Sam Harris, author and podcaster, is a racist. Or so some of his opponents would have you believe.
In reality, Harris isn’t a racist. Not even close. Far from being a right-winger, the quietly spoken Harris is more of your left-of-center-academic-Jew. Much like Ezra Klein. And yet the two are currently locked in a somewhat needless, acrimonious debate.
So how did we get here?
Since his first book, The End of Faith, Harris has become a lightening rod for both the left and the right, because in a world of entrenched identity politics, Harris maintains a commitment to intellectual honesty, which occasionally comes, as it should, at the expense of supporting his ‘team’. And therein like the roots of the problem.
It is Harris’ bothersome tendency to prod at hallowed truths, that has forced him to walk the halls of the intellectual undead, navigating a strange world of hysteria, outrage, and sometimes, transparent bad faith.
What follows is a potted summary of the latest drama, arising from the left’s celebrated tendency to eat their own in times of crisis.
About a year ago, Harris had Charles Murray on his Waking Up Podcast. Murray, a political scientist, has become infamous for his co-authored book, The Bell Curve, which caused controversy back in the early nineties for suggesting that race and IQ might, at least in part be correlated. In fact, the book continues to cause controversy and Murray’s reputation was in large point destroyed as a result. Even today, Murray continues to be de-platformed by college students, most of whom have never read his work.
Harris, having reviewed the text, felt that Murray may have been the victim of a politically motivated moral panic, and invited him on the podcast to clarify his research. A Vox piece took exception to the way the podcast was handled – felt it was unnecessarily sympathetic to Murray’s ‘racialist’ findings – and the name calling began.
There were mistakes made on both sides here. The Vox blog and subsequent Ezra Klein editorial could have been kinder to Harris – and Harris, who undoubtedly saw the chain saw coming, and who tends to be somewhat thin-skinned at times, could have just let it go. But here we are, with everyone piling on, supporting their champion of choice.
No point re-litigating The Bell Curve here. The question at the core of this latest cat fight is this: Is it wrong to dare to raise the question of race and IQ? Does merely considering Murray’s data from an academic standpoint make one a “racist” deserving of public disembowelment?
While the truth matters, it’s clear that some truths are more pressing than others, and perhaps still others are simply not worth the time or effort it takes to mine and litigate them. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about curtailing academic inquiry. While I find little in the Harris/Klein et al dialogue to be worthy of the current level of acrimony, it is clear that Harris is a regular target of the radical left’s attempts to deliberately misunderstand him and thereby police intellectual freedom.
The tendency of the Left to bully, arises no doubt from worthy intent – but there is no doubt that i can suffocate. In the last year or so, academia has been flirting dangerously, with what Harris refers to as identity politics, with publicly disastrous results.
To become preoccupied with a perceived political consequence of a truth almost always results in obscurantism, and it is this that frustrates Harris above all else. Harris asks only that one reason honestly according to the data. If the facts lead to an unpleasant place, then a political solution is no doubt at hand. But unless your a politician, the truth itself should never be held hostage. If truth becomes synonymous with political ideology, we should expect the Fake News we are now seeing to be the result.
Enter Ezra Klein, who tends to see things a little differently. Klein feels that precedent and history are prime here, and that Murray has a history that betrays his academic findings.
This may or may not be the case but Harris thinks the facts still matter. The truth can be inconvenient at times, but our ability to deal with facts and their consequences as they are, as apposed to revising them as we would have them, are what differentiate the scholarly from the shill. If facts become the malleable property of identity politics, academia will be diminished simply because such a view of the world is incompatible with intellectual honesty.
Honesty usually involves taking ownership of ideas from various political domains, including that most contentious domain, the middle ground. When we try to constantly force ourselves into the box of Republican or Democrat, we deny ourselves the opportunity to think for ourselves. There are Republicans who are atheist, or who are gay, and there are Democrats who are pro-police and anti-immigration. To tow the party line on every issue demonstrates nothing but intellectual languor. It’s nothing to be proud of.
Harris isn’t the first to suffer from the problem of political and intellectual independence. Dan Carlin has all but given up on his podcast Common Sense, for reasons that are not dissimilar.
Bill Maher famously suggested that the 9/11 terrorists might be called many names, but “cowards” wasn’t one of them. That seemed like an honest assessment, when compared with button pushing drone warfare, and there is a precedent for honesty of this sort, even in times of war. During the Viet Nam era, our generals had no problem despising the VC while simultaneously acknowledging their bravery and tenacity on the battlefield. By contrast, Maher was lambasted and fired from his show “Politically Incorrect” precisely for being – politically incorrect. He was sacked by the network, for stating the truth.
In much the same way, Harris ought to be allowed to express ‘respect’ for those same 9/11 jihadists who at least followed through on a plausible reading of what the Koran tells them to do. Choose to read this as support for terrorism and you’d be making the same mistake as those who criticized Maher, because Harris, infamously, is no fan of Islam. If positions like these appear mutually inconsistent, they are not – you’re just not paying attention.
Harris is clearly a liberal in most senses of the word and any attempt to paint him racist or “alt-right” is nothing short of deceitful. The fact that some of his views fall outside the usual leftist, pre-packaged, easily digested sound bite ought not to result in cries of ‘racist’ and ‘bigot’. The truth is, if you can’t hold a long-short position on an intellectually challenging topic, you’re not entitled to call yourself an intellectual, you’re just another ideological hack.
In stymieing free thought, political correctness can threaten our ability to even recognize a fact, should we be lucky enough to happen upon one. We all claim to want the truth, however, it is clear that when the truth fails to align with our biases, too many of us are willing to see truth sacrificed on the alter of some or other political agenda.
Worse still, there are those who deliberately misunderstand, distort or mischaracterize those they disagree with. And this is an anathema. There are real racists out there, those who still deny the holocaust and who are unabashed in those denials. Still others fly the Confederate flag from their homes. Wasting time on calling Harris a racist is to miss out on the opportunity to confront the real bogymen.
The truth is, Harris is refreshingly honest. You need only listen to a couple of his podcasts on the subject of lying to realize that he tries to walk a path of intellectual transparency. He’ll be the first to admit when he is wrong or has made a mistake.
If Harris is guilty of anything, it is an almost quixotic naivety in failing to anticipate (and an inability to ignore) the level of vitriol that will continue to come from those who don’t share his commitment to open and honest dialogue.
As Colonel Jessup AKA Jack Nicholson famously said to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men.
“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
If you want to hear Harris in his own words, check out the Waking Up podcast.
Note: Sam Harris has now agreed to have Ezra Klein on his podcast to go over the debris of the last week. With luck, both sides will leave pride and hurt feelings at home, come together, and put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There is room for a real discussion here on the science of IQ, but more importantly, on the politics of difference.
Update: The above referenced podcast between Ezra Klein and Sam Harris is now available to listeners.
I’ll forego any academic analysis here and cut to the chase. Despite the potential for this to go spectacularly off the rails, it didn’t. And there’s a reason for that. What was most striking about this podcast is that it turns out Klein and Harris have far more in common than they do to argue about. Both are white, adult male, educated, middle class, Jews. But while one has tends to have emphasis on ‘honesty’, data and truth, the other is more concerned with the legacy, the history, and the potential poor policy outcomes of any such ‘truths’. Your basic consequentialism. And honestly, if you can’t be bothered to listen to the bickering, then at a macro level, that’s about it.
That’s not to suggest that the differences of opinion aren’t important, but what’s striking is that these two men probably agree on 95% of the nonsense out there in the world – and on the other 5%, they still see the same thing, but through a different prism. Call it tribalism, call it identity politics, but at the bottom of this mess, there is simply a difference in emphasis – plus a bunch of hurt feelings. In any other world, these men would be allies. Like the members of two rival gangs, they have literally everything in common, and yet they choose to kill each over the differences they have.
Despite the friction and antecedent animosity, this was a valuable podcast. It was the most truthful, and therefore the most valuable of the Harris-Klein conversations. It’s a shame it took a pissing contest to get here. Both Klein and Harris are clearly good people.
It’s tempting to leave it there, with the two interlocutors ‘agreeing to disagree’ on the relative hierarchy of truths-that-matter. But the fact is, Harris’ position is far more costly than that of Klein, whose more radical counterparts are often less charitable than Klein himself. Unlike Klein, Harris is regularly subject to abuse and even death threats for his honest difference of opinion. If Ezra really wants the moral high ground, he could do worse than calling for an end to the defaming, the boycotting and the violence against those who think differently.