Sam Harris’ Limited Tribalism

Sam HarrisThis is it for my recent series of articles on Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up. I promise! And this one isn’t even about the book. It is just based upon a quote toward the end of the book, which shows one of Harris’ blind spots. He couldn’t end the book without taking a potshot at Islam. His reason is that he wants to make the point that ideas matter. It is curious that he should think that point was necessary to make in the last couple of pages of the book. I think anyone who had stuck with him for over 200 pages would yield the point.

But his example is strange and says rather more about him than anything else:

Twelve years have now passed since I first realized how high the stakes are in this war of ideas. I remember feeling the jolt of history when the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. For many of us, that was the moment we understood that things can go terribly wrong in our world — not because life is unfair or moral progress impossible but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions and animosities of our ignorant ancestors. The worst ideas continue to thrive — and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.

If I knew nothing about Harris, I would largely agree with the idea here. The problem is tribalism. Of course, even on this basis, it isn’t simply a matter that those people who attacked us on 9/11 did it because they were taught to dislike our tribe. This is a common mistake that people make: to assume that history starts wherever it is convenient for us. We are mad at al-Qaeda because they bombed us. But clearly, that was not the beginning of it for them. As much as I might think that Osama bin Laden was a spoiled rich kid who was mostly just living his fantasy of being a political radical[1], the group itself is based upon real and imagined grievances.

So where exactly is Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas”? Why would these Muslims attack America? Is there anything in the religion that makes us specifically the target of their wrath? I just don’t see it. I’m not sure that Harris sees it. Tribalism seems to be the problem. And the people in the United States who are most behind the “war on terror” do it for tribal — nationalistic — reasons. So it is hard to be in this discussion on the anti-Muslim side. That just leads to some of Harris’ worst arguments of the kind: our tribalism isn’t as bad as theirs, even if our tribalism has helped to fuel theirs against us.

But what bothers me even more about the Harris quote above is how he woke up to the power of bad ideas after the 9/11 attacks. The United States has been carpet bombing various locations throughout Sam Harris’ life. But those never caused him to think about the power of bad ideas. That’s strange. I remember the Persian Gulf War as an exercise during which roughly 30,000 Iraqi conscripts were killed while Saddam Hussein’s elite forces were not touched. That wasn’t a war; that was a PR campaign — a way for America to get over the Vietnam Syndrome and get on board for endless war. And if tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis had to die to do that, so be it.

That was a wake-up call for me. But it seems that Sam Harris is so lost in his own form of tribalism, that he can’t see it. Someone attacked us! It must be because they follow the mother lode of bad ideas. And we don’t. And no level of murder on our part will ever change that. Because history started on 9/11. And everything follows from there.


[1] Osama bin Laden always makes me think of “White Punks on Dope”:

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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