Here's What Happened When Professional Atheist Sam Harris Tried -- and Failed -- to Embarrass Noam Chomsky
In April 2015, Sam Harris—an author, neuroscientist and self-appointed provocateur—persuaded Noam Chomsky to participate in a private email exchange. Chomsky had refused any other form of interaction with Harris and, for reasons not made public, he agreed. Then when the email exchange was finally over Harris cajoled Chomsky into letting him publish.
“If you’re so sure you’ve acquitted yourself well in this conversation,” Harris writes, “exposing both my intellectual misconduct with respect your own work and my moral blindness regarding the actions of our government, why not let me publish it in full so that our readers can draw their own conclusions?”
“The idea of publishing personal correspondence is pretty weird,” Chomsky responds, “a strange form of exhibitionism – whatever the content. Personally, I can’t imagine doing it. However, if you want to do it, I won’t object.”
“Understood, Noam,” Harris replies. “I’ll let you know what I do.”
So Harris publishes and the exchange goes viral. Talking heads on the left and right give their interpretation of the to-and-fro between Harris and Chomsky, finding some aspect of the interchange to shine the light on their own intellectual prowess. The media response to the emails was gendered marksmanship, a male game of one-upmanship, with audios of Harris from interviews and podcasts interspersed with analysis of his email interchange with Chomsky.
Today, as in the past, men control all forms of information presented to the public, and like most women academics and public intellectuals, I am used to listening, watching, and reading accounts of events presented by men.
“You read history, great literature, Shakespeare, its all fellows you know,” Meryl Streep said on a Women in the World panel on International Women’s Day. Given the evidence, few would disagree that in the U.S. men dominate every form of intellectual endeavor.
Harris calls the Internet publication of the interchange “The Limits of Discourse” and he is often incoherent, but he indicates he is interested in Chomsky’s views on the role of “intention” in killing. On this issue Harris represents the doctrine of the men of power. He is supportive of Bush-Chaney in the aftermath of 9-11, and of Clinton in the U.S. bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Chomsky is not.
Harris expresses the view that killing with good intentions is different from killing with bad intentions. He talks about this in an audio clip aired by one of the talking heads about Harris’s “spat” with Chomsky.
“I think there is a kind of moral confusion expressed in his political writings,” Harris states, “which ignores intention as a basis on which to evaluate certain human behaviors.”
“At the end of the day he simply wants to use body count as the only metric to discuss the moral stature of two sides in a conflict,” Harris continues, in a soft monotone voice devoid of emotion, “so if we kill a dozen children unintentionally well that’s every bit as bad as doing it intentionally.” Harris pauses, “that is I think a bad way to look at human conflict.”
“I think the people who are intending to kill children are different,” he explains, “than the people who are intending to kill the people who are killing children and are accidently killing children in the process.”
“It’s a huge difference,” he says. “You have to ask yourself what kind of world does any group or society want to create? How do they want the world to be? And what would they do if they had all the power? And when you ask that question you get very different answers.”
Harris talks about Hitler and the Second World War.
“You can’t just go to body count to judge the rightness or wrongness of human behavior,” Harris states, “and Chomsky seems to discount intentions across the board and only look at body count. And if you do that in any given instance you come away with a perverse description of what is happening in the world.”
“And you come away believing the kinds of things people influenced by Chomsky tend to believe,” adds Harris, “whether it is Glen Greenwald or any other person who has drunk his Kool-Aide.”
Harris makes these inflammatory statements without any credible evidence to support them. He does not know what Chomsky counts or doesn’t count. He seems unaware that Chomsky has researched the interface of conceptual-intentional systems or that the systemic complexity of mathematical linguistics originates with him. So to reduce Chomsky’s thinking to counting bodies as a way of judging the rightness or wrongness of human behavior is not only irrational and absurd. It is also inflammatory and dangerous.
Harris would not be worth a reasoned response, except that I am a mother and grandmother as well as a scholar and public intellectual, and I have strong views about a man who uses the killing of children as a weapon in a verbal attack to discredit one of the world’s most renowned public intellectuals and human rights activists.
By explaining away the killing of some babies while reviling the killing of other babies, Harris reveals the deep pathology that pervades the thinking of men of power. Chomsky gets this and patiently tries to unpackage Harris’s arguments, not to reach common ground because there is none, but to reach some place where the flaws in Harris’ argument are revealed.
Chomsky did people a service. Even though he is often impatient, he is methodical in his analysis of what Harris’s pejorative and disparaging verbiage reveals about the thinking of the privileged powerful male elites in U.S. society. He uses Harris’s irrational arguments to make evident how these powerful decision makers decide whose baby lives and whose baby dies when they plan covert operations or authorize military action.
A discourse analysis of Harris’s emails with Chomsky puts in doubt that Harris ever thought the interchange private. The published interchange began on April 26th and ended on May 1st 2015 and consists of 18 emails. Harris wrote a “postscript” dated May 3, 2015, which he published with the emails on his blog with a ten-minute podcast about the email correspondence. There is no doubt that Harris was out of his depth and was jumped on by the media, but an analysis of this “data set” provides a view of two opposing ways of thinking about some of the most critical issues of this time.
Essentially Chomsky is professorial in his communications with Harris. He instructs Harris, and by extension the reader, so we can consider: 1) how life-death decisions are made in situations of systemic complexity; 2) how the reduction of decision making to the linear ranking and sorting of events can be used to support mal-adaptive intentions; and 3) how immoral acts can be explained away by political decision makers. Excerpts from the email interchange follow:
Harris: (4-26) If you’d rather not have a public conversation with me, that’s fine.
Chomsky: (4-26) If there are things you’d like to explore privately, fine. But with sources.
Harris: (4-26) I’d like to encourage you to approach this exchange as though we were planning to publish it.
Harris then pastes twenty-two paragraphs into the email. The first eleven paragraphs have the side heading: “Leftist Unreason and the Strange Case of Noam Chomsky”. The bold and italics belong to Harris. However, his first quote is not a statement that Chomsky has made or written, but a quote about September 11 2001 by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. He uses Baudrillard to introduce the idea that “Chomsky has been a persistent critic of U.S. foreign policy for over three decades.” He refers to Chomsky’s book, 9-11: Was There An Alternative? but he does so without quotes or references, distorting the text to fit his argument.
If Harris was in an undergraduate class that I was teaching, I would critique his “essay” – for that is what this section of the exchange is – and tell him if he wants to critique Baudrillard fine, but if his intent is to critique Chomsky, then he should begin with a relevant quote from Chomsky. All interpretative statements must be backed by references to statements Chomsky has made, and all sources documented.
Harris then quotes Arundhati Roy, who he states is “a great admirer of Chomsky” who “has summed up his position very well.” Once again in his critique of Chomsky Harris quotes someone else, and it is this quote that frames the email interchange with Chomsky as well as the killing babies comment he made when he reflected in a podcast on the interchange. Here’s Harris’s quote from Roy:
"[T]he U.S. government refuses to judge itself by the same moral standards by which it judges others. … Its technique is to position itself as the well-intentioned giant whose good deeds are confounded in strange countries by their scheming natives, whose markets it’s trying to free, whose societies it’s trying to modernize, whose women it’s trying to liberate, whose souls it’s trying to save … [t]he U.S. government has conferred upon itself the right and freedom to murder and exterminate people “for their own good."
“But we are, in many respects, just such a ‘well-intentioned giant,’” Harris declares after the quote. “And it is rather astonishing that intelligent people, like Chomsky and Roy, fail to see this.”
A second side heading and another eleven paragraphs follow: Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of “Collateral Damage”. To establish his argument Harris then includes a graphic account from J. Glover’s, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, of atrocities committed by the U.S. military in 1968 during the Viet Nam War.
“This is about as bad as human beings are capable of behaving,” Harris writes. “But what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us.”
Again, Harris shares the perverse belief that pervades the corridors of power, “people are going to be killed, many of them women and children – and unlike our enemies it appalls us so that makes it okay.”
Four dense paragraphs follow that have nothing to do with critiquing the expressed opinions – either oral or written – of Chomsky, except for one sentence at the end of the third paragraph, in which Harris writes, “Chomsky seems to think that the disparity either does not exist or runs the other way” – without any specific reference to any statement Chomsky has made or written.
Then with a sleight of hand and a twist of the pen, Harris states in the fifth paragraph as if all of his quotes and his “analysis” pertain to Chomsky:
"Nothing in Chomsky’s account acknowledges the difference between intending to kill a child, because of the effect you hope to produce on its parents (we call this “terrorism”), and inadvertently killing a child in an attempt to capture or kill an avowed child murderer (we call this “collateral damage”). In both cases a child has died, and in both cases it is a tragedy. But the ethical status of the perpetrators, be they individuals or states, could hardly be more distinct."
Harris does not quote Chomsky. What he does is fabricate the basis of an email exchange with Chomsky on issues he knows Chomsky will have strong views – the killing of children – and which he intended to publish.
Harris clearly did not think he could have a substantive exchange with Chomsky based on the well grounded analysis on foreign policy presented by Chomsky in his 100 books or written papers, and so he fabricates a discourse that for him is a win-win. Even though Harris must have known he would lose, he must also have been aware that for the public who read his blog the exchange would put him on a par with Chomsky – which he decidedly is not.
“We cannot ignore human intentions,” Harris concludes two paragraphs later. “Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.” And so it begins with the last sentence in Harris’s very strange, completely without merit, failing grade, non-critique of Chomsky.
Chomsky (4-26) in response to Harris writes, “The example that you cite illustrates very well why I do not see any point in a public discussion.” Then referring to one statement made about him by Harris he includes the relevant quote from his book 9-11: Was There An Alternative? on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which he describes as “one little footnote in the record of state terror, quickly forgotten.”
“What would the reaction have been if the bin Laden network had blown up half the pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S. and the facilities for replenishing them?” Chomsky asks in the 9-11 quote. “We can imagine, though the comparison is unfair, the consequences are vastly more severe in Sudan.”
Chomsky also quotes from his book Radical Priorities, patiently critiquing Harris’s non-analysis of his writing again about the U.S. bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan:
"We can hardly doubt that the likely human consequences were understood by U.S. planners. The acts can be excused, then, only on the Hegelian assumption that Africans are “mere things,” whose lives have “no value,” an attitude that accords with practice in ways that are not overlooked among the victims, who may draw their own conclusions about the “moral orthodoxy of the West.”
“Perhaps you can reciprocate,” Chomsky writes to Harris with reference to his quotes, “by referring me to what I have written citing your published views. If there is anything I’ve written that is remotely as erroneous as this—putting aside moral judgments—I’ll be happy to correct it.”
Harris (4-27) writes back. “Noam — We appear to be running into the weeds here.” He then confesses, “I have not read Radical Priorities” – which is somewhat ironic considering he accuses Chomsky of not considering “intentions,” which is the focus of Radical Priorities.
“Ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story,” Harris writes. Then after returning to the U.S. bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which he justifies, he ends his email, “Do you agree? Your remarks thus far leave me unsure.”
Chomsky (4-27) responds, “I am sorry you are unwilling to retract your false claim that I ‘ignore the moral significance of intentions.’”
“If you had read further before launching your accusations, the usual procedure in work intended to be serious,” Chomsky states, going into considerable detail about the substantial evidence he has presented on the “sincere intentions” of adversaries armed conflict that commit atrocities.
“I am also sorry that you evade the fact that your charge of ‘moral equivalence’ was flatly false, as you know,” Chomsky states in a subsequent paragraph. Then a few lines on, “and in particular, I am sorry to see your total refusal to respond to the question raised at the outset of the piece you quoted.”
“The scenario you describe here is, I’m afraid, so ludicrous as to be embarrassing,” Chomsky writes. Then referring to the U.S. Government,” he states, “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?”
“I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before,” Chomsky continues, “but rarely at this level – not to speak of the refusal to withdraw false charges, a minor fault in comparison.”
“Plainly there is no point pretending to have a rational discussion,” Chomsky concludes. “But I do think you would do your readers a favor if you presented your tale about why Clinton bombed al-Shifa and his grand humanitarianism. That is surely the least you can do, given your refusal to withdraw what you know to be completely false charges and a display of moral and ethical righteousness.”
Harris (4-27) writes, “Noam – Unfortunately, you are now misreading both my ‘silences’ and my statements—and I cannot help but feel that the peremptory and censorious attitude you have brought to what could, in fact, be a perfectly collegial exchange, is partly to blame. You appear to have begun this dialogue at (or very near) the end of your patience. If we were to publish it, I would strongly urge you to edit what you have already written, removing unfriendly flourishes such as ‘as you know,’ ‘the usual procedure in work intended to be serious,’ ‘ludicrous and embarrassing,’ ‘total refusal,’ etc. I trust that certain of your acolytes would love to see the master in high dudgeon—believing, as you seem to, that you are in the process of mopping the floor with me—but the truth is that your emotions are getting the better of you. I’d rather you not look like the dog who caught the car.”
“I am reluctant to move forward,” Harris ends his email, “before I understand how you view the significance of intention in cases where the difference between altruism (however inept), negligence, and malevolence is absolutely clear.”
Chomsky (4-27) responds, “The question was about the al-Shifa bombing, and it won’t do to evade it by concocting an outlandish tale that has no relation whatsoever to that situation.”
“So let’s face it directly,” he continues. “Clinton bombed al-Shifa in reaction to the Embassy bombings, having discovered no credible evidence in the brief interim of course, and knowing full well that there would be enormous casualties.”
Further down the paragraph Chomsky states, “it just didn’t matter if lots of people are killed in a poor African country, just as we don’t care if we kill ants when we walk down the street. On moral grounds, that is arguably even worse than murder, which at least recognizes that the victim is human. That is exactly the situation.” Chomsky continues, “In the case of the al-Shifa bombing. There wasn’t even a hint of altruism, inept or not, so we can dismiss that. There was clear negligence – the fate of probably tens of thousands of African victims did not matter.”
Chomsky pursues the question of malevolence and intentions with specific reference to events and then writes a final paragraph.
“We are left as we were,” he states. “You made a series of accusations that were quite false, and are unwilling to withdraw them. You refuse to consider, let alone answer, the very simple and straightforward question posed in the passage you cited. And you still refuse to reciprocate as I have properly requested several times.”
“That means, clearly, that there is no basis for a rational public interchange,” Chomsky writes. “I’ll skip the rest.”
The emails continue, shorter now, both Harris and Chomsky write of the bombing of al-Shifa.
Harris (4-27) states his assumption that Clinton believed it was a chemical weapons factory.
Chomsky (4-27) does not agree. “The bombing of al-Shifa was an immediate response to the Embassy bombings,” he writes, “which is why it is almost universally assumed to be retaliation. It is inconceivable that in that brief interim period evidence was found that it was a chemical weapons factory, and properly evaluated to justify a bombing.”
“I do not, again, claim that Clinton intentionally wanted to kill the thousands of victims,” Chomsky states. “Rather, that was probably of no concern, raising the very serious ethical question that I have discussed, again repeatedly in this correspondence. And again, I have often discussed the ethical question about the significance of real or professed intentions, for about 50 years in fact, discussing real cases, where there are possible and meaningful answers. Something clearly worth doing, since the real ethical issues are interesting and important ones.”
Harris (4-27) responds, “Noam, I am hard pressed to understand the uncharitable attitude—really bordering on contempt—conveyed by almost everything you have written thus far.”
“Your dismissal of an idealized thought experiment as ‘embarrassing and ludicrous,’ and your insistence upon focusing on real-world cases about which our intelligence is murky is not helping to clarify things.”
“You say that you are NOT claiming, ‘Clinton intentionally wanted to kill thousands of victims.’ Okay. But you seem to be suggesting that he had every reason to expect that he would be killing them by his actions (and just didn’t care). And you seem disinclined to distinguish the ethics of these cases.
Harris then states, “Perhaps we can rank order the callousness and cruelty here.” He provides three cases: “1. al-Qaeda wanted and intended to kill thousands of innocent people—and did so; 2. Clinton … wanted to destroy a valuable pharmaceutical plant. But he knew that he would be killing thousands of people, and he simply didn’t care; and 3. Clinton … wanted to destroy what he believed to be a chemical weapons factory. But he did wind up killing innocent people, and we don’t really know how he felt about it.”
Harris does not include in his hierarchy of callousness and cruelty that the attack by al-Qaeda targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the Capitol Building or White House, with the intention of causing serious damage to the U.S. political-military-financial complex, which would have had cascading negative repercussions throughout the world with the potential for global chaos.
Instead Harris pursues his linear argument. “Is it safe to assume that you view these three cases, as I do,” he writes, “as demonstrating descending degrees of evil?”
Harris makes dangerous assumptions that have lethal conclusions. Here it is the killing babies argument – babies die because evil intent can be ordered. The problem is that if such evil acts can be ordered then the killing of babies can be explained away. “They did that, so we did this, and that is more evil than this. We feel bad about it, so it’s okay.” It is a dead-end immoral argument.
And yet, here in the U.S. this type of discourse is commonplace. In the U.S. we sort and rank order just about everything. Such linear thinking is commonplace in the corridors of power, the military, and the media, from Fox News to NPR to talking heads on the Internet. It is the fill-in-the-bubble we are better than them mentality that pervades U.S. society. It is endemic.
This form of societal control can be characterized as the fill-in-the-bubble standardization of political thought, which frames the fill-in-the-bubble management of people in U.S. society. From kindergarten on, schoolchildren are programmed through multiple-choice exercises and tests to establish a linear mindset that rank orders things. All decision making, from teachers pay to the rank order of the U.S. in international performance rankings depends on it. Visit a doctor on the staff of a hospital and a questionnaire will be sent to you so you can rank order your visit – long wait, short wait, on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being low and 5 being high, rank your doctor. In some cases doctors’ pay depends on these rankings and so does the ranking of the hospital where s/he works.
Harris is not unusual in his thinking, in fact his thinking is frighteningly ordinary. However, Chomsky was never enculturated into rank-order-thinking. As a child he attended a progressive elementary school and so did not experience at a very young age the fill-in-the-bubble test-based lessons children are taught today. He wrote his dissertation on transformational analysis before Harris was born. Chomsky changed the face of modern linguistics, creating an intellectual revolution through his groundbreaking work on generative grammar and Universal Grammar, and the logical structures in linguistic theory. His insights into the nature of language frame the research of many linguistic scholars and researchers in other disciplines at the present time.
Chomsky (4-27) responds, “Let’s review this curious non-interchange.” He then examines and analyzes in considerable detail Harris’s motives and intentions in this email interchange. Chomsky then enters into an even more in-depth systematic analysis of the three cases of evil that Harris wants him to rate.
“To summarize, then,” Chomsky writes, “you issue instructions about moral issues that you have never even considered to people who have considered and discussed these issues for many decades, including the very case you cite.”
Chomsky uses this email to confirm (what he had previously stated) that Harris’s pejorative statements about him were “ludicrous and embarrassing”.
Harris (4-30) responds, “Rather than explore these issues with genuine interest and civility, you seem committed to litigating all points (both real and imagined) in the most plodding and accusatory way.”
Chomsky (4-30) replies, “I agree that I am litigating all points (all real, as far as we have so far determined) in a ‘plodding and accusatory way.’”
“That is, of course,” Chomsky continues, “a necessity in responding to quite serious published accusations that are all demonstrably false, and as I have reviewed, false in a most interesting way: namely, you issue lectures condemning others for ignoring ‘basic questions’ that they have discussed for years, in my case decades, whereas you have refused to address them and apparently do not even allow yourself to understand them. That’s impressive.”
It is following this email that Harris states his intention – if Chomsky agrees – to publish the email exchange. As noted above Chomsky gives his consent even though, as he writes, he thinks it “pretty weird.”
What is the Take-Away from this Odd Exchange Between Harris and Chomsky?
Harris doesn’t get Chomsky, but he has gained notoriety publishing false interpretations of Chomsky’s expressed opinions – opinions that are based on more than half a century of deep scholarship in linguistics and political science.
The argument I am making is that this curious non-interchange reveals the failings of political thought in the U.S. that negatively impact foreign policy decisions as well as the lives of people living here in the U.S.
The basic difference between Harris and Chomsky is that Harris is a product of a rank ordered society and Chomsky is not. It’s a huge difference, to use a phrase Harris favors.
Harris is a product of privilege. The rank ordering in U.S. society bestowed that position on him – it is a you-go-first social and political arrangement that impacts all societal structure – including the legal system and law enforcement.
If, like Harris, you are white, affluent, male, have parents who are part of the establishment, you can drop out of university, experiment with drugs, spend years finding yourself, go back to university and finish your degree, then establish a website and start a blog in which you publicly discuss your drug use in a post entitled, “Drugs and the Meaning of Life.”
“The efficacy of psychedelics might seem to establish the material basis of mental and spiritual life beyond any doubt,” Harris writes, “for the introduction of these substances into the brain is the obvious cause of any numinous apocalypse that follows.”
Ranked. If you are a young man of color, chances are you have had no opportunity to go to university, and that if you experimented with drugs you are incarcerated. In the U.S., if you are poor, Black, and male, and sell a loosie (a single cigarette) you risk not only incarceration but also death.
If you are endowed with a rank that is favored by the political elites you can write in a book, as Harris did, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”
If you are of Middle Eastern descent, Muslim, and not a New Atheist, and you write on a scrap of paper, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,” you will be arrested for suspected terrorism.
Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting expressed concern about Harris, writing in 2007, “Anti-faith proselytising is a growth industry. But its increasingly hysterical flag-bearers are heading for a spectacular failure.” She quotes Harris, who wrote in one of his books, "Non-believers like myself stand beside you dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living.” And of his "some propositions are so dangerous …,” Bunting writes, “This sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition.”
Harris has proved Bunting right with his spectacular failure in the interchange with Chomsky, but its unlikely that Harris’s fall will impact the right-wing anti-faith intolerance industry that the theologian Catherine Keller argues is “dismantling the Jeffersonian wall between church and state.”
Which brings us back to Chomsky – the target of Harris’s ire -- and why Chomsky has become a global phenomenon as a public intellectual and human rights activist who is critical of the political-military complex and the rank ordering in society and foreign policy that Harris accepts.
Chomsky is now 86 years old, and he began reading political pamphlets in bookshops on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when he was 14 years of age. He experienced the Great Depression, and he was immersed in the momentous events of the 20th century as they occurred. He remembers names, places, and events that official accounts leave out. Dismissed or redacted, PR rewritten, officially sanctioned, these accounts position us and shape what we know and what we do not know.
In this regard, Chomsky stands with Howard Zinn in his position on history. In a “world of conflict,” Zinn argues (1995), “a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.” Chomsky and Zinn share sensibilities and positionality that Harris does not get. He takes the side that legitimizes the killing of some babies. Chomsky and Zinn do not. Here’s Zinn:
"Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others. (pp. 9-10)"
Chomsky sees history not only from the standpoint of others, but of “being there” and “being other”. Thus his response to Harris mirrors the description put out by Haymarket for his essay’s The Masters of Mankind, “With unrelenting logic, he holds the arguments of empire up to critical examination and shatters the myths of those who protect the power and privilege of the few against the interests and needs of the many.”
When Harris challenges Chomsky with his ranking of evil, he is confronted not only by Chomsky’s lived experience of history, but also by the challenge of arguing with the linguist who invented transformational grammar and who changed the field of linguistics before he was thirty. In the email exchange, while Harris is focused on the rank order of surface features, Chomsky is parsing his sentences and conducting a discourse analysis of Harris’s emails that Harris could not even begin to comprehend.
In other circumstances, if Harris had not rank ordered the killing of babies in his email interchange with Chomsky it would have been possible to read it and then let it go. But the killing of babies is an issue on which I cannot be silent or stand aside.
Participation in conversations about making Earth a Child Safe Zone have become my life work. To many the pursuit of actionable knowledge to make the Earth a Child Safe Zone will seem irrational. To others it is the only position that has any legitimacy. As I see it, we are scholars and public intellectuals, men and women of every class, race, ethnicity, and creed. We are people who regard making the Earth a Child Safe Zone the grand challenge under which all other challenges fall.
I reject the idea promulgated by Sam Harris that it is okay to kill babies if you have “good” intent, or that some countries are morally superior and so when they kill babies it is not so bad. The killing of one baby is as heinous as the killing of any other baby. Imagine Harris telling a mother, who did not start a war and is caught in the cross fire, that the death of her baby is not so bad because the country that killed it is morally superior and has good intentions. I think the mother would have problems understanding that. I do not understand it.
In his attack on Chomsky, Harris says intentions matter. They do indeed.
I reject the prevalent idea, which originates in the acceptance of inequality in the discourse of power, that killing with good intentions is, in some perverse way, different from killing with bad intentions. Stated plainly, in situations of conflict the death of a baby cannot be rationalized away by good intentions.
Of relevance here is the report written by Bie Kentane entitled, “The Children of Iraq: Was the Price of War Worth It?” which she presented at the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal, May 2012 and subsequently published (2013).
Kentane states, “39% of those killed in air raids by the US-led coalition were children,” and she comments, “the figures describing the plight of Iraqi children are the most troubling and heart wrenching.” She also emphasized that, “The Anglo-American occupation forces and the Iraqi government grossly failed to fulfill their most basic duties towards the children of Iraq …” Furthermore, Kentane states, “The Occupying powers bear full responsibility for the violations of the provisions and Conventions related to children. They should be held fully accountable for the harm they have inflicted upon the Iraqi children.”
The masters of mankind – as Chomsky calls them – have convinced themselves that in situations of conflict the deaths of thousands of babies can be rationalized by good intentions. They cannot.
“Every child,” as Paul Thomas states in Beware the Roadbuilders, “needs our relentless love and patience because childhood is a frail becoming that leads to this thing we call adulthood, which we fail each time we allow ourselves to be callous to the laughter or tears of a child.”
The callous ranking of children in the fight for who lives and who dies reveals the deep cracks in the morality of human societies, especially here in the U.S. where the echelons of power have set themselves up above the rest.
To protect Earth’s children is the grand challenge under which all other challenges fall. The systemic complexity of these challenges brings us back to Harris and Chomsky and the insights that can be gained about linear and non-linear thinking, and about conflating the ranking with intentions, and of not.
Increasingly in recent years, Chomsky has focused in his public presentations and writings on man’s perturbance of planetary systems that is disrupting weather patterns. He is outspoken in condemning the political-industrial complex, which is degrading the environment. Chomsky speaks and writes on a regular basis on multiple combinations of these challenges that are exacerbating inequality, increasing the massive migrations of people, intensifying regional armed conflict and international unrest, and raising the potential for another world war.
What happens in the future could well depend upon men of power in the U.S. listening to Chomsky. For in situations of systemic complexity – in times of war and peace – the reduction of decision making to the linear ranking and sorting of events can be used to support mal-adaptive intentions, which confound the outcomes of decision-making processes. Thus immoral acts can take place and be explained away. This self-serving distortion of the decision-making process directly impacts the lives of babies born to women both in the U.S. and to women worldwide. It makes a difference to whose baby lives and whose baby dies. It is imperative that we are relentless in protecting everybody’s child and all babies’ lives.