Some sectors of the Leftist portions of the internet have been buzzing the last few days about an appallingly uninteresting email exchange between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky. Sam Harris, for those not privy, is known as one of the intellectual leaders of the “new atheist movement,” which is basically a group of a few authors who write teenage-rebellion styled “takedowns” on religious belief and encourage humanity to evolve past religion. Noam Chomsky revolutionized the study of linguistics, is one of the foremost critics of US foreign policy and happens to be the most-quoted living intellectual. Harris, in an incredible act of hubris, decided he wanted a public debate with Chomsky about something…he never specifies what, exactly, he wants to debate. If you want to be bored to tears, the entire pointless exchange is here:
The more you read on, it becomes clear that the motive here was for Harris to have his name attached to Chomsky’s. The irony, of course, is that purity of motive is Harris’ main argument for why Muslims are backward and deserve to be murdered, an unsettlingly jingoistic viewpoint that bleeds through all his attempts to appear calm and collected and to make Chomsky look like a mean bully. (Chomsky is clearly irritated, and rightfully so, with Harris’ long-winded BS, and also clearly uninterested in a public conversation with someone so clueless, while Harris’ consistent references to Chomsky’s “attitude” betray the fact that Harris was hoping to publish the email correspondence from the get-go, so that even if the debate never happened, he could still attach his name to Chomsky’s.)
Much of Chomsky’s replies are just to clarify facts that Harris seems both oblivious to and too lazy to research. Chomsky doesn’t actually take the time to break down exactly how bankrupt Harris’ racist, xenophobic, nationalist worldview is, and he shouldn’t have to waste his time on someone as stupid as Harris, anyway. He’s busy working on real issues and advocating for real change, as opposed to supporting the party line while trying to make money off regurgitating Randian philosophies of the unexamined self. I’ll handle Harris for now.
Let’s start with his suggestion that the September 11th attacks are uniquely evil and display a unique penchant for barbarism that is the exclusive domain of Muslim Arabs. Chomsky suggests that Bill Clinton’s bombing of a medicine factory in Sudan is just as horrific, because it most likely ruined more peoples’ lives, and the cold, calculated way it was carried out displayed a lack of emotion that is possibly scarier than outright hatred and anger. Harris contends that the acts are different, because Clinton’s likely served a strategic goal: taking out a chemical weapons factory, and the terrorists involved in “bad” things, who were probably over there. Therefore, all the deaths he caused were accidental, proving moral superiority in Clinton’s decision. Osama bin Laden, however, is evil, because he only intended to murder Americans with his attack on the World Trade Centers, because that’s what crazy, backwards people from countries that refuse to modernize act like. Barbarians. Plain and simple.
Now, as Chomsky points out, how in the world can we know what Bill Clinton’s “intentions” were, unless we could read his mind? As an American, though, Harris assumes benign, intrinsically “good” motives on Clinton’s behalf, despite the trail of bodies. The problem here is that nearly everyone acts out of their own personal perception of what “good” means, and what it takes to make the world a “better” place. This is why Chomsky mentions Hitler, the Japanese during WWII and other mass murderers of the 20th Century: they believed their intentions were right and their acts of murder were justified. That does make them similar to President Bush and his War on Terror and all the apologists for it, even if it doesn’t make them the same. I’m sure Harris would be flattered with a Heidegger comparison, but it only goes so far as being similarly blinded to his own participation in, and acceptance of, atrocities committed by the “good” guys.
911 was a strategic attack, an act of war, with a specific purpose. It was not a random act of barbarism. It was barbaric, but so is every act of war. There’s no way to justify the attack, but there’s also no way to justify violence that we commit, either. September 11th was not exclusively meant to kill a bunch of Americans in a blaze of hatred because we live in a post-Cold War world going through an existential crisis and now bad people who live in the “middle ages” want to ruin our consumption-obsessed, post-modern picnic. It was a trap that people like George Bush and Sam Harris led us right into. Bin Laden knew that the United States would overreact to the attack and commit ourselves to an endless war in the Middle East that would drain our economy and ruin our international standing. He said as much. He wanted to bankrupt us, to let us blow up the world while we imploded from the inside out, and warmongers like Harris led the battle charge. Just like Clinton’s bombing of the medicine factory in Sudan was supposedly part of a strategic plan for the “greater good,” bin Laden’s attack was part of his strategy to push the world toward his view of the “greater good.” The really pathetic part is that bin Laden’s plan worked, probably even better than he had hoped. Meanwhile, the barbaric foreign policy that the Bushes, Cheneys and Harrises have shoved down our throats for the last decade-and-a-half has ranged from embarrassment to atrocity, while little of it could be considered “successful,” at least according to stated goals. (Stated goals and intentions are not necessarily always the same thing, which is a point Chomsky stressed, to apparently deaf ears.) Chomsky also makes another point about September 11th, which is clearly lost on Harris. Clinton bombed Sudan in reaction to the recent Egypt bombing. Bin Laden stated that September 11th was partially a reaction to the Sudan bombing. Why is Clinton’s revenge attack morally justified while bin Laden’s is pure evil? Al-Qaeda’s claims of wanting to kill as many Americans as possible should also considered in terms of strategic propaganda. That’s exactly what someone would say if they wanted us to overreact. Bin Laden also already used this plan on the Russians: get them to overcommit to an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and let it devastate their economy. It played out great 20 years ago with a different enemy; why not just assume that the US is eager to forget history when it comes to making decisions about the present? It was a rational assumption, which proved to be eerily predictive. He understood us better than we do. The philosophical problem with an historical event like the World Trade Center attack is that it did not occur in an ideological vacuum, it occurred within a complex context that cannot be ignored by anyone attempting any sort of rational debate.
In true Sam Harris style, I’m not taking the time to cite most of my sources, but if this post gets picked up in any significant way, I’ll stick some more links in here. Here’s a Conservative magazine, however, helping make my point:
After a decade and a half of the War on Terror, we have proven ourselves to be much more effective at barbarism than our “enemies.” The casualty count is always higher with the people we attack than with our own troops (not to mention that our civilians are almost never harmed, which is why September 11th is still such a shock to our mental state), while the majority of the people we kill are civilians, not combatants. That’s just supposed to be an accepted fact. Collateral damage and all that (which Sam Harris pretends to rage against, while also promoting ideologies of cultural superiority that negate the humanity of the victims of the resulting policies, while reinforcing the policies’ neo-colonial vigor).
Readily avilable information, like you can find here, https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/168/37151.html#_edn4 and here https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/168/37151.html suggests that the brutality exhibited by American troops in Mai Lai was not a product solely of the distant past, but something that remains with us today. The problem with someone like Harris is that he can only digest a horror of this magnitude when it’s handed down as a piece of history that already fits into a narrative he is comfortable with, like that of the benevolent Americans disgusted with their forefathers’ crimes, not the reality that is being an active participant in the crimes that tomorrow’s generations will admonish us for.
Another one of the many reasons Harris’ almost-argument is bunk is that he relies on all these silly mind games that have no basis in reality and ignore crucial, underlying questions. He proposes that if we had a “perfect weapon” that only killed guilty terrorists and spared civilian lives, we would use that to solve all the world’s problems and “good” people like us Americans would never use that weapon on anybody who didn’t completely deserve it. The problem is determining who deserves it. Do Iraqi or Afghani soldiers protecting their countries from invading forces “deserve” it? Wouldn’t our army attack Iraqi soldiers if they invaded American soil? Wouldn’t our citizens rise up and become “insurgents” against the occupying forces? Can you imagine Americans not rising up in arms over a foreign occupier? Why is it only “evil” when Arabs protect their homeland? Harris ignores the really important questions, like, “Why are we invading and destroying their countries? Is it really up to us to take over their government and economy through force? Is it even the right thing to do? Is violence the best way to solve international conflicts? Do “these people” sometimes have a valid point when they suggest that the West’s centuries-long obsession with dominating them has resulted in some uncontrollable blowback? Are we negating their very humanity by not even attempting to understand their perspectives?
Here’s a stupid thought exercise of my own: let’s say, in order to “free” Middle Eastern women from wearing the hijab, it’s determined that we must pursue a series of policies that will end up killing half of the women in the Middle East. The remaining women will experience all the “benefits” of Western Society’s extreme feminism (like worshiping publicly-acknowledged rapists http://www.vanityfair.com/unchanged/2014/12/bill-cosby-beverly-johnson-story and wife-beaters http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/01/opinions/reyes-mayweather-fight/ and forcing young women to pursue higher education while doing nothing to make them safe from sexual assault on campus); however, most of them will have lost a cousin, sister, mother, best friend, etc, in the war of liberation. Does that make us right, because our intentions were so “pure”? The death of half the women wasn’t the goal, the liberation of the remaining women was, so the murder of other women doesn’t count, right?
When it comes to real-life foreign policy questions, there is no “perfect weapon.” Drones and smart bombs are attempts at that sort of technology, but in reality all they do is disconnect us even further from the atrocities we are committing, without diminishing civilian casualties by any significant degree.
A topic largely left out of the conversation is Harris’ support of torture in “certain circumstances.” He has taken pains to clear up the fact that he only thinks it’s allowable sometimes, but still tries to argue that it is sometimes “ethically necessary.” (His actual words.) The problem is, after decades of research that mostly predate the War on Terror, torture has been proven time and again to be a worthless strategy for gaining useful information from a prisoner and no “ticking time-bomb scenario” has ever materialized, outside of Hollywood. We have, however, all got blood on our hands because our government, the one we pay taxes to and vote for, used torture anyway. Despite the lack of strategic value in torturing enemy combatants, Harris still supports limited use of it, which leads me to question how “pure” and “moral” his intentions really are? If there’s no strategic value, then does using torture accomplish anything besides simple revenge?
Harris calls himself an “atheist,” yet eagerly subscribes to racist, xenophobic and nationalist ideologies that create groups just as violent and cultish as any religion, (see Stalinism) despite these ideologies’ lack of rational thought or logic, and complete lack of historical grounding.
Before Harris and his slow-minded readers jump out and claim I’m just using ad hominem attacks to obscure the truth, let me explain. Harris may not consider himself a racist or a xenophobe, most people don’t consider themselves those things. That does not, in any way, exclude him from internalizing and promoting popularly-held racist and xenophobic views. The idea that the Middle East has been living in the Middle Ages since the Middle Ages, is one perfect example. He posits, as do many warhawks, that the less-developed countries in the Middle East chose, because of their religious fervor and just plain backwardness, to live in the stone age. No mention of the fact that Afghanistan tried having a liberal democracy way back in the 1950s–yes, back even before the Mai Lai massacre, before the Civil Rights Act, when America was preparing to butcher Asian kids for fun and gearing up to shoot all of our most important Civil Rights leaders, but before we had even progressed that far, Afghanistan wanted to promote women’s rights and become a modern nation. The thing is, bigger countries from the West prevented (through coups, violence, all the usual) functional democracy in Afghanistan, and instead supported religious zealots and dictators. Pretty similar situation with Iran, who we are also supposed to believe is composed of a homogenous mass of psychopaths trying to turn our women into sexual slaves. Oh, and then, for 30 years Russia and the United States took turns bombing Afghanistan into the stone age. Being bombed into the stone age is a little bit different than voting to live in it. I have a feeling that if other countries spent decades bombing us, we’d have trouble with “developing infrastructure” and “political stability,” as well. Not to mention, we armed and supported the founding members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban while stoking the flames of jihad in Afghanistan in the 80s under Reagan, because we wanted them to ruin the economy of the USSR. They didn’t come to power because they were on the side of the Afghan people and all “those people” want to live under some crazy interpretation of sharia law, but rather because our policies gave rise to the power of lunatics. This isn’t a thought exercise, this is history. Ignoring the facts and assuming a failing in the character of “those people” is a racist approach to the world. And its implications have proven to be horrific.
One question I have for Harris is where his morality comes from? If he thinks religious people are bad for just accepting traditional ideas that make themselves comfortable, even when those beliefs have harmful consequences, what has he done to free his own mind of these dangerous tendencies? The fact that he ranks religions in terms of which are craziest, based on little more than his own American Christian upbringing, propagandist news headlines and episodes of 24, is pretty revealing. I’m curious what makes his concept of morality so much more evolved and mature than everyone else’s? I used to consider myself an atheist, before people like Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins started making us all look like pompous assholes. I do believe that organized religion does more harm than good and that faith can lead people to commit awful acts that they might not have done otherwise. The problem with Harris’s stance is that faith is not always exclusively religious. Harris’ faith in the overall “goodness” of America, despite our track of record of being the number one purveyor of violence in the world for decades running, is just as dangerous as (if not more so than) the faith of some some Muslim cleric who declares “death to America!” without any recourse towards actually accomplishing that goal. Nowadays I consider myself agnostic, because I question anything people tell me, including semi-famous authors who don’t deserve the title of “intellectual.”
I would like to return to the topic of intention, because for Harris, this is the holiest of all indicators of who is or isn’t a “moral” actor. But, how do you determine “intention”? What if there are various, overlapping reasons why someone acted a certain way? Maybe people lie? Most murderers, when on trial, are not going to admit to wanting to kill someone for vicious, selfish reasons. It would hurt their case. Why would a president, whose job is always carried in front of the court of public opinion, act differently when attempting to justify a barbaric act? Consider also, when they have a large propaganda apparatus to help spread the lie, it’s that much easier to make intention appear to be whatever they want it to appear to be.
A too-perfect example of murky intentions is the Iraq War: did we invade because of WMDs, or did we want to depose a dictatorship, or did we want to spread democracy, or did we want to open up the Middle East to “free trade”, or was it because of 911, or was it because we were civilizing stone-age savages (which didn’t make sense in a developed country like Iraq, but most Americans wouldn’t know that, or bother to find out), did we invade to give Halliburton contracts, did we invade for oil well control, did we invade to exact revenge for Dubya’s daddy? Is it possible that all of these motives (and maybe others) were present in the invasion? How easy is it, really, to determine intention and declare who is moral and who isn’t, especially when it comes to politics? Does anyone act out of a single, unified intention, or are there often multiple reasons that come together to drive an individual’s, or a nation’s, actions? Maybe religious affiliation isn’t the only thing at play when people from different cultures than ours act violently, considering our own decisions towards using violence are often so complicated and decided under such blurry circumstances?
Everyone believes his intentions are good. That’s how a lot of the worst atrocities have been committed throughout history. But will we ever pause from our war orgy to wash the blood off our hands and see where all our “moral” intentions have led us?:
Hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq and Afghanistan; hundreds detained without trial in Guantanamo and secret prisons around the world; an unknown number tortured by our very own “moral” government and mercenaries it hired; the rise of ISIS due to the power vacuum left by Saddam’s death and the barbaric, retributive government we replaced it with; the Syrian civil war, which Cheney predicted would result from the toppling of Saddam way back in the early 90s, but decided to lead us into the quagmire 10 years later, anyway; a devastated economy; loss of respect internationally; drone killings of families and wedding parties; future health problems for soldiers and civilians exposed to depleted uranium; and no end in sight to any of it. Bin Laden set the trap and asked us to walk in, and we did it. He was rational enough, and knew his history well enough, to predict, accurately, how we would overreact and, in the end, prove, at least to many around the world, who the real monster is. We have proven who the real threat is to many citizens of foreign nations: the well-intentioned (at least on the surface), historically-ignorant, self-interested nation with way more weapons than common sense.
Harris clearly wanted his name attached to Chomsky’s publicly, that’s why he feigned “politeness” during the whole exchange, so he could publish it and try to make himself look good. How’s that for intention? Hey, remember, Ayn Rand was an atheist, too, and people still think she’s an intellectual. And, also like Heidegger, Harris appears completely unable to look himself in the mirror or put himself in anyone else’s shoes. His type of self-satisfied ignorance is both morally outrageous and demonstrably dangerous.