Were you all following the big fight yesterday? No, not the overhyped, overpaid sight of two rather repellent grown men pounding each other, but the one between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky. I wouldn’t be surprised if you missed it, or tuned out after the first couple of blows, because they were grossly mismatched, and it was kind of a rout.
Here’s a round-by-round summary.
Harris pleas for Chomsky to engage him, claiming that there are many misunderstandings between them; he is willing to clarify things privately, even though his many, many followers would like to see them find common ground.
Chomsky acknowledges that maybe there are misconceptions, and he’s willing to discuss them privately. But he doesn’t see any point in discussing them publicly.
Score: I’d have stored this round a tie, as a neutral opening, except that obviously Harris later decides to make their private discussion public. 0/1, Harris/Chomsky.
Given the go-ahead, Harris opts not for discussion, but for a massive dump of a long excerpt from his book, The End of Faith, in which he argues against Chomsky, claiming America is not as bad as radical Muslims. Really, it’s huge. It’s got footnotes. I’d have called the fight on the grounds of a massive foul right there — he’s just walked out into the ring and shat on Chomsky’s shoes. Throwing a chapter of a book at someone is not an inviting way to bring on a discussion.
His main strategy, though, can be distilled down to the two quotes below: America can blow things up because we’re good at heart.
Take the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant: according to Chomsky, the atrocity of September 11 pales in comparison with that perpetrated by the Clinton administration in August 1998. But 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.
It was OK to blow up a pharmaceutical plant, because we didn’t intend to hurt anyone, as if we were completely unaware of the fact that a cruise missile loaded with high explosives might, you know, cause injury and death.
We are also forgiven because some Americans protest atrocities.
This is about as bad as human beings are capable of behaving. But what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us. The massacre at My Lai is remembered as a signature moment of shame for the American military. Even at the time, U.S. soldiers were dumbstruck with horror by the behavior of their comrades. One helicopter pilot who arrived on the scene ordered his subordinates to use their machine guns against their own troops if they would not stop killing villagers. As a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much of the world has not.
I note that dead children are OK as long as some people oppose the murders, if you’re American. The rest of the world…well, the existence of non-Americans who similarly decry murder and mayhem does not excuse their wickedness. It seems a little unfair.
Chomsky replies with a quote from himself. It’s only fair!
Or take the destruction of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, one little footnote in the record of state terror, quickly forgotten. What would the reaction have been if the bin Laden network had blown up half the pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S. and the facilities for replenishing them? We can imagine, though the comparison is unfair, the consequences are vastly more severe in Sudan. That aside, if the U.S. or Israel or England were to be the target of such an atrocity, what would the reaction be? In this case we say, “Oh, well, too bad, minor mistake, let’s go on to the next topic, let the victims rot.” Other people in the world don’t react like that. When bin Laden brings up that bombing, he strikes a resonant chord, even among those who despise and fear him; and the same, unfortunately, is true of much of the rest of his rhetoric.
Though it is merely a footnote, the Sudan case is nonetheless highly instructive. One interesting aspect is the reaction when someone dares to mention it. I have in the past, and did so again in response to queries from journalists shortly after 9-11 atrocities. I mentioned that the toll of the “horrendous crime” of 9-11, committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty” (quoting Robert Fisk), may be comparable to the consequences of Clinton’s bombing of the Al-Shifa plant in August 1998. That plausible conclusion elicited an extraordinary reaction, filling many web sites and journals with feverish and fanciful condemnations, which I’ll ignore. The only important aspect is that single sentence—which, on a closer look, appears to be an understatement—was regarded by some commentators as utterly scandalous. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that at some deep level, however they may deny it to themselves, they regard our crimes against the weak to be as normal as the air we breathe. Our crimes, for which we are responsible: as taxpayers, for failing to provide massive reparations, for granting refuge and immunity to the perpetrators, and for allowing the terrible facts to be sunk deep in the memory hole. All of this is of great significance, as it has been in the past.
I think he noticed Harris’s false equivalency. One can simultaneously condemn the terrorism of the 9/11 hijackers while also condemning violent retribution, that also kills innocent people.
And, by the way, pretending that the deaths in the Sudan were unintentional is absurdly disingenuous.
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.”
Score: Harris is the author of a book on morality; to come out swinging with a ridiculous moral assertion, suggesting that massive civilian deaths can be forgiven if the cause is pure, is like punching yourself out. Chomsky possesses a moral clarity that Harris can only dream about. -1/1, Harris/Chomsky.
Harris replies with evasions and a hypothetical. He’s flailing wildly! What is it with these guys who have to invent bizarre, impossible scenarios, like the ticking nuclear bomb that will kill millions if we don’t torture someone, or in this case a strange story of bombing pharmaceutical factories to protect the populace from harm.
1. 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.
2. al-Qaeda is precisely as terrible a group as it is, and it destroys our pharmaceuticals intentionally, for the purpose of harming millions of innocent people.
What would I say? We should imprison or kill these people at the first opportunity.
Sam, STOP PUNCHING YOURSELF!
Instead of al-Qaeda, try applying your moral calculus of intent to the US. Were we being purely altruistic (option #1), trying to clear out a bad batch of vaccine from that pharmaceutical factory? Would it be unfair for the citizens of the Sudan to judge us as guilty of #2? And isn’t it just stupidly dishonest to create this weird dichotomy of intent?
I’d also suggest that no, even if it were an ally that attacked us with intent #1, it would make no difference: American outrage would be high. We’d ask the obvious question: if you thought there was a bad batch of vaccines coming off the assembly line, why didn’t you just tell us — we’d be motivated to correct the problem ourselves.
When you complain about “God-intoxicated sociopaths”, you’ll have to excuse me for wondering if you aren’t talking about the US congress.
Chomsky refocuses everything: this isn’t a discussion about far-fetched hypothetical scenarios, it’s about real world morality. It’s also not an abstract exercise in contriving rationalizations — people are dying.
As for Clinton and associates being “genuine humanitarians,” perhaps that explains why they were imposing sanctions on Iraq so murderous that both of the highly respected international diplomats who administered the “Oil for food” program resigned in protest because they regarded them as “genocidal,” condemning Clinton for blocking testimony at the UN Security Council. Or why he poured arms into Turkey as it was carrying out a horrendous attack on its Kurdish population, one of the worst crimes of the ‘90s. Or why he shifted Turkey from leading recipient of arms worldwide (Israel-Egypt excepted) to Colombia, as soon as the Turkish atrocities achieved their goal and while Colombia was leading the hemisphere by far in atrocious human rights violations. Or why he authorized the Texaco Oil Company to provide oil to the murderous Haitian junta in violation of sanctions. And on, and on, as you could learn if you bothered to read before launching accusations and professing to talk about “ethics” and “morality.”
I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before, but rarely at this level – not to speak of the refusal to withdraw false charges, a minor fault in comparison.
Score: It’s another own goal for Harris, stooping to depths of ludicrously sophomoric philosophical games. Chomsky is talking about reality. -1/1, Harris/Chomsky.
Oh, jebus, Sam Harris:
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. I’d rather you not look like the dog who caught the car.
IT’S A KNOCKOUT. THIS FIGHT IS OVER. WE HAVE ACHIEVED PEAK HARRIS.
No, really, that is pathetically petulant. Harris is making a tone argument: Chomsky is not being collegial enough, isn’t accepting his word games, is seeing right through his pretense. He seems to seriously believe he’s winning this debate — I’m worried that he’s suffering from a concussion, except that this seems to be Harris’s default mode. He also declared victory in his argument with Bruce Schneier.
While Harris is reeling in delusional fantasies, Chomsky walks up and stomps him some more. I guess this isn’t one of those genteel fights that get called when one opponent is shattered.
Your effort to respond to the question that you had avoided in your published article is, I’m afraid, indeed embarrassing and ludicrous. The question was about the al-Shifa bombing, and it won’t do to evade it by concocting an outlandish tale that has no relation whatsoever to that situation. So you are still evading that question. It takes no telepathy to perceive that.
So let’s face it directly. Clinton bombed al-Shifa in reaction to the Embassy bombings, having discovered no credible evidence in the brief interim of course, and knowing full well that there would be enormous casualties. Apologists may appeal to undetectable humanitarian intentions, but the fact is that the bombing was taken in exactly the way I described in the earlier publication which dealt the question of intentions in this case, the question that you claimed falsely that I ignored: to repeat, it just didn’t matter if lots of people are killed in a poor African country, just as we don’t care if we kill ants when we walk down the street. On moral grounds, that is arguably even worse than murder, which at least recognizes that the victim is human. That is exactly the situation. And we are left with your unwillingness to address the very clear question that opened the passage you cite is, instead offering evasions that are exactly as I described. And your unwillingness to address the crucial ethical question about intentions.
Score: We’re in Bambi vs. Godzilla territory here. There’s no point to scoring anything.
Harris is lying on the mat, bleeding, whining about how cantankerous Chomsky is being.
Chomsky again reminds him that of course intent matters, but it’s not relevant here. He reminds Harris who is the master.
I do not, again, claim that Clinton intentionally wanted to kill the thousands of victims. Rather, that was probably of no concern, raising the very serious ethical question that I have discussed, again repeatedly in this correspondence. And again, I have often discussed the ethical question about the significance of real or professed intentions, for about 50 years in fact, discussing real cases, where there are possible and meaningful answers. Something clearly worth doing, since the real ethical issues are interesting and important ones.
Oh, the humanity! Please let it end. Put Sam out of his misery. Harris complains again that Chomsky is being
cantankerous, and that he’d never be so unkind if they were face to face.
Here is my assumption about the al-Shifa case. I assume that Clinton believed that it was, in fact, a chemical weapons factory—because I see no rational reason for him to have intentionally destroyed a pharmaceutical plant in retaliation for the embassy bombings. I take it that you consider this assumption terribly naive. Why so?
Chomsky replies with reason — that stuff Harris claims to champion.
The bombing of al-Shifa was an immediate response to the Embassy bombings, which is why it is almost universally assumed to be retaliation. It is inconceivable that in that brief interim period evidence was found that it was a chemical weapons factory, and properly evaluated to justify a bombing. And of course no evidence was ever found. Plainly, if there had been evidence, the bombing would not have (just by accident) taken place immediately after the Embassy bombings (along with bombings in Afghanistan at the same time, also clearly retaliation).
Score: I may have to censure Chomsky for so brutally tearing apart a man when he’s down. What is this, Mortal Combat? Finish him!
Harris: Chomsky is
prickly! More whining about tone.
Then he repeats his claim that he can
rank order the callousness and cruelty, making al-Qaeda the king of evil, while a Clinton conscious of the deaths he would cause is less evil, and a Clinton who acted justly, but happened to kill a bunch of people accidentally, is less evil still.
It’s as if he hasn’t been paying attention.
Chomsky isn’t playing this game anymore.
To summarize, then, you issue instructions about moral issues that you have never even considered to people who have considered and discussed these issues for many decades, including the very case you cite. And when this is explained to you in detail, you have nothing to say except to repeat your initial stance.
Harris announces his intent to take his ball and go home.
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.
It’s all Chomsky’s fault that he got battered so badly!
So Chomsky tears him a new one. Again. I haven’t seen so much destruction since the last superhero movie I watched.
Very glad to see that we are terminating this interesting non-interchange with a large measure of agreement. I agree with you completely that we cannot have a rational discussion of these matters, and that it is too tedious to pretend otherwise. And I agree that I am litigating all points (all real, as far as we have so far determined) in a “plodding and accusatory way.” That is, of course, a necessity in responding to quite serious published accusations that are all demonstrably false, and as I have reviewed, false in a most interesting way: namely, you issue lectures condemning others for ignoring “basic questions” that they have discussed for years, in my case decades, whereas you have refused to address them and apparently do not even allow yourself to understand them. That’s impressive.
There’s also no other way to pursue your various evasions of the “basic question” that arises right at the outset of the passage of mine that you quoted. No need to run through this again, but the plodding review makes it clear that you simply refuse to answer the question, perhaps not surprisingly.
I’ll put aside your apologetics for the crimes for which you and I share responsibility, which, frankly, I find quite shocking, particularly on the part of someone who feels entitled to deliver moral lectures.
It’s all over except for the slinking away. Harris asks to publish these emails, as if he thinks this has been a triumph for him; Chomsky agrees. So he does. But of course he has to throw in a bit of bragging.
You and I probably share a million readers who would have found a genuine conversation between us extremely useful. And I trust that they will be disappointed by our failure to produce one, as I am. However, if publishing this exchange helps anyone to better communicate about these topics in the future, our time won’t have been entirely wasted.
I am not a reader of Harris, which perhaps explains why I am not disappointed at all. Harris exhibited his usual woefully oblivious moral ineptitude, and Chomsky slapped him down hard.
I am most amazed by the fact that Harris then promoted this as a personal victory.