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Sam Harris is Wrong on the Internet

May

03

by

Prominent Atheist Defends Profiling

The philosopher Daniel Dennett jokes that the job of the philosopher is to defend the indefensible. Sam Harris fits that definition pretty well. And often. His latest indefensible essay is called “In Defense of Profiling.”

The basic premise is that Muslims carryout terrorism, so the TSA should profile Muslims, and leave lil’ white grandmas alone. Like many of Harris’s fervently anti-Muslim positions, his essay displays a profound disdain for justice and wisdom. It doesn’t seem too foolish, at the most superficial glance, to say that X people are more statistically prone to do Y scary thing and, therefore, we should scrutinize X people more rigorously for signs of Y behavior. As Harris puts it, “Every moment spent frisking the Mormon Tabernacle Choir subtracts from the scrutiny paid to more likely threats. Who could fail to understand this?” No one would fail to understand this if, in fact, it weren’t utter bullshit.

Like so much of Harris’s work, this essay is based on the aforementioned utter bullshit. The first bit of bullshit here is that there are so many terrorists — Muslims, of course — hellbent on our destruction that random screenings detract from our focus, which need be intensely aimed at the unrelenting horde of swarthy evil doers. Harris’s failure is common misconception — made especially egregious by his purported status as an “intellectual.” There’s an atmosphere of paranoia in America, and by extension in much of our media, that we’re under constant threat. Didn’t you hear about that foiled terrorist plot on the news? Well, as it turns out, most plots “foiled” by the FBI were also plotted by the FBI. Is “terrorism,” as we understand the term, a real thing? Of course. But one would hope an “intellectual” like Harris capable of honestly evaluating the threat, rather than, say, succumbing to shaky right-wing presumptions.

Harris often touts the claim that Muslims are by and large the perpetrators of terrorism. He blithely ignores the acts of murder, war, and assassination committed by America itself, which far surpass — in both body count and frequency — Muslim terrorism. But without delving into Harris’s criminally obtuse blind spot for, and thereby promotion of, American terrorism, he often makes the argument that Islam is the root of all terrorism. This worldview is simplistic verging on flatly wrong.  Just as he ignores American terrorism, which in itself contributes to Muslim terrorist blowback, he disregards the myriad geopolitical reasons that Muslim terrorism exists – external to or in conjunction with Islamic doctrine. Is fundamentalist Islam an ugly and frightening thing? Without a doubt. But to completely cast aside the political and socioeconomic factors that breed fundamentalism, and to broadly indict Islam, is not only appallingly ignorant but also counterproductive.

But the above are general gripes with Harris and his contemptibly myopic brand of “new atheism” — of which the late Christopher Hitchens was so fond.  So, why shouldn’t we profile? Why maintain this “tyranny of fairness,” as Harris laughably calls it? Well, a good answer is found in posing the same type of question about any number of this country’s laws and institutions. If African-Americans commit a higher percentage of crimes per capita, why not turn our inner cities into martial law zones (if that weren’t already the case)? If teenagers and the elderly are responsible for a huge portion of fatal car crashes, why shouldn’t these people by profiled, stopped at random, and subjected to tests of competency? And since you’re four times as likely to die from lightning strike than you are a terrorist attack, why shouldn’t we nuke the sky? It is, after all, a very serious threat.

Civil liberties are a funny thing. You either have them or you don’t. They either cover the weakest and most vilified among us or they’re totally worthless. Rights are meaningless if applied only to a certain class of citizen. Harris would be right to argue against the entirety of the DHS Industrial Complex. He would be right to argue against NYPD surveillance of Muslims. He would be right to argue against warrantless wiretapping. He would be right to argue against domestic drone use. Or he could argue for all these terrible things — if they applied to everyone. He’d still be a totalitarian jackass who doesn’t understand the precepts of a free society, but at least it wouldn’t smack of shoddy prejudicial thinking. Our “villains” change every generation — their complexions, nationalities, and dogmas. If we trounce the rights of every villain class du jour, we’re just not doing freedom correctly. Justice for some is justice for no one.

There’s a disturbing overlap between Harris’s ilk of “new atheists” and neoconservative Christians wherein Islam is considered the gravest threat to civilization, and its defeat justifies all manner of Western hypocrisy. And if you don’t recognize their unfounded claim, or feel the need to delve into geopolitical nuance to more thoroughly explain the issue of terrorism, well, to Harris, you’re just guilty of underestimating the threat. End of story.

Well, as a guy who supposedly arrived at atheism by reason, maybe Harris needs some empirical data to set him straight. 9/11, the linchpin of the “new atheist” and neoconservative confluence, resulted in about 3,000 tragic deaths. The Iraq War, which the Bush admin sold partially on the lie that Saddam Hussein had something to do those 3,000 deaths, has wrought well over 100,000 civilian casualties – a far superior jihadi recruitment tool than anything al Qaeda (which at last count stood at fewer than 100 members in Afghanistan) could ever cook up on its own. If Harris were as concerned about Islamic terrorism as he says, a good place to start fighting it might be in denouncing the worldwide slaughter of Muslims.

But, as his essay clearly shows, Sam Harris doesn’t really care about certain kinds of people, and he cares less about data that gets in the way of his job of defending the indefensible.

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  • Alex SL

    But the above are general gripes with Harris and his contemptibly myopic brand of “new atheism” — of which the late Christopher Hitchens was so fond.

    Yeah, that’s you profiling right there. Some other new atheist voices on the matter:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/04/30/no-racial-profiling-please/
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/axp/2012/05/01/racial-profiling-a-data-mining-perspective-warning-wonky/

  • http://youtu.be/NqyePgkBX6M joe dixon

    I’m sorry I’ve been so out of it lately that I never got around to adding my own voice to what a total douche Sammy is. Good job, man.

  • admin

    Joe, Thanks.

    Alex, 1) learn how to read; 2) look up the word “profiling.”

  • Jenny Elders

    It’s strange to me when people like Harris team up with folks who would goosestep them into the camps (behind the Muslims) in a heartbeat.

  • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ John Hugar

    Reminds me of some of the bullshit Bill Maher spews about Muslims – like when he said he was “afraid” of how people were naming their kids Muhammad. Calling religion out on its bullshit is great. Using the premise of atheism to justify racist garbage is not,

  • E. Scott Frogelman

    “Imagine how fatuous it would be to fight a war against the IRA and yet refuse to profile the Irish? And yet this is how we seem to be fighting our war against Islamic terrorism.”

    Perhaps someone should tell Mr. Harris that Islam is not a religion reserved exclusively for the dusky under-races? WHAT?! MAZLIMZ CAN B WITE?!?

  • Randy

    I would not lump all “new atheists” (i.e. newly vocal atheists) with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. The flaws of two men hardly define everyone else in the category you put them in. Does Dawkins agree with Harris on this? Does Dennett? Do any of the internetty people like PZ Myers and the countless YouTube atheists (except Pat Condell)?

    Rather, this seems like a way to take a minority viewpoint, and label all new atheists with it, instead of arguing the merits of so-called “new atheism”.

  • JJ

    As a dusky hued American I say thank you for this article.

  • Alex SL

    Learn to read? Yeah, sorry, I must definitely have overlooked something, but I see I am not the only one.
    And about my misuse of the word profiling, this is what some of us like to call a “joke”.

  • admin

    Randy,
    Of course. Harris and the late Hitchens are in a totalitarian class of their own. As I said, I was talking about their specific ilk of “new atheists.” Forgive me for not being clear. The BEAST has interviewed PZ & Dennett, and criticized both Harris & Hitchens. I wasn’t trying to lump anyone in with anyone. But as I’ve become more involved in the atheist movement, I hate to tell you that Harris’s brand of idiocy isn’t as minority as it should be.

    Alex,
    Which is it, you were making a point or making a joke? Regardless, I was “debating” someone on Facebook when you commented, so I think I was lulled into thinking everyone is retarded. Apologies.

  • FlayingMarsyas

    By your absurd logic, I guess you’d have to say Ayaan Hirsi Ali is as much of an idiotic jerk as Harris for all her invoking of the very real dangers inherent to the ideology and practice of Islam. So, let’s see you write a rant to tear down her legitimate concerns (which, by the way, happen to mirror Sam’s concerns in almost every way). Let’s see you make the case that all those who’ve suffered under Islam, and are now speaking out against it, are just over-reacting.

    Oh wait, the real issues here wouldn’t be such an easy target for you, would they? And, if you tried, you’d (rightly) be shouted out of existence by the same dubious ethics that entrench your current position.

    So, congratulations! You’ve found Harris and Hitchens both guilty of the crime of daring to voice moral outrage without the justification of having their very own, personal victim credentials.

    Just keep bashing those you secretly envy for having more courage and intelligence than you’ve ever been able to demonstrate, while still riding their coattails. Really, it’s a good look for you.

  • http://buffalobeast.com/?tag=caigoy-authors Mike C.

    I feel dumb for defending Harris in an argument several years ago, insisting that he wasn’t advocating torture (in hindsight, he very clearly, explicitly was).

    But if you’re going to profile Muslims for as improbable circumstance as their involvement in terrorism, you may as well profile pro-life-until-birthers (“pro-life” is a misnomer) for their history of attacks on clinics and doctors. You could also profile angry honkeys, like Tim McVeigh, or the Unabomber; or “loners” raised by their grandparents, because of the commonality of it among serial killers.

    Realistically, the odds of being killed by a terrorist attack are are: 1/10,408,947

    The odds of dying in a car wreck are: 1/6,500

  • admin

    Dear FlayingMarsyas,
    Ayaan Hirsi Ali is now to Islam what Ayn Rand was to Communism. That is, she’s taken a very real concern from one culture and transposed it onto another, wherein it’s more-or-less used by all the wrong people (American Enterprise Institute) to justify all the wrong things. That was actually pretty easy because I’m capable of both recognizing a bad thing AND recognizing how arguing against that bad thing in a certain context, or a certain way, can actually justify worse things. It’s a very simple point. Kind of like this point: If your answer to a restrictive, totalitarian society is to safeguard your own society with more totalitarian restrictions, you’re a hypocritical fucktard who’s only hastening the thing you sought to avoid. Go honor kill yourself, you absolute cretin.

  • Brian M

    admin at 13….I get in trouble on Atheist boards for pointing this very thing out. Thank you.

    Belive me…I am no apologist for Islam. I would actually go further than you and accept that Islam is indeed a pernicious doctrine in its core beliefs. But then so is the religion cribbed together by nasty pre-modern politicians from the supposed life and sayings of Jesus, an apocalyptic nutcase of a wanderingpreacher, so whaddayagonnado?

  • http://acksisofevil.org/innerside.html Scooter

    Sam Harris is living proof that ethnocentrism, elitism, and nationalism can make you even stoopider than religion.

    —Check this out. Joe fucking Rogan interviewed him for two hours. When they got to the issue of the Middle East, Rogan was the only adult in the room… unbelievable.

    Sam Harris blathers on about enlightenment, nation building, spreading democracy like a Texas home schooler. He is either lying, which is intellectual fraud, or he’s really that dumb, which is academic fraud. fast fwd about 50 minutes in and be horrified:
    http://blog.joerogan.net/archives/4463

    I picked up on just how ignorant Harris is on the subject of Islam and Middle Eastern politics when Chris Hedges had to correct him every step of the way in a debate that was supposed to be about religion, but turned out to be a skeptic’s lesson in correcting logical fallacies.

    At this point I realized why Chris Hedges wrote ‘Why I don’t believe in Atheism’. Right around the time that Harris and Hitchens proclaimed themselves half of the four horseman representing the New Atheism alongside Dennet and Dawkins (talk about hubris).

    Those two are/were 18th century imperialists, the same threat to peace as the fundie dominionists he wrote about in ‘The Rise of the Christian Right’. This was not a good thing to alienate a natural ally like Hedges, whom unfortunately mistook the political meanderings of self-appointed leadership to be representative of the movement. Those two guys have ALWAYS been contrary to the vast majority of New Atheists outside of their religious critiques.

    So fuck Harris. He is brilliant, articulate and a fucking idiot at the same time. That’s what happens when you have some epic-fail ideological indoctrination tugging on your brain stem.

    Sound familiar?

  • Pan Demonium

    All major religions suck, but Islam sucks the most…
    No racism, just truth.

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