Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky have a lot in common. Both are familiar public intellectuals, both are atheists, and both are well to the left of center politically. Both are also true believers in the fantasy of objective morality. As I noticed on my latest visit to the Salon website, however, that hasn’t deterred them from hurling anathemas at each other. Harris landed some weak jabs in a recent exchange of verbal fisticuffs, but according to Salon, Chomsky won by a knockout in the later rounds. A complete, blow by blow account may be found on Sam’s website, along with his own post mortem.
Apparently it all began when Harris tried to, in his words, “engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics.” As he wrote on his blog,
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.
To clear the air, he wrote a pleasant note to Chomsky suggesting that they engage in a public conversation to, “explore these disagreements, clarify any misunderstandings,” and “attempt to find some common ground.” Not one to be taken in by such pleasantries, old pro Chomsky immediately positioned himself on the moral high ground. His tart reply:
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.
Harris should have known going in that hardcore “progressive” leftists never have friendly differences of opinion with anyone on matters more significant than the weather. Anyone who disagrees with them is automatically tossed into their outgroup, and acquires all the usual characteristics of the denizens thereof. They are, of course, always immoral, and commonly disgusting and mentally incompetent as well. That’s often how Harris portrays those who disagree with him on questions of morality himself. Nevertheless, he walked right into Chomsky’s punch, admitting the possibility that he may have misread him. He merely threw in the caveat that, if so, it could only have happened in a passage in his first book, The End of Faith, as that was the only time he’d ever mentioned Chomsky’s work in writing. That was plenty for Chomsky. In effect, Harris had just handed him the opportunity to pick his own battlefield. He did so with alacrity. As it happens, in the passage in question, Harris had objected to Chomsky’s condemnation of the Clinton Administration’s decision to bomb the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in the context of remarks about the 9/11 attacks. As he put it:
Chomsky does not hesitate to draw moral equivalences here: “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.”
Citing the passage in his own work Harris referred to, Chomsky immediately fired back, denying that it had ever been his intent to “draw moral equivalences”:
Let’s turn to what you did say—a disquisition on “moral equivalence.” You fail to mention, though, that I did not suggest that they were “morally equivalent” and in fact indicated quite the opposite. I did not describe the Al-Shifa bombing as a “horrendous crime” committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty.” Rather, I pointed out that the toll might be comparable, which turns out on inquiry (which is not undertaken here, and which apologists for our crimes ignore), turns out to be, quite likely, a serious understatement.
Having thus seized the moral high ground, he proceeded to rain down pious punches on Harris, demonstrating that he was not merely wrong, but grossly immoral. His ensuing replies include such choice examples as,
You also ignored the fact that I had already responded to your claim about lack of intention—which, frankly, I find quite shocking on elementary moral grounds, as I suspect you would too if you were to respond to the question raised at the beginning of my quoted comment.
Harris is willfully blind to the crimes of the Clinton Administration:
And of course they knew that there would be major casualties. They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?
He is morally depraved for abetting this crime:
Your own moral stance is revealed even further by your complete lack of concern about the apparently huge casualties and the refusal even to investigate them.
I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before, but rarely at this level – not to speak of the refusal to withdraw false charges, a minor fault in comparison.
Chomsky closes on a magnanimous note:
I’ll put aside your apologetics for the crimes for which you and I share responsibility, which, frankly, I find quite shocking, particularly on the part of someone who feels entitled to deliver moral lectures.
Harris is game enough, but staggers on rubbery legs for the rest of the fight. Even in the midst of these blows, he can’t rid himself of the idée fixe that it’s possible to have a polite exchange with someone like Chomsky on differences of opinion about morality. In the post mortem on his website, it’s clear that he still doesn’t know what hit him. It’s virtually impossible to win arguments about objective morality with the likes of Chomsky unless you grasp the fundamental truth that there’s no such thing as objective morality. In fact, the whole debate was about subjective perceptions that are, as Westermarck put it, entirely outside the realm of truth claims.
I can only suggest that next time, instead of getting “down in the weeds,” as he puts it, in a debate with Chomsky about who is “really” the most morally pure, Harris consider the matter pragmatically. In fact, Chomsky is, and always has been, what Lenin referred to as “a useful idiot.” The net effect of all his moralistic hair splitting has been to aid and abet ideologies for which most sane people would just as soon avoid serving as guinea pigs, and to demoralize those who would seek to stand in their way. The most egregious example is probably the moral support he provided for the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia at the very time it was perpetrating what was probably, at least on a per capita basis, the worst act of genocide in human history, resulting in the virtual decapitation of a whole country and the annihilation of a large percentage of its population. There are many accounts of his role in this affair on the Internet, and I invite interested readers to have a look at them. One of the more balanced accounts may be found here. Here, too, Chomsky would run rings around Harris if he attempted to debate his role on moralistic grounds. Here, too, he could claim that he had never deliberately drawn any “moral equivalence,” that he had never intended to support the Khmer Rouge, and that those who suggest otherwise are immoral because of a, b, and c. However, it is a fact that Pol Pot and his cronies made very effective use of his remarks in their propaganda, among other things, predictably exploiting them to draw “moral equivalence” in blithe disregard of Chomsky’s assertions about his “intent.”
In fact, Chomsky has been a virtual poster boy for potential tyrannies of all stripes. One might say he has been an “equal opportunity” useful idiot. Once when I was visiting Germany I happened to glance at the offerings of a local newsstand, and saw the smiling face of none other than Noam Chomsky smiling down at me from the front page of the neo-Nazi “Deutsche National-Zeitung!” In the accompanying article, the fascists cited him as an ideal example of a true American hero. I note in passing that tyrants themselves usually have no illusions about the real nature of such paragons of morality. Once Stalin had successfully exploited them to gain absolute power, he shot or consigned to the Gulag every single one he could lay his hands on.
In a word, I suggest that Sam take some advice that my father once passed down to me regarding such affairs: “Never get in a pissing contest with a skunk.” You don’t need to convince anyone that you’re more morally pure than Chomsky in order to realistically assess the net effect of all his “piety.” You just need to realize that, from a purely subjective point of view, it is “good” to survive.