Thaddeus Russell on JRE

I don’t normally comment on the media that I consume, usually because I’m not qualified to contribute anything. But, on a recent Joe Rogan Experience podcast episode, I found myself in the rare position of having something to say. Rogan had a lengthy conversation with Thaddeus Russell, an adjunct in American studies at Occidental College. I am not familiar with Russell’s work, but I plan to buy his book A Renegade History of the United States.

Definitely check out the podcast episode. Russell is funny, plain-spoken, and he’s bang on about a number of issues. He also sound a little like Tim Ferriss (as I was switching back and forth between JRE and the Tim Ferriss Show I got confused). Although I enjoyed the show and Russell was refreshing, I do have a number of issues.

1. 1:36:46 Russell expresses his skepticism of “Natural determinism” [he probably means biological determinism] because he thinks it’s tricky to do that.

You know what’s really tricky? Providing a coherent social constructionist analysis of human behaviour while ignoring that we are primates and the products of evolutionary processes. I am a sociologist and I don’t even do that. Biology matters.

2. 1:56:31 Until the US started bombing ISIS, there was no reason for them to attack Americans.

ISIS is the self-proclaimed caliphate. Its participants are empire builders, and its aspirations universal. Its reasons for attacking Americans are based on religious authority, and not as a reaction to occupation or US intervention. Intervention plays a role, but not significant enough one to warrant the claim that ISIS’s actions are a response to US bombing.

3. 1:58:07 Osama Bin Laden was trained by the CIA.

Did the CIA arm local Mujahideen groups against the Soviet Union? Yes, but the claim that Bin Laden received training from the CIA is not supported by evidence.

1:58:23 (Joe Rogan): Jihad as holy war because of CIA involvement.

The concept of jihad as holy war has a long history. The expansion of Islam is bound up with jihad as an institution. The trend of interpreting jihad as mere struggle is a form of apologetics and an example of pseudohistory. The notion that the CIA brought about the concept of jihad is absurd.

As far as suicide attacks are concerned, there’s nothing unusual about the tactic. The modern method used by Muslims—the “blowing up”—likely began in the 1980s. The Shia Hizballah adopted suicide bombing without CIA involvement.

4. 2:00:47 Blowback theory and American foreign policy as a recruiting tool for terrorist organizations.

Does a nation reap what it sows? Sure, but Islamic radicalism has a much longer history than US middle east involvement. The blowback “theory” emerged out of a misconception that, say, Arab Afghans turned against the US. This misconception is based on the conflation of Afghan mujahideen and foreign fighters. The former may have had a case, but the latter did not. I highly recommend Thomas Hegghammer’s work on this. Also, Assaf Moghadam does a good analysis of these issues. Russell is being rather conventional on these points, and seems to be of the Noam Chomsky school of “blame America” for everything. The world is a complicated place people.

5. 2:18:37 Sam Harris seem to advocate a nuclear assault.

This is a myth spread by Chris Hedges (I am getting a sense of who Russell is reading now). Russell must have read The End of Faith selectively because Harris poses a hypothetical question about an Islamist regime acquiring long-range nuclear weapons and the resulting fallout. He acknowledges that a pre-emptive nuclear strike would be an “unthinkable [and unconscionable] crime.”