On 3rd of March 2018, Sam Harris appeared in front of a packed house at the Majestic Theatre, Dallas, Texas for a long-form public conversation with former neo-Nazi skinhead Christian Picciolini.
Picciolini was, up until 1996, a proud white supremacist of the sort that would cover his “superior” white skin with black swastika tattoos and attempt to demonstrate the “superiority” of his race by beating seven bells of shit out of innocent people on the basis that they didn’t look like him.
He has since renounced vicious racist thuggery, written a book on his exploits, and founded Life After Hate; a Non-Profit Organization working towards the de-radicalization of impressionable people drawn into the same hateful and grossly idiotic ideology which was so appealing to his younger self.
The resulting conversation was a fascinating (if occasionally flawed) insight into Picciolini’s journey into and out of poisonous far-right extremism, and was subsequently published in audio form as Episode 121 of Harris’s Waking Up Podcast under the title White Power.
During this discussion, however, Picciolini made a number of sloppy and potentially libellous remarks about Google Memo author James Damore and highly questionable You Tube personality Stefan Molyneux, which resulted in a written complaint from Damore and a threat of legal action from Molyneux.
Specifically, Picciolini had made accusations of Holocaust denial towards Molyneux, and of conversing with former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon David Duke. He also accused Damore of appearing exclusively on white nationalist and Alt-Right podcasts in the immediate aftermath of his dismissal from Google. Here are the offending remarks verbatim:
- (On Molyneux’s apparent radicalization of his followers): “…and then he starts feeding them with Holocaust denial.”
- “I’ve also seen him in conversation with David Duke.”
- “He’s now a pretty rabid white nationalist, denying the Holocaust, or coming very, very close to that.”
- (On James Damore): “…I also want to know why he was doing exclusively Alt-Right and white nationalist podcasts for months after that incident.”
As a result of the protestations made by Damore and Molyneux, Harris undertook some research into his complainants, came to the conclusion that the remarks were indeed unfounded, and decided to err on the side of caution by removing them from the published audio and apologizing for any reputational harm caused.
“Unfortunately Christian said a few things that don’t appear to have been strictly true. And as the weeks have passed… I’ve heard from two people who consider his remarks to have been unfairly damaging to their reputations. This is a problem that I’m quite sensitive too given what gets done to me by my critics…
I didn’t know enough about these guys to fact check Christian in real time. However I’ve since come to believe that all of these specific charges are false. And given how concerned I am to represent the views of other people fairly, even the views of people with whom I may disagree, in fact especially people with whom I may disagree, I’ve decided that we should re-edit those podcasts to remove the misleading statements.” – Sam Harris, Waking Up Podcast, episode 126.
To say that Picciolini took exception to this retroactive correction is something of an understatement. Without irony, Christian immediately took to Twitter to accuse a man who had spent two and a half hours enthusiastically championing his anti-racism work to a million-strong podcast audience, of censoring him and of providing “cover to racists”.
When pressed, Picciolini made little to no attempt to support his claim about Damore (it’s a charge which is quickly and easily debunked with a simple Google search for Damore interviews in the months immediately following his August 2017 firing), but in attempting to back up his claims regarding Molyneux, Picciolini employed the bemusing tactic of providing links to articles and blogs which in no way supported his assertions and, in some cases, flat-out contradicted them.
For example; the link he provided to prove his assertion that he’d “seen him in conversation with David Duke” was an article on the SPLC website which claims that Molyneux had simply been retweeted by Duke.
As far as the charge of Holocaust denial goes, the article never makes such an assertion and simply quotes Molyneux as describing the Final Solution as a “wild overreaction” to German fears of being “overtaken by Jewish-led Communism”. Whatever this suspiciously worded proclamation is, it isn’t Holocaust denial. In fact it rather suggests the opposite. And this is the same article that Picciolini sent to Harris via private email when requested to substantiate his claims. Harris was right to reject this “evidence” as insufficient.
Another source Picciolini bizarrely decided to offer as support for his accusation of Holocaust denial, is a blog post which makes the following statement in its opening gambit:
“So what’s the deal here? Is Stefan Molyneux a Holocaust denier?
No, but he is Holocaust denier-adjacent.”
So not a Holocaust denier then. Picciolini could have spent the entirety of the podcast listing the ways in which Molyneux is a gibbering crackpot and probable racist. He could have said he’s a cultish and creepy, wild-eyed ideologue with the off-putting aesthetic of Phil Collins channelling Ted Bundy. A possessed man-baby with shimmering incandescent pupils and a poorly suppressed messiah complex. A sinister garbage-guru come home-wrecker with a deeply suspicious preoccupation with racial differences. In fact, he could have said much of what he’s subsequently said about Molyneux regarding his “alignment” with Alt-Right ideas, his eroticizing the concept of a white ethnostate, and his propensity for peddling White Genocide theories. And, I suspect, he could have said these things without any objection from Harris. But he instead made very specific accusations which appear to be simply untrue. And it is this factor, not any sympathy for Molyneux’s ideas, which led to Harris’s decision to correct the record and apologize for the misrepresentation.
Picciolini has since stated that he had no idea who Harris was prior to the podcast appearance. Perhaps if he was even vaguely familiar with the work of the man he was accusing of “providing cover for racists” and of “complicity with white supremacists”, he might uncover a simpler and far more plausible explanation for Harris’s concern to represent these people fairly.
There are few public figures more morally and strictly dedicated to the principle of honesty than Sam Harris. He has written an article and a short book on the destructive nature of lies, including white lies, and even considers misleading kids about the existence of Santa Claus to be beyond the pale for Christ’s sake. He once happily confessed to a customs officer during a baggage inspection that he’d been engaging in some enthusiastic opium use on his travels. He regularly makes statements like the following:
“We have to get to a world where there is real opprobrium and reputational cost to being caught in a lie. I think lying is the most corrosive thing that most people do on a regular basis. And it’s considered normal.”
And so Harris in this instance, was simply demonstrating exactly the same commitment to truth and fairness towards Molyneux, as he did when publicly and proactively apologizing to his arch nemesis Glenn Greenwald, upon realizing that some of his criticisms were unfair. Unlike Molyneux, Greenwald’s positions and underhanded methods of operation are abundantly and painfully familiar to Harris, yet Harris offered two separate, unsolicited, and sincere apologies regardless. Is it possible that Harris’s admittance of his mistakes in that instance, and his willingness to issue apologies represent an underlying sympathy for Greenwald and his views? Is it an attempt to “provide cover” for regressive leftist smear merchants? No. It’s merely another expression of Harris’s self-imposed ethical obligation to truth.
This is all the more admirable considering the fervent refusal of Greenwald, and others of his ilk, to reciprocate in any way. Harris himself, as I’ve demonstrated previously, has been the subject of an extensive campaign of misrepresentation and has no shortage of malicious antagonists who occupy their time attributing to him false statements and fabricated views. The damage this deeply unethical behaviour does to reputations is undoubtedly one of the reasons that Harris is so careful to represent others accurately.
This is the kind of commendable, intellectually honest behaviour that people of goodwill should be demanding of influential public figures, and holding them to account if they fail to meet this standard. Instead it is being criticized and used as the basis for some desperately uncharitable and incredibly cynical insinuations of racism sympathies.
Perhaps noticing a potential anti-Harris ally, Picciolini was subsequently approached by ex-Muslim illustrator, and irritated eye-roll emoji made flesh, Eiynah Mohammed-Smith, whose resulting conversation with him has recently been released on her knowingly titled Polite Conversations podcast.
This is hardly surprising. Recently, Sam Harris has found himself in the company of a seemingly unending list of thinkers and activists who have tragically disappointed Eiynah by failing to meet her narrow parameters of acceptability, and has naturally been discarded onto the ever increasing trash heap of former friends and supporters now worthy of nothing but criticism and mockery at every opportunity over the slightest perceived transgression.
Eiynah appears to be making a concentrated effort to create a list of acceptable atheists, secularists, and sceptical critics of Islam worthy of support, which has but one name on it: Her own. And it’s hard to shake the feeling that she’s temporarily recruiting characters like Picciolini to help achieve that objective.
“Don’t get me started on the pedantic defences from Sam fans” she complains within the first minute of the audio. “One guy actually (said) that Molyneux may be a Holocaust apologist, but he’s not a Holocaust denier” is the “pedantic” example she offers before blowing it out of the water with the following devastatingly persuasive rebuttal:
“I mean come on!!!!”
If Eiynah is not bending over backwards to miss the point here I would be surprised. The whole purpose of this ostensible pedantry is to explain that Molyneux may well be a noxious individual, but he is not the noxious individual described by Picciolini, rendering his remarks false and possibly defamatory.
The entire podcast intro is a small masterpiece in smarmy condescension and mischaracterization. Highlights include the implication that Harris’s audience are predictably averse to hearing someone make disparaging remarks about hateful far-right ideologies despite them filling a Texas theatre for the very privilege, and her waving away of Molyneux’s protestations of defamation with a dismissive hypothetical question:
“I mean what extremist bigot wouldn’t insist he was being wrongly labelled one?” she asks, clearly forgetting that she’s about to introduce us to a man who openly wore his racism on his blood soaked sleeve for nearly a decade, and even appeared on mainstream media as a self-identified skinhead.
She goes on to compare specific false accusations towards individuals, with a previous guest’s supposed “fear-mongering” about Muslim immigrants, as though the two are similar in terms of legality, before going on to berate Harris for censoring his own disparaging comments about a man he’s simultaneously accused of sympathizing with.
Much of Eiynah’s subsequent input in the conversation constitutes little more than the usual cocktail of nebulous buzzwords; “Dog-whistles”, “signal boosting”, “rationalization of alt-lite(ish) talking points”, “gateway drugs” and so on, along with the obligatory misrepresentations of Harris. At one point, she frames Harris’s decision to delete his Patreon account as some kind of protest, or expression of solidarity with Lauren Southern when her account was banned, rather than as it simply being the catalyst for a regrettable but necessary measure to protect his own podcast from the potentially harmful “whims of a third-party”.
In other words; he saw what was done to Southern and didn’t want the same treatment. And his disclaimer of taking no position on Southern, on the basis of being unfamiliar with her, predictably fell on selectively deaf ears.
Regrettably, Picciolini then offers his own misrepresentations, of course with no correction from his host, claiming that Harris objects to describing Molyneux as a racist on the basis that his racism is not overt enough. As both Picciolini and Eiynah are well aware, Harris’s objection was towards specific accusations of Holocaust denial and of conversing with David Duke.
To be fair, the occasions in which they manage to tear themselves away from hammering this petty one-sided grudge, the discussion becomes intermittently interesting, albeit it in the heard-it-all-before kind of way which inevitably occurs when covering the same ground on multiple platforms only months apart.
Picciolini is a genuinely fascinating character, as I find happens to be the case with former, and even current extremists of many stripes. However, in a completely misjudged and unwarranted monologue attacking Maajid Nawaz as an “ideologue” committed to “hate” and “prejudice”, Picciolini inadvertently and obliviously stumbles upon a possible self-diagnosis in his proclamation that people “have the tendency to go from one extreme to another”.
I strongly suspect that Picciolini’s understandable hatred of his own former racism, and his recognition of the extent of its toxicity, may be contributing to his erroneously detecting it in others and making misplaced accusations towards well-intentioned people like Harris and Nawaz.
I further suspect that, for the same reasons, Picciolini is predisposed to assuming covert racism in ambiguous circumstances and statements, rather than taking a more charitable, benefit of the doubt approach.
I’d struggle to find a better pre-packaged summation of my criticism of Picciolini than his own words:
“I really find it sad when people who have such an important story to tell, and who can learn from their experiences and teach other people from their experiences, actually choose to dig their feet in and not be moved again.”
Picciolini’s reaction to Harris moderating potentially libellous remarks being made on his platform was uncharitable at best. He seemed to view it as a personal slight and a challenge upon his expertise. Yet the evidence he provided to support his claims was seriously lacking, and Harris’s commitment to truth and accuracy, along with complaints and legal threats, necessitated swift action.
And this action should not be viewed as an attack on Christian’s output or his character. I don’t believe his views on certain individuals or his behaviour towards them are maliciously motivated, and I’d doubt very much that Harris does either. To the contrary. When all is said and done, Christian Picciolini comes across as a decent, articulate, deeply empathetic, and knowledgeable person doing commendable and valuable work which is thoroughly deserving of support. And he is clearly no stranger to holding a mirror up to his own beliefs.
I just hope he’ll consider holding it up again and taking a glance one more time.