Liberals Acting Badly: The Smears Against Sam Harris Continue

Glen Greenwald and Reza Aslan seem obsessed with smearing Sam Harris. Most of us have seen Reza Aslan in action before, insisting that FGM is not an Islamic practice (technically correct but practically wrong) and claiming that Indonesian women live in a free and open society. Many have refuted his claims (see here and here for example) and since he plays fast and loose with facts, it is easy to dismiss him.

Glenn Greenwald, on the other hand, is a famous journalist who helped bring Edward Snowden’s story of NSA over-reach to the public. People listen when Glenn Greenwald speaks because he usually says credible things, and that makes his sustained attack on Sam Harris not only disappointing but also dangerous. People simply believe Glenn Greenwald when he twists Sam Harris’s words which means he denies us the opportunity to engage in honest dialogue – something that is absolutely crucial in a society that thrives on the free exchange of ideas.

The latest volley from Sam Harris’s defamers comes in the form of a meme that proclaims Sam Harris a “genocidal fascist maniac” (see below) and although this quote did not originate with Glenn Greenwald, both he and Reza Aslan retweeted it to their multitude of followers. They both should know better and Greenwald especially, as a journalist, should be ashamed.

Sam Harris responds to this libel on his site where he puts the quote into context. A journalist like Glenn Greenwald would normally have checked his facts before broadcasting such a falsehood, but it appears that he is so intent on showing Sam to be the evil bigot he most certainly is not, that all journalistic ethics take a back seat to his defamatory ambitions. Here is the vital missing context of the quote from The End of Faith (pp 52-53):

The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:

 

Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.

 

What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.

 

The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas

Not exactly advocating genocide. Further, it becomes abundantly clear that Sam Harris advocates exactly the opposite of genocide if you read the accompanying end note to these paragraphs:

We do not have to bring the membership of Al Qaeda “to justice” merely because of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. The thousands of men, women, and children who disappeared in the rubble of the World Trade Center are beyond our help—and successful acts of retribution, however satisfying they may be to some people, will not change this fact. Our subsequent actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere are justified because of what will happen to more innocent people if members of Al Qaeda are allowed to go on living by the light of their peculiar beliefs. The horror of Sept. 11 should motivate us, not because it provides us with a grievance that we now must avenge, but because it proves beyond any possibility of doubt that certain twenty-first-century Muslims actually believe the most dangerous and implausible tenets of their faith.

As I said before – Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan should be ashamed of themselves, Glenn Greenwald doubly so as a seasoned journalist. Take the time to read Sam Harris’s reply, On the Mechanics of Defamation, on his site and take a look at the article on The Friendly Atheist for another take on this incident.

32 thoughts on “Liberals Acting Badly: The Smears Against Sam Harris Continue

  1. Excellent article Diana – it’s great to see someone put Harris’s comment into context. Too many blindly assume that if a comment comes from a well known person it must be genuine and accurate.

  2. You mean.. technically correct and inconveniently wrong.

  3. I didn’t express myself very well – my criticism was directed at those who put out Sam Harris’s quote out of context. Because Harris’s out of context quote was repeated by people who knew the context in which it was made, they (Greenwald and Aslan) were being dishonest. Because Greenwald and Aslan repeated the quote as it was presented, many probably assumed, because of their credentials, it was accurately presented.

    This is still a bit muddled, so I hope it’s clear what I mean.

  4. Just a tiny little correction. The Taliban governed Afghanistan not Al Qaeda. The Taliban were prepared to hand over bin Laden to the Americans if the US could provide evidence that he was directly involved in the events of 9/11. The US provided no evidence partly because they did not have ironclad proof at that time– if you can believe US intelligence agencies, that is. The US wanted the Taliban to agree to allow them to run one or more pipelines through Afghanistan and promised a carpet of gold if the Taliban said yes and a carpet of bombs if they said no. This bombing was threatened before the bin Laden handover became such an overriding issue. I think the US could have offered the Taliban sufficient evidence to get them to agree to the handover of bin Laden but the US could not reach an accommodation with the Taliban on the other issue so the bombing began. I am not convinced that the US went into Afghanistan to rid the world of al Qaeda or similar terrorist groups. I note that the US has had no trouble in making common cause with al Qaeda or its spin off groups subsequently so I am inclined to dismiss what Harris and Maher say, given that the US does not appear to be motivated to ant appreciable degree by the desire to protect the innocent.

    • I’ve said this often – governments are not motivated to protect innocents. They say that sometimes to motivate its citizens but governments act in their own self interest.

      I believe Maher and Harris when they say that the US should protect people and show compassion because they most likely legitimately feel this way, as many of us do. However, when it comes the the US government, they act as any government does – to secure its interests. If governments cared about people, we would have troops in Africa, especially the Congo, right now; atrocities are horrible there and they have been going on for years. But, the Congo isn’t strategically important to our governments, so we don’t act.

      • WTF??

        Are you absolutely sure you are in your right senses with bewilderingly mixed up sentences like that?

        • Sorry, on second reading, I am just hoping that you meant this derisively as opposed to a validation of governmental behaviour. I really really hope so.

  5. “Some beliefs are so dangerous it may be
    ethical to kill people for believing them.” –Sam Harris

    Sam Harris claims Greenwald and Aslan each knowingly retweeted the Twitter post that took his words out of context (above), crossing the line into defamation.

    That’s a serious allegation. But, is it accurate? Did Greenwald and Aslan really take Harris’ words out of context, misrepresenting his views? Or, is the tweet’s accusation a logical inference of the premise Harris advocates?

    Harris admits the quoted words are his and zealously defends the proposition they represent. No doubt he believes in its philosophical justness (insofar as we can ever know what anyone truly believes) and supports it as sound public policy.

    But Harris concedes the quote is the “most easily misunderstood sentence” in his book and says the “words do not mean what they appear to mean” (a tenuous starting point for any defamation claim). So, what is this apparent meaning? Could it possibly be something that would cast Harris in a light that fits the description in the post?

    Harris’ proposition says that if a person holds a very dangerous belief, and they are beyond persuasion or capture, the state may ethically kill them. He rationalizes this by saying such dangerous beliefs inspire the believer to commit acts of extraordinary violence. However, under Harris’ proposition no prior act of violence is required to justify the killing. The belief alone is enough.

    So if the ‘Harris Proposition’ asserts that a person who holds a dangerous belief can, under certain conditions, be killed by the state, then does it not follow that if members of a group all hold the same belief the state can kill the whole group?

    Harris is a prominent critic of Islam and Muslims. He says the Koran instructs Muslims to wage violent jihad against infidels, an injunction he says believers take literally. According to Harris, 20% of Muslims are potential terrorists. He has repeatedly warned that Islam poses an existential threat to the West and argues we should be at war with Islam, not terrorism. He’s remarked, “the people who speak most sensibly about the threat of Islam are the fascists.”

    If Harris is right about Islam, his proposition justifies killing Muslims en masse.

    Does this suggest Harris holds what a reasonable person might consider genocidal, fascistic or maniacal views?

    Based on his apparent meaning, the objective answer is yes. The Twitter post reflects the inescapable implications of Harris’ proposition. Taken to its logical conclusion, the proposition ultimately justifies an absurd state policy of lethal violence waged against members of a religious group, who need commit no prior crimes, based solely on presumed beliefs.

    If anything does, this proposition constitutes the most dangerous belief imaginable. Here one is tempted to make the ironic point that Harris’ proposition is so dangerous it qualifies him for dispatch under his own rule —but only a maniac would advocate such a view.

    • “Based on his apparent meaning, the objective answer is yes. The Twitter post reflects the inescapable implications of Harris’ proposition.”

      No it really doesn’t. He never said that a belief in Islam was a belief that is “so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people who believe in it”.

      He also never said that “20% of Muslims are potential terrorists”. The 20% figure included both jihadists (who would commit terrorism) and the Islamists (who may support the basic worldview of the jihadists but don’t actually carry out the killing).

      You also ignore the potential qualifier that there would need to be some reason to believe (other than past violence) that a person would be willing to act on their belief to justify killing them. He never says killing people SOLELY for their beliefs.

      • ” He never says killing people SOLELY for their beliefs.”

        And yet belief is the only thing these people harris wants to assassinate would actually be guilty of.

        • And you don’t think that could ever be justified?

          If a person has a reasonable belief that someone is going to kill or harm me, I certainly see how an argument could be made that that person would be ethically justified in taking some pre-emptive steps to defend myself even if they are not yet “guilty” of anything. Is he expected to wait until they carry it out because hes not yet “guilty” of anything? Its certainly not a novel ethical proposition.

          I think you guys are ignoring important qualifiers to what Sam was saying. He wasn’t talking about walking around hacking up everyone with a particular belief. His comments were made in the context of a discussion of “self defense” against a the believer who is motivated to “extraordinary violence” who “cannot be captured” and is “beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion”. And even then he says it “may” be ethical (as in its a debatable proposition). He has clearly laid down some reasonable parameters in which his general statement could be true.

      • You also ignore the potential qualifier that there would need to be some reason to believe (other than past violence) that a person would be willing to act on their belief to justify killing them. He never says killing people SOLELY for their beliefs.

        By ‘reason to believe’ I sincerely hope you mean, he has a bomb strapped to his body and is walking towards a populated area.

        • Not sure that is needs to be that imminent but something along those lines. Harris suggests that the person would be motivated to “extraordinary violence” and be beyond capture or persuasion for his statement to apply

          • In which case it becomes extraordinarily crucial to attach the proviso that extraordinarily good and PUBLIC evidence must be provided.

            Failing to attach that qualifier, turns the entire statement into nothing more than the most insidious type of pure propaganda.

            Glad you are now the official Sam Harris interpreter.

            We will come to you then, when we need some Sam Harris interpretation.

          • not to mention accountability.

          • In which case it becomes extraordinarily crucial to attach the proviso that extraordinarily good and PUBLIC evidence must be provided.”.

            Probably a good idea but I can imagine theoretical exceptions.

            “Failing to attach that qualifier, turns the entire statement into nothing more than the most insidious type of pure propaganda.”.

            Kind of a non sequitur. It might make the statement dangerous and in accurate but not sure how it renders it “pure propaganda”. It is still a form of philosophy.

            “Glad you are now the official Sam Harris interpreter.”

            No I just actually read what he says in context and in its plain and literal sense rather than quote mining and imputing intentions based on my own politically inspired preconceptions as his critics do.

          • Kind of a non sequitur. It might make the statement dangerous and in accurate but not sure how it renders it “pure propaganda”. It is still a form of philosophy.

            So Sam Harris is now the Philosopher of the War on Terrorism, and we ( or you ) are his official dedicated pupils and minions left with the task of fleshing out the finer details of every general pronouncement he generously bestows on us?

            I think your mistake is in conflating the notions of a detailed and studied expository statement with that of a vague and general pseudo-philosophical claptrap sensationalist pronouncement:

            And even then he says it “may” be ethical (as in its a debatable proposition). He has clearly laid down some reasonable parameters in which his general statement could be true.

  6. There may be something else going on here.

    The willingness to make incredibly outlandish and dense statements like these might be indicative of a set of ideas that have failed to meet the minimum requirements of intellectual honesty and thus manifest as inherently idiotic and nonsensical assertions.

    Much akin to ‘they use their children as human shields’.

    • Or I wonder if the type of situation Sam Harris is referring to
      is something like in Egypt, where we all witnessed, what could even be described as ‘first hand’ in today’s day and age, the egyptian military shoot in cold blood completely unarmed civilian “muslim brotherhood” walking with white flags and hands raised, by the tens and hundreds in the streets of Cairo.

      Maybe Sam Harris’ moral character will be saved, and people with these “beliefs” will simply walk unarmed and willingly into the paths of bullets. That’s it isn’t it. The best scenario?

      • This is what I mean by “imputing intentions based on my own politically inspired preconceptions”. You have no reason to believe that this is what he means and on the totality of his view it is highly unlikely that he would support this kind of jackboot bullshit. But it is convenient to believe that is what he means so you can self righteously excoriate a straw version of him.

        • Speaking of self-righteously excoriating a straw version,
          are you in fact claiming that Sam Harris’ comment was abundantly clear, detailed, and sufficiently elucidatory?

          Because even within context, the statent still appears to be completely vague and general as to be nothing more than a knee jerk piece of sensationalists propaganda designed by him with the sole purpose of putting himself in the spotlight.

          Can you point me to comments by him in the past that have condemned the actions in Egypt I mentioned or anything of the like?

          • “are you in fact claiming that Sam Harris’ comment was abundantly clear, detailed, and sufficiently elucidatory?

            Because even within context, the statent still appears to be completely vague and general”

            No I just reject this absurd idea that it is reasonable to take a quote and simply assume that the author (who otherwise has shown himself to value innocent human life and think deeply about ethical issues) intended for it to be an endorsement of genocide or violent police repression. For crying out loud how many more caveats and qualifications do you expect him to make? Hes already whittled down a broad statement in many ways that I’ve already directly quoted above.

            Its not him who wants to use “knee jerk piece of sensationalists propaganda designed… with the sole purpose of putting himself in the spotlight”. It is you who wants to read as cynically into something as you can to find something to get indignant about.

            “Can you point me to comments by him in the past that have condemned the actions in Egypt I mentioned or anything of the like?”

            Seriously? Can you point me to comments by yourself where you’ve specifically condemned the federal governments unilateral amendment of environmental screening processes without the consent of affected First Nations? Or what about Indonesian brutality in East Timor? The gentrification of Vancouver’s Yaletown neighbourhood? How about Myanmar’s murder of Rohingya Muslims? Suncor’s tailing ponds leaking into the Athabasca River? Or how about the regulators failing to oversea Suncor to begin with?

            This stupid line of argument where we say “Oh well how come you never talk about [insert just about anything]? Obviously you are some sort of hypocrite” should be permanently excised from political discourse.

          • This stupid line of argument where we say “Oh well how come you never talk about [insert just about anything]? Obviously you are some sort of hypocrite” should be permanently excised from political discourse.

            Uh, no, it should be used to clarify the record of a person who makes strikingly sensationalist, vague, and general statements ( so vague as to make no actual detailed contribution to the complexities of a situation I might add ), it should be used to clarify that person, when they have failed to do so themselves, especially in regards to specific areas and topics, and especially when those statements carry enormous weight and consequences.

            Despite what Sam Harris and yourself think, he has made absolutly zero contribution with that comment, in or out of context. And maybe even minus zero.

            The list of questions surrounding that notion is vastly long, and Sam Harris has made zero contribution to it, though I’m sure he thinks he somehow brilliantly came upon reviving it.

          • You first paragraph barely makes any sense. Maybe try that one again while avoiding run on sentences.

          • ad hominems.

          • It is not an ad hominem. Your sentence is so poorly structured that I can’t even understand it. It is 75 words long with six commas and a set of brackets. Rule of thumb is that a sentence shouldn’t be longer than 40.

            I’m not saying you are wrong because you are such a poor writer–which would be an ad hominem. I’m just saying that when you express things in such an unclear manner it is hard for me to either respond or acknowledge the strength of your argument.

          • Cute.

            However I think you messed up your possessive pronoun in the 8pm comment. Please rephrase it.

  7. Sam Harris represents the best of contemporary Western culture – rational, informed and forward looking. I am grateful for his efforts.

  8. I think Sam Harris should concentrate less on finding good reasons to kill people for their “beliefs”, and maybe more on trying to figure out what “beliefs” get people killed.

    For example, maybe he could cast his beneficent gaze towards concentrating on what “beliefs” caused the Mexican State to murder 43 Department of Education ( Think OISE ) students in one go 2 weeks ago.

    Not sure how much more Fascistic it gets than that. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it must have been a HUGE blow to Mexican Social Justice milieus.

    Maybe even a deliberate warning shot.

  9. Pingback: Islamophobia-phobia in New Zealand | Heather's Homilies

  10. The problem with Sam Harris is simple. He likes to pontificate about issues he has no real understanding or clue about, and then when he is “called out” for his statements, he resorts to “you’re taking it out of context”, “you’re defaming me” etc. and finally, his most recent justification on the Young Turks interview: “these are philosophical discussions by me”. Well Sam – if you want to pretend you’re a public commentator on religion and/or Islam, then be prepared to be vigorously challenged for your idiotic statements. Otherwise, take your “philosophical musings” to your living room or the classroom where you can hide behind philosophy. The public reality is that public commentators are responsible for their words.

    Bubba Kinkaid has done a masterful job of showing exactly what Harris’ problem is, above.

    Lastly, Harris lies about Islam and Islamic doctrines. If a Chritian, Jew, Hindu or Buddhist commits an atrocious act of violence and justifies it with religious belief, Harris posits they’re REALLY NOT doing it because of of religion. But if a Muslim does it, “oh, it’s definitely because of Islamic doctrine because shit, they REALLY mean it”. Nevermind that Islamic scholars from every corner of the globe and mainstream MUslim discourse have dissected and denounced ISIS ideology as dishonest and not based on mainstream Islamic beliefs.

    Go back to the drawing board, Sam. Your intellectual dishonesty reeks and anyone with a brain can see through your verbal sophistry for what it is: justifications for bigotry and generalizations about 1.5 billion human beings.

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