Sam Harris and the Propaganda of Face-Value Transmission

It’s amazing that people think that certain figures, like Sam Harris, are “brave” for challenging religious dogma in the mainstream.  It’s apparently brave to go on shows and merely repeat the same tired cliches about religiously motivated terrorism over and over — there’s no fear for a loss of words.  What are these cliches? Harris believes you can take people at face value when it comes to questions of intent.  The “Islamic State” is motivated by mere religious piety — look, it’s in the name. People that are actually in the possession of facts realize that terrorism is merely coated in the language of religion, but actually traces itself back to oppressive condition, hyper-masculinity, and disenfranchisement — and possibly fueled by Harris’ insistence that the conflicts in the Middle East are, in fact, “religious.”  Noam Chomsky, famous intellectual of historic proportions, is clear about his diagnosis: “If you want to stop terrorism, then stop participating in it.” Harris’ method is a bit like believing that rich people are free market fundamentalists because of what they say — some self-stated principles; it has nothing to do with their vested self-interest.

Suicide-Terrorist-Campaigns

Terrorism comes hand-and-hand with empire and oppression. (source: thinkbynumbers.org)


This idea of face-value transmission is exemplified in his analysis of the barbarous slaughter of Palestinians last summer.  Harris essentially repeats Netanyahu talking points:  It’s a “war” according to Harris; in wars ethics degrade on all sides.  War crimes are simply non-existent to Harris — anything goes.  Neglected is who — or what (institutional arrangements) — pressured for this war.  Israel embarked on an elaborate falsification campaign in order to provoke a reaction from Hamas.  This was after the signing of a unity agreement by Hamas in April that clearly upset Natanyahu.  But Harris asks us to simply consider the “intent” of Israeli state actors (though he himself is probably referring to the Israeli population at whole, which is certainly irrelevant.)  Does Harris expect Israel to admit to wrongdoing like a Disney villain?  Would he expect anyone to? It is, after all, the knowledge of this and more that led to the shockingly one-sided vote in the U.N. Human Rights Council to review the human rights violations of both Hamas and Israel; this is not a controversial issue.

Luckily, there’s a long tradition in Anglo-American law to consider the predictable outcomes of one’s actions as a substitute for intent.  We’ve seen “Operation Protective Edge” (the name given to the recent Israeli “incursion” into Gaza) before.  Cast Lead and Pillar of “Defense” had similar results: massive civilian — Palestinian — casualties, devastated infrastructure, and untold hardships for the Palestinian people.  Norman Finkelstein comments on how much of a “war”, where civilian casualties stack up in spite of the “best of intent” due to the “fog of war”, that these previous excursions really were.

In summary, Harris thrusts himself into a situation where years of his work, on a topic that’s only marginally related, tells him which side to “trust”.  Certainly central fallacies that he brings to varying discussions are related. When Sam Harris says that “certain issues are simply radioactive”, perhaps he should realize that Israel is literally lying to the face of millions of its victims on a daily basis — blaming the victim for their own murder; what could be more egregious?

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