The Sam Harris Outrage Industry

It started for me (and for many) with the angry words frothing out from above that famous cleft-chin. The one which now resides — at least cinematically — under Batman’s cowl. A quiet atheist and new to the movement, I saw and heard many grumblings about Sam Harris’ tussle with Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher in 2014. In what I was reading at the time, Ben Affleck was hailed as the champion of progress and decency and Harris as a bigot who had the gall to point out PEW poll figures — a de-facto racist.

Nearly all of Harris’ public career has been marked by similar controversy and accusations. It started in 2008 with the “Nuke the Middle East” fiasco where Harris’s carefully chosen words in The End of Faith, referring to a highly specific potentially apocalyptic scenario, were read bereft of those details as calls for a nuclear first strike by the journalist Chris Hedges. There have been comparable stories in the last few years — of which Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan, and Cenk Ungyur have all been prominent instigators. Beneath these writers and commentators lurks another tier comprised of figures like Murtaza Hussain who claimed in 2013 that Harris was a proponent of “scientific racism.” And there is another tier below that who are eager to fabricate the latest Sam Harris outrage for their impressionable fans.

In some circles, especially the left-leaning and atheistically inclined, the name Sam Harris has morphed from that of a highly respected thinker to becoming tainted by constant accusations of anti-Muslim racism, Islam-obsessed hackery, and being a covert alt-right thought leader. And what a transition it’s been.

The latest balloon this cottage industry of opportunistic commentators has inflated is this selectively edited clip shared by a Sacha Saeen — who seems to have gained repute from retweets by Reza Aslan of his quote mined clips — of Harris speaking with Maajid Nawaz on episode #59 of The Waking Up Podcast.

Hemant Mehta has already covered this latest kerfuffle and debunked Saeen’s misrepresentation (the clip begins before Harris lays out a hypothetical to Nawaz) and provided Harris’ response on Patheos, but the clip seemingly hasn’t reached its half life yet and is still ripe for exploitation. The newest iteration of an opportunistic commentator jumping onto this supposed morsel is from Michael Brooks of the YouTube show The Majority Report with Sam Seder with a video titled: “Sam Harris: We Have Enough Muslims. Is It Time To Lower Their Population?”

The entire segment is impressive. What follows for thirteen minutes is the experience one might encounter watching a purity enforcer engage in a self-righteous pogrom. It’s like watching a comedy show of imbecility, clichéd tropes, and viciousness by characters masquerading as the “good guys.”

RARei3cP_400x400.jpg
Michael Brooks of The Majority Report

Not even 25 seconds into the show Brooks commits his first (of many) errors when he says: “In reality, when you support things like a Muslim ban [referring to Harris]….” After then bloviating about religion for a few seconds, Brooks goes on to state:

“But what Sam Harris is saying here with the nodding acquiescence of Maajid Nawaz — who really just comes off as looking pathetic and embarrassing here — is an endorsement of Donald Trump policies in a cult-leader-boring-voice and really gross and generalizations that affect real people.”

I can’t defend Harris’ voice — some friends have complained it puts them to sleep — but it’s a simple matter to show Harris’ views about Trump’s presidency and policies, particularly regarding Trump’s “Muslim ban.” Around the time Donald Trump first proposed his ban Harris opined:

“I think Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ is a terrible policy. Not only is it unethical with respect to the plight of refugees, it is bound to be ineffective in stopping the spread of Islamism. As many have pointed out, it is also internally inconsistent: It doesn’t include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, or Lebanon, any of which has been a more fertile source of jihadist terrorism than several of the countries Trump named.

I don’t know how much clearer Harris could have made his thoughts on that issue. Either Brooks is not aware of his target’s positions, or doesn’t care for them and sees himself as a master interpreter. For Brooks to levy this sort of potentially defamatory criticism of Harris, however, demands exactly the due diligence he does not bother to give to the topic. After playing the clip to his audience, Brooks adds:

“… I would suggest that the way to preserve ‘liberal values’ is by protecting, as an example, robust constitutional norms while they’re under assault [again referencing Harris’ supposed support for Trump’s “Muslim ban”].”

The “Sam Harris is complaining about being taken out of context again” meme has become darkly hilarious in this sphere mainly because that is what his critics allege is his constant defense. It’s one of Reza Aslan’s favorite horses to hitch up and ride. But I wonder if in this case any fair observer can really disagree? Brooks not only willingly skews Harris’ words but blatantly falsifies his positions as well.

Almost the entirety of Brooks’ segment is a strung-together collection of personal attacks, such as tarring Nawaz as “pathetic and embarrassing,” targeting Harris as “a bigot” who is giving a “shout-out to Richard Spencer [even though Harris referenced Robert Spencer,” and cliché ideas, like right-wing terrorists are of graver concern than Islamic terrorists. There are, of course, some interesting points (for it is immensely difficult to be completely wrong for 13 consecutive minutes), for example at 7:24 into the clip, an erudite voice points out:

“Also most victims of terrorism worldwide are Muslims… but this is not the way this narrative is presented. When I say most: I read a statistic in an article that said 90% and I looked further into it … and experts estimate it’s somewhere around there… It’s really an insane overreaction to have so much talk about how this is affecting non-Muslim people.”

This commentary is worth paying attention to. Muslims certainly are the primary victims of Islamic terrorism. But Brooks seems unable to contend with Harris’ and Nawaz’s recognition of and concern for this problem. He instead exhibits his credentials as a certified mind-reader and quickly offers:

“But the implication would be that those Muslims deserve it because they’re Muslims. And I’ve heard them say that. Bill Maher even said it on his show once…”

There’s a far easier explanation, and one wonders why Michael Brooks and similar co-commentators cannot see it. Many of us, especially liberals, care about terrorism precisely because we share a common humanity with its victims — regardless of their faith. We simply wish them not to suffer from its consequences as we wish the same thing for ourselves. The thing is, this is precisely the kind of analysis one should have every right to expect from a progressive like Brooks when not preoccupied with playing virtue-sheriff atop a hard-ridden hobbyhorse and engaging in histrionic overreactions to voices like those of Harris, Nawaz, and Maher.

Brooks does not stop, though. He finishes his assault by calling Harris a “trust fund baby” and “pseudoscientist.” This clip, including all the rest of the demagogic slights it offers against Harris’s education and background, is a mere example of what has developed into what we might call the “Sam Harris Outrage Industry,” which reliably churns out mischaracterizations of Sam Harris of any kind you want as long as you want them outrageous. Now think what the  consistent viewer of shows like Brooks’ experiences when they hear this. Imagine being a frequent spectator. The damage is already done. Doubts about Harris’ education, background, and credibility have already been sown. This is how slander works. By employing claims that are nearly impossible to refute due to lack of available information or the time to properly investigate them.

Until very recently, it was utterly perplexing to witness supposedly rational people reveling in the fanatical joys of degrading someone who has defied any accepted norms of thought or speech regarding the issue of Islamism, but now it’s commonplace enough to be something nearer to sadly boring. Harris’ mistreatment is but one good example of the fate awaiting those who wish even to approach the periphery of this debate. I have watched with growing trepidation: Douglas Murray called a “hate preacher” by Massoud Shadjareh on the BBC; Maajid Nawaz (astoundingly) labelled a “Porch Monkey” by Murtaza Hussain; the late Christopher Hitchens considered a bigot for his strong stance against Islam and the ludicrous notion of “Islamophobia.” These are only the most well known instances. Ex-Muslims and liberal Muslims are constantly defamed for questioning Islam or seeking to implement some type of change.

The most apparent conclusion to draw from these observations seems to be that even though the West is becoming more secular, this change does not necessarily degrade our nature to seek moral communities and enforce tribalistic norms. Moral zealotry does not care whether a statement is true or not. It sees only the basest motivations and poorest intentions in its enemies. As little as three years ago, it seemed to me that progressives were careful and accurate, motivated mainly by reason, and I even considered them the “good guys.” (I even watched shows like The Young Turks without a second thought.) Zealous is as zealous does, however, and the drive to appear morally virtuous easily overpowers a regard for truth and fairness. The Sam Harris Outrage Machine is a perfect example of moral zealotry in action, proving fanatics will always be willing to drag anyone, even the thoughtful and careful among us, down in the name of their moral vision.

[Author’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly noted that the BBC had called Douglas Murray a “hate preacher.” It was actually said by Massoud Shadjareh while on the BBC. The article has been updated to reflect my mistake.]

Malhar Mali

Malhar Mali is the founder and editor of Areo. He can be reached via malhar@areomagazine.com

Latest posts by Malhar Mali (see all)

Advertisements
If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:
Malhar Mali

Malhar Mali is the founder and editor of Areo. He can be reached via malhar@areomagazine.com

26 thoughts on “The Sam Harris Outrage Industry

  1. Hmm.. I think I would agree that the public conflates Harris’ ideas on Islam, and that it does harm to the movement to speak out against Islam. He is one of the few speakers who does this well, strongly, and honorably calm.

    Those accusations have been unwarranted. Unfortunately. I personally don’t find this to be things to attack about him either, but I do think there is some rising attention about whether he can answer ALL the questions on the topics he speaks, and no one can really answer those topics by themselves, to which that is more of the publics problem rather than his problem. We must consult more experts and opinions on this broader debate and promote the argument of the Islamic abuses by our own accord everywhere we go.

    –Sarah M.

  2. Great article. Michael Brooks didn’t bother to go back and check the original source he was critiquing, and his sloppiness led to him relying upon an intentionally misleadingly edited audio clip of Sam Harris, making Brooks look like a fool in the process. There was also no excuse for Brooks saying that Harris supports a Muslim Ban when it is very easy to make a couple of clicks and find out that Harris indeed has written on the subject and does *not* support such a thing. This was basically an ad hominem attack on Sam Harris thinly disguised as a critique of Harris’s thinking. Brooks is relying on the fact that his defamatory, libelous remarks on Harris won’t be legally acted upon, as bringing such cases to court when you are a public figure like Sam Harris is usually not worth the time and money spent. Nevertheless, shame on Brooks, Sam Seder (who is financially tied to Cenk Uygur and The Young Turks, who loathe Harris), and anyone who was involved in bringing this dishonest piece of video vitriol to the public arena.

  3. @Echoplex Media: The fact that the document you link to even exists kind of proves the point of this article.

    Did you even read the my two posts, where I conceded some criticisms of Harris, and yet still defended his podcast? Are you capable of nuance at all?

    If you don’t like the podcast, don’t listen to it. Those of us who listen to the podcast, regardless of whatever flaws it may have, do not appreciate being characterized as mindless fanboys.

    How about engaging with people charitably, rather than maliciously? Are you capable of that?

  4. We have noticed that it is a blasphemy to criticize Mr. Harris for any reason because the faithful seem to get very upset and demand credulity as soon as a criticism is made. So, in order to prevent people who might have the temerity to criticize from being 100% wrong no matter what any time they say anything about Mr. Harris, we’ve created a handy checklist so that your as of yet uttered criticisms might possibly pass muster with the unreasonably devoted fans of the man, the myth, the legend, the cult of personality, Sam Fuckin Harris!

    http://www.echoplexmedia.com/new-blog/2016/9/7/your-comprehensive-sam-harris-criticism-check-list

  5. Although a follow-up: there is one thing that I think Sam hammers home, and that needs to be said holds true for conservative Islam in general–not just Salafism. That is that conservative Islam as practiced in many (most?) places today is VERY harsh to apostates and blasphemers. As an atheist I have a clear interest in defending the right of atheists of Muslim origin to publicly leave their religion without threats of violence and social ostracism. Sam Harris has been very vocal about this, and while he’s done so in a way that is sometimes condescending and perhaps “orientalist,” the fact is, his tone does not invalidate the content of that message.

    For more on this, see this Vox interview with Atheist Muslim Ali Rizvi:

    https://www.vox.com/conversations/2017/7/7/15886862/islam-trump-isis-terrorism-ali-rizvi-religion-sam-harris

    and the group Ex-Muslims of North America: https://www.exmna.org/

    As well as this speech by EXMNA co-founder Sarah Haider at the American Humanist Association–“Islam and the Necessity of a Liberal Critique”:

  6. RE Ratdude: Both the Salon article and the follow-up Sam Seder video give nuanced arguments that are worth taking into account.

    FYI I am a fan of Harris and I’m well aware that he tends to downplay the effects of U.S. foreign policy. He’s not an expert, and he can be a little thin-skinned in the face of criticism. I agree that Salafi-jihadism and the Gulf State alliances (especially Saudi and Qatar), in particular, are the main problems, and not all of Islam–although Revolutionary Shi’ism (Iran and Hezbollah) can’t be ignored.

    The problem, however, is that there is a very large strain of denialism among liberal pundits (except for Bill Maher) that any type of Islamic belief has anything to do with terrorism. I attribute this to both a justified fear of putting Muslims in danger, but also to an inability in general by progressive interfaith movements to want to give any legitimacy to religious belief per se as a source of violence. Progressive Christians, for example, often delegitimize Christian Fundamentalists as “not true Christians” or “forgetting the meaning of Christianity.”

    For atheists like me, who almost never get any positive publicity, this is infuriating. Many atheists came to our disbelief through a reading of the texts (be it Bible, Quran, or other) and rejected the textual foundations of our religions of birth as both morally repugnant and scientifically invalid. We want to be able to be openly proud of this, and to be so in the public, political square without having to do mental gymnastics about holy books.

    Until we are at a point where it is not unusual for an open atheist to get elected to the United States, we have a problem.

    THAT is why I as a progressive atheist will defend Sam Harris. Not because I think he’s always right about the politics surrounding Islam–trust me, if Trump opens up a Muslim registry, I will be the among the first non-Muslims to register in solidarity–but rather, because he tells a basic truth, obsessively, to be sure, but one that doesn’t get heard enough on the left: in addition to American foreign policy, socioeconomic factors, etc., specific beliefs inside people’s heads matter. The left, in its justified emphasis on structure, far too often forgets about agency.

    I think part of the issue is–is the left talking to itself, or is the left talking to the general public? Far too often it seems the left is talking to itself, and trying to enforce an orthodoxy of thought among its members. For those of us who are not merely non-religious, but proudly irreligious, we cannot accept having to respect a taboo around criticizing Islam (or any other religion) as part of that orthodoxy. Hence we listen to Sam Harris, who may well contribute to a discourse that is essentially right-wing, but whose actual stated beliefs–like mine–are basically center-left.

    You need to understand that not everyone with liberal politics can be a selfless left-activist all the time. Some of us just want to listen to Sam because we find his hypothetical musings interesting. The fact that he also has Alt-Right fans is unfortunate, but whatever, really.

    When the Muslim ban executive order was signed, I was at the airport protests. If there’s a Muslim registry, I will sign my name up PDQ. Actions speak louder than words. It’s not my job–nor is it Sam’s–to constantly reassure you that we’re good allies. When you really do need my solidarity–which means putting myself on the line when the Trump Administration strikes–you can count on me to be there.

LEAVE A REPLY