SAM HARRIS ASKS: “CAN WE PULL BACK FROM THE BRINK?” — WHITE PRIVILEGE STANDS BETWEEN HIM AND AN ANSWER
The murder of black Minnesotan George Floyd has been the catalyst for coast to coast protests across America. History casts the murder in a racist light — whether or not the Minneapolis cops were themselves racist. #blacklivesmatter and #defundthepolice have gripped the public imagination, passions for and against exploding onto the streets. Americans of all races have become mobilized by decades of unchanging injustice, refusing to obey arbitrarily imposed curfews. Violence escalated and police responded to protests about police brutality with more police brutality.
There was looting. There were more deaths by cop. Was it an extremist insurgency? Trump fanned the flames anyway. Legislatures, paralyzed by party division, did nothing. Protests shifted tenure, pulling down monuments to historical racism. Where will it end? Civil strife no longer looks as implausible as it should do, in saner, milder times. Are there forces at work willing to risk driving America into a race war?
Can we restore order? Can we return America to normality, despite all the desperate protests being misdirected by polarizing mainstream media messaging? Or will the unstoppable pressure from extremists of the culture war push America beyond a point of no return?
In other words, as Sam Harris asks in episode 207 of the Making Sense podcast: “Can we pull back from the brink?”
The United States has been deeply affected by the release of pent-up human emotion brought to the surface by recent police brutality in Minnesota. Anti-racism campaigns across the world responded to unrest in America with protests of their own. #BLM (Black Lives Matter) has emerged from the margins to lead an international call for an end to racial injustice.
In episode 207 of the Making Sense podcast, Sam Harris records a monologue to address his thoughts on the civil unrest convulsing the country. He explains it has taken a week to formulate an adequate response to the George Floyd protests, police brutality, and the larger question of race in America. Like many academics, Harris voices concern about the future of the American republic. He says civil society may be at risk of disintegration. He may be correct, but what a shame the opportunity to do good became, unexpectedly, a disappointing indulgence of white privilege.
Sam decided to focus his immensely popular podcast on debunking the messaging about racism propagated by the mainstream media. Specifically, police brutality as a feature of racist police departments. Legacy media and politicized new media are certainly guilty of twisting facts to suit their agenda, an egregious misuse of information. Moreover, there’s a good argument that some of the thought-leaders behind #defundthepolice are misguided; perhaps worse than that.
But Sam directs his rhetorical firepower exclusively on pushing back on the bad messaging about police brutality, perceiving it as part of an intersectional identity politics dividing the American Left and dragging its policy-making away from reasonable, moderate voices. His focus is not on defending the specific instance of police brutality on the George Floyd video, but on a defence of policing in the broadest sense, as custodians of the common good.
To that end, Sam devotes an hour to data demonstrating police brutality isn’t exclusively targeting against black and brown Americans. The problem with Sam’s monologue isn’t his fixation with attacking the bogus public narrative. Much of the media and the protestors have become lost in identity-politicized racism. It is good to push back against dangerous populism, whatever its political color. What’s problematic is the way Sam frames the debunking: as if it’s a step in the right direction, as if by diffusing hotheads and correcting mistaken conclusions it’ll shift the needle back towards normality; which, Sam presumes, is where we surely want America to be.
Now, it’s fine to course correct misdirected public energy, if done as a course correction to then address the real enemy. It’s not fine to peddle “normality” as if the very notion isn’t a white privilege paradigm. Why’s it white privilege? Because if you were to perceive the “normality” as experienced by individual Americans, only white Americans have a better than 50% chance their “normal” life is good.
The proportion of Americans for whom “normality” is an objectively desirable life is decreasing. It has been decreasing fast since the financial crisis of 2008 but its roots stretch back decades. Sam failed to address the corrupted American power dynamics — a few passing sentences scarsely counts — and the omission is a serious one. It is the well-spring of the protests, the racism and the ticking time bomb of civil unrest; regardless of race or ethnicity. It’s a degradation of “normality” that’s slowly reaching its tendrils into the quality of life of the American heartland; white working class included.
“Democracy evolved as a counterbalance to the inevitable forces of power and capital converging on authoritarian government. Atomization is entrenched corporate capital’s strategy response to universal suffrage. It’s been the dominant strategy since the Clinton presidency in the 1990s. Its aim is simple: to turn those who, by rights, should be united by common interest against one another. Its standard model is to encourage a phony struggle of demographics over the spoils of an artificial scarcity. Race is America’s primary demographic profiler. Moral hazard is its main driver of accepting life as fait accompli struggle over finite resources. Competition is its word-delivery mechanism.”
Lee Ho Xinjiang (Capitalism or Commune?)
Sam’s choice of where to spend time in his podcast was important. Most of the monologue was an exploration of data but to do this exclusively is to downplay the black experience at the heart of the protests — which itself is a critical symptom of the bigger problem — and, by absolving and not exposing the cause of racist police brutality, Sam encourages those who think the current gene pool of American “normal” is a good or ultimately safe place to be. It’s not good for many, and it’s not going to be safe for any of us.
Let’s assume all the data Sam cites is accurate. The entire thrust of his argument missed the point about the clear-and-present danger police brutality by race profiling exposes. The response to protest is more illuminating than the terrible murder of George Floyd in this regard. It has shown us the reality of state-sanctioned violence against citizens. If we take time to think about it, these torrid events give us a window into the everyday experience of those being profiled by race, and those who’s desperation brings them up against the strong arm of authoritarian law. Sam gives these considerations almost no time at all.
While lip-service was paid to many of the claims of the protest movements, it amounts to glossing over these defining forces in a way that covers against accusations of racist enabling but quickly draws the audience instead onto the question of misguided accusations of endemic police racism. In effect, it’s an act of misdirection, downplaying the real problem and undermining sympathy with the protestors. The podcast amounts to divisive messaging of its own kind, more harmful in many ways than the self-serving mainstream media narrative Sam aims to debunk.
Maybe Sam Harris provides a comfort for those who’ve felt isolated and upset by the infectious but transparently stupid mainstream media, but at what price this comfort? It’s an exit lane for white privilege. It encourages passivity. It absolves us of needing to engage with the legitimate side of #blacklivesmatter by citing, with Sam’s authority, his patient debunking of bad faith extremism in the mainstream “police are racist” narrative.
It’s hard to waive responsibility for any affluent individual’s failure of empathy for the lived experience of so many millions of Americans. It’s doubly disappointing in a respected public intellectual like Sam Harris, given what’s likely to be the high quality “normality” lived by white Californian millionaires. He leaves himself open to the accusation of being an apologist for status quo,
The “normality” Sam is tacitly calling for us to pull back to is a “normal” that routinely oppresses over a quarter of the American population. It’s a “normal” that exploits in greater numbers, year on year, as government regulates less and demands more. It’s a “normal” dominated by unregulated corporate oligarchy pressing on with a relentless acquisition of power, people and perpetuity. It should be a “normality” every American outside the oligarchy fears.
What Sam ends up enabling, whether by design or by accident, is a version of Edmund Burke’s wise words:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Whatever Sam’s private opinion about the slice of society that’s being misrepresented by mainstream media (e.g. #defundthepolice means abolish all police, because they’re racists), he’s using his influential platform to debunk a major catalyst for possible change to a system that’s collapsing under the sheer weight of wrong.
It’s irresponsible; and a little reprehensible.
IT’S WORTH SPENDING A MINUTE THINKING ABOUT “NORMALITY” AND HOW THE CONCEPT CHANGES, DEPENDING ON WHO’S USING IT…
WHAT IS NORMALITY? MINE? YOURS? THE AVERAGE POOR OR WORKING CLASS BLACK OR BROWN AMERICAN?
Normality is a degraded existence for tens of millions.
Normality is a life without opportunity.
Normality is ringfenced by hostile forces — appropriated justice, ghettoized neighborhoods, patrolling cops, gangs and drugs and crime, disinterested middle classes — with a future that’s poor, full of toil and devoid of basics like medical care, quality schooling, personal safety.
Normality is what’s given us Trump and Biden — two choices that are no choice at all.
Normality is red-lining, gerrymandering, unaccountable civic grift and voter suppression.
Normality is the school to prison pipeline, corrupted politicians, inhumane healthcare, militarized police, endless foreign wars, etc.
Normality has allowed democratically elected representatives to exploit a global pandemic to enrich the oligarchy by trillions of dollars; and meanwhile bankrupt millions and bring the richest nation on the planet to the brink of chaos.
Normality isn’t protecting the poorest third of society. Ten years hence, perhaps it’ll be a full half of society fallen off the map. Sooner or later, the bell must toll for you too. It’s in the genes of plutocracy’s perpetual growth.