18 May 2015

On the road to Hell with Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky

Sam Harris, one of our best-selling New Atheists, disagrees with anti-imperialist Noam Chomsky on the need to confront militant Islam around the world. He recently invited Chomsky to hold a public discussion on related subjects, and while it looks now like no such conversation will happen Harris, with Chomsky's permission, has published their exchange of e-mails at his website. It isn't really flattering to either man. Chomsky comes across as almost imperious in his contempt for Harris, while Harris stated desire to strive for common ground seems slightly insincere given his obvious intent to challenge Chomsky on a point already raised in one of Harris's books. In short, Harris believes that ends redeem means if they don't justify them. He believes that ultimate judgments on political violence must take the intentions of actors into account. He is irked by Chomsky's seeming refusal to take intentions into account. He is particularly irked by Chomsky's rhetorical linkage of the 2001 terror attacks on the United States with the U.S. bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in 1998. Chomsky appears to believe that on some level the attack on Sudan was a worse crime because of its longterm humanitarian consequences for a poor nation, while Harris believes that we can't judge either event without taking the perpetrators' very different intentions into account. The two intellectuals disagree most starkly over the intentions of President Clinton. Harris believes that it matters that Clinton acted because he thought the plant had something to do with chemical weapons for terrorist use -- that the President acted to prevent terrorism and save lives. Chomsky is reluctant to credit Clinton with any good intentions, arguing first that the bombing was intended most likely as pure reprisal for recent terror attacks against American interests, and then that even if Clinton ordered the bombing on preventive grounds, his indifference to the likely humanitarian consequences marks him as depraved if not also racist. And knowing Harris's reputation for New Atheist vigilance against theocracy and religiously-motivated violence, Chomsky reminds him repeatedly that George W. Bush claimed a divine mandate for the invasion of Iraq. Having insulted Harris well before the exchange began by calling him a worshipper of a cult of the State, Chomsky basically blew him off by saying a conversation with someone so morally blind wasn't worth having. Harris, of course, still believes it's Chomsky who's morally blind.

The odd thing about the exchange is the rhetorical emphasis on "intentions" when what's really being discussed is one of the oldest and most controversial premises: that the end justifies the means. Harris's position is clear: much, if not all, is justified to stop the spread of militant Islam, if not the spread of theocracy in general. If Clinton bombed the pharmaceutical plant to strike at Islamist terrorism, then the collateral damage can be forgiven to a great extent if not entirely excused or endorsed. I don't know whether Chomsky believes that ends never justify means, but when he perceives the end to be nothing more than American global hegemony he can forgive nothing about the means. The 1998 bombing is more about American imperial arrogance than it is about any terrorist threat, and in his ever-infuriating fashion he feels obliged as an American citizen to focus his critical attention on those acts for which he feels responsible, and for which he holds Harris responsible. Chomsky judges acts by their humanitarian consequences, and this orientation really distinguishes him from Harris, who is more concerned with a theoretical future upon which our intentions appear to have meaningful influence. When Harris writes or speaks about intentions, it's more accurate to say that for him ends are more likely to disqualify than justify means. The point he wants Chomsky and others to acknowledge isn't that the Sudan bombing is good because of Clinton's intentions. It's that the 2001 terror attacks were worse because they were carried out in the interest of Islamist jihad. Harris is less interested in what people do than in what they want; that's what really threatens him. There are lots of people out there who want jihad or want a caliphate. Harris does not want these things, and some of his writings suggest that there is no limit to what may be done to prevent them. Why his negative intentions should count more than those of other people -- Islamists also see themselves on the defensive, preventing the spread of secularism, imperialism, Zionism, etc. -- is unclear, though Harris believes he can prove the priority his fears should have over theirs. But that's a discussion Chomsky doesn't want or need to have. All along, my impression has been that he doesn't want to see people killed, and any cause that requires slaughter is as bad as any other in his eyes. In turn, that leaves him with few options if he really wants to reform the world in the face of widespread intransigence, but I doubt that Harris meant to bring that point up. In the end, the Harris-Chomsky exchange may prove more useful than a public conversation would have been. At the very least it describes the limits of two limited worldviews, each of which includes much with which I sympathize. If they couldn't have a civil conversation, that may only prove that in the long run neither man has much to contribute toward solving the problems of our time.

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