Intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris engaged in a rather nasty email spat that has been doing the rounds on the interwebs over the past few days after Harris made the exchange public on his website. Harris summed up the purpose of the exchange on his site:
Last week, I did my best to engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics. As readers of the following email exchange will discover, I failed. I’ve decided to publish this private correspondence, with Chomsky’s permission, as a cautionary tale. Clearly, he and I have drawn different lessons from what was, unfortunately, an unpleasant and fruitless encounter. I will let readers draw lessons of their own.
What transpired was a truly ugly encounter that saw Harris attempt to engage Chomsky in good faith, only to be rebuffed with relentlessly high handed dismissals and an astonishing refusal to engage Harris on some important issues that would have been enlightening for admirers of both men.
Harris tried to engage Chomsky civilly from the beginning, but after sending Chomsky a passage from his book written in response to 9/11 , The End of Faith (2004), the MIT professor basically descended into name calling and refused to take anything Harris said seriously. The passage Harris sent criticized Chomsky for equating Western crimes with 9/11, in particular the Clinton administration’s bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan in August 1998, which according to Chomsky, was demonstrably a worse crime than Al Qaeda’s deliberate targeting of civilians. Clinton had mistakenly believed that the plant was a chemical weapons site used by Al Qaeda and bombed it, not only killing one person and wounding eleven, but destroying the major source of vital medical supplies that inadvertently killed thousands of people. Wrote Harris in response to this assertion:
Let us now ask some very basic questions that Chomsky seems to have neglected to ask himself: What did the U.S. government think it was doing when it sent cruise missiles into Sudan? Destroying a chemical weapons site used by Al Qaeda. Did the Clinton administration intend to bring about the deaths of thousands of Sudanese children? No. Was our goal to kill as many Sudanese as we could? No. Were we trying to kill anyone at all? Not unless we thought members of Al Qaeda would be at the Al-Shifa facility in the middle of the night. Asking these questions about Osama bin Laden and the nineteen hijackers puts us in a different moral universe entirely.
Chomsky’s stance on this is rather convoluted. He wrote to Harris saying:
You fail to mention, though, that I did not suggest that they were “morally equivalent” and in fact indicated quite the opposite. I did not describe the Al-Shifa bombing as a “horrendous crime” committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty.” Rather, I pointed out that the toll might be comparable, which turns out on inquiry (which is not undertaken here, and which apologists for our crimes ignore), turns out to be, quite likely, a serious understatement.
Then moments later Chomsky quoted himself from his book Radical Priorities, 2003:
Most commentary on the Sudan bombing keeps to the question of whether the plant was believed to produce chemical weapons; true or false, that has no bearing on “the magnitude with which the aggression interfered with key values in the society attacked,” such as survival. Others point out that the killings were unintended, as are many of the atrocities we rightly denounce. In this case, we can hardly doubt that the likely human consequences were understood by US planners. The acts can be excused, then, only on the Hegelian assumption that Africans are “mere things,” whose lives have “no value,” an attitude that accords with practice in ways that are not overlooked among the victims, who may draw their own conclusions about the “moral orthodoxy of the West.”
If you are confused, you are not alone. On the one hand Chomsky states he was only comparing the death toll, then asserts US planners (whoever they may be) are well aware of the consequences attacks like this are likely to yield and really don’t care, implying of course that there is a moral equivalence. Chomsky does not say this overtly though, illustrating his point by asking what victims of these assaults would think about the “moral orthodoxy of the West” – a neat piece of verbal gymnastics that allows him to say it without actually saying it.
Harris called Chomsky out for obsfucating his point: “It still seems to me that everything you have written here ignores the moral significance of intention.” Harris then provided an analogy to help make his point:
Imagine that al-Qaeda is filled, not with God-intoxicated sociopaths intent upon creating a global caliphate, but genuine humanitarians. Based on their research, they believe that a deadly batch of vaccine has made it into the U.S. pharmaceutical supply. They have communicated their concerns to the FDA but were rebuffed. Acting rashly, with the intention of saving millions of lives, they unleash a computer virus, targeted to impede the release of this deadly vaccine. As it turns out, they are right about the vaccine but wrong about the consequences of their meddling—and they wind up destroying half the pharmaceuticals in the U.S.
What would I say? I would say that this was a very unfortunate event—but these are people we want on our team. I would find the FDA highly culpable for not having effectively communicated with them. These people are our friends, and we were all very unlucky.
After that, Chomsky’s tone changed markedly to that of an irascible intellectual bully, deeply impressed by his own moral superiority and completely dismissive of anything challenging his self evidently brilliant rationale. Some examples:
I am sorry you are unwilling to retract your false claim that I “ignore the moral significance of intentions.” Of course I did, as you know. Also, I gave the appropriate answer, which applies accurately to you in the al-Shifa case, the very case in question.
If you had read further before launching your accusations, the usual procedure in work intended to be serious, you would have discovered that I also reviewed the substantial evidence about the very sincere intentions of Japanese fascists while they were devastating China, Hitler in the Sudetenland and Poland, etc.
The scenario you describe here is, I’m afraid, so ludicrous as to be embarrassing. It hasn’t even the remotest relation to Clinton’s decision to bomb al-Shifa – not because they had suddenly discovered anything remotely like what you fantasize here, or for that matter any credible evidence at all, and by sheer coincidence, immediately after the Embassy bombings for which it was retaliation, as widely acknowledged. That is truly scandalous.
Harris attempted (again) to placate Chomsky and keep the exchange civil, writing:
Unfortunately, you are now misreading both my “silences” and my statements—and I cannot help but feel that the peremptory and censorious attitude you have brought to what could, in fact, be a perfectly collegial exchange, is partly to blame. You appear to have begun this dialogue at (or very near) the end of your patience. If we were to publish it, I would strongly urge you to edit what you have already written, removing unfriendly flourishes such as “as you know”, “the usual procedure in work intended to be serious,” “ludicrous and embarrassing,” “total refusal,” etc. I trust that certain of your acolytes would love to see the master in high dudgeon—believing, as you seem to, that you are in the process of mopping the floor with me—but the truth is that your emotions are getting the better of you.
Sadly, Chomsky did not even respond to Harris’s perfectly polite requests to stop name calling and continued unabated. The exchange became somewhat pointless after that as the two could not agree on any basis on which to move forward. It could be summarized as follows:
Harris: Could we please have a civilized debate about some interesting topics?
Chomsky: Your lack of seriousness precludes any meaningful discourse given your total refusal to acknowledge elementary moral principles that are non negotiable.
Having no grounds for the debate to start in earnest, Harris stopped the correspondence and published the exchange on his site for public consumption.
I have focused much of this piece on the civility of the exchange between the two men, not because I believe it is more important than the topics at hand, but because I believe it helps exposes the deep malaise within the radical left.
As a young adult, I read Chomsky voraciously and as a consequence adopted a similar world view. His critiques of power, particularly as it relates to Western imperialism, made a great impact on me and has helped form my understanding of how the world works. That being said, with age I began to move away from the Chomskyan world view to what I believe to be a more nuanced, less rigid interpretation of global politics. The monotone, fanatically anti state, anti Western arguments Chomsky puts forward make sense when your own experience of the world is developing, but not when you have had some life experience. The contrarian views Chomsky espouses are certainly helpful and should not be dismissed, but they are by no means the definitive guide to an ‘ultimate truth’. You only need to spend five minutes with an ardent Chomsky fan to understand just how unbearable this attitude is – the relentless sermonizing and moralizing, with no room for nuance or self reflection. This fire and brimstone secularism has been perfected by the likes of Glenn Greenwald and has turned vast swathes of the left into fundamentalist civil libertarians incapable of engaging with anyone outside their self ordained priesthood.
Harris on the other hand, displays high levels of self awareness in his writing and speaking and has always attempted to engage with world views that do not corroborate with his own. While I don’t subscribe to Harris’s views on a number of topics (for example, his views on religion are too binary for my liking), his civility and willingness to accept that he might be wrong make his contribution to debate not only more interesting, but more effective given his ability to engage with people he disagrees with.
The exchange between Chomsky and Harris highlighted this stark difference, and I must confess to being completely dismayed by Chomsky’s appalling attitude to the debate and refusal to engage in a way that would have benefited the public. Chomsky’s world view is now so set in stone that he cannot and will not even entertain the notion that he might be wrong.
In a highly embarrassing exchange with the Guardian’s environmental journalist George Monbiot back in 2012, Chomsky used the exact same tactics; high handed dismissal, ridicule and a refusal to answer very basic questions. Monbiot had asked Chomsky to distance himself from a demonstrably false account of atrocities in Srebrenica and Rwanda in a book written by Chomsky’s friends Edward Herman and David Peterson. Chomsky had written the foreword to the book, ‘The Politics of Genocide,’ and Monbiot sought a statement from Chomsky recognizing he had made an error in judgment by not reviewing the book properly or looking into its claims. Alas, Chomsky replied with a series of insults and diversions that, if you read closely, strongly indicated that he hadn’t actually read the book and was more interested in winning the exchange than being intellectually honest.
Monbiot published the exchange, leaving the following comment after Chomsky’s final email:
At this point, faced with Professor Chomsky’s repeated and apparently willful failure to grasp the simple points I was making or answer the simple questions I was asking, I almost lost the will to live.
Harris ended his correspondence in similar fashion, writing to Chomsky:
I’m sorry to say that I have now lost hope that we can communicate effectively in this medium. Rather than explore these issues with genuine interest and civility, you seem committed to litigating all points (both real and imagined) in the most plodding and accusatory way. And so, to my amazement, I find that the only conversation you and I are likely to ever have has grown too tedious to continue.
Unless you subscribe to the notion that Monbiot and Harris are not only fanatical supporters of state violence and imperialism, but are incapable of engaging in serious intellectual debate, you can only conclude that Professor Chomsky is now so far beyond reach that only his most ardent acolytes take him seriously anymore.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.