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.