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Sam Harris Begs Noam Chomsky to Publicly Embarrass Him

I was going to make a video about this topic, but as I was jotting down notes even I got bored by explaining the various ways that Harris has embarrassed himself in his latest venture. So, here are my notes in bloggy form:

Recently, Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and one of the three remaining “Horsemen” of new atheism, decided to pick a fight with famed linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky. Nearly 4 years ago, Chomsky was asked at a public event what he thought of Hitchens and Harris, and Chomsky replied that they are religious fanatics whose religion is the State, referring primarily to Hitchens’s conservative war-mongering in the years following 9/11.

For some reason, Harris just decided to take Chomsky up on it, at first proposing a debate, and when Chomsky didn’t embrace the idea, proposing a public email discourse. Chomsky also found the idea of a public email exchange to be pointless, but after a bit of needling from Harris he agreed that his emails could be made public.

It’s baffling why Harris was so keen on making the emails public, because they are incredibly unflattering to him. The entire thing is worth a read, but here’s the crux: In The End of Faith, Harris claims that Chomsky compared the 9/11 attacks to the loss of life when the Clinton administration bombed a crucial pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, crippling the region’s health supplies and leading to the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Chomsky pointed out that that was a severe misinterpretation of his words.

Harris even helpfully quotes this bit of his book, and sure enough, it’s right there: Harris claims that Chomsky neglected to ask the important question of whether or not the Clinton administration meant to cause those deaths.

As Chomsky shows quite clearly in his response, his entire point of bringing up the pharmaceutical plant bombing was to explore the difference in morality between murdering tens of thousands of people purposely because you regard them as people with an important role to play in terror and murdering tens of thousands of people as a side effect of your true aim and an effect which you never actually acknowledge or atone for in any way because you don’t actually view those victims as people who deserve a second thought.

So Chomsky had asked himself that question and answered it in full, but Harris claimed otherwise. And throughout the exchange, at no point does Harris accept this very basic fact and apologize for it.

Harris reached a bold new low further on in the discussion, when Chomsky asks Harris to answer his original question in regards to the pharmaceutical bombing: had it happened on US soil, what would our response be?

Instead of answering that question, Harris invents a fantasy in which Al Qaeda destroys the United States’ pharmaceutical infrastructure using a computer virus because they found a batch of bad vaccines and the FDA wouldn’t listen to them about stopping it from being released. That’s the best way he could think to continue defending the Clinton administration’s bombing of a pharmaceutical plant, which, as Chomsky points out, was an immediate response to the 1998 US embassy attacks in Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi and which destroyed 50% of the medicine available to the people in the region.

It’s embarrassing that Harris is considered one of New Atheism’s foremost thinkers, when he doesn’t even have the spine to properly frame his opponent’s arguments and then argue against them, as opposed to a strawman of his own creation. And when you have to work so hard to build a strawman that it requires Al Qaeda aiding the US with a cyber-terror attack? Seriously, atheists, we can do better.

Featured image is “Chomsky” by Duncan Rawlinson. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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37 Comments

  1. May 11, 2015 at 4:14 pm —

    I still don’t understand the rush to defend Harris that seems to have so many otherwise rational skeptics/atheists twisted up in knots to excuse away his awful logic.

    Perhaps this will allow those who are so worried about Ben Affleck sullying Harris’ intellectual standing (Seriously?) that they must excuse Harris his calls for racial profiling and exclaim that Islamophobia isn’t the correct word because it is not irrational to fear Muslims (even though only a tiny part of a single percent mean us harm? Sound irrational to me).

    Anyway, Harris’ books are useful to explain some concepts of anti-theism, but he is showing himself more and more to be not too much of a role model when it comes to integrity.

    • May 11, 2015 at 11:59 pm —

      ‘…only a tiny part of a single percent mean us harm?’
      What! Hundreds of millions of Muslims support death for apostacy. Would you sit still if someone suggested that ‘only a tiny part of a single percent’ of police shoot unarmed black suspects? THAT is actually true, but still absurdly pointless.
      http://www.pewglobal.org/2010/12/02/muslims-around-the-world-divided-on-hamas-and-hezbollah/

      • May 12, 2015 at 5:52 am —

        Are you seriously trying to use poll data taken under oppressive regimes as proof? Iran for example was a moderate country before the revolution and yet so many now state they agree with the leaders who might have them killed if they disagree. I wonder just how many actually do? I wonder just how many out of the world’s 1.5 billion actually do? I’m assuming that if even a small percentage of ~20% of the world’s population actually believed what those dubious polls say that we would already be dead.

        There are problems but a global war against all Muslims is no solution yet that is what is advocated by those who Harris cozies up with.

        As for your analogy, please? Unarmed people are dying on a daily basis by the hands of those sworn to protect them and you want to liken that to people who are dedicated by purpose to oppress, and to tar everyone who follows that religion with the same brush? That is beyond offensive.

      • May 12, 2015 at 8:59 am —

        @John:

        1. Even if that poll data were to be taken at face value, unless you’re a former Muslim, you’re not an apostate and so no one means you harm.

        Of course death for apostasy is a practice that I find abhorrent. But the Pew poll is highly problematic. In a post-Ed Snowden world, would you or I think that our answers to poll questions would be unseen by government eyes, even here in the good-ol’ U S of A? Now imagine being in an Islamist dictatorship. Does it seem possible that citizens of an Islamist state might not honestly answer poll questions from some organization they’ve never heard of it doing so means going against official Islamist policy? I’ve written to Pew numerous times asking for clarification of how they know that this sort of thing didn’t drastically skew the poll results and have not heard back.

        Don’t assume that the Pew results should be taken at face value.

  2. May 11, 2015 at 5:02 pm —

    It often seems to me that when it comes to extremists, they go so far around the bend that they meet their opposite numbers. In other words, they start resembling each other. Thus, the New Atheists often look a lot like Fundamentalists. I’m guessing that Sam Harris, et al. wouldn’t like that comparison, but I think it’s apt.

  3. May 11, 2015 at 6:50 pm —

    I’m a long time fan of Chomsky, Harris, and Watson, so this is interesting.

    Seems like Harris answered the question directly. He said the response would depend on the intention of the attacker and then put forth two scenarios. One where he would respond favorably, which requires some very far fetched details but he’s responding to a hypothetical while trying to make a point. He follows with a second far more likely scenario that the attack was made with evil intent which he answers with:
    “What would I say? We should imprison or kill these people at the first opportunity.”

    His main point seems to be all along that the intention of the actions matter. I don’t always agree with Harris and have problems with some of his reasoning but I don’t think it’s fair to say he ignored the question and then go on to ignore half of his response and only talk about the far fetched half.

  4. May 11, 2015 at 7:42 pm —

    “It’s baffling why Harris was so keen on making the emails public, because they are incredibly unflattering to him”

    I can think of 2 easy, not mutually exclusive explanations:
    One, it was unclear to me Harris even understood how he was misrepresenting Chomsky. Harris seems to think he has Chomsky pegged as a purveyor of moral equivalence and failed to grasp that he did not understand what Chomsky wrote. Harris is a debater, as far as I can tell, and a debater does not need to have an intellectually tenable position in order to “win” a debate. Chomsky is not a debater and lays out his case in long form. I am not sure Harris grasps that.

    Two, Harris might be the sort of person who wants debates aired even if he is losing them. I doubt Harris fans will be swayed. I don’t think many of his fans will see him as losing this nor do I think Islamophobes in general will see it that way.

    • May 13, 2015 at 12:32 pm —

      Chomsky is not a debater

      That’s not true. Chomsky did not want to debate Harris, but he has participated in many public debates, including a quite famous one with Michel Foucault that aired on French television in the 1971.

      I have no doubt in a Chomsky v. Harris debate that Chomsky would dance circles around Harris.

  5. May 12, 2015 at 1:33 am —

    I read the exchange and it struck me as a case of surreal case of sealioning on Harris’ part. Couldn’t help himself I guess.

  6. May 12, 2015 at 2:05 am —

    @mrmisconception
    @John the Drunkard
    @Stephanie Savage
    @John Shannonhouse

    Preface: I admire both Harris’s and Chomsky’s work but I don’t necessarily agree with them all the time. At the very least they both get me to think about important issues so I can test the validity of the opinions I hold.

    That said: there are many liberal/secular/moderate Muslims and ex-Muslims who agree with Harris’s views – Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, Ali Rizvi, Asra Nomani all come to mind.

    Whether you agree with those I’ve mentioned or not doesn’t concern me (it’s important that our thoughts and opinions are challenged), I think we do a fundamental disservice to any person we might disagree with in assuming bad motivations on their behalf.

    It is not a lie to say that there are many thousands of Muslims who will actually kill anyone who they feel have committed blasphemy against their prophet. And not only that, will rape and kill those who don’t practice Islam the way they feel it should be practiced, whether or not they identify as Muslims at all.

    I think Chomsky and Harris are both right in certain respects. There can be no doubt that allied Western countries military interventionism over at least the past 100 years has created a tinderbox in the Middle East, fertilising the soil to allow militant Islam to seed, grow, and flourish. But it also doesn’t seem to be incongruent to say that there is a violently militant and intolerant form of Islam that has come into being over the last 30-40 years which seems to have formed exclusively from a pious and puritanical insistence on reading the Qu’ran as if we still lived on a planet that has seen no change in the 1200 intervening years or so since it was written.

    That is much like fundamentalist Christians in many countries around the world, they use a selectively literalist interpretation of their Holy Book and seek to apply it to the Modern world. The difference being at this moment in time is that there is a not insignificant proportion of Muslims who will seek to impose their views on women, apostates, gays and lesbians, and Jews through the use of violence.

    I’m sure you are aware of all that so I’m not trying to be patronising but they are important points to make.

    I have huge respect for Rebecca Watson and what she has achieved both in creating this site, as well as her public advocacy of the virtues of skepticism, but I do believe she has assumed bad motives on Harris’s part. I will defend Harris in so much as I believe his intentions for engaging Chomsky in an email exchange were beneficent in nature. That is, I think he wanted to provide clarity of his views and Chomsky’s as well. I can not know what his actual intentions were but I think he wanted the emails made public to show that there was no malice on his part, but to also show that he might’ve misinterpreted Chomsky, and been misunderstood in return.

    The point being, as I mentioned earlier, that there are times when I disagree – correctly or incorrectly – with both Harris and Chomsky but I don’t automatically assume they have deceptive intentions.

    Anyway, apologies for the essay. I suspect though that I have written much I have possibly been as clear as mud.

    • May 12, 2015 at 4:45 pm —

      I should mention that, my issues with Islam are more…institutional issues. Muslims are, simply put, the white people of the Middle East and Africa, but certain Muslim leaders like to pretend otherwise for white liberals.

      Islamic theocracies are still theocracies.

    • May 12, 2015 at 6:40 pm —

      My problems with Harris stem not from my perception of his intentions, they stem from the fact that he is so often spectacularly wrong. He supported our Iraq invasion, he called for profiling all Muslims, and he argued for torture.

      I also take issue with those who will defend him while waving away these issues so as to make it clear that they are no cultural relativists. I’m speaking most recently of those who tore Ben Affleck a new one for daring to point out that most of the world’s Muslims are very much like you and me and just like most theists in general, what a monster. So he called Harris a racist, so what? Read Harris’ stance of profiling, sounds pretty racist to me. (What exactly does a Muslim look like anyway, Sam?)

      I take issue with podcasters who feel it necessary to parse the word Islamophobia because it is right and fair to be afraid of Muslims despite the fact that if you add up all the members of all the Islamic terrorist organisations and all members of (not citizens of) the totalitarian Islamic regimes it would be a very small percentage of the world’s Islamic population. (1.5 million is 0.1% of 1.5 billion for example since I do not have the actual numbers, 1.5 million seems generous though.)

      I take issue with other podcasters who have no problem seeing through Utah wanting to declare itself a Christian state as the power grab by bigots that it is while sarcastically insinuating that Islamic states are how they are because of flaws in their religion and little else, as if the two aren’t peas in a pod.

      I take issue at skeptics and atheists who talk about Islam as if it were one giant block of sameness, as if sects and mosques don’t exist and all Muslims believe the same way, and that if moderates don’t denounce every violent action of every Muslim everywhere it is the same as a tacit endorsement. When we speak of Christianity we speak of the organization, the church, or the individual involved in the latest fucknuttery but we speak of Islam or Muslims with no distinction unless we are talking about a terrorist group and calling on moderates to denounce them. When was the last time that you were reminded that the atrocities in Saudi Arabia stem from a fundamentalist Wahhabist regime that is not only totalitarian but also a monarchy? Ask yourself, would we ever talk about all Jews being the same? I think not.

      I take issue with politicians (with the help of wonks like Harris) who are working really hard to make “Islamic regime” the new “Communist regime” so as to declare war for war’s sake any time they like. You are right about the way we have meddled in the Middle East and some are chomping at the bit to meddle some more, when do you think we will learn? Maybe after we have no use for oil, but then they will probably figure some other reason.

      BTW – None of this is aimed at you, I just find it so frustrating that people can’t see the connections between things.

      And sorry back at you for my essay.

      • May 13, 2015 at 12:35 pm —

        My biggest concern is that a lot of white liberals are trying to show everyone how ‘enlightened’ they are.

        A few months ago, I read an article by Zoltan Grossman about how the Kurds are privileged. (Also, the Montagnards. Apparently we’re still fighting Vietnam.)

        I should mention that Professor Grossman…I know a woman, her mother is from a well-known Pine Ridge family. Her cousin is Charlotte Black Elk, in fact. Grossman wouldn’t let her speak on Indian issues at Washington State University, however, because of who her father was. Her father’s family was originally from Hebron, though her father’s mother left Hebron in 1929, due to some unpleasantness.

        Gee, whatever happened to academic freedom? Or is that just their ‘ethics in games journalism’?

        And I’m afraid I see the same thing here: Marginalizing Muslim and ex-Muslim women and Muslim and LGBT Muslims and ex-Muslims in favor of cishet Muslim men.

        • May 13, 2015 at 1:04 pm —

          There are many that go too far in the other direction no doubt, to say that Islam doesn’t have any influence is just as wrong as saying it is the only influence. That’s just not how the world works.

          What the secular/skeptical/atheist communities can help with is being more specific when pointing out the various flaws. And when someone on our side is using racist or unnecessarily inflammatory rhetoric we shouldn’t give them a pass because we like the cut of their jib.

          The same goes for all areas not just Islam, if we don’t hold our side accountable who will?

        • May 23, 2015 at 8:10 pm —

          Wow, I’m confused and honestly have no idea who or what you’re talking about. First, I’m not even at Washington State University, which is at the other end of the state from Olympia, where I teach. Second, I wouldn’t let a cousin of Charlotte Black Elk speak?? Huh? I interviewed Charlotte Black Elk for my dissertation in 1999, and have no idea who her cousin or cousin’s father is, and I don’t know anyone at all from Hebron. Check your facts, provide some documentation, and clarify if you’ve mixed me up with someone else. Third, you must have read my article “The Global War on Tribes,” but it has nothing about the Kurds or Montagnards being “privileged”– just that they worked with our government which then abandoned them, which is a pretty well known fact.

      • May 13, 2015 at 9:34 pm —

        My problem with arguments of this nature is that those who have them make 1 or more of the following errors.

        1. Misrepresent someone’s stated position – Harris was notably against the Iraq war
        2. Misrepresent the extent of someone’s stated position – Harris’ stance in support of torture is a pretty nuanced one and, if stated in a soundbyte form as here, only serves to poison the well.
        3. Assume the worst of someone’s intentions due to previous biases or just the general mode of conversation on the internet where everyone you even partially disagree with is persona-non-grata till the end of time

        • May 14, 2015 at 12:03 pm —

          @rahulagrawal1487

          Agree. And in relation to point 3, if you haven’t already (and it sounds like you might have), Nick Cohen is pretty strong on this in most of his writing, particularly his last two books.

          I am from the liberal left both socially and economically but I find the cannibalisation of those who are part of our tribe because of lexical infringements to be disgraceful (that’s not to excuse serious and repetitive displays of intolerant behaviour btw), as well as the fact that so disgusted by the chickenhawk war-mongering hypocrisy of the collective Freedom Warriors of the West, that some of the lib-left clan are willing to give a free pass to those within Islam who hold, and try to impose , views that are completely anathema to what they (the lib-left), and I myself, hold to be true.

          It baffles me.

        • May 14, 2015 at 2:23 pm —

          1. Sam Harris was not for the invasion outright, you are right. I got his stance conflated with Christopher Hitchens’ gung ho attitude. I apologize for that. He does argue that collateral damage is to be expected so you can excuse the presumption.
          2. Which part is misrepresented? The part where he said

          “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.”

          or was it when he responded to this criticism by stating

          “I am not narrowly focused on people with dark skin.”

          The second statement does at least lead one to believe that he knows why his first statement comes off as racist but then he doubles down by saying

          “To say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest.”

          Interesting that in that long list of things that should bring more scrutiny he conveniently left oout religion. Wasn’t that his point in the first place or did he change his mind? His position is not as nuanced as you would like to believe and even Sam Harris realized it.
          3. How narrow must a case for torture be to make it alright? I would say that given the unreliability of information obtained in this way and the de facto permission it gives our enemies to use the same techniques that there is no case to be made for torture under any circumstance. I did not question his intention, I simply believe that being pro-torture, no matter how much you couch it, is wrong.

          I am not arguing that Sam Harris be made persona-non-grata, I simply believe that when he makes awful arguments defending awful things that we don’t make excuses for him.

          • May 15, 2015 at 9:47 pm

            Regarding this: (sorry I don’t know how to use the blockquote thing)
            “I am not arguing that Sam Harris be made persona-non-grata, I simply believe that when he makes awful arguments defending awful things that we don’t make excuses for him.”

            What I meant is that I’ve seen a number of cases on several blog networks, Twitter, and pretty much every online platform, where communication spirals out of control. Misreadingss become misunderstandings and eventually metastasize into full blown hatreds. Thenceforth anything anyone on the “other side” says is seen in the least charitable possible light.

            That’s not to say that people can’t be genuinely wrong on any issue or shouldn’t be disagreed with. But I do think prior perceptions cloud matters a lot

          • May 15, 2015 at 10:10 pm

            Absolutely agreed, I was responding in my original post to statements made by podcasters that I agree with very often going out or their way to excuse a couple of his (and other atheists) bad arguments.

            Us vs. Them certainly becomes the case far too often, it just bothers me that we shy away from criticizing to show false unity.

      • May 14, 2015 at 11:27 am —

        @mrmisconception

        As rahulagrawal1487 points out Harris was against the invasion of Iraq; his argument about torture is nuanced (I disagree with him but it isn’t some gung-ho hyper-masculine screed in favour); and his arguments about profiling have a certain logic and can’t be summarised as “Muslims wearing traditional garb should be profiled” – it works itself outside in, under the premise of efficient use of limited airport security resources, discounting for example old caucasian women, young chlidren etc. first (Harris says that he himself shouldn’t be discounted from profiling). In this sense Harris is most definitely not a racist. At best his views could be seen to be bigoted. I would disagree with this because he has read the Quran and having read it points out the most inflammatory contentions it makes about how Muslims should treat people.

        Just a few other points in response to your reply:

        1. Harris’s problem is with certain proclamations in the Quran and hadiths. These can not be divorced from Islam because they are part of what makes the religion what it is. Certainly many millions of Muslims completely disregard some of the more disgusting proclamations and life prescriptions, and for that we should be greatful, but there are many more millions of Muslims who do take some of these obscene teachings seriously as being the final truth on things such as blasphemy, apostasy, homosexuality, sexuality, women’s rights, Jews, and patriarchy.

        I was about 11 years old when the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was issued. Although I hadn’t read The Satanic Verses (I certainly wasn’t a precocious child – more into comics I was) I knew that what was happening to him was simply immoral and wrong. No one should have a death sentence placed on their lives for writing a book that causes offence, I thought to myself at the time, no one should have to hide. No publisher should be forced to stop publishing and translating a book under threats of violence due to the offence said book causes some. This is a repulsive idea. Rushdie had his freedom curtailed for well over a decade. Supposedly sane and reasonable Muslims in Britain had large protests denouncing Rushdie and calling for his death (most not having read the book – incidentally the Ayatollah had not read it either by his own admission at the time he issued the fatwa). A Japanese or Korean translator of the book was murdered and a Scandinavian publisher was shot and seriously injured. The overall crime which fomented such hatred was blasphemy.

        There are many other violent incidents that can not be explained away by the “West’s” foreign policy interventions/invasions such as the Danish Cartoons violent irruptions, the murder of Theo van Gogh, the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher Supermarket massacres, the recent shooting of a free speech gathering in Scandinavia, and the terrors of ISIS, Boko Haram, and al Shabaab etc. etc. None of which is to say that all Muslims will act in such a manner but what it does say is that offending Islam and its Prophet in a public way can lead to some disgusting behaviour.

        2. That Harris and many others, notably Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are critical of certain tenets of Islam, and think that we should defend free speech has nothing to do with America and her Allies foreign policy misadventures. They are critical of aspects of Islam and Muslim belief (as they are against other religions) but what they say has no impact on the American Corporatist belief in taking what they want.

        I’ll stop there because it’s late here Down Under and I have to work tomorrow.

        • May 14, 2015 at 3:24 pm —

          Harris was against the invasion of Iraq

          Yeah, I got that wrong.

          his argument about torture is nuanced (I disagree with him but it isn’t some gung-ho hyper-masculine screed in favour)

          I never said he was gung-ho, just that he argued in favor of it. I believe there is no room for thinking humans to excuse torture so I believe he is wrong no matter how nuanced his stance is.

          his arguments about profiling have a certain logic and can’t be summarised as “Muslims wearing traditional garb should be profiled”

          No, he said “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim”. What criteria would Mr. Harris have us use to determine who is and who isn’t Muslim? In his response he gives a hint to what he might use, “ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances”, and it is so vague as to be useless. He also said in his response that “I am not narrowly focused on people with dark skin.” so at least he sees how it might be construed. Anyway, I didn’t call Harris racist (Ben Affleck did), I simply said his defense of profiling was racist.

          Profiling is a legitimate technique when targeted correctly (i.e. by behavior) but there is no reliable way to know who is Muslim by outward appearances, unless Mr. Harris would have us add that information to passports and such, a practice that would prove as dangerous for atheists as any group.

          I care not whether he has read the Quran and found icky bits in it, even if the Quran explicitly excused terrorism (it doesn’t without belief) it would not excuse our use of that fact to tar all that follow it with the label terrorist any more than the Holy Bible should allow us to label all Christians pro-slave, anti-gay, pro-genocide, etc.

          The old couple in front of him were definitely not terrorists, and the three-year-old with the sandals was definitely not a terrorist, and the Mormon Tabernacle gets a pass? I do not care for his argument by anecdote (something most would call bad argumentation) and his definition of who is definitely not a terrorist seems to be likened to Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”? Wonderful, is Sam offering his keen perception at all airports so as to implement his who is and isn’t a terrorist to be profiled policy?

          Look, I agree that we must stand up to defend freedoms when we can and right now much of the threat to those freedoms is coming from Islamic theocracies. How we go about defending those freedoms is tricky however and I sincerely do not believe that profiling and torture are particularly useful to that end and I would argue they are nothing but harmful.

          I disagree with Harris on these points not in his opposition of the worst parts of Islam. Now, you can believe that I am parsing his words to find fault but I don’t believe I am, in fact I believe I am reading his words very clearly.

          He has a ever growing page on his blog called “Response to Controversy” in which he tries to explain how his critics have misread him. Perhaps if you are being constantly misread you consider whether the fault lies with the reader or with you.

          • May 15, 2015 at 9:03 pm

            Regarding his view on torture: I think all I can say about what I understood his views to be are as follows. If in war you consign yourself to causing at least some collateral damage, who’s consequences are worse than torture, and if you can prevent something more via torture, then it’s the lesser of 2 evils. It’s a wildly impractical stance but, I think, philosophically sound. If you claim that one should never ever consider torture then that’s a difference of opinion.

            I regard his views on profiling similar – sound but wildly impractical.

            Finally to your last paragraph – this view of him is problematic. Dealing with weighty matters naturally lends yourself to being misunderstood. Damned if he addresses misunderstandings and damned if he doesn’t address them. What would you haven’t him do?

          • May 15, 2015 at 9:06 pm

            Apologies for autocorrect errors above.

          • May 15, 2015 at 9:10 pm

            You can certainly make the case that he could try to communicate better, but unless you’re willing to couch every statement you make in tons of caveats, you’re bound to be misunderstood or taken out of context. He’s certainly prone to making unnecessary rhetorical flourishes when he speaks or writes

          • May 15, 2015 at 10:01 pm

            I certainly do not fault him for having critics, the subjects that he writes about would tend to court controversy.

            Having said that his responses to those controversies, I believe, are telling. He defends his position ferociously with hardly a waver, while that is his prerogative I think that falling to even reflect on one’s controversial stands shows at best a lack of introspection.

            But hey, at least he seemed to have softened his stance on Iraq once we were there and killing bad guys.

  7. May 13, 2015 at 3:09 pm —

    I’ll keep following pretty much all these thinkers thoughts to better clarify my own views. I say this is defend the question “why would harris publish the emails”. It is beneficial and i believe that Harris genuinely wants us to make up our own minds.

    I see Harris as making a fundamental mistake in his framing. He keeps saying the Terrorists intend to do harm, while Western governments did not. Chomsky correctly says “intention carries little information” as all monster intend “good things” not harm. This is more easily seen if we rewrite Harris’ intent of the terrorists: Terrorists intend to bring about paradise and eliminate all the unbelieving monsters. Phrased like that its easier to see that both parties are equal with their morality of “doing good”, thought fundamentally failing since the collateral damage is meaningless to them.

    • May 13, 2015 at 4:04 pm —

      “Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.”

      ? John Barth

    • May 13, 2015 at 4:24 pm —

      I see Harris as making a fundamental mistake in his framing. He keeps saying the Terrorists intend to do harm, while Western governments did not. Chomsky correctly says “intention carries little information” as all monster intend “good things” not harm.

      That’s true but it’s not what Chomsky is saying. He’s pointing out that perhaps it’s worse, or at least a different kind of “bad,” for someone to murder others because they don’t see those others as being human beings who are even worthy of consideration, as compared to terrorists who murder others because they are human beings whose lives have worth that will be missed.

      • May 13, 2015 at 7:28 pm —

        that makes sense.

        and sometimes the failing feels even greater as the west holds itself in such high esteem when it comes to human rights. Harris himself is proof. Seems like by now we really should start knowing better, but for all the talk, we’re always pretending ‘oh, its not so bad, its normal for governments to behave this way’; the same foreign policy that has been used for hundreds of years.

        Chomsky has been fighting this fight for decades and along comes Harris trying to intellectualize some difference between the actions of the terrorists (ours and theirs). It’s easy to imagine Chomsky’s lack of patience. Harris really got both barrels.

      • May 14, 2015 at 11:41 am —

        @Rebecca Watson

        It’s interesting that Christopher Hitchens was probably more appalled than Chomsky at Clinton’s bombing of Al-Shifa for the exact same reasons the Professor laid out. As we know though Hitch became a fervent, although not uncritical, supporter of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, while Chomsky and Harris were opposed.

        My issue with both Chomsky and Harris is this: while the former seems to think almost every current incident of transnational violence is a result of American foreign policy and has little to do with Islamist political philosophy, the latter seems to think almost every current incident of transnational violence is a result of Islamist political philosophy and has little to do with American/British/Israel foreign policy.

        And never the twain shall meet.

  8. May 13, 2015 at 3:12 pm —

    The answer to why Harris was keen to publish the unflattering email exchange is Dunning-Kruger. He just doesn’t have the chops to recognize how out of his depth he is. Harris is a “thought-leader”; Chomsky is a thinker.

  9. May 23, 2015 at 3:37 pm —

    Hi Rebecca,

    While I am a big fan of your work, I do not understand your disdain for Sam Harris. A few weeks ago you mentioned him in a post regarding the murder of muslim students and now this. Mr. Chomsky might be one of my 2 or 3 most respected people on the planet, but to me he just came off as cantankerous. I don’t think Harris had anything to be embarrassed about.

    As a fan of you both I imagine you probably agree with him on 95% of issues, i don’t understand the splintering of the skeptic community in this regard.

    Thanks

    Kris

    • May 23, 2015 at 8:09 pm —

      Hi Kris. Disagreeing with someone (even strongly) is not “splintering the skeptic community,” unless the skeptic community are a bunch of idiots, at which point I suppose they deserve to be splintered.

      • May 23, 2015 at 8:40 pm —

        i guess i was just wondering what exactly your disagreements with him were…. seems like i missed something

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