I am currently researching a pair of epic posts on Sam Harris’ debate on morality against William Lane Craig at The University of Notre Dame in April 2011, together with the latter’s misrepresentation of former’s written work. This has lead me to re-read all of Harris’ books and re-watch many of his lectures and debates.
Harris encountered American journalist Chris Hedges, author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning and American Fascists: The Christian Right And The War On America at a debate hosted by Truthdig that was held at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) on 22 May 2007. The debate was moderated by veteran (i.e. old as Methuselah!) journalist Robert Scheer, who swiftly became a de facto second opponent for Harris.
Since the debate was held, Truthdig have released edited video footage; the above video is the most complete version of the debate I have yet found. However, I would strongly recommend you to download the MP3 audio and listen to the full debate.
As I previously posted, I believe that Harris let off Reza Aslan rather lightly in their debate on the same topic a few months earlier. However, I well and truly hand the Hedges (and Scheer!) debate to Harris. He has never been one to tear his opponents verbally in half (Hedges was to suffer that fate at the hands of Christopher Hitchens two days later at Berkeley), but he skilfully refutes all his opponents’ charges with his cool, methodically delivery and satirical wit.
The deciding moments come towards the end of the debate around the 87 minute on the tape after Hedges has gone on a diatribe about his personal experiences in the Arab World in the aftermath of 9/11 when he pleads with Harris that the majority of Muslims are not jihad-sympathisers and honour killings “really aren’t all that common”. Harris’ riposte is unplayable:
Happily, we do not assess public opinion by having New York Times journalists go out and live in the Muslim World, and make friends and get a vibe.
A single well-run opinion poll would be worth a thousand years of you wandering around the Middle East…
Scheer immediately interrupts Harris in disbelief preventing him from questioning Hedges further saying, “Wrong, wrong, wrong! You can’t possibly think that way about polls… The man’s lived there for 15 years fergodsake!” An audience member quite rightly shouts out to Scheer, “You’re supposed to be the moderator!”
Harris finally asks Hedges how many people he asked whether they supported suicide bombing while he was living in the Middle East. He then cites the 2002 Pew polls he examines in The End of Faith that asked 38,000 people in nine Muslim countries whether they supported suicide bombing [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006, pp. 124 – 126]. Hedges does not reply.
Scheer then misrepresents the question that Pew asked by stating that it was conditional on there being a foreign army in occupation that was causing harm to the country with no other weapons available, is suicide bombing a legitimate means of waging war. Harris immediately corrects him: the question was explicitly religious in its formulation and was “Do you think that suicide bombing of civilian non-combatants in defence of Islam is justified?”
Scheer does not reply further but then tries to change the subject and engages in the kind of moral equivalence for which Harris lambasts leftist commentators such as Noam Chomsky in The End of Faith by asking whether there is a “fundamental moral difference” between 9/11 and the Vietnam War, the area bombing of Germany and the dropping of the A-Bombs on Japan by the Allies in World War II.
Harris replies by stating that he will not speak for a moment in defence of Vietnam or even the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “which could be given a plausible rationale for self-preservation”, that it is unlikely we could fight war like we did in World War II since we have learned from its horrors and this has prevented us from going casually onto the battlefield.
But yes, suicide bombing is morally worse as it should be impossible as it is the least rational thing and is made all the more appalling by the celebration of it by the family and neighbours of the perpetrators. Furthermore, it occurs in conflicts that have nothing to do with America: in the Iran-Iraq War children were goaded out by their mothers to clear minefields.
You can tell a great deal about someone’s position by asking what would change their mind. I wonder what would convince Hedges and Scheer that terrorists were motivated by their religion since they both bend over backwards to blame anything but religion. As Harris pointed out earlier in the debate, he is simply taking these people at their word and they are telling us why they are carrying out these acts ad nauseum. Suicide bombing is no more a secular activity than prayer or taking communion.
Since his encounter with Harris and destruction at the hands of Hitchens, Hedges went on a mission to discredit the New Atheists with his 2008 “flea” tract, I Don’t Believe In Atheists. Following Hedges’ opening speech, Harris states that Hedges has misrepresented his views on torture, consciousness and spirituality. After the debate, Hedges seems to have “made a career” out of misrepresenting Harris’ written work.
Hedges has accused Harris of supporting the torture of terrorist suspects and advocating a nuclear first strike against the Muslim World. The most recent attack that Hedges made on Harris came in the form of an essay for Truthdig in 2011 where he accuses “secular fundamentalists” like Harris and Hitchens for the then-recent atrocities carried out in Norway by the deranged psychopath, Anders Brevik.
Harris responded with an essay tellingly entitled “Dear Angry Lunatic: A Response to Chris Hedges”, which linked to an updated version of a section on his website called “Response To Controversy” where he addresses the major criticisms of his work, including his true stance on the ethics of torture and “collateral damage” and his discussion (as opposed to outright promotion) of a nuclear first strike against the Muslim World.
I have discovered all too often in my discussions with the faithful over the years that they clearly do not read their atheist opponents properly or at all, but simply skim their work and take random passages from their true context to support their preconceived notions. While perhaps they are not guilty of outright lying, their opinions are certainly disingenuous. As Harris states during the Q&A during in this lecture on free will, one of the reasons why he publishes short books is because many criticisms result from people not reading past the first 100 pages of his longer books and therefore not reading his opinions on the topics for which they criticise him!
I submit that Hedges’ behaviour after his debates with Harris and Hitchens bear all the hallmarks of a dog who knows he has been whipped and he is man who is unworthy of further refutation.
Tags: 9/11, Al Qaeda, American Fascists, Chris Hedges, christianity, christopher hitchens, debate, god, I Don’t Believe In Atheists, islam, israel, judaism, letter to a christian nation, Middle East Conflict, Osama bin Laden, palestine, Religion, Religion and Politics The End of the World, Robert Scheer, sam harris, The Christian Right and the War on America, the end of faith, Truthdig, UCLA, University of California Los Angeles, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning