CJ Werleman: Misrepresentation, Dubious Ethics and Unoriginal Hackery.
I own a couple of Werleman’s books: ‘God Hates You, Hate Him Back’ & ‘Jesus Lied – He Was Only Human‘. I’d never heard of him beforehand, but I was happy to receive them as Christmas gifts a few years back – my Dad’s cool like that.
They’re ok – they don’t cover any new ground, the humour is a bit too school yard for my taste and reading them created the impression of an author who’d spied an opening in a growing a market – but it doesn’t really matter. I decided they were essentially good, as they were accessible (that’s a polite way of saying ‘dumbed down’).
The so-called ‘Four Horsemen/New Atheists’ are often accused of being elitist, as if that’s somehow an invective. Whilst not really sharing this concern, I think I understand one aspect of it. We have a group of incredibly intelligent, likely privileged (white – must mention white!) and qualified individuals who write on topics in such a manner that may require a life-time worth of research and expertise to fully get to grips with. Not everyone feels this way of course, but it’s not necessarily entry-level stuff for some either. I count myself amongst those that have their own intelligence challenged (and often pummelled) by the ideas these people so effortlessly hold court on. So I also consider any contribution to a body of literature that’s critical of religion to be a good thing, especially if it reaches a broader audience.
Needless to say we won’t be seeing Werleman follow up with ‘Allah Hates You, Hate Him Back’ or ‘Muhammad Lied – He Was Only A Charlatan’ any time soon, as he’s currently preoccupied with the deeply courageous task of mocking Republicans, ‘New Atheists’, and bravely highlighting the dangers posed by talk show hosts & neuroscientists (see the article ‘What atheists like Bill Maher have in common with medieval Christian crusaders‘). Islamic terrorism can wait – or rather, is explained away as a product of politics, not a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam – as though the two are mutually exclusive. Drop in a pinch of white guilt, a dash of masochism and you’ve already heard this elsewhere, many times before, many years ago.
It’s not so much that CJ Werleman is wrong about a geopolitical influence on global terrorism (I don’t think he is), nor is it that he’s wrong to discount Islam as a dominant causal factor (I think he is), it’s the blatant misrepresentation and desire for attention at the expense of his peers that is my issue. In fact, in some cases it’s simply defamatory. Also, what he has cobbled together in his attack on Harris has already been written by others (and much more eloquently), many years ago. That’s exactly why you’ll find it already addressed in great detail on Harris’s own blog. It seems Harris understands the arguments against his positions far better than Werleman can make them. It doesn’t seem Werleman has even actually bothered to read Harris’s work, but is simply regurgitating past hack jobs and slapping sensationalist headlines on them.
I don’t subscribe to all and everything Sam Harris has to say, one example is that I’m not satisfied with his answers on the topic of vegetarianism and would like to hear this discussed in further detail.
Although, if I had a blog at Salon I would no doubt spew these concerns under the headline “Sam Harris Hates Animals & Wants Them To Suffer”. Then I’d double-down when a perturbed Harris calls me on my flagrant misrepresentation. But it wouldn’t matter. His attention would afford me a moment in the spotlight normally reserved for influential public figures. That’s the goal. And that’s the problem. With this type of dishonest hyperbolic click-bait from ‘social commentators’ (this is a job now apparently) you’re increasing your readers, but you’re actually robbing them at the same time. You’re denying them the opportunity for worthwhile discussion on incredibly consequential topics. And furthermore; it’s too easy. Of course people are going to congratulate and applaud you as you speak up against the invented maniac that hates animals. But for all the positive attention it brings you in the moment, you’ll eventually be caught out. People will begin to notice your modus operandi. As people are now starting to notice with Werleman.
Are the ideas concerning global terrorism & religious fundamentalism so tedious we must attack straw men in order to keep our minds engaged on the problem?
I’ve decided to draw attention to a few examples of Werleman’s dubious, unethical and outright cringe-worthy behaviour. He should apologise to those involved as soon as possible:
One thing is for certain – Werleman is keen to raise his profile – and he’s desperate to do so by provoking Harris into sharing a platform with him.
Harris, seemingly frustrated with this frequent sniping and misrepresentation via blogs and Twitter, vented his frustrations by way of some private email correspondences. Werleman decided it was acceptable to reproduce the contents of these exchanges on his blog – without permission – under the conceited and self-serving headline of “Atheist Authors Feud Over Islamic Extremism”. The reasons for caricaturing this mere complaint as a ‘feud’ between ‘atheist authors’ on such a contentious topic are transparent. This is nothing more than an attempt by Werleman to legitimise his profile by hijacking Harris’s actual one. If you can’t achieve the meeting of minds you’re desperate for, pretend you have instead.
Werleman’s baiting via tweets and blogs continued until they culminated in a car-crash of an appearance on The Young Turks online TV show. I’ve never watched the show before, but given how his remarks mostly went unchallenged, I know I’ll never need to again.
On the show, Werleman stated: “I think he’s dangerous … Imagine having Sam Harris as president of the United States with access to the nuclear launch codes. That is no different from the fear of having Sarah Palin in charge of the nuclear launch codes”. Remarkably, he managed to say this with a straight face. Watch it all if you can. Your ability to do so may depend on the width of your fingers.
Werleman continues with: “[Harris] Has already said, that [he] would support, possibly, a nuclear first-strike on the Arab world”. Werleman bases this apocalyptic ‘concern’ on a gymnastic like distortion of Sam’s actual words. Below is the only passage Sam Harris has ever penned on the issue of nuclear deterrence (emphasis added);
It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.
Does this grim thought experiment sound anything like what you would expect from Sarah Palin?
Again – I’ll leave you to judge whether Werleman’s commentary is a fair & responsible approximation.
It’s worth noting that this clip was originally titled ‘Is Sam Harris as Dangerous As Sarah Palin?’ (or something to that effect – I can’t remember exactly, please let me know if you can) for which the host later apologised for and changed to ‘What is the Root of Violence – Religion or Other Factors?’. It seems those responsible for its production have also realised Werleman’s inflammatory nonsense is for attention. Well, he got his wish.
As a result, Harris asked Werleman for permission to publish their email correspondences in full. This professional courtesy highlights the difference in class between the two men.
Werleman agreed, then in what feels like a cynical attempt to ‘get the drop’ on Harris, released them first. Without asking, of course.
The contents of the emails create a fairly unpleasant picture of how Werleman operates. His subsequent responses to detractors calling him on this reveal a man who’s blissfully unaware of how poorly he comes across in these exchanges. Being honest about your dishonesty, then continuing on with it does not excuse it. The desperate desire for attention is palpable.
I don’t need to provide any commentary or spin, just read them and ask yourself whether this is a professional and ethical way of publicly engaging with those who you disagree with. In these exchanges, Werleman tries to justify his dubious tactics by saying ‘I often err on the side of extreme rhetoric to make a point’. This is the sort of thing you would expect from a celebrity gossip blog. I’d take a moment to reflect on whether that’s a standard you’d be proud of.
Ironically, amid the criticism Werleman was receiving on Twitter for misrepresenting Sam Harris’s views, he continued to prove he’d learned absolutely nothing by tweeting this highly selective and intentionally provocative quote (a number of times):
He also tweaked it live on The Young Turks Show by saying: “[Harris] Has already said that it is justifiable in some instances that you may kill people for just having bad ideas” He then goes on to compare this with the genocidal actions of the Soviet Union.
The impression created from this isolated quote is of a lunatic that advocates murder simply for thought crime. I wouldn’t like that person either – and many of the indignant reactions to it demonstrated the desired effect had been achieved. This is grossly irresponsible. Harris addresses the quote here, and notes how this kind of appalling action increases his security concerns.
Let’s take a moment to look over the full context from which this ‘quote’ was maliciously mined:
The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:
Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.
What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.
The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.
And a further endnote of:
We do not have to bring the membership of Al Qaeda “to justice” merely because of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. The thousands of men, women, and children who disappeared in the rubble of the World Trade Center are beyond our help—and successful acts of retribution, however satisfying they may be to some people, will not change this fact. Our subsequent actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere are justified because of what will happen to more innocent people if members of Al Qaeda are allowed to go on living by the light of their peculiar beliefs. The horror of Sept. 11 should motivate us, not because it provides us with a grievance that we now must avenge, but because it proves beyond any possibility of doubt that certain twenty-first-century Muslims actually believe the most dangerous and implausible tenets of their faith.
Again, I shall leave you, the reader to judge whether this is a fair or responsible approximation.
Let’s take another Twitter exchange with Author Peter Boghossian.
Would you like to know what Boghossian’s sinister plan is to ‘eradicate religion’? It’s mass…..friendly, non-aggressive discussion. You can read all about his recommended approach in the excellent book ‘A Manual For Creating Atheists’ where he advocates employing the Socratic Method when engaging people of faith. Soviet Union? Not so much. This is nothing more than a rather silly variation of Godwin’s law.
But it doesn’t matter – Werleman has now associated Boghossian’s intent with that of a genocidal regime – to his 30k+ followers no less. I’m not surprised this embarrassing way of engaging compelled Boghossian to abandon the conversation.
I’ll once again leave you to judge whether Werleman’s commentary is a fair or responsible approximation.
But it’s this attempt to co-opt Richard Dawkins which makes me wonder whether this is actually intentional misrepresentation or merely an issue of reading comprehension. Take the below tweet of this article:
Here is Dawkins’s actual quote which is contained in its entirety within the same article (emphasis mine):
“Religion itself is not responsible for this… It’s also this feeling of political involvement. It’s a feeling that it’s ‘us against them.’ And I think that quite a large number of young Muslims feel kind of beleaguered against the rest of the world. And so religion in some sense might be just an excuse, but I do think that a dominant part of the motivation for these young men has to be religion.”
I’ll once again leave you to judge whether Werleman’s commentary is a fair or responsible approximation. Or the original article for that matter.
It should be obvious at this point that there are many views I disagree with Werleman on, but I’ll never knowingly misrepresent them, or amplify the work of those that do. If I have done so here – I’ll note it and correct. In fact, a rather devious individual decided to impersonate Werleman on Twitter and make some odious comments in the direction of Harris and others. I drew attention to this and encouraged people to report it.
Sure – it’s impersonation, not misrepresentation – but they’re not exactly worlds apart. From the below tweet, it does actually appear Werleman understands how unjust this sort of treatment is:
It’s just a shame he only reserves that understanding for the instances that impact him personally. Imagine how he’d feel should the person responsible have a reach comparable to his own.
These are massively important topics. It should go without saying that Islamic terrorism is a complex issue and legitimate disagreement can and should be had regarding its root causes. Honest disagreement is a fantastic process by which to further this debate. However, it’s a damning indicator of the strength of your arguments, if they must be articulated by attacking your opponents for what you’ve decided they believe, rather than what they have repeatedly stated they believe.
As a footnote, this bizarre (faux) liberal inability to recognise the causal link between literal belief in extremist doctrines and extremist behaviour is never more apparent than in this tweet:
Apparently access to academic institutions is what is needed to combat religious extremism. This negates to recognise those responsible for the most devastating instances of religious extremism in the west did not lack education. We are in fact talking about predominantly middle-class Lawyers, Engineers, Teachers etc. Couple this with the fact that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta was actually educated in a German University and Werleman’s proclamation is revealed to be all the more clueless.
Some might say that bickering with those that are essentially ‘on our side’ – whatever that means – is counterproductive. Well, I’d say Christopher Hitchens nailed it with “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence”
“P.S. I’m actually a pretty good bloke” is the pitiful sign off during one of Werleman’s email exchanges with Harris. I’ve no doubt he is a nice bloke. I just think the hunger for attention has made him forget how to behave like one. Let’s hope it’s a temporary malady.