Hoax At The Guardian?: Glenn Greenwald, Fake News, and Another Attack on Sam Harris
Praise For the Anonymous Article
Was The Guardian Duped?
On Monday, November 28 The Guardian published an anonymous op-ed in which a “lifelong liberal” recounted how “online poison” nearly turned him into a terrible, hateful, Islamophobic person. The progression, this author claimed, started with his consumption of content produced by the author, public intellectual, neuroscientist, and atheist Sam Harris. The story spread virally among that segment of the left most commonly referred to now as “regressive” as it presented a real-life example that bore out its contention that so-called “new Atheism” is a front for racist right-wing imperialism. It was a perfect confirmation of their belief system; the problem being that it was a little too perfect.
How Fake News Spreads
A Master Satirist
On Tuesday, the internet’s most prolific satirist Godfrey Elfwick took credit for the piece. Though his own evidence for the claim cannot be totally substantiated yet, it certainly looks like this was a hoax that was gobbled up and disseminated to a wider audience by Harris’s detractors, despite the story being authored anonymously, containing unverifiable content, and being totally anecdotal. Unless you’ve been completely blinded by your biases, it’s hard to believe that the author could have been serious as the article is contradictory, dimwitted, full of tropes, and wholly embarrassing. Unfortunately, this also makes it so easy to see why the regressive left found common cause with it. Like a textbook example of Poe’s Law, even the passage “On one occasion I even, I am ashamed to admit, very diplomatically expressed negative sentiments on Islam to my wife” apparently failed to raise eyebrows, though you could easily imagine it appearing in The Onion.
At first glance, it may seem that this is a minor if not trivial event but there are two contexts that make this story worth thinking about. The first, is that this is happening at a moment in time when people are supposedly more sensitive to “fake news” and yet they continue to spread it without irony or responsibility. Granted, this was an op-ed not an editorial, but it nevertheless carried the weight of truth as it was published by The Guardian, not some blog or website no one ever heard of. Secondly, this piece is part of a much larger and longer running smear campaign against atheists in general and public intellectuals like Harris in particular. It is to this second context that I draw your attention. For those of you who may not be familiar, a little bit of backstory is necessary.
Sam Harris is a Stanford trained philosopher who spent much of his young adult life studying mysticism, particularly in Eastern traditions. He emerged in the spotlight in mid-2004 behind the strength of his best-selling book The End of Faith. Although he never referred to himself as an atheist and indeed never used the word in the book, as you may have guessed by the title, it became a tour de force among atheists. He followed this successful critique of religious dogmatism up with Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006, going on to write less contentious and more philosophical works such as the Moral Landscape, Lying, and Waking Up in the years that followed. In addition to his prolific writing, he completed a doctorate in neuroscience along the way. Harris has also been a staple of the public debate circuit. In conversations that have only seemed to become more relevant, Harris has debated author Reza Aslan, journalists Chris Hedges and Robert Wright, media personality Cenk Uygur, Christian apologist Dr. William Lane Craig, and many others. Harris also runs a podcast where he discusses a multitude of issues ranging from religion and politics to meditation and spiritualism to artificial intelligence, with a diverse cast of experts. Needless to say, he is well-rounded in his interests and expertise.
Murtaza Explains The Motivation of His Hit-Piece
To his exasperation, however, Harris is best known for his criticisms of radical Islam; a fact that has put him on the receiving end of more libelous and slanderous attacks than nearly any other public intellectual in the United States. Case in point, if you search the bastions of regressive publications, The Nation, Alternet, and the kingpin, Salon, you will more easily find unequivocal condemnations of Harris than you will of Islamic terrorists. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with criticizing a viewpoint or argument that you believe to be wrong or dangerous but these websites routinely traffic hit pieces with little to no journalistic integrity. Consider here, here, and here. What’s worse, is that the people who do this frequently cite each other’s hit pieces as justifications for their own. This is something I discovered myself when Glenn Greenwald told me on twitter that the “evidence” for what was then his latest hit piece on Harris was found in the article links, all of which went to other vacuous articles including one of his own. In essence, he defended calling Harris a racist by citing other times that he and others called Harris a racist. This is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Wrap your mind around that.
Arguably the most notorious example of the remorseless and senseless smearing of Harris is in a piece by Murtaza Hussain, currently working with Greenwald at The Intercept. In the article, Hussain accused Harris of slurring and co-opting Nobel Prize winning humanitarian Malala Yousafzai because of a blog post Harris published in which he praised Malala for standing up to misogyny. With shockingly little regard for integrity and all indications of animus, Hussain stipulates that “what Harris and the Taliban have in common are that neither considers Malala to be a genuine Muslim.” You can decide for yourself what a fierce critic of the Taliban who refers to Malala with the following quotation has in common with the men trying to kill her:
"Malala is the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years. She is an extraordinarily brave and eloquent girl who is doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do—stand up to the misogyny of traditional Islam."
It’s worth noting that three years after these articles were written, Malala still lives in exile, unable to return to Pakistan because the very qualities that have made her a hero to the world also make her an enemy of traditional Islam.
The Real Time Fiasco
Not all of Harris’s detractors are so blatantly dishonest and reckless, though even the “better” critics tend to rely on logic so convoluted as to be impenetrable. Consider that cringeworthy exchange that Harris had with Ben Affleck and Nick Kristof on Bill Maher’s “Real Time” in which Harris lamented that criticism of Islam is conflated with bigotry against Muslims only to then be accused of bigotry against Muslims. What do people remember about that exchange and why did it go viral? Most people, as confirmed by the segment’s treatment on other talk shows in the following days, only really cared to tune in to see the celebrity brazenly shout “that’s gross, that’s racist.” But it is the conversation that followed that is so much more significant.
Accusing Maher and Harris of painting an incomplete picture of Islam, Kristof proceeds to fill in the gaps by citing three people: Malala Yousafzai, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, and an unidentified Muslim friend who was murdered in Pakistan. Yes, Kristof’s charge that Harris unjustly maligned Islam was the citation of a girl shot in the head for wanting to be educated, a reformer in prison for the last decade for defending Christians, and a man murdered for defending women. And if that didn’t prove it…Affleck quickly jumped in to cite the abstract billions of Muslims who are not jihadists. Here then we see a recycling of the apologia shockingly common in public discourse: a rebuttal of cold hard statically demonstrable facts through citation of specific individuals or pure abstraction. This makes as much sense as conservatives who deny the problem of campus rapes by citing the fact that occasionally the perpetrator is a female or offering a useless truism like not all men are rapists.
Had there been no history of routinely smearing a secular thinker whose commitment to liberalism does not die at the borders of criticizing Christians, the retweeting and dissemination of the hoax would not be a big deal. Sometimes the news gets things wrong and sometimes the reader cannot tell the difference. Moreover, had any of the usual suspects been willing to own their mistakes and admit that they jumped to a false conclusion, it would not have been a big deal-in fact, they would have gained credit. What’s proving to be a disaster for the media, for discourse, and for personal dignity, is the way that these people perpetually lie even as they use their platform to claim the moral high ground against anyone and everyone they dislike. In so doing, they are fostering a sheep-like devotion in their followers in which their principal goal seems to be maintaining their own status as moral shepherds. This is as infuriating as it is dangerous for the future of left-wing politics and it needs to be called out everywhere and anywhere it is found.
*As of December 1, only Media Guido has responded to queries over the articles validity. They cite The Guardian press office as being “confident” of the article’s authorship and sourcing.This author has not yet been able to independently confirm this.