Noam Chomsky And Sam Harris: A Revealing Lesson In Religious Fundamentalism


The email exchange between left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky, and American ‘New Atheist’ Sam Harris is worth reviewing. Whilst Harris regarded it as a “fruitless encounter”, the truth is that it is deeply revealing.

Harris is a good, if extreme, representative of New Atheism, and why so many left-wing atheists find that group of intellectuals repulsive.

The exchange runs to over 10,000 words, so this review can only trace some of the main threads of the argument.

The exchange can be summarised as follows. Sam Harris wrote to Chomsky, suggesting a public debate. He noted that Chomsky had called him a “religious fanatic”, and thought perhaps a debate could clear up some mutual misconceptions.

Chomsky conceded he might have misconceptions, but noted, “Most of what I’ve read of yours is material that has been sent to me about my alleged views, which is completely false.” They then proceeded to discuss what Harris had written about Chomsky, and some of the underlying issues.

Harris found the exchange “unpleasant”. Chomsky regarded Harris as someone whose apologetics for state crimes was “shocking”, when not “embarrassing”, and also objected to Harris’ “falsification” of his views.

Harris terminated the exchange on account of finding it “tedious” and unproductive, and concluded that they couldn’t “communicate effectively” in email. He also objected to Chomsky’s tone – “really bordering on contempt” – advising Chomsky that “you are not doing yourself any favours here”.

So let us review the debate a little more closely. On September 12, 2001, Chomsky gave a “quick reaction” to what had happened the day before. He commented: “The September 11 attacks were major atrocities. In terms of number of victims they do not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and probably killing tens of thousands of people (no-one knows, because the US blocked an inquiry at the UN and no-one cares to pursue it). Not to speak of much worse cases, which easily come to mind. But that this was a horrendous crime is not in doubt.”

This was denounced as drawing a false moral equivalency between the bombing of Sudan and 9/11.

In a book of interviews called 9/11, Chomsky commented further:

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 that single sentence – which, on a closer look, appears to be an understatement – was regarded by some commentators as utterly scandalous.”

Note Chomsky’s position in the book: he describes 9/11 in strong moral terms borrowed from Fisk, whilst only comparing one aspect of it to the bombing of Sudan: the death toll.

In the email exchange, Harris reprinted his comments on Chomsky and 9/11 in Harris’ book, The End of Faith. During the email exchange, Harris seems to admit that 9/11 is the only book he has read by Chomsky: he admitted to not reading Radical Priorities, explaining that, “I treated your short book, 9/11, as a self-contained statement on the topic”.

Which is a rather striking admission: he claimed to want to conduct a debate with Chomsky because of his (Chomsky’s) prominence and influence, criticised Chomsky’s political position in print…. But knows next to nothing about Chomsky’s political views, because he has only read a short pamphlet of interviews by Chomsky, which ends with a list of recommended reading, including several of his own.

Chomsky has produced a vast corpus of political books, with probably tens of thousands of footnotes dealing with the questions in issue: if Harris were genuinely interested in learning about Chomsky’s views, why not try reading them seriously?

Harris was appalled at Chomsky’s strong criticisms of American foreign policy, such as commenting of 9/11 that, “For the first time in modern history, Europe and its offshoots were subjected, on home soil, to the kind of atrocity that they routinely have carried out elsewhere.”

Harris thought that “according to Chomsky, the atrocity of September 11 pales in comparison with that perpetrated by the Clinton administration in August 1998”.

As we have just seen, this is not Chomsky’s position: he suggested that the consequences of the destruction of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, producing half of Sudan’s pharmaceutical supplies, might have been worse than 9/11, without expressing an opinion on which was morally worse, only rendering explicit moral judgment on the “cruelty” and so on of 9/11. And he concluded that this atrocity was “one little footnote in the record of state terror” – which didn’t prompt Harris to ask what Chomsky might have been referring to.

Harris then commented: “But let us now ask some very basic questions that Chomsky seems to have neglected to ask himself: What did the US government think it was doing when it sent cruise missiles into Sudan?” He asks himself some rhetorical questions, culminating in, “Were we trying to kill anyone at all?” Harris says no. Adopting a metaphor from Arundhati Roy, Harris proclaims that “we” – the US – is such a “well-intentioned giant”; “And it is rather astonishing that intelligent people, like Chomsky and Roy, fail to see this.”

Harris proceeds on his inane, jingoistic way: “It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development.” He observed that, “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, US soldiers were dumbstruck with horror by the behaviour of their comrades.”

Harris then wrote: “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.”

This then, is the source of Chomsky’s error. For Chomsky, “intentions do not seem to matter. Body count is all.” In Harris’s view, whilst the US might occasionally kill people in foreign countries, the US does so out of overflowing benevolence, whilst America’s enemies kill out of evil and because they come from morally inferior societies that haven’t outgrown the murder of innocents.

He is unabashed about what he says seeming racist – he thinks that he is simply being honest when he says things like, “Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims standing eye-deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century.”

For any person with some acquaintance with the facts of the real world, a few things should be readily apparent at this point. Firstly, that Sam Harris is an ignorant fanatic. Secondly, that he misrepresents the position of Chomsky, which he seems to know nothing about.

He claims that Chomsky ignores the question of intentions, failing to see how benevolent the US is, on the basis of a short book of interviews not discussing at length Chomsky’s views on American foreign policy.

It is not possible here to review all the ridiculous things Harris says. Take, for example, his claim that Americans have “outgrown our tolerance” for the “deliberate torture” of innocents. Written years after Guantanamo Bay was set up for torture, since then President Bush admitted that he authorised torture. Meanwhile, President Obama admitted “we tortured some folks”, but urged us “not to feel too sanctimonious”, before ruling out prosecuting those responsible for torture. Does that sound like a society or government which no longer tolerates torture?

Chomsky wearily replied: he did not claim a “moral equivalence” between the bombing of Al-Shifa and 9/11, and has discussed the issue of intentions many times. He noted his book’s challenge: what would Harris think if al Qaeda destroyed half the pharmaceutical supplies of the US and the facilities for replenishing them? Well, Harris replied, it depends on their intentions. If it’s al Qaeda, then, “We should imprison or kill these people at the first opportunity.” But if al-Qaeda were a group of “genuine humanitarians”, overflowing with benevolence, who unleashed a computer virus on the US because of a tragic error, out of a genuine intention of “saving millions of lives” – then Harris would call these people “our friends” and so on.

Chomsky called this scenario “so ludicrous as to be embarrassing”. He observed: “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.”

Chomsky proceeded to discuss the bombing, about which Harris plainly was unable to engage, apparently knowing nothing about it.

Finally, Harris explained why he thought Chomsky was wrong: “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?” Harris thought that Clinton “simply wanted to destroy what he believed to be a chemical weapons factory. But he did wind up killing innocent people, and we don’t really know how he felt about it.”

Why? Because Clinton said so. Not that Harris would admit that: it is simply axiomatic that the US is benevolent, and when it bombs a foreign country, it does so to save people. He doesn’t even need to cite what Clinton said: like any religious fundamentalist, once the leader says it, he knows it to be true.

Chomsky more or less refuted every substantive claim made by Harris, who rapidly lost interest in pretending to discuss the issues (or, in Harris’ terms, “litigating all points… in the most plodding and accusatory way”).

After the interchange was posted, the internet reacted. Harris apparently noticed his feedback was not uniformly favourable, so he commented further. He observed that in his book, he claimed Chomsky ignored the question of intentions, which was, “in a narrow sense, untrue”.

Seeking to qualify this as much as possible, he concludes that Chomsky is right on “literal (if pedantic)” grounds, because whilst Chomsky doesn’t ignore the issue of intentions, “the answers he arrived at are, in my opinion, scandalously wrong.”

Note what this means: the entire thrust of Harris’ criticisms of Chomsky was that in 9/11 he ignored the question of intentions. Now Harris understands that Chomsky simply disagrees with him about the intentions of the US government – because Harris, by his own admission, assumes US benevolence.

If Harris is not lying here, consider what it reveals. Harris criticised Chomsky for failing to consider the intentions of the US government when bombing Sudan. What he really meant was: Chomsky was “scandalously wrong”, for having different beliefs about the intentions of the US government, and failing to believe in its inherent benevolence.

On what basis does Harris believe Chomsky is scandalously wrong? No basis at all: as Harris forthrightly admitted in the exchange, he assumed it, and does not know why Chomsky or anyone else disagrees. It is “astonishing” to Harris that anyone would fail to understand how righteous the US government is.

Harris still doesn’t understand what Chomsky was arguing about how states always profess benign intentions, and presumably will never be able to. He remains “confused about Chomsky’s position on several important issues and would sincerely have liked to discuss them”. One might suggest one method for learning about Chomsky’s views would be picking up one of his books and reading it, but for a fanatic like Harris, it would probably be a waste of time.

Harris isn’t unique. The loyal service of power has been standard among the New Atheists, even as they offer embarrassing odes to each other’s courage, rationality and defence of freedom.

It is ironic that their distinguishing traits are fanaticism, hero worship and religious fundamentalism.

Their religion may be secular, but if their project were serious, they would look inwards before they were to examine the motes in other people’s eyes.

Harris may not understand what his email exchange with Chomsky shows, but admirers of the New Atheists would do well to read it carefully and see if they can’t learn anything from it.

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