Sam Harris has a long interview with Kara Swisher (1’40”! transcript here), which even in written form puts me to sleep. Fortunately, Paul Campos has extracted some of the more bizarre, Sam-defining bits for me, and gets right to the problem of the Intellectual Dark Web. They pooh-pooh the harm and danger of white nationalism and racism and general bigotry, trivializing it and suggesting that it’s not important, which allows them to fan the flames of racial bias while neatly divorcing themselves from its outcomes. What stuns me is his argument for doing this: white nationalism is an ideology, but it’s not a religion, therefore it’s not as bad?
The difference I would draw between Christchurch, a white supremacist atrocity, and what just happened in Sri Lanka or any jihadist attack you could name, the difference there is that white supremacy is an ideology, I’ll grant you. It doesn’t link up with so many good things in a person’s life that it is attracting psychologically normal non-beleaguered people into its fold. It may become that on some level.
It doesn’t have all the elements of a true religion. I mean, there are ways in which it’s entangled with certain forms of Christianity. Again, there’s not a death cult of martyrdom forming there. It’s conceivable that one could form there. I’m not ruling out the white supremacists for causing a lot of havoc in the world. But in reality, white supremacy, and certainly murderous white supremacy, is the fringe of the fringe in our society and any society. And if you’re gonna link it up with Christianity, it is the fringe of the fringe of Christianity. If you’re gonna debate a fundamentalist Christian, as I occasionally do, if I were to say, “Yeah, but what about white supremacy and all the …” He’s not gonna know what you’re … It’s not part of their doctrine in a meaningful way.
Where I come from, a bad idea is a bad idea, and we don’t excuse it if it avoids being entangled with a religion. I’m comfortable with saying religion is a bad idea, but it is only one member of a much larger class of bad ideas, especially problematic when you’re trying to give a special status to a category as broadly diverse and amorphous as religion.
What’s particularly obnoxious about this twisty exercise in special pleading is that it is so transparent in what he’s trying to do: he is once again straining to make the case that Islam is uniquely evil. That only Islam is a “death cult of martyrdom”, that any instances of Christianity inspiring mass murder are weird outliers that can be ignored, while any instances of Muslims committing mass murder are truly representative of the faith. If I had to argue against such a ludicrous claim, I’d take a twofold approach.
First, if you’re gonna debate a fundamentalist Muslim, and you were to say, “Yeah, but what about suicide bombers and all…”, that Muslim is likely to be annoyed that you’ve brought up an insulting stereotype and is going to tell you that murder is not part of their doctrine in any meaningful way, and that terrorism is the fringe of the fringe of Islam. They might also point out that Harris seems to be deeply ignorant about the religion (I’ve seen him handwave away the assessments of Arabic speakers and researchers in the field of Middle Eastern culture), and that his popularity is entirely a consequence of his appeal to equally ignorant bigots.
Secondly, though, I’d explain that many Western nations, built on Christian foundations, seem to be entirely comfortable with prolonged, brutal warfare against Islamic countries, which makes uncaring mass murder a rather significant element of our ‘faith’, and that what we’ve been doing is ongoing oppression that empowers the terrorist fringe of a fringe. I’d point out, as Campos does, that the rising of the Right has succeeded in taking over our government, and is a greater internal crisis than any distant threat from angry foreigners in oil rich countries, no matter what their religion.
I mean who doesn’t recognize that white supremacy is absolutely at the ideological core of the political movement that at the moment happens to control the government of the most powerful nation in the world? Sam Harris, that’s who!
And as for the claim that there’s no connection between white supremacist ideology and fundamentalist Christianity, that would seem to be belied by the fact that fundamentalist and/or evangelical Christians make up by far the most significant voting bloc in the coalition of white supremacists and conservative ethno-nationalists (but I repeat myself) who have taken over the Republican party and most of the government of the United States.
A bad idea is a bad idea. I don’t care if it’s sponsored by a fringe of a fringe, or by mere ideologues, or by Christians or Muslims, or even by bizarrely popular atheists — racist claims that have no foundation in legitimate science and that are used to further discrimination and hatred must be opposed. Sam Harris is one of those deplorables who deserve condemnation.
He’s so oblivious and dim, too. When asked what can be done about all the racists taking advantage of social media, here is his reply:
[T]here’s just no way for us to keep track of what’s on our platform, right? So you know, the AI can’t do it. If we turn up the filter on white supremacy, we’re going to catch too many ordinary Republicans and we’re even going to catch certain Congressman, right, and we might even catch the president, and so that doesn’t work.
A scientist would say that, if we objectively tune our filters to detect expressions of white supremacy and racism, and we then find that we catch a bunch of “ordinary Republicans” who we already know are wont to spout off racist remarks, that’s a sign that the filters work. Harris’s bias is pretty naked there.
Sam Harris is the mother lode of bad ideas. He is also a racist fuck-hole.
Interestingly Umberto Eco’s essay on the characteristics of ur-fascism basically calls it a death cult.
So he’s just repeating Jack Dorsey’s line.
Sam Harris who?
He is just Jordan Peterson without being anywhere near as amusingly wrong.
Cthulhu, as PZ points out this is both cosmically dumb and obviously wrong.
In times past, the big murderers of humans were religions, mostly xianity. The crusades, Reformation wars, and continual genocides killed tens of millions.
In our lifetimes, the ideologies of Fascism, Nazism, and Communism have been the big killers, with tens of millions dead one way or another.
The US civil war was the bloodiest war in US history and…a clash of ideologies.
Sam Harris is wrong on simple, basic facts that any high school student should know!!!
He isn’t a scholar at all.
He is a failed internet troll.
there’s just. so much wrong with the two comic sans’ed paragraphs, i’m not sure where to start.
white supremacy is not a death cult? that’s fucking news to me. they’re in full apocalyptic mode, both as a group (white genocide great displacement end of western society blah blah) and individually (murder-suicide mass shooters and that canadian incel dude)
fundamentalist christianity is not white supremacist? also news to me, given their nativist, dominionist entanglements from the very fucking beginning.
also, white supremacy already coopts not just the alienated white dudes at the fringes. see: the entire republican party. that’s how the whole banality of evil works, ffs.
The same is true of Muslim suicide bombers.
The large majority of victims of Islamic terrorism are…other Muslims.
It’s over 90%.
Completely false and wrong.
White racism was one of the main forces for the rise of US xian fundamentalism.
All the US churches split into Northern and Southern sects around the US Civil War, so they could choose sides. That is where the Southern in Southern Baptists came from.
They supported Jim Crow laws and Segregation until they lost those battles.
White racism is still at the core of the white fundie xian churches.
There are nonwhite fundies. They all have their own churches.
Sam Harris is an idiot.
He continually just Makes Stuff Up as he goes along.
It’s scholarship at the level of a not very bright…internet troll.
Jeremy Shaffer says
The space between ideology and religion is somewhere around that of a single hair. Sam is merely playing semantics to avoid having to deal with the fact that the real difference between the two is that he is unlikely to be directly or negatively affected by white supremacists- that he might even benefit from them getting their way so long as he plays his cards right, and he is really pushing for a rousing game of Go Fish here.
That’s right, folks! If someone doesn’t or won’t agree to having a particular label applied to them, then that label does not apply; except when it does. Thanks for the lesson in reason and logic, Sam.
So reason; so logic.
Strange how if you go shooting fish in a barrel, you end up with a bunch of shot fish. Beyond that, I’m sure Sam always applies this same level of caution about ensuring we not entangle innocent members of a broad group of people with the bad ones across the board…
Speaking of death cults, as many have pointed out, to some extent, Muslim suicide bombers are a result of asymmetric warfare.
.1. They kill by carrying explosives into some place and blowing it and them up.
.2. We, the USA don’t do that.
We don’t have to.
We have other ways of killing people we don’t like and don’t want alive for one reason or another.
A killer drone flying at 10,000 feet can take out dozens of people in a few seconds with a pilot half the world away.
Then there are large numbers of war planes, navy ships, tanks, various armored personnel carriers, killer robots, body armored heavily armed soldiers etc..
We substitute expensive Hi Tech hardware for squishy organic bomb carriers.
Who has killed more people here lately?
Muslim sucide bombers or the US armed forces?
The death toll of Vietnamese is estimated at 1 million or so.
The death toll in Iraq is estimated at ca. 150,000 just for Iraq II, not counting the ISIS war.
I’m sure Sam Harris never looks in a mirror.
The mirror would undoubtedly just give up and break.
Andreas Avester says
I see a logical problem here. Both of these statements cannot be simultaneously true. If white supremacy is the fringe of the fringe of American society, then too many ordinary Republicans shouldn’t get caught making statements that endorse white supremacy.
Yep. Years ago, back when I heard of Sam Harris for the first time, he didn’t sound so bad. By now I have started to seriously dislike his statements.
Hmmm. I would argue that if you want to split that hair, that non-theistic bad ideas like white supremacy are worse than religious ones. The person who says, “My invisible friend in the sky told me blacks are inferior to whites,” and the person who says, “Science teaches that blacks are inferior to whites,” are both wrong, but the former isn’t even attempting to appeal to logic and reason, and so can far more easily be dismissed out of hand.
On the other hand, the person who appeals to IQ tests, evolutionary psychology, eugenics, or some other pseudo-science at least recognizes the need to make prejudices appear to be based on logic and reason, and is therefore far more dangerous. That person is making the claim that there is science to support his bad idea. And even though that claim doesn’t survive any real scrutiny, it’s more likely to lead other people astray because it comes with the appearance of being scientific.
So if bad ideas have to be peddled, I personally would far rather they travel as religion than science.
So Harris seems to say (cause he’s vague, a hallmark of pseudoscience that let’s its practitioners deny having said what they said) that muzzling racists would be okay except that some racists are powerful rightwing politicians whose racism can’t be muzzled for some reason.
One of the problems of Harris and the like is an obsession with explicit doctrine.
They read the Qu’ran and spot various violent things in it an claim those as the “real” Islam, and then go and tell Muslims that they aren’t real Muslims if they don’t believe in those things.
They read the Bible and spot Genesis and conclude that Young Earth Creationism is the “real” Christianity and then go and tell Christians that they aren’t real Christians if they don’t believe those things.
… and then they read Republican policy statements and they don’t find explicit racism in, so they conclude that Republicans aren’t racist, because they think that the formal, written doctrine is more important than what people actually do.
I totally agree with you thirdmill301.
I am deeply disappointed with Sam Harris. His IDW status has gone to his head and robbed him of self reflection which is ironic as that is what he is supposed to be so good at. I have gained in the past from his writings and videos and podcasts before he went all IDW and with this shadow racism. It’s such a shame.
Hoosier X says
I’m amused at the idea that Harris’s biases haven’t been pretty obvious all along. Maybe he thinks his lame sophistry is clever but I’ve always found him a transparent pseudo-intellectual that I would put somewhere between Newt Gingrich and William F. Buckley on the pseudo-intellectual spectrum.
Ideologically, there’s barely room to squeeze in. For rhetoric, I have to give WFB his props (except when baited into real anger) and I’d put Harris much closer to the slender-bodied (hah!) amphibian.
So Sam Harris is OK with airport security profiling anyone who could conceivably be Muslims, but not with social media organizations profiling anyone who could conceivably be a white supremacist?
“He’s so oblivious and dim, too. When asked what can be done about all the racists taking advantage of social media, here is his reply…”
I mean, wow, you weren’t kidding when you said you didn’t bother to read the transcript, were you? He was articulating the reply he thinks the social media platforms would give.
It’s really strange to me that you can have such strong, obsessive opinions of Sam Harris while refusing to actually… you know, listen to what he’s saying. Given all the sleazy, quote-mining Creationists you’ve had to deal with over the years, I would have thought you’d know better than to base your opinion entirely on “excerpts from a transcript.”
Suicide bombing isn’t a Muslim invention. The modern suicide bomber concept was actually developed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, as Tamil tradition saw refusing to surrender and fighting to the death as honourable. It could just as easily have been developed by Japanese terrorist groups back in the ’70s give their culture’s tradition of suicide attacks. I wonder what Harris’s excuse will be if some Christian fanatic decides the only way to fulfill some goal, like stopping abortion, is to walk into a clinic and blow themselves up.
Wtf are you talking about!? You think Sam Harris, of all people, “makes excuses” for Christians? :-D You guys are unreal… Any time Sam Harris is mentioned, you all turn into a bunch of brainwashed fanatics. I mean, I guess it’s kind of entertaining, so at least there’s that…
PZ Myers says
#19: He grants Christianity an excuse he does not allow for Islam.
Right there, he’s making an excuse for Christianity.
John Morales says
hookflash (to PZ):
He didn’t make that claim, so he certainly couldn’t be kidding.
Nope. He was responding for himself, not on their behalf; specifically, he was responding to this question: “How do you look at the current tech companies, given this issue around free speech, what they should regulate, what they shouldn’t regulate, what they should be responsible for, what regulators should be responsible for?”
Sam Harris has been featured on this blog numerous times over the last decade and a half, so it’s strange that you don’t recognise that PZ’s long familiarity with Sam’s corpus is the basis for those opinions. A case where familiarity breeds contempt.
What makes you imagine he based his opinion entirely on “excerpts from a transcript.”?
(I note that text string doesn’t occur in this thread until your comment, and it’s not an accurate paraphrase of the OP)
PZ Myers says
#17: Except that I did read it. There is nothing in the transcript that excuses his argument. He’s defending the social media platforms by saying, because it would catch some Republicans. But we know that’s not true: Twitter, for instance, is actually pretty good at policing porn, and it’s quick on the draw to block anyone who posts a threat against the president, so they’ve got tools that would allow such a clean up. They just lack the will to do so.
“Right there, he’s making an excuse for Christianity.”
Saying, “this horrible ideology doesn’t contain all of the same horrible elements as this other horrible ideology,” hardly counts as excuse-making.
Yes it is. he doesn’t give Islam the same treatment. When a jyhadist blows himself up he paints the entire religion as a “death cult” when that is a fringe of a fringe. Just like white supremacy is a fringe of a fringe. If you cant see that then you are a fanboy or something. Also he makes a differentiation towards ideology and religion.
hookflash, I would think my comment is pretty obvious. I’m wondering how Harris would react when a “Muslim tactic,” which isn’t actually unique to militants claiming Islam as a justification, is used by a home grown American non-Muslim terrorist.
I’ve never seen a Sam Harris fanboy troll who wasn’t stupid and didn’t lie.
It’s all Sam Harris has.
Sam Harris has been around for years and most of us have read quite a bit of what he wrote.
He has a long track record.
He’s very consistent and predictable.
He lies a lot, Makes Up Facts, commits every logical fallacy known, repeats his pet hates over and over again, and occasionally descends to gibberish.
He is a failed internet troll just like hookflash.
I read his early and famous book, The End Of Faith, many years ago.
Or tried to.
I got half way through and gave up, something very rare for me to do.
It was truly terrible.
He spends most of his time criticizing Islam. I can’t even say it was wrong.
But that isn’t our problem!!!
They are mostly over There killing other Muslims, at over 90% of their victims.
We have our own version of Militant Muslims known as fundie xians.
They are here, not there. I live here, not there, simple as that.
Sam Harris has gotten worse with time, not better.
He long ago gave up even trying to look intelligent and became just another talentless alt right troll.
Right wingnut and/or fundie xian terrorists killed 50 people last year.
That was 100% of all Americans killed by terrorists.
Right wingnuts are Sam Harris and his fanboy trolls.
Sam Harris is part of the problem not part of the solution!!!
You make me think of Monty Python of course:
“He isn’t a scholar, he’s a very naughty boy!”
Frederic Bourgault-Christie says
Never mind the outright white supremacist churches, not only Christian churches but also Pagan Nazis, Church of Enlightenment types and so forth. Never mind how former neo-Nazis describe it explicitly as a cult. Never mind that such an ideology fulfills so many of the purposes of such a religion, even using palingenetic ultranationalism and the Volk as a way for immortality and even an alternative to God for worship. It is bullshit on its face. White supremacist ideology is based on shared values, epistemologies, personality profiles, mythologies… Obviously not every ideology is a religion, but the line between a bona fide religion and a philosophy that is similarly dangerous and all consuming is so clearly thin it takes disingenuity to deny it.
Sam is not just exposing his bias and his clear identity politics here. He’s also exposing his arrogance and his utter commitment to Dunning and Kruger. It takes really basic study of the roots of white supremacy to recognize how bad his arguments are. But folks like Tim Wise (who has been writing about evangelicals and conservative Christianity recently), Klein, PZ, Chomsky, etc. can all correct him, and he just doesn’t care. They’re just liberal ideologues.
Reza Aslan has his problems, but he is right that Harris research methodology seems to be watching cable news.
he is completely at home with the status quo the traditional history of western history of European world dominance and superiority is completely content to just be a little eccentric around the edges (no religion)
he strikes me as someone who would be perfectly fine with being a Judas goat
Frederic Bourgault-Christie says
@hookflash: I find it illustrative that you want to accuse PZ of not having read the whole transcript while not deciding to hold Sam to task for his blatant hypocrisy.
When it comes to Muslims, the risk that an entire group will be subjected to heightened scrutiny and so countless innocent people will end up being intruded upon doesn’t matter. If it has even the tiniest chance of stopping another 9-11? Forget civil rights full speed ahead! But when it comes to Republicans, the risk that they get banned from Twitter by a too-broad net is unacceptable. (I’m sure it is just a coincidence that Republicans tend to be straight white American males who Sam can empathize with).
Is there any justification for this disparity? No.
It is not just that Sam is so unaware of his own biases that he doesn’t instantly recognize that this at least seems inconsistent and therefore is worth explaining the difference.
It is that no justification is possible.
A Twitter ban is harmlessly reversible. An ordinary Republican complying with the EULA can file an appeal and even possibly make a second account while waiting for appeal, and all they lose is some time for posting privileges. But heightened attention from law enforcement can lead to civil or criminal liability and imprisonment, and even a mere intrusive search can’t be harmlessly reversed.
True, the negative consequence of not catching a single terrorist can be high, but the very existence of white supremacist rhetoric is dangerous. White supremacists harass, dox, spread malicious lies including outright libel, and make using a service onerous for numerous users. That is to say nothing of the fact that defanging white supremacist rhetoric and deplatforming them reduces the risk not only of recruitment but also of individuals deciding to emulate Dylann Roof.
There is a human right to due process and to probable cause for search and seizure. You have no human right to Twitter giving you a platform. Sam doesn’t care about a Constitutional and human right violation, but he does care about what is at worst a private company breaking a contract by arguably violating their EULA. The net result of which is that someone loses access to a free service.
It is comprehensively worse to subject a group to law enforcement scrutiny than to the scrutiny of an algorithm. Sam is willing to do the former for one group but not the second for another.
That has to mean that Sam thinks all Muslims everywhere are so much more dangerous than the party that approves of torture, violation of international law including asylum, and even things Sam pretends to care about like the imposition of theocracy, that they rightfully deserve vastly more scrutiny. A global religion of a billion people is more monolithic than a specific political party.
That makes him either deluded and biased or hateful and biased. Or both.
It is telling that you don’t care.
WMDKitty -- Survivor says
@Frederic — Daaaaaaaamn. That was beautiful.
George Norman says
PZ, how do you define the word “fringe?”
“…that Muslim is likely to be annoyed that you’ve brought up an insulting stereotype and is going to tell you that murder is not part of their doctrine in any meaningful way, and that terrorism is the fringe of the fringe of Islam.”
Note percentages of Muslims who believe Sharia law should be the law of the land and also believe in: “The death penalty for leaving Islam” and “Stoning as punishment for adultery”
Note percentage of white American voters who vote for openly white supremacist candidates (local and presidential).
Rob Grigjanis says
George Norman @33: From the article you linked;
That certainly sets them apart from idiot Americans who think whatever archaic laws they approve of should be obeyed by everyone.
Tom Foss says
@George Norman #33: Cool cherry-picking bro. Some other key points:
That last one is, I think, particularly interesting because in the majority of the countries involved, there’s sufficient confusion or disagreement about sharia law that the perception of how closely their country’s laws represent sharia law is split down the middle.
I think culturally Christian people have swallowed this idea that “sharia law” is one thing and one thing only, some inflexible set of barbaric rules that all Muslims, regardless of political beliefs or sect, adhere to. We don’t recognize that the same diversity of thought and opinion exists in Islam as it does in Christianity and Judaism. Poll a similar number of Christians asking “should the Bible form the basis of your country’s laws,” and I suspect you’ll find similar numbers in favor. In fact, the number of Ten Commandments monuments justified on precisely that logic kind of proves the point. But ask those same Christians if they think that means people should be stoned to death for wearing two kinds of fabrics or if you should be allowed to sell your children into slavery, and the numbers will drop pretty precipitously. The fact that they share a common book with a common set of Biblical laws doesn’t mean that they all agree on what “Biblical law” actually means.
And sure, you’d probably find fewer Christians in the developed world agreeing that women should be stoned to death for adultery. But try polling on whether gay people should be tortured until they’re not gay anymore, or if women should be imprisoned for murdering unborn babies.
Sharia law, to many Muslims, means establishing a religious court that can adjudicate certain issues for members of the church. Other religions have this, including Jewish rabbinical courts and Catholic diocesan tribunals. They exist in the United States, they function, and they haven’t led to a requirement for everyone to keep kosher or reject contraception. They’re dumb, but no dumber or more sinister than any other religion’s dumb hierarchies.
Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says
I wonder what percentage of Americans believe that the death penalty is justifiably applied to someone who is selling single cigarettes on the street without paying the tobacco tax that was already paid on the packs of cigarettes the seller purchased to supply those singles? I wonder if the percentage varies based on race? I wonder if Europe should bomb the US back to the stone age for holding barbaric beliefs about the death penalty that constitute a threat to democracy everywhere?
Hmm. Those seem like important questions. I hope Whitey gets right on with answering them, soon as he gets his ass back from the moon.
Does supporting the police murdering black people count as white supremacy?
Wonder what percentage of white Americans are anti-BLM.