May 2, 2015 by James Crossley
Sam Harris has long been a critic of Noam Chomsky on issues relating to the war on terror and US foreign policy. A couple of days ago, he tried to engage Chomsky in a debate over email. Harris writes on his website:
Last week, I did my best to engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics. As readers of the following email exchange will discover, I failed. I’ve decided to publish this private correspondence, with Chomsky’s permission, as a cautionary tale. Clearly, he and I have drawn different lessons from what was, unfortunately, an unpleasant and fruitless encounter. I will let readers draw lessons of their own.
Chomsky’s reasons are published:
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.
As it happens, I published something on this issue several years ago (with sources) and it was clear to me then (as now) that Harris does indeed misrepresent Chomsky on a crucial issue for Harris’ critique of Chomsky (and ‘the Left’). The following is based on Harris’ discussion of Chomsky in Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (London: Simon & Schuster, 2004), pp. 139-44.
For Harris, Chomsky is an ‘exquisitely moral man whose political views prevent him from making the most basic moral distinctions – between types of violence, and the variety of human responses that give rise to them.’ Harris also added further to the post-Sept. 11 misunderstanding of Chomsky’s comments on the 1998 bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan and the uncounted deaths it caused. Here Harris accused Chomsky of drawing ‘moral equivalences’ between US actions and actions of those such as al-Qaeda, which no ‘honest’ take on current events could make. Before we critique Harris, we might note that this implies that Harris implied opponents are, according to this logic, presumably lying or dishonest.
As with his brief email exchange with Chomsky, Harris focused on motivation and intention: there was, he claimed, no intention to kill as many Sudanese as possible. By contrast, Harris argued, those associated with al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein are in a ‘different moral universe entirely’ to George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Therefore, so Harris’ logic would go, Chomsky’s alleged comparisons between Bush, on the one hand, and a dictator like Saddam Hussein on the other, are facile. Harris acknowledged issues relating to US foreign policy as a potential contributing factor but ultimately claimed (and note the emphasis on intentions) that the US is a ‘well-intentioned giant’ and that it is apparently astonishing that people like Chomsky (and Arundhati Roy) do not see this. For Harris, Bush would not target innocent people if he had a ‘perfect weapon’, unlike, he added, bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. This is because US is deemed by Harris to be far morally developed than many other (Muslim) cultures. Despite the bad things that may have been done by ‘us’, at the least there is outrage at violence from ‘us’, he argued, which would distinguish ‘us’ from so many of ‘our’ enemies. Harris used the analogy that makers of cars and hockey sticks know people will get hurt and die but that was never the intention.
There is much that could (and has) been said about Harris’ Orientalist approach, individualized rhetoric of ‘intentions’ and, it seems, some sort of triumphal personal morality, which masks the vast complexity of structure and agency involved in trying to explain what might be going on with the emergence of al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and ‘the war on terror’. And, what happens if we follow Harris’ logic? What should we make of those carpet bombed in Cambodia, however many actually died in the Iraq war, or the recipients of white phosphorus in Falluja? Should they be grateful for Harris’ explanation that, ideally, innocents would not have been killed? Would they be relieved to know that bombs, depleted uranium, white phosphorus, or the arms industry were presumably created as innocently as hockey sticks and cars? Or roller coasters, as Harris adds in his latest post.
But the focus here is on Harris’ representation of Chomsky. Let’s take the example of ‘moral equivalence’. We might even ask how ‘morality’ might be measured to get ‘equivalence’. But does Chomsky do this? Well, one problem for Harris’ argument is that he does not once cite Chomsky discussing moral equivalence (recall Chomsky’s wish for ‘sources’ in his exchange with Harris). In fact, Harris was discussing Chomsky’s very short book on September 11 (and he continues to focus on this book alone in his email exchange) which is problematic when trying to represent Chomsky given that he has (famously) published countless works relating to American foreign policy.
What is more problematic is that Chomsky actually has discussed the concept of ‘moral equivalence’ on several occasions, up to and before Harris published End of Faith. Indeed, Harris continues this line in his exchange with Chomsky (‘The liberal fallacy that I will attempt to unravel in the present section is the notion that we made these enemies and that we are, therefore, their “moral equivalent.” We are not.’). Here are some of the examples where Chomsky previously and explicitly rejected the concept of ‘moral equivalence’ as meaningless:
…moral equivalence. There is no such notion. There are many different dimensions and criteria. For example, there’s no moral equivalence between the bombing of the World Trade Center and the destruction of Nicaragua or of El Salvador, of Guatemala. The latter were far worse, by any criterion. So there’s no moral equivalence. Furthermore, they were done for different reasons and they were done in different ways. There’s all sorts of dimensions…
The term moral equivalence is an interesting one, it was invented I think by Jeane Kirkpatrick as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It has a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence what so ever.
Harris was not the first person (or indeed the first ‘New Atheist’) who had accused Chomsky of promoting a concept of ‘moral equivalence’. Here’s Chomsky’s response to Christopher Hitchens in 2001 (which may also shed light on Chomsky’s reluctance to engage Harris):
On this central issue for Harris’ critique, then, he has clearly misrepresented Chomsky and it seems that it continues to be in issue in this present correspondence.