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.