Note: You can skip right over this if you have no interest in Charles Murray or the ripple effects of his being on Sam Harris’ “Waking Up” podcast. If you ARE interested in learning about the controversy and why it matters, a simple google search for Sam Harris will provide all the background you need and probably a lot more.

I’ve mentioned before my fondness for podcasts and audiobooks, one of my favorite producers of both is Sam Harris. Through listening to his Waking Up podcast I’ve been exposed to ideas I would have not been otherwise, been privy to conversations I would have missed out on and just generally feel wiser and more informed as a result of being a listener.

What I am not is a devotee, a fan or a follower of his. He, like the rest of us, is human, very human in fact despite his vulcan-like demeanor and “just the facts” presentation.

I referenced his conversation with Charles Murray of The Bell Curve fame before and am no fan of Murray’s policy solutions or his belief that any attempted impact on IQ by social policy is a fool’s errand. Even if no significant increases in IQ are driven by so-called entitlement programs, the simple fact that education, at even the basic level, is largely dependent on resources including health care and nutrition as well as simple things like oh say….housing is enough to convince me of their absolute need. As I’ve also stated before, government intervention was what made the middle class possible (and the fact that said intervention was largely a white phenomenon) post WW2 is a critical component of any argument concerning “The Great Society.”

Although I see through Murray’s ideological bent, I also see how many current pols hold the same beliefs and use the same data to justify them (outgoing Speaker Ryan is one) so the focus on Murray for holding these beliefs and being assaulted and de-platformed for them while the really dangerous folks who have a real dangerous ability to enact retrograde policies is misspent ire.

When Harris invited Murray for a discussion on Race and IQ about a year ago, the blow-back is actually part of what brought me to the podcast in the first place. I wanted to revisit the controversy, having never read the book myself, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.

Now, a year later, unfortunately Harris has turned a groundbreaking discussion into a reflexively toxic sideshow.

The discussion he had with Murray wasn’t a game changer for me, I’d always believed that people should be allowed to speak their minds at college campuses and if we oppose those ideas we have the right to voice our opposition. This back and forth is crucial for the functioning of democracy, even on such a tiny niche level. Even bad ideas should get an airing, when exposed to sunlight bad ideas are for the most part burned away and rejected, it may take some time, but rigorous debate and a civil discussion of even the most outlandish ideas is a crucial component of a functional democracy.

As far as the content, Murray’s glaring omissions, or glossing over of data that didn’t meet the narrative was obvious so that didn’t change my mind at all. What was refreshing and enlightening was the conversation itself. Harris challenged Murray on many of the things I would have, the social science that was left out of the data, the lingering results of the yoke of slavery and its genetic contributions to racial difference, no problem there. In general the conversation left me with the same feelings about Murray’s work as I did prior to listening, that the book and the data presented is fully supportive by design of his social stance, not the reverse.

The resulting effect on Harris’ public image is the subject of much conjecture, from a whole group of new neo-fascist, illiberal classical liberals and the alt-right (AKA actual racists) there seems to be a Ben Shapiro-like exaltation of him as a defender of racist IQ purveyance, from everywhere else a bemused take down of Harris’ “cult”. From my point of view, neither get it truly right.

My criticism of Harris doesn’t come from a place of worry about what he himself believes. Although his petulant debate with Klein definitely makes him a useful idiot for the right, I don’t believe like some others that it is by design. He’s never indicated to me that he believes or cares about the race and IQ debate and in some cases seems to dismiss IQ as a factor for determining who can and cannot have a full meaningful (and wealthy) life. My criticisms come from the sizeable ego it has exposed.

Debating Klein could have been a defining moment had Harris not failed to realize and admit to his own blind spots. Harris clearly missed the fact that his personal feelings of persecution and the persecution of others made him deaf to the very real concerns (and alignments) he and Klein shared. Klein made some salient points about this although I think he phrased them wrong and failed to follow-up on them Harris failed to see that he put himself in Murray’s shoes a little too much.

What this does to Harris’ career, his podcast and his public persona is yet to be seen but I would have made a few suggestions prior to the conversation that would have made the conversation a whole lot less unbearable for those of us who chose to listen to it.

  1. He should have gotten to know Klein personally before having the debate. He should have taken a cue from one of his guests Christian Picciolini (a former neo-nazi) and as he did with Richard Spenser (a current neo-nazi) sit down and get to know him outside of their personal history. It’s so much easier to define ground rules and speak kindly of someone who you disagree with if you know them as a person first.
  2. Take a cooling off period after meeting off-line. Both parties would have had a much better time of it if they’d met, exchanged a few clarifying emails and tried really hard to keep it civil.
  3. Simply agreed to disagree.

Harris has been rightfully been a bit jumpy about being misquoted, something people do and have done regularly, but not taking the proper time and doing the proper warm-up exercises is no excuse for stumbling and falling on your face right out of the gate.