Imagine Sam Harris invited me to discuss my blog post “Sam Harris Mistackles His Critics” on his podcast. I am given the chance to read it out, for him to comment as we go, and for me to add or discuss in response. To even bring what I want into the conversation.
I would jump at the chance. To discuss and challenge what we think is the pinnacle of a free society.
Omar Aziz was given that very opportunity based on this piece he wrote in Salon, though he complained about the format. Harris felt the resulting four hour recording was unbroadcastable. Omar Aziz complained this was against free speech, and was a cover for unpalatable views expressed by Harris, in his latest Salon piece.
Unfortunately for Aziz, Sam Harris has on his podcast broadcast the relevant parts of their discussion. If you listen to the exchange above, Aziz does not come across well.
Aziz also quotes in Salon from his email exchange with Harris. Below I reproduce part of their email exchange. It provides a different perspective from what Salon readers may have expected from the partial quotes.
Thanks for the clarifications. I really hope you were not literally intending for me to come on and read my essay on your podcast with you stopping me every other sentence as if I was in some kind of deposition or trial. This would be a totally fruitless conversation. I assume your readers have read the essay, and I’d welcome specific questions you’d like to raise in a debate/discussion format.
Rather than me reading my essay line-by-line, I suggest we each propose a handful of broad topics and we have a conversation on each. We can alternate who kicks off the discussion for each topic.
Looking over the essay, here’s a rough chronological outline of the issues I’ve raised:
1. Reforming Islam
2. The history and tradition of Islam (and what that may reveal about radical jihadists)
3. Holy War (past and present)
4. Hate crimes against Muslims
5. Your views on torture, Ben Carson, and Noam Chomsky
6. Anything else we don’t get to
I’m up for a discussion on all these topics, their ethics, their politics, their implications. If you have other suggestions, please let me know.
January 12 at 1 pm sounds good.
No, I’m serious about you reading every word your essay. Here are my reasons:
1. Most of our listeners will not have read it and never will.
2. It is the reason I’m having you on the podcast. You took the time to write it, and the charges you level at me are clearly expressed and deserve to be discussed.
3. Part of my interest in having this discussion is to see if we can bridge the distance between a Salon-style hit piece (which you wrote) and an actual conversation. I want us to move back and forth between the text of your essay, my response to it as a reader/listener, and your response to my response. It remains to be seen whether this will produce and interesting/useful conversation or a “fruitless” one. But I’m pretty sure no one has ever attempted something like this before.
So this is how I want us to approach the podcast—with you reading what you wrote and our stopping to talk about each point, wherever relevant. Again, you can say anything you want in this context, and I won’t edit you (though if our exchange truly is “fruitless,” as well as boring, I reserve the right not to air it).
January 12th works. Are you in or out?
What you call a hit piece I call an essay-length review of your book. I find it highly revealing that you will not have a traditional debate or discussion around themes or topics but insist on me reading my essay word for word and you reserving the right to stop me whenever you want. Unless you are a state prosecutor putting on a show trial, this seems like a highly dubious way to proceed. It should come as no surprise that “no one has ever attempted something like this before” — they actually did in the old totalitarian states when writers went off message and had to be publicly censored by the state — because depositions where one party is stopping the other every few seconds to “correct the record” are a highly denigrating form of intellectual exchange, and most writers would not allow themselves to be condescended to in such a way.
However, I will still come on and abide by all these restrictive guidelines you want to pre-emptively impose, but I will add a couple of my own.
1. Instead of reading all 2800 words on your podcast, why don’t you highlight which sentences/paragraphs are the most inaccurate, misguided, offensive, insulting (whatever adjective you want to use here), and I will read those. This way, we can actually have a conversation around the most contentious charges, and we can let the conversation flow as it will.
2. I reserve the right to make my own recording of our discussion in case it is fruitless or “boring” from your perspective, but fruitful and interesting from mine.
So, once again, I gladly accept your invitation to come on, despite its restrictive, questionable, and one-sided terms, and I look forward to the 12th.
Are you in or out?
The fact that you view my offer to put you on my podcast and let you say anything you want to my audience unedited in terms of “show trials” and other forms of totalitarian coercion suggests to me that having a productive conversation will be a challenge. Yes, I want to hold you accountable for every word in your essay. You took the time to write it, and nearly every sentence exemplifies what is wrong with our public conversation on these topics. Is the fact that you appear reluctant to stand behind your work “highly revealing”? I’ll let you decide. But there’s nothing about the format I propose that would prevent us from talking for ten minutes at a stretch on any specific topic, or digressing upon others. Can you seriously believe that I’d be dodging debate/discussion by allowing you to present the sharpest, written version of your charges against me on my podcast and then discussing them at length? You think this gives me some kind of unfair advantage? While reading your essay, you can expand upon your points, or refine them, or do anything else you want. I’m simply asking that every word of the text also be read, so that our listeners can hear every point, and I can respond (or not).
Honestly, Omer, life is too short for this. If you were going on CNN for an interview with Fareed Zakaria, would you reserve the right to record your own version of the interview? That’s not how things work. I’m inviting you on my podcast. It takes a lot of time and money to produce. If you turn out to be a terrible guest—producing a river of empty insults with no coherent arguments—I reserve the right to kill the show. And no, I don’t give you permission to record and broadcast our conversation in some other forum.
Is there enough good will here for us to continue? Perhaps I should mention another portent of doom: I just noticed for the first time that Murtaza Hussain is one of your friends/collaborators. That doesn’t bode well, because I consider Hussain to be the most unscrupulous person I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter online (and that’s saying a lot). I certainly would never attempt anything like this with him. I have great respect for the power of conversation, but I’m not a fool (or a masochist).
But I also detected a ray of hope: I read your fine piece in TNR, “The Soul of a Jihadist,” [Link
] and agreed with every word of it. Part of my interest in attempting difficult conversations like this is to reconcile the seeming paradox that you and I can agree about so much and still find ourselves so far apart. I honestly have no idea whether we can bridge the gap. But I’ll let you decide whether or not we should try…
Should I book you for the 12th? If so, we still need to get you a microphone.
Harris commented his reason for sharing this part of the email exchange: “Given that Salon published an edited version of my emails with him, I could release the whole thread. You’ll see that it reveals him to be a fairly paranoid, victimology type. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but here’s the heart of the exchange.”
I am surprised that Harris went through with taping a podcast. Doing so at least shows someone willing to try and engage their critics. The excerpts from the recording demonstrate why it was not broadcast.
After pressure from fans and detractors alike, Sam Harris has announced he will be publishing the full four hour podcast.
I think one of the comments below summed it up that though the conversation might be boring, and disingenuous, it would show how the argument plays out involving Sam Harris. And that would in itself make it worth listening too.
Careful what you wish for … it sometimes happens.
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog
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