American Sam Harris fails to understand American principles
Recently, internet activity drew my attention to Sam Harris. The last I'd noticed him, to my enjoyment, his criticizing Islam had thrust Ben Affleck into demented Islamophobiaphobia.
Francis Foster and Konstantin Kisin posted their 90-plus-minute Triggernometry interview of Harris on Aug. 17, 2022. In it, Harris describes "the one algorithm that I'm running more than most which is what I would call intellectual honesty," seeing "the burden" to resist conformity to yesterday's you or a tribe offering social reinforcement, and a "master value" being honest, rigorous, acquiring new data, arguments and insights.
Harris's brand — champion for rationality — fuses career with identity. His profession, neuroscience, illuminates the harsh math of analytical thinking. The brain, 5% of body weight, consumes 20% of daily energy. The knowledge that analytic thought is draining, and action-driven reckoning faster, and inexact, didn't inoculate Harris against the presumption his conclusions are objectively empirical, and absent irrational methodology.
At timestamp 36:09, recalling 2020's press and social media anti-Trump maneuvering, Harris says, "Listen, I don't care what's in Hunter Biden's laptop. At that point, Hunter Biden could literally have had the corpses of children in his basement. I would not have cared." He adds justifications: it isn't Joe himself; kickbacks from Ukraine or China couldn't approach Trump's magnitude of corruption. "It's like a firefly to the sun."
After copious metaphors for Trump's evil, he specifies one example (worse than concealing dead children): Trump University, a dispute with customers resolved by a civil court. Not exactly a Bond Villain quantum of wickedness.
Harris claims Trump opposition is "totally nonpartisan" because Liz Cheney isn't left-wing (the Wyoming GOP disavowed her). At timestamp 31:20, he says, "It's not a matter of politics. I'd probably agree with half of his policies or more than half of his policies. Not a matter of policy. It's a matter of having someone that's unfit for it in every possible way." Trump, "a black hole of selfishness," is too unpredictable for another four years in office.
Having framed social media platforms as private companies whose opinions should be respected and the content they host flooded with too much disinformation and lies, Harris likens potential anti-Trump conspiracy to friends working to divert an Earth-bound asteroid. At 38:30, Kisin interjects, "But if we destroy democracy in the process of protecting democracy —"
Harris interrupts back:
But that doesn't destroy, no. You. Our. What I'm not suggesting, at no point, was I suggesting we should stuff ballots or we should actually break the machinery of democracy. But, the, all, political opinion is already being just completely inundated with misinformation, biased takes, half-truths and outright lies like and or just an amplification of bad or misleading information based on the algorithm, right. Um, so it's like it's already just an abattoir of opinion, right, and now the question is what can you do with your own biases and what can you take to get the outcome you think is actually better not just for yourself personally but for the world.
Harris weaves a narrative web containing a vast availability of inaccuracies, biases, and lies — tech executives' rights to speak freely while restricting what and whom the platform allows and a once-in-a-lifetime threat to democracy. But misinformation isn't new. Mark Twain said, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting its boots on."
The enormous influence and riches granted to tech platforms came with an agreement that, while hosting other people's words, they weren't responsible for editing and fact-checking. But tech execs not only make editorial decisions, but act as though they're troubled about decisions about "where to place the line." How about this? The U.S. for two and a half centuries has allowed all speech that doesn't defame, defraud, or incite violence. Call it America's Terms of Service. Tech execs' opinions don't disappear when the same platform hosts opposing content. But few individuals banned by social media can construct competing platforms. It's a David and Goliath scenario. Tech platforms that want to make their own positions clear could put a giant red "Platform Says X" section on every screen, the way ads are posted at the top, bottom, and margins of websites.
Even if Trump were the cartoon-grade bad guy of TDS fever dreams, Americans don't democratically elect a galactic totalitarian dictator. Our republic's three branches of government have checks and balances designed to prevent misuse of power. President Trump got the kitchen to provide him extra ice cream, but he couldn't sell Hawaii for parts. The man isn't dangerous; he's gauche — a poor fit for academics and bureaucrats. Trump's potential for harm had to be portrayed as monumental to justify sabotaging the very fair and stable voting process, to keep Trump out of the White House.
At 12:25, Kisin mentions that he and Foster oppose wokeness, see tribalism as divisive, and are disinterested in joining an anti-woke tribe. Kisin then describes the 2015–16 Internet Dark Web, a loose association of intellectuals that included Harris, as a sort of tribe. Harris quickly minimizes IDW as "tongue in cheek." Harris wasn't happy that people he hadn't heard of, and people who didn't share his opinions and intellectual methodology, claimed to be part of IDW. Harris says IDW was fragmented over people disagreeing with him about Trump.
This video reveals that, whether aware of it or not, Harris has a tribe. At 8:30, he divides Twitter users as "public people" and "not public people" — the latter not candidates for his ongoing collaboration. Those "public people" who joined Twitter since 2006 are his tribe, sharing and reinforcing anti-Trump proclivities. Trump's 2016 presidential run, leading to MAGA, created a natural external enemy of the type that can strengthen group cohesion and opinion — namely, the Trump-hate of the Twitter "public people" tribe. Heading the MAGA tribe makes Trump a prime target for heightened opposition.
Harris is clear that his opposition was about not policies, but Trump the man. Harris recoils from direct election tampering like ballot-stuffing while being cavalier about tech moderators and journalists throttling information availability to achieve the same election results — a threat to both free elections and free speech. Harris is old enough to know that every American is going to approve of some presidents, disapprove of others, and see favored candidates lose. For too many citizens like Sam Harris, America's traditions, our freedoms, our right to make our own decisions, the believability of our media are a lower priority than keeping the Bad Orange Man from getting what he, and many of us, wants.
When Harris describes Trump's black hole of selfishness, it's a projection of Harris's selfish willingness to deprive Americans of so many policies Harris approves, just because Trump isn't the kind of guy Harris would want to invite to dinner.