As anyone who has been reading me for a while knows, I like Sam Harris and Bill Maher. But they both drive me crazy quite often. I’ve written about this recent brouhaha, Atheism Needs to Police its Extremists. But it does show the difference between a genius and a subgenius.
In this case, I’m talking about depth of thought. Clearly, Maher is a comic genius. I find him extremely funny even when I totally disagree with what he’s talking about. But when it comes to being able to think careful about a subject, Maher is not a genius. This isn’t to say that he isn’t smart. The term “subgenius” is a compliment of sorts. But it implies something that isn’t implied by simply “smart”; it implies that the person isn’t aware of their intellectual limitations.
Harris is a genius. And as a result, he can be extremely frustrating. Listen to him when he is making controversial comments: they are carefully stated with critical caveats. So after the dust-up on Real Time, Harris went on The Young Turks and spent three hours. It is an exercise in hair-splitting. To be honest, I think it is bunk. The truth is that Sam Harris makes an incredibly blunt anti-Muslim argument that could come out of the mouth of any neoconservative. And then he uses his remarkable mind to finesse it after the fact.
To hear Harris tell it, he is always and forever being misinterpreted. But these kinds of discussions are always about what one focuses on. To me, living in the United States, I see the greatest problem being Christian fundamentalism. It has poisoned our political process and is responsible for untold pain, suffering, and death in the form of poverty and limited access to healthcare. I know that Sam Harris agrees with me on this. Just the same, it is Islam outside of our country that he focuses on. And what is the policy prescription for this? From a practical standpoint, it is more American imperialism.
Defining Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas” puts it on par with communism during the Cold War. And the result of that was that the United States ran all over the world supporting any group that claimed to be against the communism. And this led to us supporting such charming people as Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam. Harris’ polemics will lead to exactly this, even though there are good and bad Islamic governments. And I simply do not think lowly enough of Harris to believe that he is not aware of the effect of his arguments — regardless of how he may finesse them later.
Bill Maher, on the other hand, is just an intellectual brute when it comes to this issue. This week on Real Time he brought up the incident and some controversy about him speaking at Berkeley. And he got into an argument with Rula Jebreal about it. I didn’t think she made a very good case against Maher, yet he still managed to lose the argument. He actually made the “some of my best friends” argument, referencing the fact that Reza Aslan likes him. He’s a Muslim, so Bill Maher can’t be a bigot!
It isn’t even clear what Maher’s argument is. It seems that he just has a hate-on for the religion. He repeats the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and the Koran instruction to kill people who leave the faith as though these represent special evils that don’t apply to other religions. And the only way you can think that is if you don’t know about other religions and their histories. I’m reminded of something that Hemant Mehta said. He suggested that atheists stop ragging on “spiritual” people as though it were the same thing as being a fundamentalist Christian. Similarly, painting Islam as a uniquely evil religion only helps to make its followers less reasonable.
All of this makes Sam Harris the more dangerous person. The more that Maher talks, the clearer it is that he’s just confused and ignorant. The more Harris talks, the more his arguments make sense. But it is Maher’s argument and Harris’ “elevator pitch” that are what push public opinion. We would all be a lot better off if both men would stick to things they know more about.
Update (3 November 2014 12:36 pm)
I finally got around to watching most of the Sam Harris interview above. He actually does a much worse job than I was expecting. I also thought it was funny that he simply discounted CJ Werleman, as though plagiarism discounts his arguments. The only substantial thing he said was that Werleman was wrong when he claimed Harris supported torture. Harris’ rebuttal: he only said that torture should be “considered.” But the further on in the interview he gets, the worse he does. I like Cenk Uygur, but I’ve never found him to be incredibly smart. But I thought he destroyed Harris. Of course it doesn’t help that Harris is constantly reduced to, “I didn’t say we should kill all Jews; I said I thought it might be a good idea if we killed all Jews.” It’s pathetic.