Sam Harris in full: court intellectual, mystic, and supporter of the Iraq war

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Sam Harris
Sam Harris

I wrote about Sam Harris a short while ago. In my article, I covered a number of themes that he’s discussed, primarily in The End of Faith, as well as in subsequent pieces. Among the subjects I reviewed were his support for Israel’s saturation bombing of Gaza and Lebanon, the Afghanistan war, the “humanitarian purpose” of the Iraq war, American-backed Arab despots, racial profiling, pre-emptive nuclear warfare, judicial torture, and life after death in the guise of reincarnation. In a response, Sam Harris has claimed that I misrepresent him. He does not say what part of my article, which quotes him at extreme length, is inaccurate.

It bears noting that it’s not the first time that Harris has claimed his opinions have been doctored. I share this intellectual sin with as motley a crew of people as Robert Wright, Chris Hedges, PZ Myers, John Gorenfield, and the editor of Free Enquiry Tom Flynn, all of whom Harris says have failed to depict him accurately.

Unfortunately, in my case, he is correct. I must confess that I did not portray the full spectrum of his views with the justice that they warrant.

I have left out much pertinent information from my article that I think would shed better light on what Harris believes. My excuse is that I ran out of space for which I apologise to readers and Harris alike, who deserve better from me. I will make amends in this article. It is misleading to say, for instance, that Harris advocates racial profiling, and let the matter rest there. The full story is richer than I have let on.

The truth is that he also thinks it is scientifically valid to hold that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites, and that espousing this view is not a mark of racism. The context of his remarks was the appointment of Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health, against which Harris stood because of Collins’ belief in God. Harris argued that it should be a disqualification for a scientist of a religious cast of mind to be awarded such an eminent post and maintained that he should be treated in the same way as James Watson was when, in his opinion, he was unjustly forced out from his academic chair for making racist comments about the arrested intelligence of blacks with which his scientific colleagues did not want to be associated, comments that although Harris says are unpleasant, nevertheless have a “scientific basis” in truth which must not be denounced:

It is worth recalling in this context that it is, in fact, possible for a brilliant scientist to destroy his career by saying something stupid. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, a Nobel laureate, and the original head of the Human Genome Project, recently accomplished this feat by asserting in an interview that people of African descent appear to be innately less intelligent than white Europeans. A few sentences, spoken off the cuff, resulted in academic defenestration: lecture invitations were revoked, award ceremonies cancelled, and Watson was forced to immediately resign his post as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Watson’s opinions on race are disturbing, but his underlying point was not, in principle, unscientific. There may very well be detectable differences in intelligence between races. Given the genetic consequences of a population living in isolation for tens of thousands of years it would, in fact, be very surprising if there were no differences between racial or ethnic groups waiting to be discovered. I say this not to defend Watson’s fascination with race, or to suggest that such race-focused research might be worth doing. I am merely observing that there is, at least, a possible scientific basis for his views. While Watson’s statement was obnoxious, one cannot say that his views are utterly irrational or that, by merely giving voice to them, he has repudiated the scientific worldview and declared himself immune to its further discoveries. Such a distinction would have to be reserved for Watson’s successor at the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins.

Observe the way he shifts the mass revulsion expressed by academics like the Federation of American Scientists for Watson’s comments about black intelligence to the uncontested truism, inserted by him alone with no bearing on the question, that it would be surprising if there were “no differences between racial or ethnic groups”. There is of course outward variation in physical appearance between geographically isolated human beings, just as there is much greater inward genetic diversity between people of the same ethnic group; no child of five, let alone professor Watson, has felt the need to express such a trite view; the point under consideration, and for which Harris speaks in favour as a truthful idea anchored in biology that must not be attacked as “irrational”, is that whites are cognitively superior to blacks. Intelligence, not traits such as pigment or eye colour, is the topic under review.

The objection to Watson’s view is not that it is merely a relic of Nazi ideology and thus offensive, as Harris portrays the reaction of the scientific community. It is that his idea is pseudoscience. The supporting data Harris claims to show “detectable differences in intelligence between races” is lifted straight from the discredited racist tract The Bell Curve which has been debunked extensively by geneticists, most notably Steven Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man.

It is not the first time that Harris has promoted pseudoscience. A like fate as Watson’s befell a character named Rupert Sheldrake for whose professional disgrace Harris feels aggrieved. Students of the paranormal will be familiar with the name. Sheldrake is a noted parapsychologist who makes a living writing books that claim to show the existence of psychic ability in pets and humans. Peer review science journals dismiss him as a crackpot. But not Harris. He cites the work of Sheldrake’s in The End of Faith as evidence that “There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science”.

The paranormal has not been ignored of course. It has been reviewed by competent scholars in the pages of Nature and shown conclusively to be erected upon acres of New Age superstition. It’s in the nature of conmen to plead persecution. Other practitioners of this subterranean magic endorsed by Harris include Dean Radin who, in books like The Concious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, swears by the truth of telepathy, mind reading, clairvoyance and the capacity to move physical objects with the naked power of one’s mind.

But the prize for the most spectacular romance with sorcery goes to Harris for asserting that the brain is not the generator of consciousness. It was ideas like this that led the brain scientist Raymond Tallis to liken his work to “Neurotrash”. Science can resolve this question by a rather simple experiment: Let a believer in this theory submit to have his brain surgically extracted from his skull and observe for how long he retains the faculty of perception.

It’s not uncommon for Harris to speak tenderly of crankery.

Another crucial piece of detail missing from my original article centres on the question of anti-Semitism. In his book, The End of Faith, Harris charges critics of Israel with being Jew haters. The slur is familiar to those who think Palestinians deserve human rights, but given that Harris draws his material on the subject from Alan Dershowitz’s The Case For Israel, proven to be a hoax by Norman Finkelstein, who doused the author’s reputation in gasoline and struck the fatal match, that is not too surprising.

What is surprising is that after slandering critics of Israel’s brutality against Arabs as anti-Semites, Harris proceeds, with no trace of irony, to blame the monumental suffering of the Holocaust on the Jewish people. First consider the anti-Semitic accusation, taken from his intellectual hero Paul Berman who led the chorus for invading Iraq in a book described by Harris as “a beautiful primer on totalitarianism”:

Berman observes, for instance, that much of the world now blames Israel for the suicidal derangement of the Palestinians. Rather than being an expression of mere anti-Semitism (though it is surely this as well), this view is the product of a quaint moral logic: people are just people, so the thinking goes, and they do not behave that badly unless they have some very good reasons. The excesses of Palestinian suicide bombers, therefore, must attest to the excesses of the Israeli occupation. Berman points out that this sort of thinking has led the Israelis to be frequently likened to the Nazis in the European press. Needless to say, the comparison is grotesque.

(The End of Faith, p. 135)

Decades of Israeli aggression and terror are fine by Harris, but calling the IDF names is just too much. No responsible critic of the occupation likens Israel’s crimes to the industrial horrors of the Third Reich’s, but after branding human rights activists as anti-Semitic, Harris steps beyond the standard AIPAC hymn sheet and in a surreal turn of logic that is redolent of neo-Nazi websites blames the Holocaust on Jews for not assimilating into German culture:

The gravity of Jewish suffering over the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, makes it almost impossible to entertain any suggestion that Jews might have brought their troubles upon themselves. This is, however, in a rather narrow sense, the truth. Prior to the rise of the church, Jews became the objects of suspicion and occasional persecution for their refusal to assimilate, for the insularity and professed superiority of their religious culture – that is, for the content of their own unreasonable, sectarian beliefs. The dogma of a “chosen people,” while at least implicit in most faiths, achieved a stridence [sic] in Judaism that was unknown in the ancient world.

(The End of Faith, p. 93)

Can there be any doubt what howls of abuse would trail any critic of Zionism who even hinted at anything so revolting as the idea Jews brought Auschwitz upon themselves? But when you fly the Star of David high on your flagpole and pound your keyboard heroically against the Islamo-Nazi menace, you can expect your apologetics for anti-Semitism to go unremarked by the Anti Defamation League. Indeed, no less a figure in the Israel Lobby than Dershowitz will blurb your work enthusiastically.

But if he has many detractors, Harris does not want for friends. Richard Dawkins has come to his aid. This is understandable. Dawkins and Harris are personal friends. He’s promoted his work, blurbed his book and appears in public with him. That’s what friends are for. Dawkins does not attempt to deny that Harris is a national security hawk or that he is a New Age believer. There is too much damning evidence for plausible deniability. The matter he wishes to contest is the one he thinks, incorrectly, does most to discredit Harris: Torture. He claims that Harris does not really support it. And that he was only just floating moral hypotheticals without any practical application. If this is true, then I owe Harris a very sincere apology indeed.

As those conversant with Harris’s book will know however, he does not merely offer an academic what-if; he gives the names of particular individuals in US custody who he thinks merit torture. He specifically names Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and leaves open the possibility of Osama bin Laden. He does not merely advise we should torture KSM. He says that not to do so would be morally “perverse”:

Given the damage we were willing to cause to the bodies and minds of innocent children in Afghanistan and Iraq, our disavowal of torture in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems perverse. If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking.

(The End of Faith, p. 198)

Notice the glaring absence from this impatient demand for torture of the much cited threat of a ticking time bomb set to explode imminently. The morality of the question aside, the practical application of it that Harris endorses has moved from the emotionally potent thought experiment of defusing a live suitcase bomb discovered at the eleventh hour to the far more vague and inconclusive “dismantling of Al Qaeda” which is not a formal organisation to be dismantled so much as a transnational ideology.

The waterboarding of KSM was not a last ditch attempt to avert imminent disaster. It was a months-long exercise in the abuse of a detainee who the Senate Intelligence Committee reports yielded better intelligence under standard interrogation techniques than he ever did when waterboarded 183 times.

Dawkins compares Harris’s misnamed thought experiment to Peter Singer’s provocative work on counter-intuitive moral reasoning on everything from animal rights to world poverty. It’s hard to think of a more disfiguring libel. Peter Singer is a deeply ethical and weighty thinker. Unlike Harris, he stood against the bombing of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, the war crimes of Israel and the abridgement of civil liberties as completely without justification. They could not be more different in political outlook.

It’s not just moral values on which they diverge. It is intellectual honesty. When the controversial Muhammad cartoons protests flared up in 2006, during which the tabloid press was in the passionate throes of its periodic Muslim witch hunts about how dimly these foreigners regard the concept of free speech to which Westerners are religiously devoted, a blood sport much relished by Harris at the time, Peter Singer wrote a thoughtful article unmasking the dishonesty of a Europe that had just imprisoned David Irving for interrogating, however indecently, the historical truth of the Holocaust. In Canada his comrade Ernst Zundel was jailed for the same crime of dissenting from the state approved canon of history.

In the country of the First Amendment, law abiding young American Muslims like Tarek Mehanna have recently been locked up, as Glenn Greenwald has remarked, for nothing more than asserting the right of Arabs to oppose Western aggression, an opinion that when voiced by white Iraq veterans who also oppose the war goes unpunished. Here we see the sinister emergence of a dual legal system that strips Muslims of their liberties and is condoned by Harris in his support for racial profiling and the National Defence Authorisation Act.

The war on free speech is most energetically waged in Europe, where it is a penal offence to espouse what is called Hate Speech, a concept that, though well intended, amounts to policing what people may say about race, gender, sexuality, disability, the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide.

Indeed, an ideological mentor  Sam Harris quoted frequently to great applause in The End of Faith, Bernard Lewis, is a confessed genocide denier made to pay damages by a French court for denying the Armenian genocide. It is worth reflecting how long a writer would survive who celebrated the work of Holocaust deniers. To downplay the suffering of any people is of course a moral deformity, but it’s vital that apologists for mass murder and those who promote their work should be seen for what kind of people they are without being molested by the state.

Peter Singer understood that rolling back these authoritarian laws that muzzle writers is far more pressing to the health of freedom and a much tougher proposition demanding sustained activism and lobbying than dehumanising Muslims, the great bulk of whom had nothing to do with protesting cartoons.

In just this spirit of defending free speech from its enemies, British scientists and journalists have set in motion a campaign to overturn punitive English laws governing libel suits tipped in the favour of rich plaintiffs that inhibit academics from speaking honestly about their findings on everything from Western corporations that dump toxic waste on poor countries to rogue bankers to industries that merchandise bogus alternative medicine. Do not go searching for Harris among these free speech activists on either side of the Atlantic. The enemies of freedom here are powerful white millionaires with an army of lawyers. Safer to malign racial minorities.

On a kindred point that was not raised by Dawkins but is germane, it must be borne in mind that Singer himself does think torture is justifiable theoretically on a utilitarian calculus in remote cases that have not materialised in the War on Terror, but has also opposed America’s secret torture sites under Bush as not meeting those stringent criteria and which are therefore criminal. It is he, and not Harris, who is truly being just academic.

In fairness to Harris, he has never denied that he defended Bush’s torture regime at the height of its operation. This revisionism has been taken up lately by his friends. Vitally, Singer has said the utilitarian case for torture applies with equal force to the innocent children of bomb suspects if that is what is demanded to crack battle hardened terrorists trained to resist torture. Harris has never been honest enough to endorse this extension of the argument precisely because he is all too aware of the tsunami of disgust that would soak him so he sticks to the politically safer ground of advocating the torture of unsympathetic bearded men whose dark skin and foreign names render their human rights forfeit.

Nor does he suggest, in a step that really would have been a challenge to the limits of the establishment’s moral norms, the right of Muslims to abduct Western policymakers and torture them to extract intelligence about invasion plans for the Middle East.

This is not an example of an iconoclast boldly going where few dare to tread. It is the timid performance of a court intellectual who knows where the red lines are and how to most palatably advance the case for Western military aggression.

Much can be divined from a man by the company he keeps, and it is noteworthy that the person whose authority Harris cites to refortify his support for Bush’s torture programme is the “Liberal Senator Charles Schumer”. The operative word here is liberal. The image he seeks to plant in one’s mind is a tireless advocate for human rights. But a glance at his senatorial record tells a more revealing story. Schumer was an enthusiast for invading Iraq, is a keen backer of the Patriot Act, is a proud standing member of AIPAC, and has said of Israel’s siege on Gaza that it must “strangle them economically until they see that’s not the way to go”.

These are the people with whom Harris identifies politically – hawkish Zionists in the mold of Senator Schumer, Dershowitz, Berman and Lewis. They are what he considers to be his natural ideological allies. Those who doubt their progressive credentials, like Edward Said, come in for severe attack in his work.

Like so many prowar commentators, Harris has attempted to deny that he backed the Iraq invasion when events took a turn for the worse, preferring the more agnostic position “I have never known what to think about this war”, but this denial must not be taken at face value. The only occasions in which he sees fit to discuss the war in his book is for the purpose of defending George Bush from his antiwar critics like Chomsky, or to sing the praises of those who cheered the invasion like Berman, Lewis and Fareed Zakaria, or to support interventionism generically in the Middle East himself though with the added twist of imposing not democracy, for which he thinks Muslims are unfit, but a benign pro-American dictator, or to hobgoblinise Iraqis for not receiving American troops as liberators.

There is not a single word of criticism against the Iraq war in print or on his blog, except to say, more recently, that it was poorly strategised and launched before the revenge attacks on Afghanistan could be wrapped up.

Typical of his views about the war are statements like “it is telling that the people who speak with the greatest moral clarity about the current wars in the Middle East are members of the Christian right” and “Americans will come to believe that the only people hard-headed enough to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world are the religious lunatics of the West.” This belief in the profound moral clarity of George Bush to prosecute the war against the evildoers might dawn sooner, laments Harris, if Bush was not a Christian evangelical himself.

To be sure, not all dissent from the war is treason, by the lights of Harris. Dissidents may legitimately probe the “handling” of the invasion, and the competence of Bush’s management of the occupation, but to oppose the military expedition on moral grounds is sorry capitulation to our enemies: “Given the mendacity and shocking incompetence of the Bush administration – especially its mishandling of the war in Iraq – liberals can find much to lament in the conservative approach to fighting the war on terror. Unfortunately, liberals hate the current administration with such fury that they regularly fail to acknowledge just how dangerous and depraved our enemies in the Muslim world are.”

His work is a blunt summons for the projection of military “force” to pursue the US national interest “continually”:  

If oil were to become worthless, the dysfunction of the most prominent Muslim societies would suddenly grow as conspicuous as the sun. Muslims might then come to see the wisdom of moderating their thinking on a wide variety of subjects. Otherwise, we will be obliged to protect our interests in the world with force – continually. In this case, it seems all but certain that our newspapers will begin to read more and more like the book of Revelation.

(The End of Faith, p. 152)

Doubters of his martial counsel are invited by Harris to embrace the wisdom of the hawkish Thomas Friedman’s optimistic report of the war effort which depicts Iraqis who resist American occupation as driven by nothing but religious zealotry and to celebrate the killing of the Saddam family as “what guns are for”. These are not the sentiments of a military neutral.

On a point of nomenclature, I have said in my last article that Harris is a spiritualist and a paranormalist who believes in the truth claims of psychics, reincarnation, meditation and in the power of consciousness to arise without a physical brain which he says plays no part in causing human awareness. Since these ideas are derided by science as the high fooleries of the occult, some have come to wonder how a person antipathetic to monotheism can embrace such kookdom. It has been drawn to my attention that the answer lies in the little observed fact that Harris converted sometime ago to polytheistic eastern religions on his travels to the subcontinent saying that “I was a dogmatic Buddhist and a dogmatic Hindu“.

There is no vice in having once been religious, for we all of us inherit our mythologies from our parents, but Harris did not inherit his Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. He was bred in a secular home, granted a secular education and lived in a secular state. Instead he chose to abandon his secular upbringing and voluntarily convert to a foreign religious system.

He claims to have shed his former dogmatism, but telling by the loving chapter on mysticism in The End of Faith, it is clear that he sets much stock by some articles of those creeds. It also clarifies why he studiously will not say, as any materialist should have no problem affirming, that there is no afterlife. In numerous occasions when the subject has arisen either in his book or when he’s been asked if he believes that consciousness lives on beyond the death of the brain in interviews like this Salon appearance , he has chosen to either declare his belief in reincarnation or, if the audience is a sceptical lot, preferred the evasive formulation of “I just don’t know” because “If we were living in a universe where consciousness survived death, or transcended the brain so that single neurons were conscious – or subatomic particles had an interior (subjective) dimension –  we would not expect to see it by our present techniques of neuro-imaging or cellular neuroscience.” 

When he’s reminded by Salon that, in spite of his claim to be driven by data, that on the contrary “Most evolutionary biologists would say consciousness is rooted in the brain. It will not survive death.” He responds “I just don’t know”. 
There was a crystallising display of his Buddhist convictions some years ago at the Salk Institute. He was asked point blank by the physicist Lawrence Krauss if he thinks reincarnation is true and Harris shrugged “Who knows?” Alluding to the case studies of past-life regressions by Ian Stevenson cited in The End of Faith, he explained “There are these spooky stories.” When the assembled congregation of scientists erupted in astonished laughter at his religious credulity, he grew visibly nervous and, keen to skate past the embarrassing moment, shot back with “Okay, you are on firm ground being sceptical about reincarnation … I have published a few spooky things about telepathy and reincarnation which amount to not an endorsement of these beliefs, but just, you know, I hear there is all this data and someone like Dean Radin writes a book about it, and Brian Josephson, a Nobel Laureate in physics, blurbs it. I don’t have the time to do the meta-analyses and statistical expertise. So, I’m awaiting the evidence. Listen (with rising chagrin) I don’t want to talk about reincarnation. It may be.”
The takeaway from this seems to be that since these fringe ideas are embraced by a Nobel Laureate, namely Brian Josephson, that Harris is justified in believing them too. It would suffice to point out that Laureates are no strangers to deranged opinions such as from biochemist Kary Mullis who believes in astrology and climate change denial or virologist Luc Montagnier who champions homeopathy; and it would be enough to assert that Josephson’s colleagues at Oxford have denounced his promotion of ESP saying “It is utter rubbish. Telepathy simply does not exist”; but there is a far more salient point to be made here than simply demonstrating the fallacy of appealing to a single academic for ideas completely rejected by the scientific mainstream. Josephson is no ordinary scientist: He is a convinced proponent of Intelligent Design to the great joy of creationist websites.
Other pet theories of his include homoeopathy and the belief that water has memory. In other words, a lone eccentric who was courted by Dean Radin precisely because of his track record of toying with voodoo science.  

These are the fanciful authorities on which Harris draws for his mystical adventures, a mind reader and a champion of Intelligent Design.

It must be kept in mind that more than a memory lapse is at play when Harris says that his sympathy for Buddhism does not spring from any “dogmatic affinity” with it borne of religious partiality. He’s stated elsewhere, both in print and in speeches, that he was a “dogmatic Buddhist” in his past who by his own account “believed in all manner of nonsense”. He was not just another fashionable sampler of Oriental theologies on the hippie trail. He was a personal bodyguard to the Dalai Lama about whom he speaks in as reverential a tone as a Christian rejoicing over Mother Teresa despite his many authoritarian edicts and the peerless theocratic barbarism of his clerical antecedents in Tibet whose rule was marked by torture, amputations and serfdom. A stark contrast to the sanitised picture Harris conjures of the superior morality of Buddhist monks to Muslims and Christians, a view that can be maintained only by ignorance of the role monks have played in oiling the machinery of war against Tamil Hindus, their desecration of Christian churches, and their support for the state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing of Burma’s persecuted Muslim minority. 

This biographical reinvention on the part of Harris is a conscious effort to deceive about the roots of his sympathies for Eastern mysticism.

The neuroscientist Patricia Churchland has said that “I think Sam Harris is a child when it comes to addressing morality”. His politics and science are scarcely more grown up.

About Theodore Sayeed

Theodore Sayeed is a contributor to Mondoweiss. He may be reached at: [email protected]

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