Regular reader and commenter Ken posted the video below in the comments of an old post a few days ago. It’s one that engendered a lot of discussion and I felt that it needed a post of its own. I was busy writing my post on China, North Korea, and Taiwan at the time, so I asked Ken to write the post. He very kindly agreed, and the result is excellent.
Gad Saad in Discussion with Nick Cohen
Wikipedia tells us Gad Saad is a Lebanese-Canadian evolutionary behavioural scientist at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He has a Youtube channel called The Saad Truth in which he “critiques political correctness, the ideology of multiculturalism, Postmodernism, third-wave feminism, the ideology of Islam, safe-spaces and trigger warnings”.
Nick Cohen is an English political journalist who writes for many publications, though mostly The Observer in London. He has written several books on politics as well. Cohen was a guest on The Saad Truth recently and the discussion was interesting due to a few major disagreements against a backdrop of quite broad agreement on many issues. As sometimes is the case, when two people agree on so much, where and why they differ can be quite instructive.
I don’t know either man’s work in much detail, particularly Saad’s, who I’ve only seen a few video clips of. I’ve read several of Cohen’s articles, but none of his books. So I’ve taken what they said in their hour long discussion pretty much at face value.
Both are atheists and consider themselves to be classical liberals, interested in protecting enlightenment values such as free speech, rather than adhering to any political tribal affiliations. While Cohen more clearly self-identifies with the Left, he has written about where he thinks the modern Left has gone wrong by not anchoring their programme on the core liberal values that he holds dear. Saad is possibly best known for his views on Islam and what he might describe as a growing politically correct climate in Western universities. He seems fairly described as having similar views to other new atheists like Sam Harris and Dave Rubin. Saad makes the point several times that he doesn’t see himself specifically on the left or the right, but will agree with one or the other based on where issues fall in his value spectrum. Yet this is the very point Cohen challenges him the most on.
The first half of the discussion establishes what they very largely agree on and there are no surprises here. It includes a disdain of large factions of the left for, in their view, not being consistent enough defenders of everyone who faces discrimination, regardless of their circumstance. More specifically, that too many on the Left seem to identify almost exclusively with anti-Western groups and choose to support such groups even at the expense of oppressed minorities within those same groups; a sort of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” meme.
Additionally, Cohen argues that this part of the Left (and he stresses it doesn’t apply to all the Left, which are a fragmented bunch in his view) no longer even offer solutions to problems, but only critique. And though he often agrees with the critique, he feels the lack of a values based approach is one reason why a clear alternative programme is often absent, and that this is why almost no political parties of the left are doing well these days, particularly in Europe. I don’t think that’s the main problem and think Cohen makes a better point when he says many left establishment parties have become economically neo-liberal, and that the alternative usually isn’t a social democratic party, but a right nationalist party. So the choice is often between the economically right and the nationalist right. He predicts that Brexit and Trump will force Left parties to reconsider and advocate for much stronger programmes in the future; that these political revolutions should lead to intellectual revolutions in response. The alternative, he says, is that the Left will double down (as it seems the Democrats in the US are doing) and things will get much worse before there is any hope of improvement.
The crux of their disagreement, which gets started just past the 28th minute, comes when Saad says he believes Muslims are less likely to hold and want to protect Western values. He asks if his view that they therefore represent a specific threat that should be confronted means that he is an Islamophobe.
Cohen responds that the problem with Saad’s position is that it approaches the problem at the level of “whole peoples”, instead of individuals and ideas, and that this is unwise. All become unfairly tarnished with the same brush. Cohen cites the many Muslims he knows in London currently “getting it from all sides”, both the racist Right and the relativist Left, and feels strongly that Saad’s approach leaves them in the cold as much as lukewarm support from the Left does.
Cohen claims Saad is resorting to a sort of identity politics that smooths all differences between individuals into a stereotypical homogeneity, and that this serves the purposes of the far Right as well as the far Left, both of whom prefer a simplistic view that avoids the messy reality.
Saad responds essentially by doubling down. While rejecting the extremism of Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration, he argues his position is based merely on statistics that imply a greater danger from Yeminis than Lithuanians, and therefore his statement is just common sense and made with no hatred. You get the idea.
Cohen’s even larger point though, is that as he puts it, Saad’s house is changing, but Saad isn’t acknowledging the changes. That it’s one thing to take his position when Western countries are living their proclaimed enlightenment values and maintaining the sort of societies where tolerance and individual rights are the rule, but that things have changed much in the last five years and now there is an equal threat from the Right that must be met. He claims some Lithuanians aren’t as enlightened as Saad may think!
Cohen bemoans the right-wing commentariat in the UK who have gone limp in the face of Trump’s win, hypocritically refusing to criticize what is happening in the States and the UK (and possibly soon France and others) as bluntly as they do the Left when they seem out of line. He says we’re about to see if any of those who complain about the Left really mean it and will forthrightly criticize the Right as well.
Saad seems to miss the nuance and keeps citing statistics. Cohen says that while the statistics are what they are, they are not the only thing that is important when deciding what action to take.
Cohen also points out that most current violence by Muslims in the West comes from those born in Western countries and that Saad would have to be willing to take the same position regarding them as he does for potential immigrants, i.e. be willing to somehow remove them from society.
They eventually agree that Western countries need to require that certain values be respected by immigrants at least, though they don’t discuss just how that might be practically implemented. But Cohen again points out that Western governments first have to be the sort that will defend those values and that Trump and La Pen, who are quite happy to be called anti-liberal, can’t be expected to do so. He behoves Saad that next time he has a guest from the Right on his show, he must ask them about what’s happening on their side and challenge them for displaying the same hypocrisy they charge the Left of exhibiting.
I have disagreed strongly with Cohen in the past, but I certainly agree with his challenge to Saad here. At one point Cohen says that, five years ago, he wouldn’t have been so concerned with Saad’s views, and I take strong issue with that as I think the threats to marginalized people that worry him now are not at all new, but just present to an even greater degree. But the sad truth is that Gad Saad seems to nearly miss the point entirely.