Ben Norton writes that Sam Harris, the self-styled ‘centrist liberal’, moves further and further into the warm embrace of the xenophobes.
In language eerily reminiscent of the rhetoric of the fascist far right, New Atheist pundit Sam Harris has called for reducing the number of Muslims in society, warning on the January episode of his popular podcast, “You can’t have too many Muslims in your culture if you want it to remain enlightened.”
Harris made these remarks in an interview with the British ex-Muslim pundit and self-styled “counter-extremism campaigner” Maajid Nawaz. As AlterNet’s Max Blumenthal and Nafeez Ahmed have documented, Nawaz concocted significant portions of his memoir and falsely branded members of his own family as Islamic extremists.
Harris and Nawaz also bashed the left and called for more Western military intervention in the Middle East, despite it being the primary force driving Salafi-jihadist violence and the refugee crisis.
Sam Harris, who identifies as a liberal centrist, has previously said that the “people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.” He has a long history of anti-Muslim extremism, going so far as to claim “we are at war with Islam.”
The January episode of Harris’ podcast is not the first time he has flirted with racist talking points. It was soon followed by another episode in April, in which Harris advanced rhetoric that resembles the pseudoscientific “race realism” of white supremacists. Harris maintained that “average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups,” implying that people of African descent have lower IQs, while people of European descent are smarter.
Harris, who has also harshly criticized the Black Lives Matter movement as “irrational,” staunchly maintains he is not racist, and has gone out of his way to condemn white supremacists. His IQ comments, however, were applauded by white nationalists and the rebranded fascist movement that calls itself the alt-right.
I must admit that I gagged when I read Norton describe Harris as the “popular leader of the so-called New Atheists” because I consider myself to be a ‘new atheist’ and want to have no association with him even though, before the full extent of his awful political views became apparent to me, I signed on to a rationalist group started by him. It was quite some time ago. I never did anything with the group and now cannot remember even its name because I would withdraw my name if it still existed and I could. Harris’s website has no mention of it that I could find.
This is not the first time that Harries has tried to defend the indefensible and Noam Chomsky called him out on some aspects of it. If past patterns hold up, Norton’s article on Harris will be responded to by many Harris supporters defending him and Harris himself saying that his words were taken out of context or deliberately distorted by his enemies, the famous Harris two-step to avoid taking full responsibility for the actions he advocates. Either Harris is the most misunderstood or unjustly maligned writer in the world or, as Robert Wright argues, he is a muddled thinker or a muddled writer.
There’s a noticeable pattern in the English language-based discourse as of late, that being a centrist, and a liberal, claimed by people who actually don’t act as a centrist or a liberal, other than criticizing them. To the surprise of nobody, Carl of Swindon is also a left leaning liberal… and I’m a pig who flies.
Harris represents the brand of atheists who think many things theists say or do isn’t wrong because it’s morally reprehensible, rather because they base it on the supernatural. In some of their most honest moments, Carl and Milo come out and outright say it, that the only problem is God.
In recent days, a rebbe has died due to drowning in Mexico. He was a cult leader, whose cult was dubbed the Jewish Taliban by Israelis, who was barred from the US, deported, but fled to Canada. Meanwhile, in the currently closed off Qatar women can drive and wear miniskirts. The rebbe, convicted of child abuse refused to comply with prison rules regarding his beard due to his “deeply held beliefs” and got out of one previous arraignment, because the New York DA did not want to confront Orthodox Jews in an election year (the charge was child abuse, by the way). So, I pose the rhetorical question, where is the drive of enlightenment on Harris’s part to introduce a bill vacating legislation that allows for outrageous and dangerous behavior in America?
Marcus Ranum says
Either Harris is the most misunderstood or unjustly maligned writer in the world or, as Robert Wright says, he is a muddled thinker or a muddled writer.
He’s just right about everything. Even when he’s wrong, he’s right. So you’re taking him out of context if you say he’s wrong, because he’s right.
Besides, in some convoluted hypothetical scenario in which he’s right, he’s right. And if you deny that you’re just a tendentious and boring person making debater’s aguments.
*deep breath* Conteeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeext!!!
deepak shetty says
I wonder if some people have stopped identifying as Gnu Atheists because of the views associated to the popular leaders.
Pretty much all dictionary Atheists admit it. Atheism is rational but only implies lack of belief in God.(because of course being rational has no other implications!)
Marcus Ranum says
“You can’t have too many Muslims in your culture if you want it to remain enlightened.”
I’m wondering what culture Harris considers ‘enlightened’
Matt G says
Why are so many of the high profile atheists such jerks? They seem to be from the libertarian side of atheism, not the liberal side.
Daniel Schealler says
Harris actually is one of the most unjustly misrepresented writers I’ve seen.
All it takes is one or two people to knowingly misrepresent him and trigger the outrage machine. From there, the outrage machine takes over and the narrative of the outrage becomes its own justification.
In a recent-ish conversation with Maajid, Harris asked how Maajid would respond to the kind of person who holds a xenophobic view about Islam. Harris steel-manned the kind of xenophobic view of Islam he was talking about for the purpose of getting Maajid’s response. Maajid then responded with how and why he would disagree with that view.
It was transparently obvious that neither Harris nor Maajid held the view being steel-manned. But the words were quoted out of context, and then the outrage machine got hold of it. Nobody checked, they just jumped straight into a Ten Minute Hate session without even thinking about it.
And I get it, nobody has time to check up on every source. I don’t have time to dig into this one properly. It has the same smell as other misrepresentations I’ve read of Harris, so I’m inclined to dismiss it as such as a time-saving heuristic. But I don’t actually know, so it’s not like I’m some saint of checking up on every little thing before forming an opinion.
But you’ll note that I’m not the one calling anyone a bigot.
None of which is to say that there aren’t valid criticisms of Harris’ actual positions. Because there are. I disagree with several positions that he actually does hold. For example, I think his view that ‘religious’ profiling at airports would be a good idea for security is wrong, mistaken and confused. He’s infuriatingly pig-headed in his failures to engage with sound criticism of that view.
But the sneering dismissal with which you’ve referred to even the possibility that Harris does get routinely misrepresented is itself part of the outrage machine.
For crying out loud, how often does the slyme pit misrepresent FtB bloggers? You guys know that ideologically-motivated misrepresentation is a thing. Is it really so impossible to think that Harris could be routinely misrepresented too?
If you can’t be bothered checking up on every little thing, then that’s okay. Neither can I. We’ve all got other things calling on our time and we can’t fact-check everything.
But if that’s the case, at least admit to yourself that you haven’t checked up enough to actually know the rate at which Sam Harris actually is misrepresented. That little paragraph of pre-emptive dismissal you wrote is as maddeningly condescending as it is wrong headed.
I will reluctantly defend Harris on this one occasion. I don’t like a lot of the man’s opinions. His views on torture bother me as do his views on profiling. I was quite disturbed by his having Charles Murray on his podcast and then lobbing a bunch of softball questions at him and I certainly do not agree with his views that Islam (from a doctrinal point of view) is a lot more dangerous than any other religion.
However, I have listened to both the fragment of the conversation that people have been circulating on Twitter and the entire conversation as well. It is quite clear to me that if you look at the context in which these remarks were made and from Harris’ various other statements on this issue that he was paraphrasing the arguments made by the hard right and that these views are not his own. He has said on other occasions that we have a moral duty to take in as many refugees as we can thoroughly vet and that these people are the most unfortunate people on the planet and deserve our sympathy.
There are plenty of things to criticize about Harris without going overboard and making things up.
@deepak shetty #4:
I was specifically referring to instances, where something is wrong morally, reprehensible or unethical, and they say, that it’s not the issue that’s the problem, but them saying god said so. In Milo’s case, he was talking about Saudis not letting women drive. Ergo the ban on driving isn’t the problem, saying Allah wants it is.
@Daniel Schealler #7:
The problem is, this still doesn’t address things he said without any other context. The time when he called Trump America’s first atheist president (and admitted he was being wrong) or the time he toured CPAC last year to convince the GOP to drop the religious right in favor of atheists, based on the claim, that 40% of voters claim no religion. Unsurprisingly his effort was fruitless, and also a form of misrepresentation. Not having a religion does not mean you’re an atheist, and not admitting to having a religion doesn’t mean you don’t have one.
Beyond that, Harris is the typical American media atheist. On the one hand he decries, that WASPs and other religious people gain too much power at the expense of secularism (factual statement), but then he turns around and takes on people and ideas that do not directly threat America, more like his status as a majority ethnic member. If this never came up: many white atheists in the online sphere care more about dissing people of color and women, than they spend time with actually going out and vote to prevent more religious power pushing down separation.
Yes, he could talk about Islam, it is a valid subject, but what’s the one he should talk about more? How the Catholic church lobbied the state senate in Albany to not grant protection to adult victims of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of members belonging to religious organizations. Their “fear” was they go bankrupt if victims sue, ’cause it somehow trumps abuse. He could talk about Kentucky public schools teaching the Bible on federal tax dollars. Not what it is, or what other holy books are, it’s a class on what that book is. Again, he could talk about other things, but it’s not very forward thinking when the bigger trouble is at the home front. It’s a free choice to prove doubters like me wrong with standing up to these issues at the cost of losing rage listeners, who only care about what people of color and women do wrong.
“I consider myself to be a ‘new atheist’”
Why? I have been reading your blog for several years now and I don’t see anything new in your atheism, certainly not compared with the views of the very old atheists Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis (end of 19th Century) and Anton Constandse (he wrote in the early 1920’s an essay called “The Misery of Religion”). They were at least as vocal as any (not so) new atheism. I’ve been calling myself an atheist since more than 30 years, so the (not so) new atheists had exactly zero influence on my thinking. Back then I had no idea who Harris, Hitchens and Dennett, while I was only vaguely aware of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.
Of course I never felt for the silly trap that a(not so new) atheist can’t be an SoB, so there is no way someone like Harris can embarrass me.
“Harris actually is one of the most unjustly misrepresented writers I’ve seen.”
“quoted out of context”
“You can’t have too many Muslims in your culture if you want it to remain enlightened.”
… And I thought I was bad at history.
Aaand the Harrisite bat signal never fails…
He’s their Trump: he can shoot somebody in the middle of Times Square and it will still be about context and misrepresentation.
Harris: We should torture.
Harrisites: Well, let’s take a look at what he actually meant…
Harris: I want Muslims to be racially profiled.
Harrisites: This has to be one of the worst instances of taking something out of context!
Harris: America and Europe needs to limit the number of Muslims that exist there.
Harrisites: The poor guy is so malevolently misrepresented!
Reginald Selkirk says
I will grant you, unchallenged, every episode in which Harris claims to have been misrepresented. There is still so much wrong with what he says that I stopped paying attention to him a long time ago.
You mention his views on torture, I’ll use that as an example. He has published a lengthy “ticking bomb” thought experiment which has been laughed at completely unrealistic. But what he didn’t do is examine the basic question of whether torture is a reliable means of obtaining intelligence. He simply assumes it is. You would think that someone who has promoted himself as a critic of religion would acknowledge that torture-derived false confessions formed the core of every inquisition and witch hunt in human history. If he wants to assume torture works reliably, then he takes upon his shoulders a share of the moral burden for those episodes.
Tabby Lavalamp says
Racists know that racism is bad, otherwise they wouldn’t be crying when people refer to them as racists. They still want to be racist though, they just don’t want people calling that racism what it is.
It’s a very bizarre time we live in.
I’m not that interested in Sam Harris anymore, but this is an interesting rejoinder to his critics (from an atheist of non-Anglo-Celtic heritage): https://areomagazine.com/2017/07/11/the-sam-harris-outrage-industry/
Hehe, “Sam Harris outrage (!!!!!!1) machine”
Cute. Harrisites need their own bingo card by now.
Why is it called unfair outrage when people object to open, blatant, clearly stated anti-Muslim bigotry?
Would you call it unfair outrage if someone objected to anti-LGBT bigotry in a similar manner?
When you say prejudiced shit and call for discrimination and marginalization of an already marginalized group, you will get called out on it. It’s free speech and all that. Deal with it, snowflakes.
Marcus Ranum says
Q: You know Sam Harris’ first rule of holes?
A: You misunderstand; this is not a hole.
deepak shetty says
I admit , I didnt hear his podcast (nor am I going to) its entire possible that harris didnt say what was described above --
But I fail to see how “You can’t have too many Muslims in your culture if you want it to remain enlightened” is different from Harris agreeing with Cruz that we should prefer Christian Syrian refugees over Muslim ones or that he prefers imbecilic Ben Carson over Noam Chomsky because when it comes to Islam he “gets it”
How much does this “outrage industry” pay? What are the conditions like -- do you need to spend 12 hours a day grafting in the outrage mines, or standing on the production line in the outrage factory? Is there a union?
How come the Harrisites quickly point out that his comments are being looked at in the wrong context but never point out the correct context.
In which context are the too many Muslims type comments okay?
They’re certainly not okay in the current real world context (i.e. reality as opposed to some magical world where Muslims are a monolithic evil force like uruk-hais).
You know, seeing how often Harris’ statements are misrepresented, you’d think at some point he’d write a detailed op-ed piece that very carefully explains what his actual positions are, and publish it in something that has a wide circulation. But for some reason he continues to spout the exact same poorly thought-out stuff that has always, so it’s claimed, taken out of context.
Why, it’s almost as if his actual views are being accurately portrayed in the quotations repeated by his critics.
chigau (違う) says
By george! I think you may have hit on something!
So you haven’t actually listened to this podcast, and you refer us to “a recent-ish conversation [of Harris’s] with Maajid” -- no further information about when and where this took place -- which you claim was misrepresented. Somehow, given Harris’s and Nawaz’s previous records, I find that rather less than convincing.