Sam Harris: Let’s Cut Cops Some Slack


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Riot police clear demonstrators from a street in Ferguson

“People have erroneous assumptions about how violence unfolds.

If you’re deciding to block or defend yourself once a guy is already throwing his sucker punch, you are 9 times out of 10 too late.

I’m not making any claims to know what happened in Ferguson with the shooting; it could be every inch the homicide that many people seem to think it was. But the reality is that cops are having to work in a universe where they do a traffic stop and someone pulls out a gun and shoots them in the face.

So they have to assume that is a possibility no matter what you look like, no matter what kind of car you’re driving… You see them unbuckling the strap on their holster as they just walk up to give you a ticket. That’s because they don’t have the luxury of time. They can’t wait to see you produce a gun and say ‘OK, now my lethal force option is beyond reproach.’

So the only mode to be in with a cop — no matter how much of an asshole he might be — is to stay compliant, and then you sue him later. In the middle of negotiating with a cop, no matter how unjustified the arrest may seem, that’s not the time to be telling him he’s an asshole or talking about how you’re such a good guy and this is a violation of your civil rights.

The sheer fact that a cop has a gun on his belt makes any contact a potential lethal encounter for him.

So if you just go hands-on a cop, push a cop, he doesn’t know that you’re not going for the gun on his belt. He doesn’t know that you’re not going to push him into a car and he’ll be knocked out, and then you’re going to grab his gun.

So it’s all deadly from a cop’s point of view. Very few people understand that.

I had a friend who was stopped by a cop recently. This is a middle-aged Jewish guy who is, in his mind, the least dangerous person on earth, thinking why on earth is a cop stopping him. But my friend said something to the cop, then the cop unlatched the top restraint on his gun, and my friend said, ‘What? You’re going to pull out your gun on me?’

And the cop said, ‘What does a bad guy look like?’

And that just cut through the misunderstanding for my friend.

My friend knew he was not a bad guy; but there’s no way for the cop to know he’s not a bad guy. People are just not aware of that, and they’re interacting with cops and it’s dangerous everybody.”


Sam Harris, riffing in an interview with Joe Rogan last September.

There’s more:

Sam Harris

“Holding Court” by Clive James


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Daniel in Ireland

Retreating from the world, all I can do
Is build a new world, one demanding less
Acute assessments. Too deaf to keep pace
With conversation, I don’t try to guess
At meanings, or unpack a stroke of wit,
But just send silent signals with my face
That claim I’ve not succumbed to loneliness
And might be ready to come in on cue.
People still turn towards me where I sit.

I used to notice everything, and spoke
A language full of details that I’d seen,
And people were amused; but now I see
Only a little way. What can they mean,
My phrases? They come drifting like the mist
I look through if someone appears to be
Smiling in my direction. Have they been?
This was the time when I most liked to smoke.
My watch-band feels too loose around my wrist.

My body, sensitive in every way
Save one, can still proceed from chair to chair,
But in my mind the fires are dying fast.
Breathe through a scarf. Steer clear of the cold air.
Think less of love and all that you have lost.
You have no future so forget the past.
Let this be no occasion for despair.
Cherish the prison of your waning day.
Remember liberty, and what it cost.

Be pleased that things are simple now, at least,
As certitude succeeds bewilderment.
The storm blew out and this is the dead calm.
The pain is going where the passion went.
Few things will move you now to lose your head
And you can cause, or be caused, little harm.
Tonight you leave your audience content:
You were the ghost they wanted at the feast,
Though none of them recalls a word you said.


“Holding Court” by Clive James. You’ll find it in his much praised valedictory collection Sentenced to Life. I’ve just ordered my copy.

More from Clive:

Clive James

Do the Jews Prove God’s Existence?


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Chief Rabbi

“How probable is it that a tiny people, the children of Israel, known today as Jews, numbering less than a fifth of a per cent of the population of the world, would outlive every empire that sought its destruction? Or that a small, persecuted sect known as the Christians would one day become the largest movement of any kind in the world?

Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) was a Russian Marxist who broke with the movement after the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. He became an unconventional Christian — he had been charged with blasphemy for criticising the Russian Orthodox Church in 1913 — and went into exile, eventually settling in Paris. In The Meaning of History, he tells us why he abandoned Marxism:

I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint… Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history: all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.

Consider this one fact. The Bible records a series of promises by God to Abraham: that he would become a great nation, as many as the stars of the sky or the sand on the sea shore, culminating in the prophecy that he would become ‘the father of many nations’…

Somehow the prophets of Israel, a small, vulnerable nation surrounded by large empires, were convinced that it would be eternal.

‘This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night… ”Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will Israel ever cease being a nation before me” (Jeremiah 31:35-6).

There was nothing to justify that certainty then, still less after a thousand years of persecution, pogroms and the Final Solution. Yet improbably, Jews and Judaism survived.

King Frederick the Great once asked his physician Zimmermann of Brugg-in-Aargau, ‘Zimmermann, can you name me a single proof of the existence of God?’ The physician replied, ‘Your majesty, the Jews.’”


The distinguished and unfailingly charismatic Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, writing in The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.

I know nothing about Berdyaev, but in the two minutes I spent looking him up I ran across three quotes of his that are worth filing away in the bank:

“Bread for me is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.”

“Every single human soul has more meaning and value than the whole of history.”

“There is a tragic clash between truth and the world. Pure undistorted truth burns up the world.”

Not a fool.

Last month, Sacks sat down with David Brooks for a wide-ranging conversation about spirituality and meaning. It’s worth a watch.

Learn more:

Repentance Belongs to the Eternal in a Man


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Søren Kierkegaard

“When remorse calls to a man it is always late. The call to find the way again by seeking out God in the confession of sins is always at the eleventh hour. Whether you are young or old, whether you have sinned much or little, whether you have offended much or neglected much, the guilt makes this call come at the eleventh hour. The inner agitation of the heart understands what remorse insists upon, that the eleventh hour has come. For in the sense of time, the old man’s age is the eleventh hour; and the instant of death, the final moment in the eleventh hour. The indolent youth speaks of a long life that lies before him. The indolent old man hopes that his death is still a long way off. But repentance and remorse belong to the eternal in a man.”


Pulled from the opening of Søren Kierkegaard’s deep meditation on faith and motivation Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (1847).

There’s more to it:

How Will Future Historians Appraise the American Experiment?


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Norman Podhoretz “People are free to choose whatever view they wish to hold. If it were up to me, all intellectuals would be defending our kind of society. Let me add to this: I think American civilization, as a socio-political system, is one of the high points of human achievement. I compare it to fifth-century Athens. Not in the cultural sense; though we have not done too badly in the creation of artistic monuments, we don’t rank with fifth-century Athens or sixteenth-century Italy or Elizabethan England; but as a socio-political, democratic system we will be seen — if there is a future and there are future historians — as one of the highest points of human achievement, because we have created a society in which more people enjoy more freedom and more prosperity than any human community ever known to human history. And that is not nothing, to put it mildly. I wish everybody recognized that. Many people still don’t.”


Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary, speaking in an interview with Harry Kreisler as part of his “Conversations with History” series. You’ll find more substantial reflections like this in Podhoretz’s political memoir My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative.

This statement comes toward the tail end of Podhoretz and Kreisler’s hour-long conversation. The interview covers a lot of ground, and I recommend giving the whole thing a listen, though the next reflection, which wraps up their talk, has a special poignancy. Podhoretz is asked to summarize a lesson for his grandchildren in the context of his own strange intellectual journey from Marxist to founding neoconservative. He replies:

I hope that they would first of all learn to place the kind of value on this country that I think it deserves. Secondly, I hope that they would learn to understand how important ideas are… I would hope that they would also understand the idea that was most eloquently expressed by George Orwell who said something like this: the truth to which we have got to cling as a drowning man to a raft is that is possible to be a normal decent human being and still be fully alive. And I endorse that view with all my heart. I would hope my grandchildren would learn to endorse it as well.

Update: I emailed this excerpt to Noam Chomsky last night, with a question about how to square Podhoretz’s patriotism with Chomsky’s hypercritical posture towards American society and government. He replied:

No society deserves “gushing patriotism.” In terms of material prosperity, the US ranks fairly high. In the 18th century the colonies were probably the richest part of the world, and the US has incomparable material advantages, at least after the indigenous population was exterminated or expelled. Huge resources and territory, incomparable security, etc. One can debate how well the society has done considering these incomparable advantages. Similar questions arise in other dimensions. A true patriot doesn’t gush about how marvelous we are, but evaluates successes and failures and seeks to overcome the failures.

If you liked that, you’ll like these:

Henry Ford Was a Colossal Moron


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150th Anniversary of the Birth of Company Founder Henry Ford

“For a man who changed the world, Henry Ford traveled in very small circle. He resided his whole life within a dozen miles of birthplace, a farm in Dearborn, Michigan, just outside Detroit. He saw little of the wider world and cared even less for it.

He was defiantly narrow-minded, barely educated, and at least close to functionally illiterate. His beliefs were powerful but consistently dubious, and made him seem, in the words of The New Yorker, ‘mildly unbalanced.’ He did not like bankers, doctors, liquor, tobacco, idleness of any sort, pasteurized milk, Wall Street, overweight people, war, books or reading, J. P. Morgan and Co., capital punishment, tall buildings, college graduates, Roman Catholics, or Jews. Especially he didn’t like Jews. Once he hired a Hebraic scholar to translate the Talmud in a manner designed to make Jewish people appear shifty and avaricious.

His ignorance was a frequent source of wonder. He believed that the earth could not support the weight placed on it by skyscrapers and that eventually cities would collapse in on themselves, as in some kind of biblical apocalypse. Engineers explained to him that a large skyscraper typically weighed about sixty thousand tons while the rock and earth excavated for the foundations would weigh more like a hundred tons, so that skyscrapers actually reduced the burden on the earth beneath them, but Ford was unpersuaded. He seldom let facts or logic challenge the certainty of his instincts.

The limits of his knowledge were most memorable exposed in 1919 when he sued the Chicago Tribune for libel for calling him an ‘ignorant idealist’ and an ‘anarchist.’ For eight days, lawyers for the Tribune entertained the nation by punting through the shallow waters of Ford’s mind, as in this typical exchange regarding his familiarity with the history of his own country:

Lawyer: Did you ever hear of Benedict Arnold?
Ford: I have heard the name.
Lawyer: Who was he?
Ford: I have forgotten just who he is. He is a writer, I think.

Ford, it transpired, did not know much of anything. He could not say when the American Revolution was fought (‘In 1812, I think; I’m not quite sure’) or quite what the issues were that provoked it. Questioned about politics, he conceded that he didn’t follow matters closely and had voted only once in his life. That was just after his twenty-first birthday, when, he said, he had voted for James Garfield. An alert lawyer pointed out that Garfield was in fact assassinated three years before Ford reached voting age.”


Pulled from Bill Bryson’s superbly readable romp of a history book One Summer: America, 1927.

In all fairness to both author and subject, Bryson’s next paragraph gives you the other side of Ford’s commendable personal story:

Yet against this must be set his extraordinary achievement. When Henry Ford built his first Model T, Americans had some 2,200 makes of cars to choose from. Every one of those cars was in some sense a toy, a plaything for the well-to-do. Ford changed the automobile into a universal appliance, an affordable device practical for all, and that difference in philosophy made him unimaginably successful and transformed the world. Within just over a decade Ford had more than fifty factories on six continents, employed two hundred thousand people, produced half the world’s cars, and was the most successful industrialist in history, worth perhaps as much as $2 billion, by one estimate. By perfecting mass production and making the automobile an object within financial reach of the average workingman, he wholly transformed the course and rhythm of modern life. We live in a world largely shaped by Henry Ford…

Henry Ford was born in July 1863, the same month as the Battle of Gettysburg, and lived into the atomic age, dying in 1947.

So there’s that.

Go onward:

Henry Ford with Car

“Carlos” by Theodore Deppe


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John- June 2006 231

My first day leading the prison writing workshop: Carlos
complimented my choosing the chair nearest the door.

I read a poem by Whitman that once sent me hitchhiking
and Carlos stood up, asked to read a section from his four hundred-page work-in progress,

a poem that turns on his first finding Neruda’s “One Year Walk”;
he said it lit up the night like a perfect crime, so I left everything—

I had no choice—walked three thousand miles to the Pacific.
From memory he recited a passage in which his father left the family

a small fortune, all counterfeit: though I doubted the facts, I can still see
that worn briefcase, almost-perfect hundreds stacked neatly in shrink-wrapped packs.

I was young, it took me two weeks to accept that I could teach this lifer
nothing. World of concrete floors and everlasting light:

he was grateful to God who gave him a blazing mind not granted to anyone living or dead,
and wouldn’t have changed a word anyway.


“Carlos” by Theodore Deppe. You’ll find it and other masterworks from Deppe in his collection Orpheus on the Redline.

I snapped the picture in Houston.

There’s more:

Killing Saddam, Resurrecting al-Qaeda


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Harry Kreisler: From the start, Jihadists came to believe that it would be ideal if American troops would be drawn back into the middle east. The idea was that if they attacked [on 9/11] and we came back at them in Afghanistan, the US would be destroyed in Afghanistan like the USSR had been.

They were wrong about that. But then… the invasion in Iraq.

Lawrence Wright: Iraq looks a lot like what bin Laden had in mind for us in Afghanistan.

If you read the memoirs of the inner-circle and ideologues of al-Qaeda, they confess that al-Qaeda was essentially dead after November, December 2001, when American and coalition forces swept aside the Taliban and pummeled al-Qaeda, accomplishing in a few weeks what the Red Army had failed to do in 10 years.

Eighty-percent of al-Qaeda membership was captured or killed, according to their own figures. And although we didn’t get the leaders, the survivors were scattered, unable to communicate with each other, destitute, and repudiated all over the world.

So this was a movement that was in a kind of zombie-like state.

It was Iraq that set the prairie on fire, that gave them another chance. Ironically, Iraq was never on bin Laden’s list of a likely candidate for Jihad because he knew it was a largely Shia nation, and al-Qaeda of course is an Sunni organization.

So it wasn’t high on his list. But we gave him an opportunity. And he took it.


Messrs. Wright and Kreisler, chatting about Wright’s fantastic chronicle of the origins of the war on terror The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

Keep going:

Lawrence Wright

Not Praying in Auschwitz


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Primo Levi

“Like Amery, I too entered the lager as a nonbeliever, and as a nonbeliever I was liberated and have lived to this day. Actually, the experience in the lager with its frightful iniquity confirmed me in my non-belief. It prevented, and still prevents me from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice: Why were the moribund packed in cattle cars? Why were the children sent to the gas?

I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in October 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death: when, naked and compressed among my naked companions with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the ‘commission’ that with one glance would decide whether I should go to the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working.

For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, not when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected that temptation: I knew that otherwise, were I to survive, I would have been ashamed of it.”


From Primo Levi, succumbing to a null theodicy in his last book The Drowned and the Saved.

A few months after his liberation and return home to Turin, the twenty-six-year-old Levi wrote a poem titled “February 25, 1944,” the day he first walked through the iron gates marked Arbeit macht frei:

I would like to believe in something,
Something beyond the death that undid you.
I would like to describe the intensity
With which, already overwhelmed,
We longed in those day to be able
To walk together once again
Free beneath the sun.

The crux of the poem is, to me, that wrenching last word of the third line. In Italian, however, overwhelmed reads like “to be submerged” or “to be drowned” (essere sommersi). Free is more like “to be saved” (essere salivate). Hence the book’s title.

Inside the Mind of Muhammad Atta


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9:11 Security Camera

“What the [9/11 hijacking] recruits tended to have in common — besides their urbanity, their cosmopolitan backgrounds, their education, their facility with languages, and their computer skills — was displacement. Most who joined the jihad did so in a country other than the one in which they were reared… The imams naturally responded to the alienation and anger that prompted these men to find a spiritual home. A disproportionate number of new mosques in immigrant communities had been financed by Saudi Arabia and staffed by Wahhabi fundamentalists, many of whom were preaching the glories of jihad. […]

Although they would often be accused of being a fascistic cult, the resentment that burned inside the al-Quds mosque, where Atta and his friends gathered, had not been honed into a keen political agenda. But like the Nazis, who were born in the shame of defeat, the radical Islamists shared a fanatical determination to get on top of history after being underfoot for so many generations.

Although Atta had only vaguely socialist ideas of government, he and his circle filled up the disavowed political space that the Nazis left behind. One of Atta’s friends, Munir al-Motassadeq, referred to Hitler as ‘a good man.’ Atta himself often said that the Jews controlled the media, banks, newspapers, and politics from their world headquarters in New York City; moreover, he was convinced that the Jews had planned the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechnya as a way of holding back Islam. He believed that Monica Lewinsky was a Jewish agent sent to undermine Clinton, who had become too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

The extreme rigidity of character that everyone detected in Atta was a Nazi trait, and no doubt it was reinforced in him by the need to resist the lure of this generous city. The young urban planner must have admired the cleanliness and efficiency of Hamburg, which was so much the opposite of the Cairo where he had grown up. But the odious qualities that Sayyid Qutb [the founder of modern Islamism] had detected in America — its materialism, its licentiousness, its spiritual falsity — were also spectacularly on display in Hamburg, with its clanging casinos, prostitutes in shop windows, and magnificent, empty cathedrals…

Atta was a perfectionist; in his work he was a skilled but not creative draftsman. Physically, there was a feminine quality to his bearing: He was ‘elegant’ and ‘delicate,’ so that his sexual orientation — however unexpressed — was difficult to read…

On April 11, 1996, when Atta was twenty-seven years old, he signed a standardized will he got from the al-Quds mosque. It was the day Israel attacked Lebanon in Operation Grapes of Wrath. According to one of his friends, Atta was enraged, and by filling out his last testament during the attack he was offering his life in response.

Although the sentiments in the will represent the tenets of his community of faith, Atta constantly demonstrated an aversion to women, who in his mind were like Jews in their powerfulness and corruption. The will states: ‘No pregnant woman or disbelievers should walk in my funeral or ever visit my grave. No woman should ask forgiveness of me. Those who will wash my body should wear gloves so that they do not touch my genitals.’ The anger that this statement directs at women and its horror of sexual contact invites the thought that Atta’s turn to terror had as much to do with his own conflicted sexuality as it did with the clash of civilizations.”


An excerpt from Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

If you’re yet to see it, spend two hours watching the new HBO documentary Going Clear, based on Wright’s book of the same title. It’s an eery, engrossing, and absolutely scandalizing look at the Church of Scientology and its hucksterish origins and practices.

Wright is interviewed throughout the film. His speech is always clear, never hyperbolic, and tuned to challenge viewers’ easy assumptions and reflexive piety. His command of the material effortlessly shows through. I was impressed and liked the guy, so I decided to read his book on 9/11 — and I encourage you to do the same. It reveals the origins of not only that day — the most important day of any of our lifetimes — but also of the kind of fiendish, extremist worldview (what Martin Amis once broadly labeled “the dependent mind”) that we’re now confronting in nearly every country on earth. It’s a stranger and even less coherent creation story than you’d expect.

Read on:

Lawrence Wright

In a Real Democracy April 15th Would Be a Day of Mass Celebration


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Noam Chomsky

“Look at our political institutions. You have, say, the New Hampshire primary. In a democratic society, what would happen is the people in a town in New Hampshire would get together in their own organizations, assemblies, groups, whatever they are, and take off a little time from whatever careers or other activities that they’re engaged in and say, ‘Alright, let’s work out what we would like to see in the next election.’

And they’d come up with some sort of program: we’d like to see this. Then, if some candidate says, ‘I would like to come to town to talk to you,’ they would respond, ‘Well you can come if you want to listen to us.’ And the candidate could come and they would explain to him what they want…

What happens is totally different.

Nobody meets in the town. The candidate and his media representatives announce that he or she is coming to New Hampshire and they gather people together. The people sit there and listen to the candidate saying, ‘Look how wonderful I am, I’m going to do all these great things,’ and nobody believes a word and then they go home. Well, you know, that’s the opposite of democracy.

In fact, we see it all the time. Take, say, April 15th. In a functioning democratic society that would be a day of celebration, the day you hand in your taxes. You would be saying: ‘Alright, we got together, we worked out some plans and programs that we think ought to be implemented and we’re now participating in providing the funding to get these things done.’ That’s a democracy. In the United States it’s a day of mourning. It’s a day when this alien force, you know, the government, which comes from Mars or somewhere is arriving to steal from us our hard earned money and use it for their own purposes, whatever they are. That’s a reflection of the fact that the concept of democracy is not even in people’s minds anymore. Now, I’m exaggerating. It’s not quite this sharp, but it’s pretty close.”


Noam Chomsky, speaking in ‘Part IV: Political Institutions’ of The Chomsky Sessions on ZNet. You can find extended interviews with Dr. Chomsky in the always challenging Class Warfare: Interviews with David Barsamian.

In the United States, April 15th is statistically shown to be the second most stressful day of the year, as 56% of American adults say the tax-filling process is “stressful” and 18% say it is “very stressful.” (Data from a Zogby poll shows peak tornado season to be the most stressful day of the year.) Three quarters of Americans say money is “a significant cause of stress in [their] lives,” leaving us unsurprised that the day a large stack of that cash is handed over would be an especially anxious one. You are also far more likely to be injured in a car accident on April 15th and 16th, given each sees statistically significant spikes in incidents of road rage (Super Bowl Sunday is the second most dangerous day to be on the road, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association).

Don’t agree with Noam? You’re still in some good company:


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