Liberals Who Fear Liberals

Sam Harris, a liberal writer who wrote a provocative book he described as “highly critical of religion,” is now highly critical of liberals, while still trying to be one.  I am familiar with this struggle!

In the wake of my prior post describing the last years of feminist journalist Orianna Fallaci, you must read this op-ed Harris wrote for today’s LA Times.  The response he got from thousands of readers of his last book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, inspired him to panic.  Here are a few chunks of what Harris has to say:

On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right.

This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that “liberals are soft on terrorism.” It is, and they are.


Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities.

Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb — and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise. And yet, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.


The truth is that there is every reason to believe that a terrifying number of the world’s Muslims now view all political and moral questions in terms of their affiliation with Islam. This leads them to rally to the cause of other Muslims no matter how sociopathic their behavior. This benighted religious solidarity may be the greatest problem facing civilization and yet it is regularly misconstrued, ignored or obfuscated by liberals.


We are entering an age of unchecked nuclear proliferation and, it seems likely, nuclear terrorism. There is, therefore, no future in which aspiring martyrs will make good neighbors for us. Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies.


While liberals should be the ones pointing the way beyond this Iron Age madness, they are rendering themselves increasingly irrelevant. Being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren’t.

The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.

To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.

There is still time for liberals to find a voice in defense of civilization, but the window is shutting.  It will shut for good in 2008, when they can no longer use “Bush rage” as an excuse for their mindless opposition to waging a war that is being waged against us whether they want to acknowledge it or not.

I’m quite unhappy about a future in which liberalism, the belief system with which I’ve been affliliated for my entire adult life becomes marginalized and irrelevant, and where its adherents are considered unqualified to govern. 

I don’t like the idea of having to choose between candidates with whom I agree on 90 percent of the issues, but who fail to have a supportable position on the single most important issue, and Republicans, who are mostly wrong, but right about the one thing that matters most.

And I’m furiously angry that half-witted partisans who run the left-wing, self-described “netroots” blogs are now seen as arbiters of true liberalism.  They might be speaking for this generation’s liberals, I fear. But they don’t know what liberalism means, historically or intellectually.  They’re so in love with their aggressive tone, they haven’t bothered to notice their positions are incoherent. 

The Democratic Party should look at the liberal netroots like pre-adolescent children. You have to listen to them, because you can’t disown them, and because they’re loud and hard to ignore.  But they shouldn’t be allowed to drive until they grow up.


8 thoughts on “Liberals Who Fear Liberals

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with the criticism aimed at “liberalism” and the ones supposedly carrying the torch for “liberalism” at the present time. However, I must take exception the statement that “There is still time for liberals to find a voice in defense of civilization, but the window is shutting. It will shut for good in 2008, when they can no longer use “Bush rage” as an excuse for their mindless opposition to waging a war that is being waged against us whether they want to acknowledge it or not.” I personnally am not opposed to waging a war that is “being waged against us” but I would surely like that war to waged on the right front(s). I am adamantly unconvinced that it is. I don’t believe that Iraq should be/have been our highest(or any) priority.

    The problem with the liberalist “Bush rage” message is that they have dumbed down their own message in the process. Fight the war of words with the conservative right on the war on terror on an intellectual basis instead of the gutter.

    I must confess that, at times, I have fallen for the liberalist message “that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism”. While now I believe that these do play some roll, the protests (i.e. church burnings, nun killings) that were spawned by the pope’s comments last week and reading your blog (all postings – your writing is superb and thought provoking) have caused a metamorphisis in my views. It seems as if the radical Islamics need a cause to protest (or wage jihad) on regular basis (i.e. the Mohammed cartoon furor, the current furor over the popes comments). These are not rational people (or I’m not). By no means am I defending what the pope said nor is it relevant. What is relevant is that the protesters/church burners/nun killers are flaming the same intolerance that they are protesting against.

    I wish I had some opinion on what course of action in the war on terror (other than the one we’re on) but I don’t. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think about every day when I read the newspaper. Just like I think “is the war on terror unwinnnable like the war on drugs?” or “is the war on terror a way for few to profit under the guise of war like the war on drugs was/is?”. There has to be a better way but I am at a loss as to the way. I think the liberalism movement is also. And thus, the “Bush rage” message that seems to be the easy way out.

  2. Thank you, Chris, for your kind words about the writing here.

    Sam Harris would agree with you on Iraq. His concern was stirred by mail he received in response to a book he wrote that criticized all organized religions as potentially dangerous. The upshot, apparently, was his liberal writers seemed to articulate a moral equivalence between radical Islamists and the fundamentalists of other religions including Christianity and Judaism. If you can’t see the difference between someone who evangelizes aggressively but peacefully for Jesus, and someone who murders innocent people and thinks that makes him a warrior for Allah, then you can’t possibly battle this enemy effectively–and no one is going to trust you with power.

    Is there a “better way” to fight this war than Bush has done? Undoubtedly. To me, the discussion should go toward better tactics. Democrats need to have the courage to say Bush’s strategy might be largely correct, and in doing so, make it America’s strategy, rather than one president’s or one party’s. Then they can talk about what they would do better if given a chance to manage the strategy.

    Comparing it to the war on drugs — oy. I don’t see a comparison at all. The war on drugs is foolish, unwinnable, and tragic. If anything, the continued prohibition on drugs creates a source of funds for terrorists. Get the drug trade out in the open by legalizing it (for adults) while heavily educating the public on the dangers of using, and deal with users as people with a medical/psychological condition, and only involving the law to enforce DUI laws, child protection in the homes of addicts, and other places where drug usage hurts non-users.

  3. John:

    Your posts lately have led me to wonder which bone in your body is liberal. Perhaps a flange at a toetip?

    But that’s not the big issue.

    The big issue is the constant use of the word “liberal” as an epithet, now tossed back and forth by “liberals” against each other. In a country so radically pulled to the right by the last fourteen years that included Clinton’s conservative presidency, the “Contract With America,” the dumbing-down of political discussion into “Crossfire” and Fox talk shows, and the fundamentalist Bush presidency, the word “liberal” has no meaning. Just as the word “fascist” is being debased by an administration which sees fascism everywhere but the one place it does manifest, in their mirror.

    But wait, even THAT’S not the big issue.

    Harris is correct that the major issue is religious extremism, whether it comes from the Armageddonite fundamentalists in the Bush circle or those in Osama’s camp. I know that the “liberals” I’ve been hanging with for years have been acutely aware of this. Because the discussion hasn’t taken place in the political realm, but rather in the myth and poetry realm (wonks don’t seem to hear anything that doesn’t come with a party label), you all may have missed it.

    But when Joseph Campbell, who has been dead since 1987, took flak (“anti-semite,” “anti-Christian,” among other epithets) for saying things like “The Virgin Birth was a metaphor,” and “The Promised Land is a metaphor,” he was nonetheless being heard by lots of us. My myth-based teachings, writings and “political” speeches have all been aimed at spreading an anti-fundamentalist message. A major difference between the modern USA and Ancient Rome (for those who do that kind of historical analysis) was that Rome was a culture extraordinarily tolerant of other religions.

    Religion has gone from being the opiate of the masses to the methamphetamine of the masses, and we’re in for a shitstorm unless we can “just say no” to the mainlining Osamas AND Cheneys.

    Which one is scarier? The fundamentalist who ALREADY has a pocketful of nukes/CBWs, or the one who might get some?

  4. Most of my bones are liberal, and, to mix metaphors, my liberalism is hard wired. It is my old-style liberalism that animates my positions on the war against the Islamic jihad, because the Islamicists’ positions are violently inimical to anyone’s definition of a liberal society. What I’m not, anymore, is a partisan. No party exists that encompasses my views anymore. I remain a registered Democrat, but more out of faint hope and memory than respect.

    I agree with you strongly on the use of the word “liberal” as an epithet, and tend to avoid doing that. To me, “liberal” should be a term used in honor. Perhaps that’s why I was struck by the way Sam Harris used it in his piece, and why I referenced it. He describes himself as a liberal. He is not using the word in a name-calling context. He is using it as a call to the flock to repair a dangerous error that has slipped into their thinking.

    For example: I cannot agree with the finding of equivalence between the fundamentalists who blew up the World Trade Center and the fundamentalists around Bush. It is precisely this idea that Harris’ piece also refutes. The Christian fundamentalists want to change the laws so that their views on abortion, homosexuality and free speech prevail in this country, and they will organize and vote for candidates who promise to enact their agenda. That’s bad, but… The Islamic fundamentalists want to destroy all rights for women, execute homosexuals, and completely suppress all speech and expression that can in any way be seen as contrary to the Koran — and they are willing to murder indiscriminately in order to accomplish these goals.

    It does violence to the language to even use the same word, “fundamentalism,” to apply to these two extremely different cases. I think it is quite clear “which one is scarier.” The one that is willing to murder infidels, indiscriminately because he believes he is a soldier for Allah. Yes, our side has nukes. We’ve used them, twice, more than 60 years ago, and never again, through both liberal and conservative periods. I think that track record suggests that our civilization can be trusted in ways that the death-cult of Bin Laden et. al. cannot.

    I would also take issue with you on the matter of tolerance. I would defend the US as the most religiously tolerant nation in the history of civilization. Is it possible to be MORE tolerant? Of course. Are there pockets of terrible bigotry, and shameful episodes of intolerance in our past? Of course. But these are always countered eventually by the invocation of this nation’s first principles, expressed in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Probably because this tolerance is so widely understood by the world, millions of Muslims, Hindi, Buddhists, Orthodox Jews and Orthodox-Eastern Christians, as well as atheists, have migrated to this country.

    The Islamicists are not bombing and beheading innocent people in a search for tolerance. They want to establish hegemony over areas of the world where they can enforce their extreme orthodoxy, and have made it clear in word and deed that mass murder is their method of choice to achieve this goal.

    No matter who is president of the US, I expect that president to oppose this movement vigorously, and militarily whenever necessary.

    I’m a liberal saying this, waiting for other liberals to recognize that this is the only appropriate position to take; and distressed and dismayed that so many liberals believe their energies are better spent coming up with new, juvenile ways to compare our current president to a monkey. A “chimp” he may be, but he is also the president, and on this one issue, he deserves support. Moreover, if we liberals remain stuck in mindless opposition to Bush as he fights this war, then we are guaranteeing that the next president will be cut from the same cloth as Bush, because voters will conclude from our opposition that only Bush’s party takes Islamic terrorism seriously. Politically, that’s an outcome we should seek to avoid; instead we seem to be hurtling toward it at breakneck speed.

  5. P.S.

    Anne Applebaum, in today’s Washington Post, says this with respect to the horrific response to the recent speech by the Pope:

    …we can all unite in our support for freedom of speech — surely the pope is allowed to quote from medieval texts — and of the press. And we can also unite, loudly, in our condemnation of violent, unprovoked attacks on churches, embassies and elderly nuns. By “we” I mean here the White House, the Vatican, the German Greens, the French Foreign Ministry, NATO, Greenpeace, Le Monde and Fox News — Western institutions of the left, the right and everything in between. True, these principles sound pretty elementary — “we’re pro-free speech and anti-gratuitous violence” — but in the days since the pope’s sermon, I don’t feel that I’ve heard them defended in anything like a unanimous chorus. A lot more time has been spent analyzing what the pontiff meant to say, or should have said, or might have said if he had been given better advice.

    All of which is simply beside the point, since nothing the pope has ever said comes even close to matching the vitriol, extremism and hatred that pour out of the mouths of radical imams and fanatical clerics every day, all across Europe and the Muslim world, almost none of which ever provokes any Western response at all. And maybe it’s time that it should: When Saudi Arabia publishes textbooks commanding good Wahhabi Muslims to “hate” Christians, Jews and non-Wahhabi Muslims, for example, why shouldn’t the Vatican, the Southern Baptists, Britain’s chief rabbi and the Council on American-Islamic Relations all condemn them — simultaneously?

    Maybe it’s a pipe dream: The day when the White House and Greenpeace can issue a joint statement is surely distant indeed. But if stray comments by Western leaders — not to mention Western films, books, cartoons, traditions and values — are going to inspire regular violence, I don’t feel that it’s asking too much for the West to quit saying sorry and unite, occasionally, in its own defense. The fanatics attacking the pope already limit the right to free speech among their own followers. I don’t see why we should allow them to limit our right to free speech, too.

  6. We’ve got some similar interests! I blogged yesterday about the Harris piece, and today I put a post on Applebaum. I left the Democratic party (ideationally) in 2004 when I voted for Bush’s reelection. I switched registration this year and will vote this November the first time in my life as a Republican. Why? National security. I’m a scholar of international relations, and I think there are big interests at risk in the current terror war, as well in the Iraq deployment. Now things haven’t gone well there, but I think it’s in execution and not ideas (Dan Drezner had a good post and comment thread on that this weeek). As for liberals, I’ve blogged repeatedly on them this last few days. There’s just a denial pathology there to which I can’t abide. Cal Thomas at Real Clear Politics today called it a surrender mentality on Iraq. Jeff Jacoby in Sunday’s Boston Globe argued that the “Path to 9/11” debate represented a new low in Bush-hatred. It’s prevalent in the netroots, for sure, and I detest Daily Kos, which has also evinced some anti-Semitism in recent weeks, during the Hezbollah war, for example. Love your blog, in any case. I thought of Jerry Dunphy when I came across it — I sure miss his “From the Desert to the Sea, and All of Southern California…” Have a great week!

  7. Thanks, Donald.

    If their problem is “a denial pathology,” as you put it, then there’s hope. People can get out of denial. Eventually, the facts break through.

    There are a few other factors that contribute to the mindset. First is Bush. If on 9/11 Gore had been the president, shouting through a megaphone, sending out the drones, most liberals would have stood by him. To make matters worse, Bush’s 2000 election was, let’s face it, questionable. I’ve always thought that election was essentially a tie that could have gone either way, but to Democrats, it was a robbery and they have some evidence to support that. You can be impatient with them, say “get over it,” but I don’t think it’s that easy. Another factor is the implicit judgment of the Clinton years. In January 2001, despite Gore’s loss, there was still something of a halo over Clinton’s administration. High poll ratings, which they treasured. After 9/11, his advocates worried that his administration would be seen in a negative light. One of my commenters on the “Path to 9/11” thread discussed fears that Clinton would be blamed for 9/11 just as Roosevelt was blamed for giving away Eastern Europe at Yalta, and Truman for “losing China.” I don’t see a need to be so defensive. Maybe Clinton didn’t get everything right about terrorism, but who did? Was Gingrich out there pushing him on Bin Laden? Was the Washington Post? I think Clinton was getting a pass on 9/11 until his childish supporters decided to make a cause celebre of the ABC show, which had precisely the opposite effect of what was intended.

  8. The media loves rage, flags burning, violence….something to remember about all of this. A major absurdity is that the Pope’s quote is part of a much richer lecture about reason and faith. The full text is in various places on the Internet but I found it here:

    Maybe the Pope needs a better PR guy who can advise him about sound bites. Ah, forget it. I’d rather he remain as thoughtful as he appears to be.

    It seems that the remarks have been used (a) by the Muslim world’s political and fundamentalist forces both to inflame Muslim people and try to intimidate the leader of the Catholic Church; and (b) perhaps indirectly, by those who can point and say “see!” and tell us we’re headed for a class of civilizations, and that’s just the way it will be.

    The cartoon thing was equally well organized, but this situation is in many ways worse because it shouts down any serious philosophical dialogue, or conversation among many parties. The Pope was right to apologize because he had to do something to cool down the manufactured rage: but it is a shame he didn’t….I dunno, go on Larry King or the al Jazeera equivalent to more fully explain what he was talking about.

    Liberals could walk the walk if they found a way to focus people’s attention on the substance of things, rather than the stupid reflex stuff that plays right into the hands of extremists on all sides.

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