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There are many things to criticise in ‘Can We Pull Back From the Brink?,’ Sam Harris’s editorial podcast on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. There is the tiresome concern trolling about protests undermining coronavirus lockdowns. There is the disingenuous whataboutism that more white people than black people are killed by police in the US. There is the hackneyed hand-wringing about “black-on-black crime”. There is the disgraceful smearing of Antifa as a “group of total maniacs”.
But perhaps the most damning criticism is this: it is an hour and fifty-three minutes long.
And yet, for all his prolixity, Harris does not directly quote a single Black Lives Matter activist or police abolitionist in his 15,583 words of alternately pernicious and noncommittal blather. While he opens with a declaration that “Conversation is the only tool we have for making progress” (galling enough when legislation and direct action are readily available), he consistently refuses to engage with the ostensible targets of his critique.
His one direct and attributed quote from anyone vaguely connected to the Black Lives matter movement comes from Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender:
“At one point the woman who’s running the City Council in Minneapolis, which just decided to abolish the police force, was asked by a journalist, I believe on CNN, ‘What do I do if someone’s breaking into my house in the middle of the night? Who do I call?’ And her first response to that question was, ‘You need to recognize what a statement of privilege that question is.'”
He slightly misquotes her, actually. The original transcript reads:
“Yes, I mean, hear that loud and clear from a lot of my neighbors. And I know — and myself, too, and I know that that comes from a place of privilege. Because for those of us for whom the system is working, I think we need to step back and imagine what it would feel like to already live in that reality where calling the police may mean more harm is done.”
I bring this up for two reasons. First is the basic irresponsibility of not checking shit before you present it to an audience of millions. I have no reason to believe Harris is deliberately distorting the truth here; I think he simply misremembered Bender’s words as he was writing this piece. What a responsible journalist is supposed to do, though, is check whether their memory matches the original document before hitting ‘publish’. This was a standard that even the Daily Mail was able meet on this story.
Which leads me to my second reason, which is that Harris’s imperfect recall means he misrepresents what Bender actually said. Harris’s framing brings to mind the woker-than-thou caricatures common in right-wing depictions of the left; ‘You need to recognise what a statement of privilege that question is, unlike I, who read Angela Davis once and am an Enlightened Antiracist.’ Whereas Bender’s actual words are far more inclusive; ‘we need to step back,’ ‘and myself, too’. There is an invitation to a different worldview, not an attempt to browbeat the ignorant proles. An equivocating, politician’s answer? A fumbling, tone-deaf response from a moderately powerful white woman in response to historic black protest? Undoubtedly. But if Harris is going to engage so sloppily and disingenuously with even this tepid invitation to alternative viewpoints, god help him with an actual Black Lives Matter activist.
Which makes it all the more noticeable that he doesn’t. I almost wrote ‘surprising’ there, but that’s wrong; this strategic refusal to engage is entirely characteristic of Harris’s political writing. Let it never be forgotten that Harris’s first book opens with a fictional account of a suicide bombing, before sniggeringly asking how we know the bomber’s religion. And here we are, sixteen years later, with this:
“I’ve seen many videos of people getting arrested. And I’ve seen the outraged public reaction to what appears to be inappropriate use of force by the cops. One overwhelming fact that comes through is that people, whatever the color of their skin, don’t understand how to behave around cops so as to keep themselves safe. People have to stop resisting arrest. This may seem obvious, but judging from most of these videos, and from the public reaction to them, this must be a totally arcane piece of information. When a cop wants to take you into custody, you don’t get to decide whether or not you should be arrested. When a cop wants to take you into custody, for whatever reason, it’s not a negotiation. And if you turn it into a wrestling match, you’re very likely to get injured or killed.
This is a point I once belabored in a podcast with Glenn Loury, and it became essentially a public service announcement. And I’ve gone back and listened to those comments, and I want to repeat them here. This is something that everyone really needs to understand. And it’s something that Black Lives Matter should be teaching explicitly: If you put your hands on a cop—if you start wrestling with a cop, or grabbing him because he’s arresting your friend, or pushing him, or striking him, or using your hands in way that can possibly be interpreted as your reaching for a gun—you are likely to get shot in the United States, whatever the color of your skin.”
There is a scientific term for these two paragraphs: anecdotal evidence. We are told that people “don’t understand how to behave around cops” but the only evidence provided for this claim is Harris’s personal reading of some videos and a previous podcast of his. Until such time as Harris provides an actual source for his claims about the opinions of the public generally or Black Lives Matter specifically, I can only fall back on the maxim of his old friend Christopher Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
The great philosopher @dril once stated he was “thinking of inventing a new type of person to get mad at on here. maybe people who carry too many keys around.. i dont know yet”. Reactionary politics thrives on precisely this creation of phantom opponents. A real Black Lives Matter activist might persuasively argue for defunding the police; easier to simply imagine one who is for some reason in favour of resisting arrest.
It is this willful non-engagement that makes Sam Harris so frustrating to deal with; yet it also makes him fundamentally uninteresting. The Black Lives Matter movement is not beholden to those who will not dignify them with a quote, let alone a policy analysis. If you want to pull back from the brink, it would help if you could tell us where it is.