Part 4—And yet, the bombs still fall: In our view, Ben Affleck had a bad night on the October 3 Real Time with Bill Maher.
If true, it isn’t the end of the world. Affleck also said some things which made perfect sense. We’re sure he’ll have good nights in the future.
What was wrong with Affleck’s performance? Immediately, he started dropping his R-bombs around, included some which spread remarkably ugly tropes.
He seemed to have a very hard time hearing what the racists in question, Bill Maher and Sam Harris, were actually saying.
He seemed to have done no preparation for the evening’s discussion. (At the four-minute mark, he inquired about the source of Harris’ data.)
But so what? Despite his lack of preparation, he was willing to interrupt and name-call at the drop of a hat.
Affleck kept saying that he wanted to condemn “bad ideas.” But he kept exploding in anger when data about those “bad ideas” were presented.
In our view, Affleck had a very bad night. We also thought that Harris and Maher made some imperfect comments.
But as Affleck and his ally, Nicholas Kristof, dropped their various bombs this night, they provided a bit of a service. They helped us see some unfortunate trends in The Way We Argue.
Did Affleck and Kristof disagree with a single thing Harris and Maher actually said? Were there any actual disagreements about attitudes and beliefs in the far-flung Muslim world?
To some extent, it’s hard to answer that question, so disjointed was the discussion which Affleck kept interrupting with his attacks. But if you watch the ten-minute tape, you’ll see Affleck agreeing, again and again, with the statements of Harris and Maher.
Shortly after the two-minute mark, you’ll see him insisting that every liberal wants to criticize “bad ideas.”
When Harris describes certain beliefs which are held by people he describes as “conservative Muslims,” you’ll see Affleck say, “Those views are anathema to ours.”
At the eight-minute mark, you’ll see Affleck say he thinks it’s “a big deal” when people believe that apostasy should be punished by death. But wouldn’t you know it? This was the egregious way he framed that point of agreement:
AFFLECK (10/3/14): Your argument is like, “You know, black people! You know, they shoot each other. They’re blacks!”Affleck made no attempt to challenge Maher’s statistic about Egyptians. He even said that it’s “a big deal” when people around the world hold the view in question.
MAHER: No it’s not! No it’s not. It’s based on facts. I can show you a Pew poll of Egyptians—they are not outliers in the Muslim world—that say like 90 percent of them believe death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion. If 90 percent of Brazilians thought that death was the appropriate response to leaving Catholicism, you would think it was a bigger deal.
AFFLECK: I would think it’s a big deal no matter what.
MAHER: OK, but that’s the fact.
AFFLECK: What I wouldn’t do is say, “It’s all Brazilians.” Or I wouldn’t say, “Well, Ted Bundy did this. Goddamn these gays, they’re all trying to eat each other!”
Once again, Affleck seemed to be agreeing with Maher. But even as he did, he fell back on his basic framework, in which Maher and Harris were taking the actions and beliefs of some Muslims and attributing them to all Muslims, in the way bigots do.
In our view, Affleck advanced this notion in the ugliest possible way in that exchange. He got a startle-reaction laugh when he made his remark about gays.
That said, we’d say that such remarks represent the ugliest possible way to position oneself as a liberal hero. Homophobes are thrilled to the core when people shout out such remarks.
Back to the factual question:
Do ninety percent of Egyptians believe that death is the appropriate response to leaving Islam? We have no idea—and this was a statement about Egyptians, not about the full Muslim world.
But in the course of this ten-minute debacle, no one ever really challenged any of the statistical claims made by Harris and Maher. Instead, Affleck and Kristof attacked them for making these claims, even as they seemed to agree with the claims themselves.
Do Kristof and Affleck actually agree with Harris’ factual claims? It seems to us that they basically do! Consider Kristof’s subsequent column, which appeared in the New York Times on October 9.
We’d be inclined to drop an R-bomb on this particular column. We’d be inclined to grade it “reprehensible.”
Nicholas Kristof is highly refined, a point he quickly established in his lofty column. Hdere's the way he started a column we’d have to describe as slimy:
KRISTOF (10/9/14): A few days ago, I was on a panel on Bill Maher’s television show on HBO that became a religious war.To his vast credit, Kristof has seen real religious wars in various parts of the world. Surely he knows that wasn’t involved in any such “war” that night.
Whether or not Islam itself inspires conflict, debates about it certainly do. Our conversation degenerated into something close to a shouting match and went viral on the web. Maher and a guest, Sam Harris, argued that Islam is dangerous yet gets a pass from politically correct liberals, while the actor Ben Affleck denounced their comments as “gross” and “racist.” I sided with Affleck.
(Later in his column, he describes the show as a “TV brawl,” helping us see that he was caught in an unseemly event staged by his cultural lessers.)
As Kristof started his column, he cuffed Maher and Harris to the curb. He rolled his eyes at this“shouting match,” without noting that almost all the shouting had come from his putative ally.
He offered an absurdly limited account of what Maher and Harris had been arguing. (They “argued that Islam is dangerous?” Was that the best Kristof could do?)
By paragraph 2, he had dropped an R-bomb. In paragraph 3, he loftily said he was going to “offer three points of nuance.”
By normal intellectual standards, that’s a somewhat slimy performance. But it’s when Kristof offers his “points of nuance” that a remarkable fact emerges:
Kristof doesn’t seem to disagree with any of Harris’ factual claims! As Lawrence O’Donnell noted the night that this column appeared, you might have thought Kristof was supporting Harris, based on the information in his high-minded column.
This peculiar fact begins to emerge in Kristof’s second point of nuance. Here it is, in full:
KRISTOF: [T]oday the Islamic world includes a strain that truly is disproportionately intolerant and oppressive. Barbarians in the Islamic State cite their faith as the reason for their monstrous behavior—most recently beheading a British aid worker devoted to saving Muslim lives—and give all Islam a bad name. Moreover, of the 10 bottom-ranking countries in the World Economic Forum’s report on women’s rights, nine are majority Muslim. In Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt, more than three-quarters of Muslims favor the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith, according to a Pew survey.Can we talk? In that high-minded “point of nuance,” Kristof is explicitly stating the viewpoint of Harris and Maher.
The persecution of Christians, Ahmadis, Yazidis, Bahai—and Shiites—is far too common in the Islamic world. We should speak up about it.
The persecution of religious minorities is far too common in the Islamic world? We should speak up about it? That is precisely what Harris and Maher said during the TV brawl!
Kristof’s lips were moving here, but Harris’ voice was coming out! Meanwhile, consider his factual statements:
Nine of the ten worst countries for women’s rights are majority Muslim? That is precisely the kind of statement which Affleck kept denouncing during the TV brawl.
In Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt, more than three-quarters of Muslims favor the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith? When Maher made a similar statement about Egyptians, Affleck exploded for the third time.
Lawrence O’Donnell was certainly right about this peculiar column! As Kristof typed his third point of nuance, he kept echoing Harris:
KRISTOF: Third, the Islamic world contains multitudes: It is vast and varied. Yes, almost four out of five Afghans favor the death penalty for apostasy, but most Muslims say that that is nuts. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, only 16 percent of Muslims favor such a penalty. In Albania, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, only 2 percent or fewer Muslims favor it, according to the Pew survey.Maher said that ninety percent of Egyptians favor death for apostasy. Kristof counters by saying that eighty percent of Afghans hold the same view.
Loftily, though, he adds a point. According to Kristof, “most Muslims say that that is nuts.”
In fact, people weren’t asked, in the surveys in question, if they think that view is “nuts.” In that formulation, Kristof was simply putting his thumb on the rhetorical scale.
Do most Muslims disagree with that view? We’re not sure (and we don’t really care); the surveys in question don’t seem to settle that question. But in that statement, Kristof leaves open the possibility that a large minority of Muslims worldwide may support death for apostates.
Based on what Kristof has written, the number of Muslims holding that view could be as high as 45-49 percent. In his most definitive statistical claim, Harris criticized twenty percent of Muslims.
This leads to a final observation. As a point of amelioration, Kristof cites Indonesia, noting that “only 16 percent of Muslims favor such a penalty” there.
Only sixteen percent? That’s very close to the twenty percent which got Harris burned at the stake.
We’ve seen others note the oddness of this presentation, in which Kristof boasts about finding a country where only sixteen percent favor death for this behavior.
For ourselves, we can’t say we hugely care what Indonesian Muslims think about such matters. We don’t think people should get worked up about such statistics. We think that serves no purpose.
Our point today is different. Here it is:
On a purely factual basis, it’s hard to find serious disagreement between Harris, the brawling TV racist, and Kristof, the elite columnist. On a purely factual basis, they seem to believe the same things.
Nicholas Kristof’s lips were moving, but Harris’ data kept coming out! Despite this peculiar state of affairs, our lofty journalist ended his column like this:
KRISTOF: The caricature of Islam as a violent and intolerant religion is horrendously incomplete. Remember that those standing up to Muslim fanatics are mostly Muslims. In Pakistan, a gang of Muslim men raped a young Muslim woman named Mukhtar Mai as punishment for a case involving her brother; after testifying against her attackers and winning in the courts, she selflessly used the compensation money she received from the government to start a school for girls in her village. The Taliban gunmen who shot Malala Yousafzai for advocating for education were Muslims; so was Malala.Kristof praises Muslim reformers. But so did Harris and Maher!
Sure, denounce the brutality, sexism and intolerance that animate the Islamic State and constitute a significant strain within Islam. But don’t confuse that with all Islam: Heroes like Mukhtar, Malala, Dadkhah and Rehman also represent an important element.
Let’s not feed Islamophobic bigotry by highlighting only the horrors while neglecting the diversity of a religion with 1.6 billion adherents—including many who are champions of tolerance, modernity and human rights. The great divide is not between faiths, but one between intolerant zealots of any tradition and the large numbers of decent, peaceful believers likewise found in each tradition.
Maybe that is too complicated to convey in a TV brawl. But it’s the reality.
He encourages us to “denounce the brutality, sexism and intolerance that...constitute a significant strain within Islam.” But when Harris did that on October 3, the delicate columnist, twitching his nose, said he could detect a “tinge” of racism in the air.
Indeed, Kristof returned to his bombs as he closed his column. He implied that Harris and Maher were creating a “caricature” of worldwide Muslims and had thereby been “feeding Islamophobic bigotry” in that TV brawl.
That said, it’s hard to separate Kristof's factual claims from the claims which were offered by Harris. Our question, therefore:
Why were ugly bombs dropped on the one while the other is granted this lofty pose? Why did Affleck and Kristof behave that way in the absence of clear disagreements?
Tomorrow: Frameworks and dogma
Kristof’s first point of nuance: Kristof’s first point of nuance concerned historical Islam. As far as we know, his presentation is true.
That said, Harris wasn’t discussing historical Islam. For whatever reason, he was discussing the beliefs of worldwide Muslims today.
For ourselves, we aren’t especially interested in that topic. We are interested in The Way We Argue—in Affleck and Kristof’s peculiar reactions to the dastardly things Harris said.