Ezra Klein’s Intellectual Demagoguery

Ezra Klein (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
He accuses Sam Harris of being racist — for thinking that Charles Murray isn’t.

Ezra Klein wants you to know that he doesn’t think Sam Harris is a racist. “I’m not here to say you’re racist, I don’t think you are,” Klein explains in a two-hour debate with Harris on the latter’s podcast, Waking Up. “We have not called you one.” No, not at all. Klein is telling the truth here. Why so touchy, Sam?

Klein’s site Vox, in a piece by scientists Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett, merely tagged Harris as participating in “pseudoscientific racialist speculation” and peddling “junk science” while being “egregiously wrong morally” and implied he’s on the same side as eugenicists, claiming that the burden of proof is on Harris to demonstrate that he isn’t. The piece was listed as one of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “hatewatch headlines” of the day, right alongside news about neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Klein himself then chimed in with an attack piece saying Harris was carrying on with “America’s most ancient justification for bigotry and racial inequality.” All of this because Harris had a podcast conversation with Charles Murray, the co-author of The Bell Curve, which contains a chapter about race and IQ.

For Klein to maintain that he and his site didn’t call Harris a racist is dishonest. In so many words, they did. His dissimulation reveals something important about him: He’s in the business of intellectual demagoguery. He debases the tone of good-faith debate. He whips up crowds using smears. Then he denies he did any such thing.

Associating hate with Harris is bizarre. I’ve grown fond of his preternaturally composed, hyper-rational style on the Waking Up podcast. But when he talks about Klein, he is not quite himself. He can’t disguise his bewilderment. He sounds like Spock discovering his shorts are on fire. “Captain, I have detected . . . flames and singed flesh . . . in the vicinity of . . . my perineum.” His tone remains steady, but the words are uncharacteristically pointed. During the debate, as Klein keeps delivering lectures to Harris on the history of racist injustice and repeatedly accuses him of having a “blind spot,” you can hear Harris sighing. Does Harris — does any intelligent person —  really need to be told that blacks have been victimized by racism? Of course they have been. It’s a different conversation from the one about what we do and don’t know about IQ scores.

Harris, who has to his credit a philosophy degree from Stanford, a Ph.D. from UCLA in cognitive neuroscience, and several well-reviewed books, has described himself as on the left on virtually every issue. How disorienting it must have been to find himself reclassified as a neo-Mengele and besieged by the social-media mob because he spoke with Murray. His reputation, he says on another episode, was severely damaged. He believes the bloodlust Klein successfully instigated on social media would have gotten him fired if had been on staff at a mainstream media outlet or university. People go bananas if someone cries racism, regardless of whether the charge is founded.

Because of The Bell Curve, Murray has long been demonized on the left as a racist and a white supremacist. Harris hadn’t paid much attention to the book in the quarter-century since it was published but said in the debate with Klein (this is the transcript) that he had been under the impression that “it must be just racist trash, because I assumed that where there was all that smoke, there must be fire.” After reading The Bell Curve, though, he came to think that Murray “was probably the most unfairly maligned person in my lifetime” because “the most controversial passages in the book struck me as utterly mainstream with respect to the science.” Harris doesn’t necessarily agree with Murray’s policy ideas, but wouldn’t rule them outside the boundaries of discussion.

If you have the law on your side, argue the law. If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have neither on your side, call your opponent a racist.

The core of the disagreement between Klein and Harris is that Klein thinks Murray should be treated as radioactive, and name-calling is his method for making that happen. Harris thinks Murray’s science is sound and that the attacks on the two of them in Vox were misleading, vicious, and ad hominem. Harris cites, for instance, a recent New York Times op-ed by Harvard professor David Reich that says “as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races,’” as well as an essay by Richard Haier, a psychologist and editor in chief of the journal Intelligence, which directly charges Turkheimer et al. with misrepresenting what The Bell Curve says, adds that some of their assertions about race and IQ run contrary to the weight of evidence, and note that its core arguments have been challenged many times by experts. Haier offered the piece to Vox, which rejected it. New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan, a friend to both Klein and Harris, took Harris’s side in a column, saying Klein didn’t have a satisfying response to the scientific argument and “seems to back a truly extreme position: that only the environment affects IQ scores.” What’s even more troubling, Sullivan writes, is Klein’s “attempt to smear legitimate conservative ideas and serious scientific arguments as the equivalent of peddling white supremacy and bigotry” via “stigmatization and demonization.”

In short, it appears that it’s Klein’s Vox, not Murray, and certainly not Harris, that is pushing views outside the mainstream of scientific research about intelligence. Klein’s central role in this is repugnant. To adapt the legal adage: If you have the law on your side, argue the law. If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have neither on your side, call your opponent a racist. This was also O. J. Simpson’s strategy.

It worked for Simpson, and to an extent, it worked for Klein. At least Simpson did it to save himself, though. Klein does it because he’d rather destroy the reputation of a fellow liberal than acknowledge being on the losing side of an argument.

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