THE WAY WE ARGUE: Kristof agrees with Harris and Maher!


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!”

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!”
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.

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.”

Here’s why:

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.

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.
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.

(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.

The persecution of Christians, Ahmadis, Yazidis, Bahai—and Shiites—is far too common in the Islamic world. We should speak up about it.
Can we talk? In that high-minded “point of nuance,” Kristof is explicitly stating the viewpoint of Harris and Maher.

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.


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.
Kristof praises Muslim reformers. But so did Harris and Maher!

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.


  1. It's not 90% even in Egypt.

    "Taking the life of those who abandon Islam is most widely supported in Egypt (86%) and Jordan (82%). Roughly two-thirds who want sharia to be the law of the land also back this penalty in the Palestinian territories (66%). In the other countries surveyed in the Middle East-North Africa region, fewer than half take this view."

    "Among Muslims who support making sharia the law of the land, most do not believe that it should be applied to non-Muslims. Only in five of 21 countries where this follow-up question was asked do at least half say all citizens should be subject to Islamic law"

    Maher probably heard what seemed like a statistic that augered his pov and didn't bother to dig beyond his predeection.

    1. Do you see a big difference between 86% and 90%?

    2. Yeah. He 'rounded' it off. His assertion that it is widespread is wrong, donchathink?

    3. Bob would have taken it to two decimal points.

    4. Bob doesn't know or care what percentager it is. What is important is how liberals argue.

    5. "Among Muslims who support making sharia the law of the land, most do not believe that it should be applied to non-Muslims. Only in five of 21 countries where this follow-up question was asked do at least half say all citizens should be subject to Islamic law"

      This is scary. In 5 countries, people who are non-Muslim would be expected to follow Sharia law with penalties of death for breaking certain laws.

      I do not understand why others are minimizing this -- why it is OK for these 5 countries to do this as long as the majority of Muslim countries are more tolerant. This only makes sense if you are still stuck in the argument about whether extreme beliefs characterize all of the Muslim world. They do not. Nevertheless, those extreme beliefs are bad and should be criticized, no matter what percentage adhere to them. They constitute civil rights and human rights problems for the world.

    6. "I do not understand why others are minimizing this"

      Yes it is terrible that there are religious fanatics who kill others quickly, as opposed to our own Teahadists who prefer a slow, anguished death by proxy. Let's all condemn the entire US population for their excesses.

    7. Who cares what the numbers from Egypt are??? Maher and Harris are arguing against Islam itself. The Muslim faith is the problem. Where is their proof that the Islamic faith is the problem. Muslims didn't erect concentration camps across Europe to exterminate the Jews. I think that was another faith, if I recall correctly.

    8. Do you imagine we are not being condemned by the rest of the world? That is part of the justification for the terrorism against us -- not due to the Teahadists but because of the movie industry, music, fashion, other forms of cultural imperialism, and of course the military actions.

      When Americans travel, no one holds the actions of our country against us as individuals, but we tend to respond the same way to our Muslim minorities. Only a few behave badly and most Americans do not hold individual Muslims in our country responsible for the terrorist acts or the repressive acts toward women and gays in Muslim countries.

    9. Haha, "Teahadists" like "jihadists." Interesting that your fastidiousness about negative generalities regarding the head-choppers doesn't extend to folks who want to balance the budget.

    10. " ... balancing the budget." Where were tools like you when W's administration was spending money like drunken sailors?

    11. Why are sailors always held out to ridicule. What about airmen? And why drunk ones? The whiff of fundamentalism is strong in that phrase.

  2. Several commenters have suggested that Affleck and Kristof were not arguing against what Maher and Harris said, but against positions they are known to hold and have espoused elsewhere. It seems to me it has been decided that they are Islamophobes in their essence and thus it doesn't matter what they actually say.

    1. Which commenters suggested that?

    2. In the comments of the previous days posts. They suggested that Affleck was already familiar with Harris's position and was arguing against that instead of what Harris actually said. They suggested that was why Affleck got so angry so quickly.

    3. Thanks for trying to clarify. There were two comments suggesting Affleck was edgy and eager to get back at Maher for prvious insensitivity about Muslims and Gaza. It seems to me you have decided something or other based on pretty slim pickings from what was probably the repetitious view of one person.

    4. Maher has been on an anti-religion campaign for years. He even produced a documentary on the subject. He has been making anti-Islamic comments for several weeks now that have caused a lot of push back.

    5. I was just pointing out that if you decide someone is a racist, then you don't need to listen to or refute any specific thing they might say. I think that is how Affleck can agree with Maher and Harris while still being opposed to them.

  3. "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."

    That said, Bob, bombs were dropped. Or so you said in all four posts you have devoted to this cable comedy show.

    1. Yes, he is acknowledging that this was a metaphorical war, just as the R-bombs are metaphorical bombs. You are agreeing with Somerby. This does need to be pointed out for the excessively literal. If you "get it" then good for you but others are perhaps not as clever.

    2. What is the "R" a metaphor of?

    3. This new form of trolling is just as annoying as the old ones.

    4. What did you do during the War Against Gore? We know Bob served in the blogger battalion.

    5. I disliked Gore for disassociating himself from Clinton and for letting Tipper attack Rock 'n' Roll. I didn't understand the importance of climate change. I thought Bush might not be as bad as the typical Republican (buying into the new kind of Republican meme) so I was apathetic and didn't participate in the election much, although I did vote for Gore as the lesser of evils. I have never liked Nader much. I think I am an example of the damage done by the media and how people are affected by misinformation. Maybe I am here because I feel bad about being a dupe earlier in my life.

    6. You, sir or madam, should be applauded for revealing yourself to be the "average people" Jay Leno and other truly worthy heroes talk to.

    7. Anonymous October 16, 2014 at 1:46 PM:

      Same old tedious whining about it, though.

  4. I liked Kristof's invocation of Malala. She has become a useful literary crutch in the Way We Argue. Ditto for his use of Martin Luther King and Gandhi. I wonder who could have inspired that?

    1. It is part of shared liberal culture. These are our icons. I doubt Kristof read Somerby and decided to use his references because of what he read here.

    2. Our icons? Speak for yourself. My icons are Geroge Washington, who couldn;t tell a lie, Bill clinton, who couldn't tell the truth, and Al Gore, who couldn't tell the difference.

    3. Someone beat you to this joke yesterday.

    4. I forgot. Bob frowns upon repetition. So does Leno.
      That is why Leno, in the article Bob linked, in thinking about replacing his Larry Criag jokes. Always talking to the average guy, that Leno. Bob too.

  5. Yep, we've been bombing the hell out of various Muslim countries for twenty or more years. On the other hand, Muslims tend to pretty poorly on some of the polls we take, so I guess things are even.
    Well, things would be even except some us liberals are not critical enough about . . .the answers in those polls.
    Nothing racist in that viewpoint.
    Bob Gardner
    Randolph, MA

    1. Nobody has said any of that except you.

    2. I for one am sick that more people aren't speaking out against trolls. Damned liberals.

  6. Conservatives tend to believe that western culture is superior to most others. Many liberals believe that no culture is better than any other. Some believe that western culture is worse. These people look for reasons to blame western culture, especially the US. E.g., Anon1:31 PM above.

    The behavior of militant Muslims puts these liberals in a bind. For them, it's axiomatic that Muslims are the 'good guys' and Westerners are the 'bad guys'. Yet, the facts show that Islamic culture is inferior to western culture, based on the very criteria that are so central to liberals, such as free speech, non-discrimination, and human rights in general..

    An extreme example is Queers for Palestine -- a small group of homosexuals who have decided to support "Palestine" despite the latter’s appalling human rights record and systematic persecution of homosexuals and despite Israel's tolerance.

    1. DinC thanks so much for that excellent link to the very fine work done by Milo Yiannopoulis, a stalwart of Breitbart/London. The small group of homsexuals you mention is, best I can tell from Milo's post, just the one guy in the photo. There seems to be just as minoimal documentation of the similar lesbian group he cites, which gives him free reign to pen this wonerful line: "have these angry, spiky-haired four-foot Caledonian lesbians railing against Israel actually considered what their lives would be like if they’d been born in an Islamic country?" He didn't have a photo of them to post so we cannot, like you did in parroting his description of "Queers for Palestine", state the sixe of the group, their height, not the spikyness with which they are coifed.

    2. Here's an article from NPR that also addresses gay support for the Palestinians:

      Other critics accuse the government of what they call "pinkwashing."

      Gay groups that support the Palestinian bid for an independent state use the phrase to describe Israel's public relations strategy. They charge that the Israeli government is highlighting the rights enjoyed by the gay community in Israel to obscure the occupation of the Palestinians.

      "Israel is a wonderful country in many ways. The sea is beautiful, it's a wonderful country for high-tech, and they've made a lot of progress in terms of gay rights," says Sari Bashi, who is with the Israeli human rights group Gisha, which advocates on behalf of the Palestinians. "It doesn't change the fact that what is going on in the occupied territories is a severe violation of human rights that needs to be stopped."

      Also see: Anti-Israel Group To March in Toronto Gay Pride Parade

    3. Hey stupid, you understand that the residents of Occupied Territories are not all Muslims, don't you? And not all Muslims are opposed to gay rights? And that in Canada, there is no prohibition for gays to protest Israeli policies toward the Occupied Territories?

      Go back to your pointless personal anecdotes about those times you actually talked to a liberal or a Negro. Or better yet, go march in Toronto in favor of Israeli policies and don't come back.

    4. Hey, AnonymousOctober 16, 2014 at 6:57 PM -- According to wiki, Muslims comprise 75% of the population of the West Bank and 99% of the population of the Gaza Strip. I'm not sure I understand your point. Do you contend that their hateful policies toward gays are caused, not by the Muslims, but by the small Christian minority?

    5. David in Cal. Your NPR friends are no better than your Breitbart boy. They reference "gay groups that support the Palestenian state" without naming one.

    6. Anon 9:51 AM -- Slate magazine also notes (and disapproves of) gay opposition to Israel. Here's an excerpt:

      Pinkwashing advocates are trapped in their own gender studies/international relations fantasyland. Legitimately concerned with human rights abuses in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, they have created an entire academic language in order to hype up a concept that draws an unrealistic correlation between their cause and the gay rights movement. Because of this, any LGBTQ person traveling to take part in a gay rights demonstration is a homonationalist, unwittingly part of the pinkwashing agenda. It’s no longer appropriate to label any city as “gay-friendly” or “homophobic,” because, according to pinkwashing activists, pro-gay legislation and LGBTQ visibility aren’t the appropriate barometers with which to measure social change.

    7. Dinky thinks Slate is a liberal publication.

      Keep digging, ConTroll.

  7. OMB (Not listening with the OTB)

    "when you want to talk about the treatment of women and homosexuals and free thinkers and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us" Sam Harris

    "The persecution of religious minorities is far too common in the Islamic world? We should speak up about it?" Thus BOB characterizes the point on which Maher, Harris and Kristof agree.

    "Maher said that ninety percent of Egyptians favor death for apostasy.....

    Do most Muslims disagree with that view? We’re not sure (and we don’t really care)....

    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."

    BOB expresses his own plural view.

    BOB, like most liberals, is more concerned about TV infortainers not covering the triumphant progress of black kids on NAEP, or how an actor or columnist argue.

    Nobody better proves the point Harris and Maher were making about liberals not speaking out about Muslim excess than BOB. He "really doesn't care."

    1. You don't care about any of this either -- you only care about attacking Somerby.

      "BOB, like most liberals, is more concerned about TV infortainers not covering the triumphant progress of black kids on NAEP, or how an actor or columnist argue."

      I think this part of your comment is true, except for the "like most liberals" since I don't believe you know what most liberals are concerned about and shouldn't assume they are all Somerbys. Given that this is Somerby's blog and he can write about whatever he wants to, you can either read it or not, but complaining that he doesn't write about what you think he should is ridiculous.

      Get your own blog or don't but either way, stop trolling this blog.

    2. Not listening but instead dropping the old "T" bomb?

      Agreeing with us, then saying we complain about what he doesn't write about? That sounds like Hollywood liberal hero behavior on your part.

      That said, we offered no complaints. We merely suggested the argument made by Harris, that liberals were more concerned about things other than denouncing Muslims, could be applied to BOB.

      BOB did us the favor of saying that, so we quoted him.

      Keep the cards and comments coming. As they are fond of saying in BOBville, "We, The People, are dumb."

    3. 243: Get your own combox or don't but either way, stop whining on this blog.

    4. I think I'll just send another donation to Somerby instead. It is a shame he has to receive this kind of commentary every day.

    5. Yes, Bob Somerby, a former stand-up comedian, needs someone like 6:40 to protect him.

    6. I prefer to think of it as encouragement.

  8. Yet another Breitbart link from Dinky the ConTroll.

    1. Anon 2:26 -- Thanks for reminding people that one shouldn't ignore conservative news organs, because liberal news organs sometimes choose not to report certain things. (And, vice versa. Someone who got all his news from Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity would miss stories that conservatives choose not to report.)

    2. Do you really not understand what the word troll means?

    3. I think my comment was on topic. Bob's post was about Affleck and Kristof basically agreeing with various criticisms of Muslims, yet calling the people who make those criticisms "racists". My comment sought to explain this cognitive dissonance.

    4. You would think your comment was on topic if you wrote about sea sprites and unicorns.

    5. Save time. Don't read David in Cal. Don't read ZKoD.

    6. And you would reject his comment no matter what he said, without actually considering it.

    7. Why waste time?

    8. Dinky invites rejection. It would be impolite not to accept, Mr. 8:15 PM.

    9. Mr. 8:15 wastes no time with substantive writing either.