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The Maher, Affleck, & Harris Kerfuffle

Lee Phillips
October 9th, 2014

The comedian Bill Maher’s TV show “Real Time” takes a chance on actors and other celebrities by putting them in a room with people who know things and having an argument, or a TV-style caricature of an argument, about a political issue. Sometimes the actors are surprising because they defy the stereotype and turn out to be intelligent and well-informed. Or sometimes they do what Ben Affleck did a few days ago and fail to live up to even the least optimistic intellectual standards we might apply to the most vacuous of starlets or prettyboys.

Don’t bother watching the video. Here’s the summary:

Sam Harris: Maybe it’s a problem that some people think you should kill people who leave their religion.

Ben Affleck: Racist!

Sam Harris has a post-mortem in which, with superhuman evenhandedness, he shares his perplexity at Affleck’s weird, seething rage.

Many have written about this little episode. I write merely to add a recommendation to read an excellent book that came out a few years ago called The Flight of the Intellectuals, by Paul Berman. The main subject of this book is exactly what is before us here: the profoundly disappointing failure of the Left in the U.S. and Europe to grapple with, or even acknowledge, the threat of violent intolerance arising from a significant fraction of the Muslim world. It’s quite entertaining and informative about history, politics, and the slippery dissimulations of Tariq Ramadan. In a way it’s a successor to Berman’s equally instructive and engaging Terror and Liberalism.

What form does this failure of the Left take? There is much from which to choose; let’s wallow in what is to me the most depressing and infuriating case study.

We’ve certainly received the impression from people who identify themselves with the Left that they care, perhaps more than anything else, about the rights of the oppressed, including women. How to understand, then, what we learn, in Berman’s book, of their flippant dismissal, their consistent marginalizing, of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a courageous woman who has suffered the most brutal personal oppression imaginable, due entirely to her existence as a female in the Islamic world. She risks her life daily in order to champion what the Left claims it wants but refuses to stand up for: the rights of actual oppressed women around the world. If wage statistics show that American women are paid 7% less than men for similar work, it’s time to take to the streets to end the oppression. But hold down a million Muslim girls and scrape off their clitorises with dirty knives? Let’s not be too hasty. We wouldn’t want to be culturally insensitive.

The attitudes revealed and dissected in Berman’s books are obviously going to be with us for a long time. Read them if you want to know more about the history of Muslim political thought as well as the history of the political relationships between the Islamic world and the West.

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