Sam Harris vs. Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald arrogantly thought he could punch way above his intellectual weight class and took on Sam Harris over the issue of Islamaphobia. Greenwald screeched, and Harris took him down.
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Glenn Greenwald arrogantly thought he could punch way above his intellectual weight class and took on Sam Harris over the issue of Islamaphobia. Greenwald screeched, and Harris took him down.
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I'm a fan of Sam Harris. A very big fan, in fact, despite not agreeing with him across the board. His 2004 book, The End of Faith, is just about the seminal guide to refuting faith-based religion through bulletproof fact and near-flawless argumentation. If you're an atheist, it's basically, well, your Bible. Harris prides himself on his intellect and on an absolute reliance on reason, which means that he's a formidable foe to debate simply because his logic is generally made of concrete and titanium. I admit that while Harris himself dislikes having to constantly defend himself against the same ridiculous attacks on his beliefs over and over again -- typically from those who either misunderstand statements he's made perfectly clear or who feel like they need to purposely twist his arguments to serve their own ends -- I enjoy watching him rip those who go up against him to shreds. He does it with such confidence but, provided the adversary in question isn't just being an asshole, with such respect that it makes you glad people like him exist to act as intellectual super heroes when our culture needs them.

One of the more ludicrous accusations that's been leveled at Sam Harris throughout the years has to do with his supposed tendency toward "Islamophobia." As with his contemporaries in the "new atheist" movement, people like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, Harris believes that radical Islam represents an especially insidious and dangerous form of faith simply because it often manifests itself in physical violence aimed at both non-believers and believers alike. It may be politically incorrect to say that Islam is the most pervasive and immediate religious threat our world is facing at this moment in its history, but it's not necessarily factually incorrect. Harris has said many times, while simultaneously pointing out that absolute faith of any kind is a bad and backward thing, that Islam is one of the few religions at the moment that can literally be perverted to the point where it can destroy en masse. He's also pointed out that while the liberal tendency toward acceptance and multiculturalism is at face value a noble policy, it shouldn't ever be applied to the exclusion of common sense and a willingness to confront reality. His point is generally that embracing superstition is never a good thing but to wrap your arms around a superstition that can get you killed, simply because it makes you feel like a tolerant person to do so, is madness.

Harris has been pretty damn clear about this. And yet the indignant and sanctimonious articles and essays from members of the professional left still come at lightning speed, aimed at proving Harris is a racist and an Islamophobe for daring to state the incredibly obvious: that Islam, more directly than almost any other religion right now, can indeed be dangerous and humanity pretends that's not true at its own peril. There have been two such articles in just the past week or so, one at Al Jazeera and the other at Salon.

The regularity and tediousness of these kinds of pieces make them, in Harris's own words, typically not worth trying to refute at length. Harris figures he's made his arguments as rationally as possible and his meaning should be crystalline to anyone not either dense or just looking for something to be outraged about. But, surprisingly, he broke down and decided to confront someone over the two most recent attacks on him. What's really interesting is that he didn't bother going after the authors of the columns, he instead took issue with someone who had circulated the pieces via Twitter and endorsed their overall points. He did this, it seems, because he couldn't quite understand why someone he considered a "fellow liberal" and, presumably, a staunch intellectual would miss the point of his statements and perpetuate flawed arguments that amount to a kind of defamation against him. And that would be one of the first inarguable fuck-ups I've seen Sam Harris make: assuming that the person he decided to confront was both liberal and an intellect unsullied by agenda.

The person Harris engaged via an e-mail back-and-forth, a transcript of which he published online late last night?

Glenn Greenwald.

I realize that we do a lot of beating up on Greenwald around here at The Daily Banter and I was genuinely loathe to bring his name up yet again, particularly being that I'm the one columnist here who shows him absolutely no respect or deference. But watching an intellectual heavyweight like Sam Harris inexplicably try to reason with Greenwald as a kind of equal, or at the very least someone whose opinion he values, made me want to throw my laptop through a window. It's one thing to see Glenn Greenwald do his usual smug intransigence shtick on Twitter, blithely batting away the mosquitoes that dare to be a nuisance to him and tossing out his go-to accusations of intellectual dishonesty and blind submission to the cult of political personality, what Greenwald is, of course, above; it's another thing entirely to watch him have the galactic balls to condescend to someone like Sam Harris. I'm not sure what's more offensive, that Greenwald arrogantly thought he could punch way above his intellectual weight class or that Harris attempted to treat him as a peer, assuming wrongly that he could have a rational discussion with him and penetrate his force field of pure piety and absolute moral certitude with something as inadequate as logic. Granted, Harris appears irritated with Greenwald right out of the gate in the interaction that he himself instigated, but given that Greenwald was the one who drew first blood by putting his tsk-tsking stamp-of-approval on two columns that accused Harris of racism, it's not difficult to understand why.

Do yourself a favor and go take a look at the exchange for yourself; it's not too long, but it's not something I want to publish here in its entirety and it'll lose something if I quote it piecemeal.

I think there is one very salient point that Harris makes while frustratedly trying to get through to Greenwald and it has to do with the difference between being against someone personally and being against the ideas he or she believes and espouses. It's Harris's answer to the charge of racism:

"Needless to say, there are people who hate Arabs, Somalis, and other immigrants from predominantly Muslim societies for racist reasons. But if you can’t distinguish that sort of blind bigotry from a hatred and concern for dangerous, divisive, and irrational ideas -- like a belief in martyrdom, or a notion of male “honor” that entails the virtual enslavement of women and girls -- you are doing real harm to our public conversation. Everything I have ever said about Islam refers to the content and consequences of its doctrine."

To me, this argument has always made perfect sense. It's the one that's been at the crux of Harris's criticism of Islam since the very beginning and in an ironic "hate the sin, love the sinner" way has also been a centerpiece of my own assessment of faith-based religion at the beginning of the 21st century. No one is saying that each and every man or woman who practices a religion -- not Islam nor anything else -- is a bad person who's doomed to do horrible things. Very far from it. Unless someone has shown that he or she truly is an extremist bent on taking faith to its most dangerous, but strangely logical, conclusion, that person deserves respect. It's the faith itself, however -- the irrational belief system based on little more than speculation and wishful thinking -- that doesn't automatically deserve to be shown respect and deference. It's only our culture's willingness to let a brand of irrationality slide that we've bizarrely deemed is somehow socially acceptable that leads to the notion that criticism of religion equals bigotry. Again, Harris's point that fundamentalist Islam is a different animal within our global culture than, say, fundamentalist Bahá'í -- and that purposely not acknowledging this is a political decision rather than a rational one -- is essentially right on the money. It may seem as if Harris is specifically targeting Islam in his blistering critiques of faith, but you have to keep in mind that this is a guy who wrote an entire book addressing what he sees as the serious problem of America's involuntary acceptance of and adherence to Christianity.

But back to the Harris/Greenwald battle. If we were talking about anyone else but the insufferable Glenn Greenwald, I'd be willing to give him or her the benefit of the doubt in the e-mail back-and-forth with Harris, given that Harris is obviously in attack mode right off the bat. But if you think Greenwald would've somehow responded in a less prickish and more respectful manner had Harris approached him with a box of chocolates rather than a stern but entirely legitimate line of questioning, you really don't know Glenn Greenwald. Two years ago we watched him have the colossal nerve to attack Harris's contemporary, Christopher Hitchens, as a "war zealot" -- of course, in another tweeted link to someone else's story -- because of Hitchens's initial support of the Iraq war while failing to acknowledge his own support of that very same war. It's silly to assume that he considers anyone -- certainly anyone who holds a different opinion from his own -- an intellectual equal and someone worthy of uncommon consideration. If you think so much of yourself that you see nothing perilous in condescending to Christopher Hitchens -- not fearlessly debating but petulantly condescending to -- you're well beyond being able to be reasoned with.

Greenwald exists in a world of self-created mythology, fueled by a handful of fawning acolytes and a bunch of other people who thought enough of him to take a split second out of their day to click "follow" on his Twitter feed. While he's generally no match for many of those who choose to confront him on the holes often found in his supposedly bulletproof arguments, he's absolutely no match for Sam Harris. No one's saying that Harris is always right, because he's certainly taken stands that I happen to vehemently disagree with, but his logic is more often than not sound because it represents the very core of his status. His reputation as a thinker and as a critic of religion is based entirely on his ability to wield logic and reason dispassionately, a fact which should be taken into account by those who choose to take him on. A fact which, of course, doesn't concern a guy like Greenwald one bit, because logic and reason aren't as important believing that he's never, ever wrong.

Adding: Greenwald has penned a characteristically lengthy piece about his exchange with Harris in today's Guardian. I'll give him this: He spells out his arguments against Harris in a much more cogent fashion than in the e-mails. The problem, though, remains: While it's fair to say that Harris has been adamant in his criticism of Islam as the most "weaponized" faith currently in existence in the civilized world, you have to take into consideration that not criticizing Islam would again be a political move rather than a rational one. Harris beats up on all faith-based religions and one of his primary complaints about Islam is that it could very well be the only religion in the world right now that people are afraid to criticize because its most extreme adherents will promise violence as a consequence. Also, it practically goes without saying that Greenwald attacks the various sins of the United States when it comes to war, violence and suppression and engages in his special brand of moral relativism to claim that pockets of Christianity are just as physically, immediately dangerous as Islam on the whole. The U.S. has done and continues to do some truly awful things abroad and there's no denying that your perspective on this is largely based on where you live and what your politics are, and Christianity, meanwhile, is guilty of violence in other ways besides purely physical -- although physical would've been the order of the day across the board centuries ago. But as a country we've never attempted to utterly eradicate through violence Islam or those who practice it; we tend to rise up and smack down those among us who do. And progressives who wish to see Islam made a thing of the past don't generally hope that Muslims will simply conform to some other religion; they want faith-based religion itself dismissed in the name of reason and rationality.

On that note, and before the comments and e-mails start pouring in, I'm not a fan of Islam the same way that I'm not a fan of Christianity or any other faith; in fact, I spend far more time writing about Christianity -- because I find it to be the most oppressive religion in the U.S. by virtue of its ubiquity -- than I do about Islam. I'm all about trying to build bridges of understanding and I certainly would never claim that all adherents to any religion are terrible people, but as far as I'm concerned there's no defense for wholeheartedly believing a notion for which there's absolutely no evidence.