The Progressive Case Against Sam Harris, Part I

I’m a liberal. ¬†I’m a bleeding heart, lily-livered pacifistic, white-privileged keyboard warrior, social justice lip-service giving, feminist, trans liberation supporting pro-gay gun grabbing tax raising agnostic hippy admiring anti-war¬†pseudo-intellectual (and yet hipster hating) male that feels guilty for not being a vegetarian.

I call myself, a ‘progressive’. For all intents and purposes, this is my weapon of choice:

A true keyboard warrior.

My deadly weapon

This has gotten me called a lot of names on the internet, a few of which I had to research in order to figure out whether to be insulted.¬† No, it ain’t easy being a bleeding-heart lib on the internet.¬† (Boo hoo, I’m such a victim!)

One day, I¬†was minding my own¬†business, giving my typically bleeding heart lefty opinion on a forum, when someone went off on me: “you’re defending her just¬†cos yer a white knight!!”. ¬†I was immediately discombobulated. ¬†A “white knight”? ¬†Wtf is that?

The white knight.

My self-portrait.

…am I really this thing which I’ve never heard of before? ¬†By just…being how I’ve¬†have been?

According to Urban “A person (usually a male) who sees the typical maiden in distress, and believes that he can help her. A male version of the “mother figure” that some girls become.”

I had to regroup. ¬†Oh dear, I don’t know how to process this. ¬†Was I defending a female user because deep down I wanted to get in her good graces?¬†¬†Am I that craven? I gathered my composure and had another crack at the internet.

Soon, I was immersed in a different conversation, standing up for feminism…as I tend to, and something else came out of nowhere: “typical SJW logic. ¬†So tired of this SJW bullshit”.

I frowned. ¬†SJW? ¬†Speed jamming wario? ¬†Special juice widgets? ¬†Samuel Jackson wigs? ¬†What the flip is “SJW”? ¬†…

Social Justice Warrior

Social Justice Warrior

Social justice warrior. Hmmm. ¬†Already I could see the implications of that. ¬†If you are for social justice and argue fruitlessly about it on the internet, you certainty are a ‘warrior’ in a pathetic sense of the word, much like a ‘keyboard warrior’.

But a social justice warrior?  Well I like social justice.  I argue on the internet.  But I felt slighted to be characterized as such.  A little bit of hurt feelings crept in, a slight sense of being insulted, a bit of a reddening of the face.

Fast forward in time, and¬†I’ve come to learn that¬†SJW is not only a pejorative term to describe these keyboard warriors, but that many of the people called such have come to identify with it, which seems crazy.

When my friend told me there was an actual SJW movement, I was incredulous.¬† Hashtag ‘SJW’ on Twitter: #SJW Really?

Who would take a pejorative put-down and turn it into their movement’s name?¬† It seemed silly. I¬†feel it degrades¬†the true meaning of social justice, and to me SJW is a term intrinsically tied to the internet.

This ‘movement’ has apparently been involved in online shaming campaigns against people who said things deemed socially offensive.¬† I might express my disproval, but to systematically harass someone until they have to ‘quit’ the internet?¬†¬†That sounds detestable.¬† That’s no better than a bunch of worthless trolls.

Forward again, to the¬†religion debate.¬† Recently, exacerbated by but not beginning with Ben Affleck’s cries of ‘racism’ against Muslims (which as critics are fast to point out is not a race) by Bill Maher and Sam Harris on Real-Time With Bill Maher, there has come a growing rift within the non-believer community between so-called ‘new atheists’ (I say ‘so-called’ because they might dispute this term, but I will use it from here on out with¬†apologies) and progressives.

New atheism, to me, is characterized by an overall admiration and devotion to the work of (in particular) ‘the Four Horsemen of the (Non) Apocalypse’, being Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late (great) Christopher Hitchens. ¬†All possess strengths and weakness, but are united in their strict anti-religionist ideals and non-belief in god.

Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg)¬†has many faithful followers of his work. ¬†Over time, progressive journalist Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald)¬†and Islamic-studies academic Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan)¬†came¬†to blows¬†with Harris on¬†the subject of radical Islam. ¬†Their exchanges have been harsh, with Harris’s detractors sometimes¬†exaggerating and misquoting unfairly, I suspect in the charged atmosphere of the perception of a generalized anti-Muslim hysteria.

The result is bitter exchanges between Harris’s fans and secular progressives (or so-called ‘Islamic apologists’), wherein Harris fans cry of¬†a smear campaign while progressives maintain¬†their¬†social justice offensive on what is perceived as his approval of xenophobic principles.

Meanwhile, if one follows Richard Dawkin’s twitter feed closely, it is a parade of Islamic beheadings,¬†terrorism, murders and hate crimes, acts of violence, anti-gay atrocities, stonings, suicide bombings, anti-American rants, the¬†indoctrination of children, anti-feminist oppression, declarations of Islamic supremacy over the west, female genital mutilation (FGM), death-threats, sabre-rattling Islamic war mongering, and an overall apocalyptic vision of¬†jihadis holding the head of the president over the burning rubble of the Oval Office.¬† One such¬†example:

You know what?  Fair enough.  I despise oppression.  I love gay marriage.  I am pro-feminist and want women to have rights over their own bodies and equal pay.  I want religious freedom and liberty for all, but not for it to intersect with government.  I want a world of peace and love and tolerance, and all that insipid hippy shit people tell you to grow out of.

But look further into the spat between Harris and Greenwald and into Dawkin’s rhetoric, and you’ll¬†soon see the rift which is forming between the progressive left and the ‘new atheist’ movement.

Regularly, Dawkins can be seen to remark “where’s the so called ‘left’ on this?” (gay person being thrown off a building in Saudi Arabia), “what’s do so-called ‘feminists’ have to say about this?” (women being stoned to death in Pakistan), “oh, the leftist-Islamic apologists care when A* happens, but silent on B*”.

Full circle, and a new pejorative to describe the secular left has emerged (praise-be to not Allah!!):

Regressive! ¬†Nyah nyah! ¬†You aren’t a progressive! ¬†You’re a REEEgressive!! ¬†I gotttttt chhuuu!! This is the level it’s got to. ¬†Schoolyard name-calling.

It would be like if I changed ‘atheist’ to ‘doucheist‘ (because of believing some atheists are ‘douches’). ¬†I tweet: “hey DOUCHEIST. ¬†Not ALL Muslims are bad you DOUCHEIST. ¬†NYAH NYAH”.

Is this the new “war of ideas” Sam Harris touts, and his followers are looking to usher in, on the subject of Islam? ¬†Where people who object to the way Muslims are being characterized by these authors can’t address them on twitter because they are pummeled with derogatory labels? ¬†“Good point, you Muslim-apologist SJW white knight beta-male obscurantist regressive”. ¬†(and the potential¬†reply: ¬†“No biggie, you Islamophobic neo-con enabling racist fear-mongering geo-politically illiterate cultist”)

On The Rubin Report with Dave Rubin (@DaveRubin), a new independent show by former The Young Turks commentator Dave Rubin, Dave (who firmly sides with Sam Harris) made a video about ushering in a new era of dialogue amongst atheists:

He talks about ‘taking back liberalism for true liberals’.¬† He advocates for people with ‘atheist’ in their user names to ‘come out of the closet’ and make their beliefs public.¬† He then goes on to say we should get ‘other’ people involved too, all secularists, all people who can relate to non-belief and bold self-expression.¬† Let’s fight ‘the forces of anti-intellectualism’.¬† Well that sounds lovely.¬† I’m totally on board!¬† No, I mean it!¬† No jokes! ¬†Ready to sign up. Then I signed onto twitter.

Some “dialogue”.¬† He just repeats the same ‘regressive’ talking point as Sam.¬† To be fair, this was in response to racist comments by a tweeter¬†(an associate of Glenn Greenwald) in regards to Sam Harris collaborator Maajid Nawaz (@MaajidNawaz):

He went on to call Maajid a ‘porch monkey’.¬† Now this is insanely counter-productive and destroys any legitimate criticisms of Harris (of which there are many).

Greenwald also misquoted Sam Harris in regards to his saying we shouldn’t profile Jerry Seinfeld at an airport, morphing it into we shouldn’t profile somebody who ‘looks like‘ Jerry Seinfeld (thus missing the point, that he was just referring to famous people…before going on¬†to discredit himself by saying we should profile people who ‘look like Osama Bin Laden’ in the same sentence…).

The twitter wars continued, unabated.

Maajid followed up:

His article was a worthy response to racist ‘thou art not Muslim enough’ attacks, and Maajid is hardly on the level of a Fox News black conservative.

(As an aside however, in a conversation between Harris and Maajid in which Maajid was asked to respond to accusations of ‘not being Muslim enough’, he said the question was offensive because the questioner had never had to face discrimination, profiling and physical threats for being Muslim. ¬†Instantly I felt a strong cognitive dissonance, as the very Sam Harris sitting directly next to him has made nebulous arguments tacitly endorsing policies that alarmingly sound like torture, profiling, collateral damage, and warfare, in regards to “vast numbers” of radical Muslims. ¬†But that’s a discussion for another post).

I call myself a progressive because I believe in progressive values. ¬†One such value is respecting all (non-extremist) groups to not be depicted as more potentially dangerous and suspicious than others, detached from societal¬†factors. ¬†The opposite of this¬†has commonly been known as¬†‘moral panic’ (a subject¬†I¬†learned about¬†at University). I’m against it for black youths, for Mexicans, for trans people, for Christians, for Muslims, for atheists, for conservatives. ¬†For everybody.

‘New atheists’ seem to mistake this ‘not condemning Islam as a whole’ for some special desire to defend Islam.¬†¬†This is not so. ¬†You will find progressives willing to make the same¬†case for any group (with the possible exception of the worst right wingers, but they are our anathema).¬† I understand, they will say they¬†are only criticizing the ideas and the doctrine.

No matter how much I disagree with new atheists, I will never conflate them with the many racist right-wingers that hold scarily similar views about Muslims, nor the extremist anti-Muslimists who might go on to commit violent acts.

I will never ask them to denounce those people, because I know they are NOT those people. ¬†Why do they ask random Muslims to account for extremist Muslims in this fashion? ¬†It’s fine for you as an outsider to constantly lambast some¬†Muslim for holding some extreme ideas, but I can’t find any other group that wouldn’t find this insulting. ¬†The fall back is the standard ‘Islam is not a race’ drivel, which is an empty talking point.

You would rightly say ‘extremist atheism’ (and yes, it’s an absurd idea) would not be to blame if an ‘extreme’ atheist murdered somebody.¬† You would also say there is no doctrine in atheism that encourages you to murder people.¬† You’d be entirely 100% correct, and I’d agree with you.

But you could not then say it is the responsibility of random atheists to account for the murder due to¬†strong anti-Muslim suspicions and fear-mongering.¬† That the murder of this (presumably Muslim) person was the direct result of hateful rhetoric being spewed by atheists about Muslims.¬† This is not the purpose of ‘atheism’.¬† I would not blame the community, though I may some¬†things they say.

Likewise with Islam. ¬†It¬†has a harmful doctrine.¬† I fully acknowledge that.¬† It’s full of barbarism, it’s backwards, it’s stupid.¬† I think one should be allowed to depict Mohammed.¬† Hell, show him having butt-sex for all I care.¬† It’s insulting, but you don’t have a religious right to not be offended no matter what your primitive book says.

However, it is up to the individual to choose to follow literally the¬†negative and horrific messages in the Quran, a point ‘new atheists’ themselves admit by pointing out that Christianity and thus Christians are now (generally) less literalist and radical. ¬†It is definitely not established that believe something radical is inevitably destined to an extremist act,¬†as this article points out.

Much like I would not take ideas spread by new atheists about Muslims online to decide whether OTHER new atheists were guilty for the murder, I would not expect DIFFERENT¬†Muslims to be held responsible for radicals (and you can see the ridiculously absurd methodology by which they classify ‘radical Muslim’, a standard by which one could argue for millions of Americans being radicals too for¬†believing stupid shit).

But they are always expected to ‘denounce’ radicals as if it is the most important thing one can do.

Maajid Nawaz calls this the ‘Voldemort effect’, that to ‘not mention’ the radicalism, barbaric homophobia and anti-feminism in the Quran is to make radicalism¬†‘stronger’.

By what metric?¬† What evidence does he have?¬† How doesn’t bombing countries and droning civilians make¬†radicalism¬†stronger? ¬†Where do Islamic extremists sit around thinking…”I wonder if the liberals will call us out for killing gays. ¬†They didn’t?¬† SWEET.¬† LET’S KILL MORE OF THEM”.

New atheist chums always harp on about ‘evidence’ and the ‘scientific method’.¬† Ok, where is your link between left-wing silence, ‘apologists’,¬†and Islamic extremism?¬† Good luck, that’s going to be pretty difficult to prove.

Why can I not therefore smear you¬†with ‘new atheist’ dogma (as I interpret it, because hey…you get¬†to take the Quran on it’s literalist reading as it suits you): Muslims are from a religion of unique savagery that believes in triumphalism…and is ALSO¬†what the racist shooter believed. ¬†Why won’t you denounce him? ¬†Oh, you do denounce him! ¬†Great! ¬†Will you denounce the views you hold that ‘enabled’ the shooter!? ¬†Oh. ¬†You didn’t want to go that far? ¬†Not exactly surprising. ¬†That would make you feel like I was smearing you, wouldn’t it? ¬†But hey, I’ll berate you on twitter and in my books in order to make you¬†‘less stridently atheist’.

Yeah, I didn’t think so.¬† Human psychology doesn’t work that way.¬†¬†But you expect Muslims to offer themselves up as guilty in this fashion.

I have never believed in Christianity, but I’ve also never walked down to my local church and asked the people there to denounce the latest white Christian shooter, or abortion doctor murder. ¬†I’ve not asked them to condemn a homophobic person I know who got that way from religion. ¬†Or, to explain to me how they let the government become so corrupted with Christian influence.

Does that mean there is nothing to be done?  We just nod and accept radical Islam, never express outrage at the extremism, whistle as beheadings occur, go to bed and wake up with jihadis knocking on the door holding a meat cleaver?

No, absolutely not. The fault here is not what we are NOT doing…it’s what we ARE.

The wars started by the neo-cons. ¬†The atrocious numbers of civilians that have died. ¬†As far as I’m concerned, new atheists and the right can bash ‘progressives’ all they want, but progressives were one of the only groups in the 9/11 era to see the potential dangers of an extended conflict in Iraq. ¬†One of the only groups whose rhetoric did not contribute to the hell we now¬†have in the Middle East. ¬†Sam Harris is fond to of pointing out he was against Iraq, but I’ve been following him for years and only hear about it when he’s answering an accusation.

Why has he barely ever talked about it except in a few scattered blog¬†posts, while colleagues like Christopher Hitchens had cheer-lead the chaos. ¬† Why does he hardly ever tweet about it?¬† It’s far more important for him to harp on endlessly about Muslims. ¬†But what does whipping up the frenzy of war have to do with being an atheist? ¬†Nothing I can see, and yet they do it anyways.

His opposition to the war was almost whispered.

We live in a world where the people with literally the least responsibility nor negative impact on¬†the situation are being BLAMED the MOST, and asked to fix it…by being OUTRAGED (I assume on the internet?).

The stupidity of this situation is maddening.

People¬†have become so indoctrinated with an anti-progressive anti-left narrative, supported by terms invented by¬†republican strategists (ironically: who are also Christian apologists!) like ‘politically correct’ and ‘cultural Marxism‘, as to believe the least involved party is the most to blame.

It’s a convenient situation, as it allows one to fear-monger with no repercussions except criticism from said group, as the dialogue devolves into the petty labeling mentioned earlier.¬† The left’s main affront to this world is apparently giving people crap when they say racist and sexist things.¬† If that’s all, it’s a lot better than invading entire countries and giving billions of dollars worth of no-bid contracts to military contractors, while the¬†so-called ‘liberal’ president drones civilians to death,¬†supported by Sam¬†Harris:

Yes, our drone strikes in Pakistan kill innocent people‚ÄĒand this undoubtedly creates new enemies for the West. But we wouldn‚Äôt need to drop a single bomb on Pakistan, or anywhere else, if a death cult of devout Muslims weren‚Äôt making life miserable for millions of innocent people and posing an unacceptable threat of violence to open societies.”¬†(emphasis mine) (original blog posting)

Therefore, civilian deaths are acceptable. ¬†It’s the radical’s fault. ¬†Which is a fine way to justify numerous ‘isolated’ incidents, but on a mass scale is only murder with a concerned face.

This current debate¬†is the exact opposite of a “war of ideas”. ¬†It’s a “war of an idea”. ¬†That idea is that there is something uniquely dangerous about Islam due it’s backwards¬†doctrine,¬†assuming out of hand (an¬†untenable¬†assumption in my view) that real-world geo-political, economic and social factors are less of an influence than words on a page, and expressing outrage.

Real-world, as-is, on the ground developments are secondary to a radical code built-in to the Quran, waiting to explode like a jihadi ¬†bomber.¬† ¬†This is too much of a leap for me to make. ¬†It’s downright disturbing to see so-called ‘acolytes of science’ make such a leap in order to fulfill a confirmation bias.

You only need to look at the bible to know this is an absurd proposition. I’m not an apologist for Islam. ¬†I’m an apologist for things as they are.¬†¬†If that means I am forced to point out new atheists are seriously fear-mongering, alright. ¬†The lead up to the Iraq war was characterized by fear-mongering. ¬†Every day they demonized Muslims and (the admittedly terrible) Saddam Hussein, they banged the war drums, they fabricated evidence and ignored all dissent.

The majority of atheists and new atheists might point out they are not for war. ¬†Then why do you continue to fear-monger? ¬†What are you looking to achieve? ¬†Where do you think excessive fear over a particular group leads? ¬†Can you ‘outrage’ a group into becoming less radical? ¬†Can you criticize radicals out of existence? ¬†If I am a “warrior” for “social justice”, does that mean you are looking to destroy ISIS through saying they are bad…on twitter?

You must do the least harm you can. ¬†Making Muslims seem scary is not doing the least harm. New atheist’s intentions¬†can be great (see Sam Harris vs. Noam Chomsky on ‘perfect weapons’, in this¬†particularly whiny article by Harris), you can support any policies you’d like, but the wider implication is an increased climate of fear and this elevates risk of conflict. ¬†There is already the test study of Iraq, not to mention numerous events throughout history including the fear-mongering around Jews in WWII. ¬†This has always been the case, and it always will be.

You can’t silence us through cries of being apologists. ¬†You would stand up too for a group you saw as unfairly maligned. ¬†If you wouldn’t, I guess you’re not a particularly good person.

“Regressive”, “SJW”, “pseudo-left”, it means as little to us as “racist”, “misogynist”, “anti-feminist”, “bigot” apparently means to you. ¬†All of these things do no more than strangle the debate, on both sides.

Think on this. ¬†How could what I just wrote conceivably contribute to radicalism in Islam? ¬†Is anything I just said a call¬†to jihadis to commit violent acts? ¬†Even if what I thought was prevalent on a mass scale, how would it lead to more radicalism? ¬†(Besides some bat-shit talking point about ‘terrorists love weakness’ or some such garbage. ¬†They also thrive in chaotic war zones. ¬†So which is it?).

It’s ridiculous, but this is what the left is constantly being accused of. ¬†Many followers of Harris have made up their minds that ‘liberal silence’ and ‘PC sanctimony’¬†are a more significant enabler of terrorists than drone-strikes that kill civilians, large-scale wars, poverty stricken and freedom starved societies, lack of education, geo-political (and yes religious) conflicts, and¬†western-backed (and overthrown)¬†dictators.

Others only care that Sam Harris has been unfairly slandered and maligned by his critics.  If that is true, can they also not listen to the things he actually believes (and yes I could write an entire entry on his corrosive views on profiling, preemptive nuclear strikes, his views on gun violence, collateral damage, etc).

But when you already have a¬†conclusion, all you need is a book…like The End Of Faith¬†or The God Delusion…to let you know¬†YOU’RE in the right.

You are superior.  You have the inside truth about the world.


(please follow me on twitter to discuss/converse/be annoyed with me -> @ademotivator)


(note: I had significantly more to write, but this entry is long enough.  Unfortunately there is far too much to write on this subject.  I will make part II soon.  What I didn't cover - Harris's slippery methods for escaping all criticisms and his self-reinforcing style of argument, his fans slovenly devotion to talking points and the online echo-chamber, and some of his critic's unproductive ways of responding.  I'd like to get around to talking about progressive hosts like Kyle Kulinski (@KyleKulinski) and Cenk Uygur(@CenkUygur)).
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10 thoughts on “The Progressive Case Against Sam Harris, Part I

  1. I’m not a Harrisite. I think he invites genuine criticism for some of his views, such as on profiling. But even on that, some of his more vocal critics can’t let that go without, as you mentioned, twisting it into something even worse than what he actually said. And then there’s the nuclear holocaust slander, which Harris clearly clearly meant as an example of a horrible situation that could both seem inevitable to the people at the time, but that would be a huge disaster all the same. Did he communicate that well? Maybe not, but it keeps getting repeated over and over.

    Dean’s tweet about fun it was too make Sam angry was pretty revealing, I think (and also that Reza told him it would be), but I was also pretty disappointed that in the CNN spot Sam seemed more interested in talking about his feud than with the question that was asked. I probably line up with “new” atheists on most issues, possibly due to being an ex-fundamentalist Christian, but I also refuses to exchange one set of arbitrary tribal loyalties for another. Unfortunately, neither side of this issue seems to be willing to join me.

    If I Hitchens were able to write a posthumous follow-up, it would probably be titled, “Twitter Poisons Everything.”

    1. That’s good, dogmatism is bad in all forms. From proselytizing the superiority of ‘Western’ values, to religious dogma. I think we can agree Harris has been, if not slandered, at least taken out of context and attacked unfairly at times…and still disagree with his overall point of view. I think the nuclear thought-experiment was unnecessary in the sense that it only fuels paranoia and misunderstanding, and therefore was a bad move on his behalf.

      You can NOT be saying something, but fanning the flames for corollary issues, in my opinion. Sam Harris regularly partakes in this. Maybe that is the criticism also leveled against the left? That they are enabling Muslim extremists. But in my personal opinion such cover given by the left is less demonstrably corrosive to society than giving cover to neo-cons, who HAVE actually started wars and implemented policies like torture.

      We must all be wary of the implications of the things we say, left and right.

  2. Great Article. What do you make of new Atheists like Bill Mahers’ claim that they are just standing up for liberal values?

    1. Thanks for your reply dude! Hm. Can’t say that I’m a fan (of that particular talking point of theirs). I think you can disagree about the way people choose to talk about Islam or Muslims without painting everybody else as a ‘regressive’ or claiming only YOU stand for ‘liberal values’. I have seen no liberals who ‘stand up for’ ISIS, or terrorism, or jihad, or killing gays, or repressive regimes. Only liberals who don’t empathize that anywhere nearly as much as geo-politics or foreign policy. If you want to criticize them on those grounds, that’s fair. But painting them as ‘sympathetic’ with extremists and terrorists is a very low-class move in my view.

  3. People like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris have been subjected to vitriolic abuse for years and you pretend with the term “regressive left” that they started immature name calling that your going to refrain from. Rubbish. Where are your actual arguments against their claims?

    1. Hi there, thanks for your reply! Well, I said a lot of things in the article here, and I will say more in the upcoming parts…but I don’t think name-calling is exclusive to one side. I think almost any prominent thinker has received ‘vitriolic abuse’, it’s just a matter of whether you are a fan of said person. If you are, it will be outrageous…if you aren’t, not a big deal. As for my arguments, please read the article and see if you find any arguments there. Cheers. ūüėČ

    1. I don’t know that. I express myself honestly. This was an accurate representation of my assessment of the situation. Try telling me what was hackery about it instead, and we’ll see if you have any valid things to say.

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