would hear from a genocidal fascist maniac. Harris insists that it actually means something totally different in context than what it appears to at first glance; I personally disagree. You can judge for yourself. In any case, it's unclear how an accurate quote from him or the harsh words of a random Twitter user increase his security concerns; and it's pathetically dishonest of him to bring it up as an attempt to shut down debate or attack his opponents.

It is not surprising, given all of this, that Sam Harris is not really taken seriously by anyone but his legions of frequently cult-like followers. As Scott Atran, an anthropologist and yet another person whose views Harris has distorted, notes:
I am a lead investigator on several multiyear, multidisciplinary field-based science projects sponsored by the Department of Defense, including “Motivation, Ideology, and the Social Process in Radicalization,” aspects of which are taught to military personnel from general officers down. And I am recurrently asked to give briefings on these subjects to the White House, Congress and allied governments. I know of no comparable demands or operational interest among the political, defense or intelligence agencies of the U.S. and its allies for Harris’s musings on religious ecstasy.
Given Sam Harris's absurd defenses of US foreign policy, it says something that even the US government seems to prefer one of Harris's intellectual opponents over him. On that note, I will wrap up this blog post, which would undoubtedly be deemed "defamatory" or full of "misrepresentations" by its subject, were he ever to read it, and may very well be called such by one or more of his followers, should any of them read it. Should the intellectually vacuous attack
be used against me, I'll take it as a compliment. 

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