Part 3—Fundamentalists, here and abroad: The bombs were dropping, thick and fast, on the October 3 Real Time with Bill Maher.
For yesterday’s post, click here.
Maher and Sam Harris were trying to lodge some sort of complaint about liberals’ reaction, or lack of same, to “illiberal” behavior and belief in the Muslim world.
Before they’d spoken for two minutes, the bombs had started to fall.
In the course of a ten-minute segment, Maher and Harris were compared to white racists on two or three occasions. They were also compared to the ugliest kind of homophobes and to the grossest anti-Semites.
Ben Affleck did the bulk of the bombing this night. At one point, he was assisted by the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof.
Was the bombing of Maher and Harris justified? We’ll try to address that question below. For starters, let’s notice this:
Affleck made some perfectly sensible observations in the course of this failed discussion. At the 87-second mark, he broke in on Harris with a perfectly sensible question.
To watch the whole segment, click here:
HARRIS (10/3/14): Well, liberals have really failed on the topic of theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy. They’ll criticize Christians. They’ll still get agitated about the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984.Already, Affleck seemed angry. But he had asked a perfectly sensible question.
But 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. And the crucial point of confusion—
HARRIS: Yes. Thank you. The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people.
HARRIS: And that is intellectually ridiculous.
AFFLECK: So hold on! Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? You’re the interpreter of that, so you can say, “Well this is—”
Harris had suggested that there were problems with “the doctrine of Islam,” whatever that meant. In a somewhat hostile way, Affleck asked if Harris had the background to expound on that subject.
“I'm actually well-educated on this topic,” Harris humbly replied.
As the bombs began to fall, the disputants never really returned to the question of what Harris meant when he referred to “the doctrine of Islam.” Soon, Affleck was making the first of many statements which showed the difficulty he seemed to have in listening to, and actually hearing, what other people were saying.
Instead, he kept returning to a script—to a mandated bit of dogma. Increasingly, that is The Way We Argue, for better or for much worse.
Affleck seemed to have a great deal of trouble hearing Harris this day. Before two minutes had elapsed, he offered his first mistaken account of something Harris had said.
This was the fuller exchange from above, complete with mistranslation:
AFFLECK: So hold on! Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? You’re the interpreter of that, so you can say, “Well this is—”“You’re saying that Islamophobia is not a real thing,” Affleck said to Harris.
HARRIS: I'm actually well-educated on this topic.
AFFLECK: I’m asking you! So you’re saying, if I criticize— You’re saying that Islamophobia is not a real thing. That if you’re critical of something—
MAHER (ironically): Well, it`s not a real thing when we do it.
MAHER: It really isn’t.
HARRIS: I’m not denying that, that certain people are bigoted against Muslims as people. And that’s a problem.
AFFLECK (sarcastically): That’s big of you.
HARRIS: But the—
MAHER: But why are you so hostile about this concept?
AFFLECK: Because it’s gross, it’s racist.
MAHER: It’s not. It’s—but it’s so not.
AFFLECK: It’s so—it’s like saying, “You’re a shifty Jew.”
In all honesty, Harris hadn't actually said or implied that. For the first of many times, Affleck was misinterpreting what had been said. This led him to drop the first of his several bombs.
People! Harris hadn’t said or implied “that Islamophobia is not a real thing.” He had said something quite different—he had said that people are accused of Islamophobia every time they criticize the doctrine of Islam (whatever that is).
Harris hadn’t denied the existence of Islamophobia. Inevitably, though, here’s what happened next:
In response to Harris' statement, Affleck effectively accused him of Islamophobia! He accused him of behaving in a racist way, like the crudest anti-Semite.
For the first of many times, Affleck seemed to have a hard time hearing what Harris and Maher had said on a sensitive “racial”/religious/cultural topic. This led him to drop several bombs.
Increasingly, this is The Way We Argue, especially in our struggling liberal world.
In that first exchange, did Affleck misunderstand what Harris had said? For ourselves, we’d say he did. But then, he did so throughout the ten-minute segment, perhaps in ways which will be more obvious.
Throughout the segment, Affleck kept insisting that Harris and Maher were playing the classic role of the stereotyping bigot. As we noted yesterday, he made this claim for the second time around the three-minute mark:
AFFLECK (angrily, excitedly): How about more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punish women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day—We were now three minutes into the segment. By now, Harris had made a statement which, in our view, should have been left unsaid. (“Islam, at the moment, is the mother lode of bad ideas.”)
MAHER: Wait a second! Wait a second!
AFFLECK: —and don’t do any of the things you saying all Muslims do? It’s stereotyping!
HARRIS: I’m not saying all Muslims say that.
AFFLECK: Some of them do bad things and you’re painting the whole religion with that same brush.
In our view, such florid language is unhelpful when discussing such sensitive subjects. But in truth, Harris hadn’t said that “all Muslims” engage in the offensive behavior in question. He hadn’t “painted the whole religion with that same brush.”
“I’m not saying all Muslims say that,” Harris explicitly said to Affleck. In this way, Harris explicitly said that he wasn’t accusing all Muslims.
But alas! No matter how many times Harris stated this point, Affleck seemed unable to hear him. Throughout the ten minutes, he kept insisting that Harris was sliming all Muslims.
Consider what happened when Affleck calmed long down enough to let Harris lay out his views and his claims. Starting around the 4:15 mark, Harris explicitly stated his case—his view of the current state of affairs in the far-flung Muslim world.
In this passage, Harris started stating his case. Eventually, his statements seemed to occasion a lot of agreement from Affleck:
HARRIS: Just imagine some concentric circles here. You have, at the center, you have jihadists. These are people who wake up in the morning wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in paradise; they believe in martyrdom.At this point, Harris was explicitly talking about “twenty percent of the Muslim world.”
Outside of them, we have Islamists. These are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom and paradise and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but they want to work within the system. They're not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments. They want to use democracy against itself.
That, those two circles, arguably, are twenty percent of the Muslim world, OK? This is not the fringe of the fringe.
AFFLECK: What are you basing that research on?
HARRIS: A bunch of poll results that we can talk about. To give you one point of contact: Seventy-eight percent of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonist should have been prosecuted—78 percent. So I’m being conservative when I roll it back to twenty percent.
Can we talk? Twenty percent is not the whole Muslim world! Whatever you think of Harris’ analysis, he manifestly wasn’t accusing “all Muslims” of belonging to the groups he had described.
As he continued, Harris added a third concentric circle. Manifestly, though, he still wasn’t talking about all Muslims.
As he spoke, he identified Muslim victims of the behavior in question. He explicitly praised those Muslims who are seeking reform:
HARRIS (continuing directly): But outside of that circle you have conservative Muslims, who can honestly look at ISIS and say, "That does not represent us. We’re horrified by that." But they hold views about human rights, and about women, about homosexuals that are deeply troubling. These are not Islamists, they’re not jihadists—Might we make a simple point? If so, here it is:
AFFLECK: Those views are anathema to ours.
HARRIS: But they also keep women and homosexuals immiserated in these cultures and we have to empower the true reformers in the Muslim world to change it. And lying about the [unintelligible] doctrine and behavior is not going to do it.
You may think that Harris’ analysis is all wet. You may think he’s overstating the number of people who qualify for inclusion in the three groups he identified—jihadists, Islamists and conservative Muslims.
You may have some other objection to the portrait he has drawn. But manifestly, he isn’t criticizing all Muslims. He isn’t seeing “some [Muslims] do bad things,” then “painting the whole religion [or population] with that same brush.”
By now, it should have been plain. Harris had explicitly said, several times, that he wasn’t criticizing all Muslims. He had commiserated with Muslim victims of the conduct in question. He had praised those Muslims he described as the true reformers.
He had used terms like twenty percent. And twenty percent isn’t “all!”
How many times must a person say it? If Affleck’s around, many times! Around the eight-minute mark, the aggrieved star exploded again.
Once again, Affleck dropped several bombs and repeated his scripted assessment. By now, it was abundantly clear—there was only one song he could hear:
MAHER: We’re not convincing anybody—Nothing could stop this Hollywood liberal from shouting the one thing he was hearing inside his single-track head.
AFFLECK: It’s not that. I’m simply telling you that I disagree with what you think, Bill.
MAHER: I know. I know. And—and we’re obviously not convincing anybody up here.
AFFLECK: I don’t understand it. Yes.
HARRIS: You don’t understand my argument?
AFFLECK: 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: But 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!”
HARRIS: OK, let me just give you what you want. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up and let them reform their—
AFFLECK: ISIS couldn’t fill a Double-A ball park in Charleston, West Virginia, and you’re making a career out of “ISIS, ISIS, ISIS.”
MAHER: No, no, no—we’re not!...I think that’s the opposite of what we’re doing.
AFFLECK: There is those things. There’s ISIS, there’s global jihadists. The question is the degree to which you're willing to say, “Because I've witnessed this behavior, which we all object to, on the part of these people, I'm willing to flatly condemn those of you I don't know and have never met.”
No matter how many times he was told that Harris wasn’t condemning all Muslims, Affleck kept returning to that claim and suggestion. He kept returning to ugly pictures in which all members of a group are condemned for the actions of some.
Affleck broadcast ugly images involving blacks and gays. As he did, he evoked behavior in which all blacks and gays are crazily attacked for the misdeeds of some.
He imagined all Brazilians being attacked for the misdeeds of some. Even after Harris “gave him what he wanted”—explicitly cited the “hundreds of millions of Muslims” who are “horrified by ISIS”—Affleck kept suggesting that Harris and Maher were “willing to flatly condemn” all Muslims.
Affleck was hearing a voice in his head. No matter what he was told by the people around him, he kept repeating what the voice said all through a ten-minute discussion.
Affleck was able to hear his truth. He seemed able to hear nothing else. There’s a word for people like that.
They’re known as “fundamentalists.” Increasingly, this is The Way We Argue. Can a floundering modern nation really function this way?
Tomorrow: Nicholas Kristof’s column