Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Monday, May 4, 2015

Chomsky vs. Harris: The Limits Of Intelligence

Recently Sam Harris attempted to "engineer a public conversation with [Noam] Chomsky about the ethics of war" and the results were not pretty. Harris was unable to achieve his goal and as "a cautionary tale" decided to publish the results anyway. Why would Harris publish an exchange in which he was the loser? Why would he want the exchange in the first place?

Fortunately Harris, like many people who deal in self-deceit, cannot help but reveal his reasons for his actions. The intellectualization of emotions doesn't eradicate or hide those emotions. Trick knots leave a string hanging and once you start to pull the whole thing starts to unravel. Look for the emotion and you'll find the rag and bone propaganda shop of the soul.
For decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy, and the further left one travels along the political spectrum, the more one feels his influence. Although I agree with much of what Chomsky has said about the misuses of state power, I have long maintained that his political views, where the threat of global jihadism is concerned, produce dangerous delusions. In response, I have been much criticized by those who believe that I haven’t given the great man his due.
Chomsky disagrees with Harris. Chomsky is very influential; the left listens to him. He is called a great man. This has caused problems for Harris. He is being "much" criticized by the left, by the people who could be his supporters. This affects Harris' influence and marketability. Harris feels he must do something about this problem.

But Harris says that he thinks Chomsky is wrong about the war on terror. Chomsky's wrong political views are dangerously delusional. By inference, Harris is being unfairly criticized because he disagrees with a delusional Chomsky. So Harris decides to have a public discussion with Chomsky, a civil exchange of ideas between two great minds, in which Harris can show his followers that he is right and show Chomsky that the latter is wrong. What could possibly go wrong?
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.

Harris attempted to manipulate ("engineer") Chomsky into a successful public debate. He failed. Harris decided to publish the exchange anyway as a "cautionary tale" for anyone trying to debate that rude, delusional Noam Chomsky. His readers will have to decide for themselves that Harris is right and Chomsky is wrong, because Chomsky is too disobliging to do it for them.

April 26, 2015

From: Sam Harris
To: Noam Chomsky

Noam —

I reached out to you indirectly through Lawrence Krauss and Johann Hari and was planning to leave it at that, but a reader has now sent me a copy of an email exchange in which you were quite dismissive of the prospect of having a “debate” with me. So I just wanted to clarify that, although I think we might disagree substantially about a few things, I am far more interested in exploring these disagreements, and clarifying any misunderstandings, than in having a conventional debate. 

If you’d rather not have a public conversation with me, that’s fine. I can only say that we have many, many readers in common who would like to see us attempt to find some common ground. The fact that you have called me “a religious fanatic” who “worships the religion of the state” makes me think that there are a few misconceptions I could clear up. And many readers insist that I am similarly off-the-mark where your views are concerned.
In any case, my offer stands, if you change your mind.



Harris must overcome Chomsky's public dismissal of the idea of debating him so he says he wishes to explore and clarify through an exchange of ideas--but it's not a debate. It's a public conversation. Since Chomsky doesn't want to debate, Harris tries to use their status as an authority to push him into the direction he wants Chomsky to go. If that doesn't work he'll also throw in a passive-aggressive accusation of incivility by quoting Chomsky's harsh words about Harris. Surely this will force Chomsky to respond to defend his public image and ideas and maintain his position in his hierarchy.

Chomsky's response is priceless.

April 26, 2015

From: Noam Chomsky
To: Sam Harris
  Perhaps I have some misconceptions about you.  Most of what I’ve read of yours is material that has been sent to me about my alleged views, which is completely false.  I don’t see any point in a public debate about misreadings.  If there are things you’d like to explore privately, fine.  But with sources.

Chomsky is willing to discuss Harris' errors privately but sees no point in having a pubic debate with someone who does not accurately represent his views. To reinforce that point he tells Harris to use sources, a comment that must have hit Harris' intellectual vanity. Even worse, despite Harris' politeness Chomsky's response is abrupt.  Where is the academic congeniality? The salutation, best wishes, exchange of first names to establish one is on a first-name basis with the great man? It must have irritated Harris quite a bit because in his response he felt free to take out the shiv and start poking.

April 26, 2015

From: Sam Harris
To: Noam Chomsky

Noam —

Thanks for getting back.

Before engaging on this topic, I’d like to encourage you to approach this exchange as though we were planning to publish it. As edifying as it might be to have you correct my misreading of you in private—it would be far better if you did this publicly.
Poke! An insinuation that Chomsky wants to correct Harris to gratify his ego.  Harris doesn't seem to realize that Chomsky does not have that need. This is not surprising as Harris clearly does want to have his ego gratified by holding this conversation. There was no reason for Harris to poke the bear except to try to make himself look better (less Islamophobic) in public.
It’s not a matter of having a “debate about misreadings”; it’s a matter of allowing our readers to see that conversation on difficult and polarizing topics can occasionally fulfill its ostensible purpose. If I have misread you, and you can show me where I’ve gone wrong, I would want my readers to see my views change in real time. It would be far less desirable for me to simply report that you and I clarified a few things privately, and that I have now changed my mind about X, Y, and Z.
Flatter the old man. Let him think that Harris will inevitably be changed forever by Chomsky's brilliant argumentative skills. Everyone will see it happen in real time! Besides, it's for the good of the people. They need to know the process works. Most of all, "it would be far less desirable for me" to do otherwise.

Beyond correcting our misreadings, I think we could have a very interesting conversation about the ethical issues surrounding war, terrorism, the surveillance state, and so forth. I’d be happy to do this entirely by email, or we could speak on the phone and have the audio transcribed. In either case, you would be free to edit and refine your contributions prior to publication. My only request would be that you not go back and make such sweeping changes that I would have to totally revise my side of things.

But let the old man know that you are up to his tricks! Sure, he'll probably want to hide half of what he says. But Harris can take it, at long as Chomsky realizes that he won't be able to make Harris look bad or lose the "discussion" by erasing the past. Oh and by the way.... Harris goes on to reprint a series of horrific arguments based on American exceptionalism (we meant well and hey, death is inevitable).

While you’re thinking about that, I’d like to draw your attention to the only thing I have ever written about your work. The following passages appear in my first book, The End of Faith (2004), which was written in response to the events of 9/11. Needless to say, the whole discussion betrays the urgency of that period as well as many of the failings of a first book. I hesitate to put it forward here, if for no other reason than that the tone is not one that I would have ever adopted in a direct exchange with you. Nevertheless, if I’ve misrepresented your views in writing, this is the only place it could have happened. If we’re going to clarify misreadings, this would seem like a good place to start.


What follows is Harris' article "Leftist Unreason and the Strange Case of Noam Chomsky," a deeply embarrassing exercise in post 9/11 hysteria that attempts to justify all our actions by stating the US is uniquely good and Islam is uniquely bad.

And yet, thinkers far more sober than Baudrillard view the events of September 11 as a consequence of American foreign policy. Perhaps the foremost among them is Noam Chomsky. In addition to making foundational contributions to linguistics and the psychology of language, Chomsky has been a persistent critic of U.S. foreign policy for over three decades. He has also managed to demonstrate a principal failing of the liberal critique of power. He appears to be an exquisitely moral man whose political views prevent him from making the most basic moral distinctions—between types of violence, and the variety of human purposes that give rise to them.

Yes, it's the ever-popular glitter-shitting-purity-pony defense. Anyone who does not support our war of terror is indulging in lace-hanky-waving moral preening. They just want to feel good, they don't want to be serious people.  They don't understand that our violence means well while Muslim violence--does not!

Before pointing out just how wayward Chomsky’s thinking is on this subject, I would like to concede many of his points, since they have the virtue of being both generally important and irrelevant to the matter at hand. There is no doubt that the United States has much to atone for, both domestically and abroad. In this respect, we can more or less swallow Chomsky’s thesis whole. ... The result [of our actions] should smell of death, hypocrisy, and fresh brimstone.

We have surely done some terrible things in the past. Undoubtedly, we are poised to do terrible things in the future. Nothing I have written in this book should be construed as a denial of these facts, or as defense of state practices that are manifestly abhorrent. There may be much that Western powers, and the United States in particular, should pay reparations for. And our failure to acknowledge our misdeeds over the years has undermined our credibility in the international community. We can concede all of this, and even share Chomsky’s acute sense of outrage, while recognizing that his analysis of our current situation in the world is a masterpiece of moral blindness.
Sure, we killed and destroyed. Had a little genocide or two. Slavery, that was bad. And we'll probably do more bad--stuff--in the future. Hey, we might even have to take out the wallet afterwards and chip in some money for damages. But that doesn't mean that Chomsky is right and we have no special moral authority. Take Clinton's bombing of a vital Sudanese pharmaceutical plant on dubious evidence.

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.

They are the bad guys, not us. They wanted to rain down death and destruction. We don't. So when we do kill and destroy we should be given the benefit of the doubt. Do drones intend to kill innocent people? Of course not! Drones aren't evil. They only want to kill bad people. Therefore the people who give the orders to send drones and the people who actually fire on the targets are utterly blameless for any consequences.

But we are, in many respects, just such a “well-intentioned giant.” And it is rather astonishing that intelligent people, like Chomsky and [Arundhati] Roy, fail to see this. What we need to counter their arguments is a device that enables us to distinguish the morality of men like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein from that of George Bush and Tony Blair. It is not hard to imagine the properties of such a tool. We can call it “the perfect weapon.”

At this point Harris is unable to overcome the weight of history and must escape from an unpleasant reality into an alternate reality, in which he is able to imagine circumstances in which he is not immoral. We see libertarians tie this trick knot often; they think that if they can get you to agree with them in their perfectly crafted alternate reality, that agreement must necessarily apply in real life as well.

What we euphemistically describe as “collateral damage” in times of war is the direct result of limitations in the power and precision of our technology. To see that this is so, we need only imagine how any of our recent conflicts would have looked if we had possessed perfect weapons—weapons that allowed us either to temporarily impair or to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property. What would we do with such technology? Pacifists would refuse to use it, despite the variety of monsters currently loose in the world: the killers and torturers of children, the genocidal sadists, the men who, for want of the right genes, the right upbringing, or the right ideas, cannot possibly be expected to live peacefully with the rest of us. I will say a few things about pacifism in a later chapter—for it seems to me to be a deeply immoral position that comes to us swaddled in the dogma of highest moralism—but most of us are not pacifists. Most of us would elect to use weapons of this sort. A moment’s thought reveals that a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics.  
Harris is positive that pacifists would never take out an enemy for any reason whatsoever, not even to protect their children from torture and murder. Harris must put forth this simple-minded belief because to admit that we choose to kill undercuts his entire argument.
Consider the all too facile comparisons that have recently been made between George Bush and Saddam Hussein (or Osama bin Laden, or Hitler, etc.)—in the pages of writers like Roy and Chomsky, in the Arab press, and in classrooms throughout the free world. How would George Bush have prosecuted the recent war in Iraq with perfect weapons? Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed or killed by our bombs? Would he have put out the eyes of little girls or torn the arms from their mothers? Whether or not you admire the man’s politics—or the man—there is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person. What would Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden do with perfect weapons? What would Hitler have done? They would have used them rather differently.
Harris is so devoted to his idea of Western moral superiority that he does not even acknowledge that the Bush administrated chose to invade Iraq and had to lie to support their moral justifications. Harris goes on to explain that we simply must accept the fact that we have attained moral superiority for a number of reasons and that Muslims are still barbarians. "Chomsky seems to think that the disparity either does not exist or runs the other way," Harris said. Some people might not put others in harm's way by invading or bombing but life is risk, is it not?

Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow. The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions. Makers of automobiles know this as well. So do makers of hockey sticks, baseball bats, plastic bags, swimming pools, chain-link fences, or nearly anything else that could conceivably contribute to the death of a child. There is a reason we do not refer to the inevitable deaths of children on our ski slopes as “skiing atrocities.” But you would not know this from reading Chomsky. For him, intentions do not seem to matter. Body count is all.

See, on the one side here we have good intentions and on the other side we have a pile of torn-up bodies. Which side would you pick, huh? I thought so!

Chomsky's response points out that he already addressed the subject of intention, as opposed to Harris' claim that he did not. Chomsky also pointed out that Clinton was warned of the humanitarian crises that was sure to follow (and did) and didn't care, an even worse moral failure than caring but accidentally taking innocent lives. He added that the bombing was far from the first time Clinton acted with depraved indifference for human life. His scathing response made it perfectly clear that Chomsky was disgusted by Harris' immorality.

When it became obvious that Harris was not going to achieve his goal of burnishing his intellectual credentials in public at Chomsky's expense, he indulged in the true last refuge of the scoundrel--accusations of incivility. This post is too long already but this is my favorite part.

April 27, 2015
From: Sam Harris 

To: Noam Chomsky


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.

Be a good chap and take out all the insulting and dismissive language, even though I accused you of editing to make yourself look better. And you are sounding positively emotional. No doubt your worshippers love that and it feeds your ego but it's just embarrassing.

The problem with these tactics is that they only work on people like Sam Harris.

Despite your apparent powers of telepathy, I am not “evading” anything. The fact that I did not address every point raised in your last email is due to the fact that I remain confused about how you view the ethical significance of intentions—and I answered your central question in such a way as to clarify this point (I had hoped). I was not drawing an analogy between my contrived case of al-Qaeda being “great humanitarians” and the Clinton administration. The purpose of that example was to distinguish the ethical importance of intention (given the same body count) as clearly as possible. The case was not meant to realistic (how would an “as you know” read here?).

On the topic of there being a “moral equivalence” between al-Shifa and 9/11, I’m afraid that what you have written is hard to understand. Despite your insistence that you drew no moral equivalence whatsoever between the two cases, you call Clinton’s actions an “atrocity” the consequences of which were “vastly more severe” than if the same had been done to the U.S., and you say that any comparison with the consequences of 9/11 is, if anything, “an understatement.” You then appear to be upbraiding me for not immediately detecting an important difference between a “horrendous crime” and an “atrocity.” Is there one? You are, of course, the famous linguist, but I believe that the editors of the OED will be nonplussed by this discovery. Perhaps you can just state it plainly: What is the moral difference between al-Shifa and 9/11?

Please don’t interpret my silence on any other matter as a sign of my unwillingness to discuss it further or to have my views changed by a proper collision with evidence and argument. You have raised many interesting historical and ethical points which I would sincerely like to explore (Hitler, Japan, and so forth). But I am reluctant to move forward before I understand how you view the significance of intention in cases where the difference between altruism (however inept), negligence, and malevolence is absolutely clear.

Chomsky was perfectly clear. Harris' beliefs that the US' actions are inherently moral and that Islamic actions are inherently evil are morally corrupt. Nothing can get around that fact, no matter how many times Harris tries to get Chomsky to say anything different, or yank the discussion into the realm of theory instead of deadly reality.

There are several more exchanges, in which Chomsky attempts to make his position perfectly clear and Harris retreats into accusations of incivility and misunderstanding.  It's all very entertaining, and very familiar to anyone who's followed the scanty intellectual achievements of our elite followers.


fish said...

Oh my god. Harris is insufferable in that exchange. A steady stream of wounded feelings as a technique for evasive answers.
Any idiot can understand Chomsky's basic argument: governments always say their intensions were good, that is why you must ignore the official state line and examine the actual evidence and circumstances.
Harris' retort is: I believe the official state line. Then he wonders why Chomsky shows him nothing but contempt.

Susan of Texas said...


They think we're laughing with them when we're laughing at them.

Mandos said...

Harris' whiny postscript that he just put at the end is priceless. He truly could not conceive, originally, that he had been completely pwned by the Noamster. Then he notices that everyone thinks that he scored an own goal by publishing it.

And flails around. I mean what does this word salad even mean? "To pretend otherwise is to risk destroying everything we are right to care about."

He appears completely bewildered that Chomsky doesn't care at all to "correct" the text to make it look good. That's funny in and of itself.

Susan of Texas said...

True, I was not literally correct but if you put aside the facts, the facts prove me right.

"I consider his related claims that virtually everyone professes benign intentions, and that such professions are generally meaningless, to be false. Professions aside, there can be vast ethical differences between sincerely held beliefs about what is “good,” and these differences are often very easy to discern. To pretend otherwise is to risk destroying everything we are right to care about."

Repetition in the place of argument. A theoretical discussion of good versus evil is infinitely preferable to a discussion of bombings, bodies, war, invasion, and blowback terrorist movements.

Finally, Chomsky was mean to him.

Harris really disagreed with Chomsky on one simple point. Chomsky sees all lives as equally valuable and Harris does not.

nate said...

The comments on Harris' blog (or maybe facebook) are hilarious.

One in particular made my day. It went something like, "I am a huge fan of Harris and Chomsky. I have read everything written by Harris and a huge chunk of Chomsky's output. I've dreamed of them debating for years.

As I expected, Harris did not survive."

LOL, as the kids say.

A. Utopian said...

Susan, this was fantastic.
The whole time I was reading your comments I hoping there would be more! For years I've been arguing with "Freethinkers and Progressives" that Harris is a total fraud. Almost every encounter with someone smart (Greenwald, Hedges, Chomsky) goes the same way:

1) Harris: Hey buddy! Pal! You agree with me dontcha?
2) A: You're supporting torture, nuclear first strikes against Muslims, racial profiling and are praising fascists so, no, I don't agree with you.
3) Harris: Oh you poor thing, I feel sorry for you. You took me out of context... here's here's the full 187 pages of context. (Link to content)
4) A: The context doesn't change anything, you just repeated the original thesis!
5) Harris: Sigh. So sad you're being like this (insert ad hominem attack here. Repeat several times. Post on your blog and do a victory lap)

cynic said...

Chomsky I actually know of, have heard of and actually follow his writing. Who the hell is Harris and why is he being considered a Very Serious Person Who Should Be Taken Seriously?

Mandos said...

Harris is apparently a "New Atheist" celebrity and is these days more media-famous than Chomsky. His basic premise is that "we" have more beautiful thoughts and the beauty of "our" thoughts gives us a magic license to do stuff to people whose thought are less beautiful, because intentions.

Katy Williams said...

Like Arglebargle and Dreher and many other conservative "thinkers", Harris has learned to mimic the outward form (but doesn't even see substance) of intellectual debate, and therefore thinks he's an intellectual! A brilliant intellectual!

They/he believe the reason liberal intellects can't disprove their/his ideas is because they cannot understand said ideas.

The real reason is: there are no conservative ideas, rather they are banal rationalizations for very egotistical philosophy.

Batocchio said...

Good piece. (PZ Myers also covered this.) Occasionally, I've seen Harris make decent points, but this was pretty painful.

Susan of Texas said...


Ha! And thanks for the link. It was fun.

We’re in Bambi vs. Godzilla territory here. There’s no point to scoring anything.