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.”

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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

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Malhar Mali

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

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