Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sam Harris: “Head-in-the-Sand Liberals”

See also my original post plus responses on Freethought Forum.

Written 5 January 2007:

Sam Harris’ book The End of Faith was awful, but this article clinches the danger of his political ignorance. The full text is no longer available free to the general public. The original title I had is:

Head-in-the-Sand Liberals
Western civilization really is at risk from Muslim extremists.
Sam Harris


... But my correspondence with liberals has convinced me that liberalism has grown dangerously out of touch with the realities of our world — specifically with what devout Muslims actually believe about the West, about paradise and about the ultimate ascendance of their faith.

On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right.

This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that “liberals are soft on terrorism.” It is, and they are.

This is what I find now:

It’s real, it’s scary, it’s a cult of death
Liberals are soft on terrorism —and dangerously out of touch with the reality of global Muslim extremism.
Los Angeles Times [HOME EDITION], Sept. 18, 2006, p. B.11.

While you need to consult Harris’s article for reference, here is my criticism, written 18 September 2006.

(1) What is the social composition and ideological affiliation of the people polled who believe that the Bush administration itself blew up the Towers? Are more than a third of Americans on the liberal fringe?

(2) Where is the boundary between “liberals” and the “Left”?

(3) Since when do liberals hold this position?—:

Western power is utterly malevolent, while the powerless people of the Earth can be counted on to embrace reason and tolerance, if only given sufficient economic opportunities.
(4) What is the basis of this fantasy:

In their analyses of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. Muslims routinely use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause.
Given these distinctions, there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah. And yet liberals in the United States and Europe often speak as though the truth were otherwise.

(5) The article abounds with vague generalizations of craven liberals and crazed Muslims, but the harsh reality which the mealy-mouthed weak-kneed liberals can’t face up to doesn’t get much treatment from Harris—instead only disconnected sound bites about the Muslim menace.

(6) The upshot is that the liberals make excuses for the Muslims, exculpating them as putative victims of the West. But even if this were uniformly true, where is the basis for analyzing what’s really going on in the Muslim world? None except that they are irrational fanatics possessed by a crazed religion out to destroy civilization.

Harris has succumbed to the hysterical, shallow, sound-bite culture in which appeals to fear and generalized ideological phenomena substitute for substantive social analysis.

And in this, Harris is only a typical liberal, nothing more.

Addendum: Sam Harris the liberal [written 19 September 2006]

. . . When I think of liberals, I think of them napalming Vietnamese peasants.

I asked what is the borderline between liberals and the left, because (1) this tendency to exculpate Islamic extremists is more likely to be found on the left, though there too there is a wide difference of opinion and analysis, (2) Harris’ hysterical propaganda piece reminded me how Christopher Hitchens lost his mind after 9–11 and turned on the left, making similar blanket accusations. Harris is much less sophisticated than Hitchens. Harris refers to his “fellow liberals”, and indeed, he is very much like them, always looking for an ass to kiss.

If you re-read Harris’ piece, you’ll see it’s pure propaganda, he’s saying nothing specific at all, there’s no real social analysis, just an accusation that liberals are spineless and that only the right wing knows how to get tough with Muslim fanatics, whose entire basis of political existence is a death wish. Stupid and dangerous.

Let’s look at his social/political “analysis”:

A cult of death is forming in the Muslim world — for reasons that are perfectly explicable in terms of the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. The truth is that we are not fighting a “war on terror.” We are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise.

This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims. But we are absolutely at war with those who believe that death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy.

Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities.

Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb — and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.

The third paragraph is the only one with real information, albeit a generalization, but let’s accept it as true, and in any case, it reveals the ideological position of the 9–11 conspirators and others like them. But is this who you think you’re seeing every time you see an angry mob on the TV screen or read about a suicide bomber in the Middle East? This lack of differentiation is as true of Harris as it is of people on the left who ignore it. But even making this discrimination, we are ill-disposed to diagnose the source of this ideological motivation other than the superstitious belief in virgins and paradise. This hardly gives an adequate personality profile of Muslim fascists—I have no problem with calling them fascists. And it fails to give a social profile of the other retrograde manifestations of Islam throughout the world.

Let’s discuss the incident of the cartoon of Muhammed that aroused such a violent reaction. Is it true that this is just a free speech issue as portrayed throughout the western media, and that those who were incensed by the cartoon were just unreasonable fanatics? If this were a replay of the Salman Rushdie affair, I could see it. But the cartoon was a deliberate right-wing act of provocation, and whatever negative things can be said about Muhammed, portraying him as a contemporary bomb-throwing terrorist is a slander directed at the entire Muslim population. Suppose this newspaper had published a caricature of Moses with a huge hook nose and a bag of gold behind his back? What conclusion would you draw from that?

Now the violence of the reaction is another matter. Even so, we see little of the mechanisms by which these angry demonstrations and violent reactions are orchestrated, in other words, how the news is filtered to the various angry mobs who react to it.

The current flap over the pronouncement of the Nazi Pope is much more disturbing, actually. My reaction to Cardinal Ratsass would be: look who’s calling the kettle black. But what the news media is reporting is much more serious than the reaction to the cartoon: churches were burned and Christians were murdered—not officials of the Catholic Church, not priests or bishops, but, as far as we know, innocent scapegoats of a different religious persuasion. This is much much more ominous, and it shows that people are stupid everywhere; they’d rather turn on the nearest scapegoat than formulate a calculated response to what they perceive as an insult. But again, when I saw the reports on TV, I asked myself, how did the angry mobs who retaliated violently against the Pope’s statement get the news, in what context, framed and spinned in what fashion, and why were they primed to attack the targets they did? It’s not a question of making excuses for them, it’s a matter of understanding their social perspective and how they’ve been conditioned to interpret and react to current events. I don’t think attributing their behavior to their superstitious belief in virgins in paradise explains a damn thing, any more than I think our rednecks here are fundamentally motivated by faith in the Rapture.

As for his distinctions between Muslims vs. Israelis and Americans, Harris is living in a fantasy world. I doubt there are tens of millions of Muslims who are scarier than Dick Cheney, though I don’t doubt that there are a substantial number of such people, let’s say about the same proportion of them as we have here. Harris reveals himself in the end to be a typical liberal, as divorced from reality and spineless as the rest, primed to cave in to the first strongman who promises to protect him from the Muslim hordes.


Ralph Dumain said...

My response to a commentator, 7 January 2007:

All people, regardless of what they think they think, are inherently this-worldly. Unless one is really miserable, nobody eagerly seeks to end one's life on a whim, not even a religious whim. People just don't casually believe something with life-and-death consequences, they WILL themselves to believe it. Hence, if someone is provoked (even if only by one's own ambition) to do something suicidal, one has to psych oneself up to make it happen, e.g. with the vision of all those virgins. (Why anyone would want even one _virgin_ is beyond me--must have something to do with sexual repression.) In other words, there has to be another overriding motivation for one to contemplate one's posthumous reward. What that something else is needs to be examined. Sam Harris isn't interested in anything else; for him it's enough just to know about the virgins.

As to defending one’s religion, one has to know that it is being insulted, insulted in a way that instigates one to get off one’s lazy ass to go hurt somebody in retaliation. Don’t you think Addul would rather stay in bed Sunday morning getting a couple extra hours of sleep or screwing his wife rather than having to get up at the crack of dawn, strap some explosives to his waist, and go blow up some infidels and himself? No, there must be something else bothering him or he’s going to leave the glory to someone else and carry on with what he really wants to do with his spare time.

Harris also assumes that everyone has the same gripe and the same motivation, that the 9/11 assassins (who indeed had no connection and no real concern with the Palestinians) had the same motivation as kids on the West Bank whose home was just bulldozed by Israeli soldiers. Since Harris doesn’t find the alleged motivations for the acts he reads about in the newspaper sufficient justification, he puts it all down to Islam’s cult of death. But even if this cult of death exists, where does it come from? From faith? Just from the existence of a sacred text?

Unless Harris knows his history, he really has nothing to say. Perhaps he could borrow some ideas from Dawkins. Maybe a death/virgin meme got passed around the Muslim world like a virus, and now it’s monkey see-monkey do.

Now my question is, how is it that intellects so politically and sociologically childish are the very ones that got themselves all the publicity for the “new atheism”? And why do we ooh and aah every time one of them makes a public appearance, even plunk down money for their crappy books? Do we live in such an ideological vacuum that this is the best we can do? Of course. And that is the reason for my blog.

Ralph Dumain said...

My response to a commentator, 10 January 2007:

It is remarkable how the most diverse strands of discussion come together: all of my posts in various threads are coalescing into a unified whole. But for the moment . . .
I want to make the implicit chain of reasoning in your argument explicit so that we can see how it holds up.

(1) Harris has gained some professional expertise in the psychology of the brain or something in the ballpark;

(2) Harris has gained a keen sense of human psychology from this study;

(3) Harris has taken into account all the relevant psychological factors, not limiting himself to the psychology of belief;

(4) Harris has a keen understanding of the psychology of belief and its relation to action;

(5) All people known to subscribe to the same belief system have the same set of motivations;

(6) Harris knows enough about the people he characterizes to be able to correctly apply his grasp of human pyschology to ascertain their psychology;

(7) A general understanding of psychology suffices to understand what people do in situo without having to know much about their history and societal circumstances.

Now, I’ll grant (1), and I’ll grant (2) for the sake of argument, but I absolutely deny (3)-(7). Furthermore, (7) is the key to my general beef with the whole kaboodle of highly visible atheists/secularists. Appealing to what they deem to be “scientific”, to generalities allegedly supported by scientific knowledge, they feel quite comfortable diagnosing any situation or phenomenon without having to actually know much about it.

Another time I will gather my notes and offer a detailed critique of The End of Faith, but now I want to focus on the perils of sound bite culture.

Harris has issued a complaint that this article distorts his views:

Sam Harris’s Faith in Eastern Spirituality and Muslim Torture

By John Gorenfeld, AlterNet. Posted January 5, 2007.

Harris rebuts charges against him on his own web site:

I made some remarks on this matter in another thread. I also commented yet elsewhere (see “Everything Else” for both discussions) on this little piece by another Einstein in our midst:

“We’re all racists, unconsciously Kramer just blurted out what unfortunately comes naturally to all of us” by Michael Shermer, L.A. Times, November 24, 2006.,1,5226012.story?ctrack=1&cset=true

And then there is Harris’ editorial on liberals being soft on terrorism.

Now of all the sound bite analyses listed, which leasts distorts the truth? Answer: Gorenfeld’s criticism of Harris. I don’t agree with its sensationalism and lack of nuance, but what Gorenfeld says about Harris comes closer to the truth than what Harris and Shermer have to say about the world they live in.

On my blog I enumerated my objections to Harris’ piece, and I consider its politics a dangerous intervention in op ed culture. Its non-specific accusations aside for the moment, I note that Harris labels himself a liberal criticizing liberals. I recall that in his book Harris criticizes Noam Chomsky and labels him a “liberal”, apparently unaware that this is the greatest insult one could make against Chomsky, who has made it publicly known from the Vietnam War how he hates the liberals’ guts. Chomsky is a radical, and, not incidentally, for someone so prominent, it is remarkable that he is a non-person as far as the mainstream media is concerned.

So there is also a question of who gets access to the media to make grand pronouncements on society and politics.

Finally, there is the most general and basic issue of all: what is “science” and what science do our public atheists/humanists appeal to justify their very public interventions on the interpretation of social issues? Note that the general trend is to take a limited area of natural scientific knowledge and theory and apply it wholesale to any given social phenomenon. Even when the behavioral sciences are invoked, it is to a limited set of experimental results, which are then used to make ahistorical generalizations in the most obtuse manner, as Shermer does. History and social theory are exiled from the subculture of atheism, secular humanism, and “skepticism”. An exclusively natural-scientific body of knowledge—often a very sketchy one—is held up as the total body of rational knowledge. This is what Shermer extols as “scientism” (I believe there is a reference in Wikipedia), using a definition opposite to my own.

This issue of scientism is at the heart of my objections to the type of people who intellectually dominate our milieu, people I deem unfit to represent me and my interests. I couldn’t stand people like these back in the 1970s. Let’s remember that in the ‘60s the liberals were the enemy—their empire, their wars, their military-industrial complex. It was in this climate that the scientific establishment and their advocates came under suspicion, and there was the origin of the anti-scientific attitudes of the counterculture and factions of the radical movements. Unfortunately, they were too short-sighted to see what was coming down the line, for only the Right benefited from this attitude as liberalism collapsed in the ‘70s. And the only reason I’ve given “secular humanists” and ”skeptics” the time of day—people I shunned like the plague in the ‘70s—is due to the right-wing takeover of American politics in 1980.

Ralph Dumain said...

My response to a commentator, 10 January 2007:

"If what you're saying is you have to be pronounced an "expert" in something in order to have an educated opinion qualified...than I guess we all should just keep quiet. I would expect to be held accountable for something I've written down about a certain subject. But to start criticizing someone b/c they are not the foremost experts in a subject, that's just unrealistic."

But this is not what I’m saying at all. I’m denying Harris’ book smarts (expertise) and street smarts (real world savvy) both. I’m also casting doubt that there even is a firm “expertise” in these matters. I’m denying that calling in a few number-crunching experimental psychologists and sociologists grants instant expertise to a given real-world situation that calls for more knowledge and more analytical tools than these people provide. I might also call into question whole bureaucracies of foreign policy “experts”, as Chomsky did in the ‘60s. No, I never made credentials the issue.

Ralph Dumain said...

My response to a commentator, 10 January 2007:

"Well then, if there is no 'expertise' are you saying we should all shut up? Talking about these issues openly is a negative?"

And where did I say any of these things? I stated quite clearly that Harris’s political analysis is justified neither by expertise nor by his informal knowledge of the world. As for talking about issues, one’s talk is justified by the depth and clarity of one’s thinking brought to bear upon some real-world evidence, a standard that appertains especially to people in a privileged position to influence public opinion.

Again, the general, philosophical point: we have public spokesmen for science and reason, opposing faith and superstition, who, when it comes to discussing social and political issues at large, give science and reason a bad name.

And my question: why do we ooh and aah over these people like teenage groupies? Are we just as intellectually narrow as they are? Are we that desperate for affirmation? I guess this last question answers itself.

Ralph Dumain said...

My response to a commentator, 10 January 2007:

From what I can tell John Gorenfeld's angle of attack is an anomaly, though others I can cite have made more sober criticisms on the same points without the sensationalism. The attacks on the "New Atheism" in the mainstream press are of a very different character--that these folks are intolerant, extremist, hostile, bigoted, even "fundamentalist"--on the very same grounds on which we all, including me, support them. Note that mainstream attacks on Dawkins, Harris, etc., almost never focus on their weak points, but always on their strong ones. (Wiesenthaler's attack on Dawkins began with his weak points but only as a pretext for discrediting his strong ones.) This is the kind of slander that people who stand up on principles worth standing up for are subjected to.

As long as our public discourse is driven by sound bites and best seller lists—as it will be until this nation’s inevitable collapse—a truly public “public reason” will be effectively precluded. It is not an agreeable predicament to contemplate. But for this very reason we should make an extra effort not to limit our own minds as the limited options we are given would limit us.

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quo said...

If you read the Koran, you will find that a lot of it is insulting and provocative to non-Muslims. So why should we be outraged by insults to Muslim belief yet not outraged by the insults to non-Muslim belief in the Koran?

Why the double standard? Is it because Muslims, as a class of alleged victims, have the right to be outraged and offended and non-Muslims do not? The more violence Muslims indulge in, the harder it will be to maintain that position.

quo said...

Incidentally Ralph, despite his alleged radicalism, Noam Chomsky in effect is just a liberal, an especially self-righteous and self-important one. Chomsky's politics place him on the left-wing fringe of the Democratic party; he doesn't have a bone of real radicalism.