Read Noam Chomsky & Sam Harris’ “Unpleasant” Email Exchange

In 2013, we documented the acrimonious exchange between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek, which all started when Chomsky accused Žižek of “posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending [to] have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever.” To which Žižek responded: “Chomsky, … always emphasizes how one has to be empirical, accurate… well I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong in his descriptions…” And so it continued.

Two years later, Chomsky now finds himself in another fraught exchange — this time, with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. It’s a little hard to pin down when the dust-up first began. But, it at least goes back to January, when Harris took Chomsky to task  (hear an excerpt of a longer podcast above) for drawing a moral equivalence between U.S. military action and the violence committed by some of America’s historical foes (e.g., the Nazis during WWII and later Al-Qaeda).

Over the past week, Chomsky and Harris continued the debate, trading emails back and forth. Their correspondence runs some 10,000 words, but it only amounts to what Harris ultimately calls “an unpleasant and fruitless encounter” that demonstrates the “limits of discourse.” It’s an exchange that Chomsky seemingly preferred to keep private (his permission to print the emails was grudging at best), and Harris saw some virtue in making public. The final email by Harris reads:

May 1, 2015

From: Sam Harris
To: Noam Chomsky


I’ve now read our correspondence through and have decided to publish it ( I understand your point about “exhibitionism,” but I disagree in this case.

You and I probably share a million readers who would have found a genuine conversation between us extremely useful. And I trust that they will be disappointed by our failure to produce one, as I am. However, if publishing this exchange helps anyone to better communicate about these topics in the future, our time won’t have been entirely wasted.


Whether Sam is right about that (is there something particularly instructive here?), you can decide. Here’s the entire exchange.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!

Related Content:

Noam Chomsky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Empty ‘Posturing’

Slavoj Žižek Responds to Noam Chomsky: ‘I Don’t Know a Guy Who Was So Often Empirically Wrong’

Clash of the Titans: Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault Debate Human Nature & Power on Dutch TV, 1971

Read 9 Free Books By Noam Chomsky Online

by | Permalink | Comments (57) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (57)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Harald Husum says:

    I do, in part, agree with Harris regarding the spiteful tone of Chomsky. The linguist seems to be quite angry, maintaining a toxic attitude that is detrimental to an interesting conversation. I do, however, feel that this attitude is understandable, if not justified, due to Harris’ previous treatment of Chomsky’s arguments and writing.

    However, I feel that it is, in part, Harris’ responsibility to see past his counterpart’s tone and evaluate the substance hidden beneath. Although i dislike his tone, I think Chomsky puts forward valid points that Harris fails to respond to in a convincing manner. Especially his point regarding the unimportance of stated intention.

    I see where Harris wants to go with the conversation, but I don’t think he was well enough prepared for the conversation he intended. He should probably be more versed in the writings of Chomsky, before engaging. He should also be more forgiving towards Chomsky’s hostile tone, as it is a quite human fault.

  • Gorgon Zola says:

    Agreeing with Husum, I look a lot more kindly upon Chomsky’s tone. This was nothing more than a publicity stunt from Harris as is obvious from him posting the exchange and the utter lack of a clear incentive to raise this issue period. Harris is clearly outranked here as a commercial book writer versus long time activist and historian Chomsky. Banality and puerility vs content and argument. An embarrassing intellectual mismatch. I Feel bad for Chomsky having to waste his time on this at his age.

    It was fruitless by design.

  • Poya Pakzad says:

    When Harris laments Chomsky’s “insistence upon focusing on real-world cases about which our intelligence is murky is not helping to clarify things”, he is in fact revealing his own lazy research into the matter.

    The al Shifa plant was in all likelihood added as a target only a few hours before the strikes.

    For those interested in “real-world cases”, read pages 122-23 in this report by Michael Barletta in The Nonproliferation Review/Fall 1998:

  • Tim says:

    Hi Harald,

    I agree with your analysis, although I feel as though Harris was pulling his punches a bit.

    I can imagine some rather simple responses on his part to Chomsky’s point about a) the unimportance of stated intention and b) that gross negligence is morally worse than intentional killing.

    Perhaps Sam was trying to draw him into committing to a public debate. I’m not sure.

  • Chris says:

    I respect both Chomsky and Harris, but in this case, it was clearly Chomsky who failed to engage in a productive conversation. Harris asked Chomsky some simple questions so as to clarify the discussion. Chomsky falsely interpreted these questions as “allogations”, and refused to seriously answer them.

  • Matt says:

    All I see here is Harris repeatedly trying to make the argument about Chomsky’s tone, and refusing to answer any of his questions. Harris is clearly better versed in the newly necessary pose of affected nonchalance, but it actually seems like Chomsky gives a shit. “Can’t we just be civil?” is for politicians, not thinkers.

  • James says:

    Honestly what Sam Harris was doing here was very childish. first he writes false stuff on Chomsky and then tries to start off a conversation based on that. when you lack this level of comprehension in reading a small book (9/11) how can you be respected?! Although I can understand many atheists – who became atheists because they had a rough time in a religious school or some reason like this – have sympathy with Harris despite all his childish views – Read Patricia Churchland’s interview in which she states Harris’ views on morality childish.

  • Chris says:


    whether sam harris’ views on morality are “childish” or not is not very relevant in this context, in my view. The fact is that he at least tried to have a decent conversation, and that Chomsky refused to do so, instead being extremely uncollegial and dismissive. Chomsky said that Harris did nothing but “fabricate” his views. When Harris then showed a video that clearly showed the literal quote that Chomsky said according to Harris, Chomsky simply didn’t respond, and resorted to further namecalling.
    I respect Chomsky a lot, and I have read and listened to him a lot, and will continue to do so. But you don’t have to agree with Harris’ views on morality to recognize that Chomsky was not engaging in a well-intentioned conversation with Harris.

  • John says:

    Can you PLEASE give us a civilized print format that permits us to print a one one page article and not print 29(!) pages of snarky commentary.

  • Guy says:

    After reading this, I’m confronted with the authority bias I use to justify my less than critical readings of my favorite thinkers.

    The amount of trigger words in this correspondence really makes me hope there are some prior mails or exchanges which are missing and would do a better job at explaining this rudeness. Because really, either I’m so incredibly empathic or these guys purposefully misread each other.

    I was suprised to find that even prominent thinkers lower themselves to the level of your average internet troll. It’s kind of ironic for these would-be discourse experts to sink this low. Though nothing human is unfamiliar to me I guess.

  • Brad says:

    Block the names of the messages in email exchange: pretend you were reading an exchange between two anonymous people on the internet. How would you see the dialogue.

    Trying to be unbiased, it is blatant to me that one author is writing in an articulate, direct and rationally hospitable manner (i.e. in a way conducive to rational inquiry), while the other is behaving largely like a dumb battering ram, striking in every direction possible. (I bet one can guess to which author I refer with each description.)

    Harris ended the (non)exchange with a hope that readers will get something out of it: that something is obviously how poor a strategy it is (despite how emotionally satisfying it may seem) to seek to bulldoze an opponent in a debate or rational exchange of ideas.


  • Jeffrey T. Guterman says:

    I suggest that Sam Harris request Noam Chomsky giver permission for the two of them to have an email exchange and for Sam to post it online.

  • S. says:

    Oh internet! So voyeuristic, even here. I am not going to read an exchange which one party preferred remained private.

  • KCC says:

    Chomsky gave permission for this to be published. He clearly said that it could be published and he didn’t say that he could not publish it. So moving past that, I’ve seen a number of Chomsky fans jump all over this as if their guy had “won” or “out classed” and “out argued” Harris. This clearly did not happen. Sam Harris approached this as he approaches all intellectual discussions, with honesty and politeness and with a clear openness to being proven wrong. This is how a scientist approaches things. Chomsky misread, or didn’t care to read Sam’s intent, though it was clearly stated and with respect. At times it looks as though Noam Chomsky had staffed this exercise out to an overzealous intern who preferred to be rude and play defense, in addition to a heavy dose of “gotcha.” Sam Harris was under the misconception that Noam Chomsky is an intellectual. He is a bit more and a bit less. He is a bit more in the sense that he has become a public figure who represents a mindset, not unlike many right wing figures who have zero interest in furthering debate or finding that they were at any point mistaken. He is less in the sense that he is an extremist ideologue who has so consistently carved out an unnuanced, simplified, myopic and predictable niche. Noam Chomsky can see no need for nuance. He despises the state. He demonstrates a deep loathing for western power and this puts him, as he firmly places himself, in a realm where “the enemy of my enemy” is the victim always. The entirety of Chomsky’s writing on Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda make it clear that Chomsky is open to conspiracy theories (he wrote a famous book about his media conspiracy theories) and it often looks as though Chomsky considers Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts to have been something akin to anti-colonial freedom fighters. Chomsky has no interest in having a discussion with Sam Harris about moral equivalency because Chomsky is incapable of ceding a single point, no matter how minuscule. It is just not useful to try to debate extremists.

  • LJ says:

    While I seem to be in the minority here, I found Chomsky’s bearing in this exchange to be utterly churlish.

  • TD says:

    More like, The Limits of Sam Harris. That he is trying to inflate this as the limits of the idea of discourse, rather than the limits of him to engage in it, would be rather amusing if it wasn’t so arrogant. It is interesting in how one side continually evades the discussion, tone polices and then blames the failure of this on the idea of discourse itself rather than his own behavior. I wouldn’t expect anything less from someone who lets off war crimes as simply being an instance of well-intentioned idiocy. Count me as unconvinced by Sam Harris here.

  • Stephen says:

    I honestly have no idea why but I just sat and wrote a 1300 word blog post about Sam Harris’ “Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of Collateral Damage” section. Now I feel like a bit of an idiot because I know it’s unlikely anyone will ever read it. Anyone up for indulging me?

    It’s pretty ranty and train of consciousness style. I’m not even sure if there’s any real substance to it, I just felt like voicing this for some reason. Any opinions?

  • Nidhal says:

    The “honest” play on words in the audio was cheap.
    Sam used the word intention, instead of purpose or objective. He was exploiting the association of that word with unintentional or accidental, and placing the other party in an asymetric position to provoke the opposite association.
    If he used objective instead of intention, his point of view wouldn’t look attractive anymore as it would compare rational economic interests to a myopic moral system as a rationale behind killing and numbers would stand out as the big difference.

  • Gorgon Zola says:

    It’s not rudeness, it’s disdain. And for good reasons.

  • Jonathan says:

    I too have to agree. Harris plays a rather interesting rhetorical game here. I definitely gained a greater appreciation for his rhetorical skills, but not exactly for his arguments. He essentially sea-lions him, which is something I expect from ignorant comments section trolls but not from accomplished authors.

    I like both these writers and have nothing against either of them, just as I had nothing against Chomsky or Zizek. Though in the case with Chomsky vs. Zizek I didn’t think Chomsky said anything meaningful at all. In this case however, as we see him actually apply himself to the task of critically engaging with harris, and we see harris playing rhetorical games, accusing him of using inappropriate language, being angry, reading his mind (I think it’s fairy appropriate to address what your interlocutor chooses not to mention, but Harris dismisses this as mind reading). If the conversation sounds childish, it’s because Chomsky is exacerbated, and harris is obviously playing it up to get some press (he obviously wanted to be seen publicly engaging this intellectual for his “millions of readers”).

    I respect harris and agree wholeheartedly with a lot of things he says. I have many of his articles and statements saved for reference. I don’t even like Chomsky all that much and find his willingness to dismiss a whole host of thinkers I like to read rather annoying. But I lost some respect for harris today. He seemed rather too opportunistic and vapid. And I think his dismissal of him proves to have been warranted.

  • Jorokov says:

    Yeah, sure, Chomsky was being rude.

    He wasn’t *wrong*, though.

  • Ed says:

    Harris opens the dialog with a lengthy passage from his book where he essentially says Chomsky is an idiot, then gets all huffy when Chomsky is occasionally short with him. Overall, when Chomsky asks Harris questions, Harris refuses to answer and then expresses puzzlement. As for the issues: When Chomsky does answer Harris’s questions about intentions, Harris then paints a rosy picture of US intentions through an analogy, and then, when challenged, retreats to claiming it was all just a thought experiment which had nothing to do with the US. When Chomsky says, well, then, let’s discuss the actual intentions in question, Harris says you should just accept a country’s claims of benevolent intentions on their face, without evidence. Chomsky points out that this would get most dictatorships off the hook, and adds that it might even be the case that some dictatorships actually believe they have good intentions when they carry out their crimes against humanity — does that mean that we should then ignore their crimes against humanity? Harris basically ignores that point but in effect insists that we should simply accept the US’s stated good intentions without evidence, and stop our moral analysis of the US, a least, with those stated intentions. The fact that Harris actually insisted on publishing this sad exchange anyway does make me suspect that he wasn’t just pretending to be puzzled and in fact had no idea what was going on in the conversation.

  • Leith says:

    Ed, that is an excellent summary and I believe your analysis is correct too.

    The key problem here is Sam Harris’ reading comprehension. He repeatedly shows that he believes Chomsky is asking him to ‘reciprocate’ in the sense of ‘I’ve told you why your writing on me was inaccurate; now you do the same’. When actually Chomsky wanted him to reciprocate as in ‘I’ve answered your question, now answer my COMPLETELY DIFFERENT question.”

    I Sam’s own words “I’m still struggling to understand.”

    I’m reminded of… actually, every other Sam Harris debate I’ve ever read. But this one is great; he spends the whole thing not grasping the concept of a cost-benefit analysis:

  • Ben McConaghy says:

    I am sorry to say that Harris was entirely disrespectful towards Chomsky. He hid this behind a seeming politeness. He deliberately tried to bait Chomsky into this weird email ‘debate’under a false pretext. This is proven by a careful reading of the transcript. Harris plainly refuses to answer many of Chomsky’s basic questions. This was quite blatant affrontery and is not a tactic that belongs in real debate. Chomsky was irritated by this and called Harris’ bluff. Harris – plainly out of his depth – intemperately flounces off stage. Chomsky states that Harris’s wish to publish is bizarre but he allows this to happen with apparent ease. Harris has revealed an intemperate and vain aspect to his personality in attempting to use this silly ‘debate’ to his advantage. A forlorn hope. Harris needs to do some work on his impetuousness. To use modern parlance – ‘a massive fail’!

  • D.Collins says:

    I’m somewhat of a fan of Harris, but this was plainly embarrassing. What a disingenuous display of, dare I say it, trolling on the part of Sam. At his age, Chomsky shouldn’t have to be dealing with this sort of nonsense, especially coming from Harris.

  • sam says:

    I agree that Chomsky was never acting in good faith, but when did he say he would? He rebuffed the initial offer, to which Harris responded by basically going ahead anyway, making sure to clarify that Chomsky should write as if these emails would be published.

    Also, anyone who is faliliar with Chomsky would recognize his “strangely prickly” tone as rather characteristic of how the man both writes and speaks publically.

  • Dan says:

    Most of the comments seem to either say Chomsky “destroyed” Harris or attack Chomsky. Let’s try to look at this curious exchange from both sides. It’s clear that Harris was looking for a productive conversation, but he probably also had an ulterior motive. As much as I enjoy listening to Sam, he is rather self-promoting, and probably saw a chance to score points over the highly respected Chomsky by outfoxing him on this issue. Likely he wants to become the “most important intellectual,” at least among edgy liberals. His obvious urgency to publish makes that clear. He didn’t seem to get that Chomsky would be put off by his unfair criticisms, and by the implication that Chomsky had smeared Harris. Chomsky approached it as rebutting a willful misinterpretation of his work. Besides, the man is in his late 80s and answers hundreds of emails a day, so you can’t really blame him for being a little grumpy. On the issue of intentions, they seemed to have a completely different idea of what they were talking about. For Sam, the US does things with good intentions and makes mistakes. He sees Chomsky’s one-sided criticism of the US as overlooking the fact that many people around the world have harmful intentions, and meeting them with violence can sometimes be the only justifiable moral option. On the issue of radical Islam, Chomsky doesn’t seem to acknowledge very much the role that religious ideology plays in motivating bad behavior. I saw an interview in which he blamed the US for the rise of ISIS, and stated that there is no such thing as a literal interpretation of religion – that everyone interprets things in their own way. I think this is a little simplistic, and Harris is right to point out how specific beliefs (martyrdom, jihad) create unique threats for civilization. For Chomsky, the US record of state violence makes it clear that you can’t trust their stated intentions. I think Chomsky is right that the US has little regard for the lives of thousands of Sudanese, even if they didn’t deliberately set out to murder them. Chomsky sees this topic as one of moral urgency, is clearly is annoyed by the fact that Harris’ views of these topics do seem to justify wanton state violence, as long as we claim good motives. I also think they view their roles differently. Chomsky believes that we should speak about that which we can most affect – i.e. US policy, rather than carping about how evil ISIS is (which we all know, and which often serves as a distraction from own our crimes). Sam seems more interested in a dispassionate debate, using hypothetical examples and so forth. Overall Sam is a good writer, especially about religion and spirituality, but I don’t think his views on US foreign policy are sufficiently grounded in reality. While it would have been nice for Chomsky to come off a bit more good-spirited, I can understand his irritation. He still did take the time to clarify his points in detail, which is pretty generous, all things considered.

  • Duncan says:

    Dan writes, “On the issue of radical Islam, Chomsky doesn’t seem to acknowledge very much the role that religious ideology plays in motivating bad behavior.” On the contrary, Chomsky has often acknowledged the role that religious ideology plays in motivating bad behavior, pointing out the murderous role of Christianity in US history from its beginnings, from the European invaders’ disdain for the humanity of aboriginal Americans through Christian justification of slavery, right down to the present. The US is, he has said, is one of the most religiously fundamentalist countries in the world, and when you compare it to Europe and much of East Asia for example, I don’t see how anyone can doubt that. That’s one reason why Harris’s attempt to define the US as a well-meaning special snowflake is so risible: if he really were as anti-religious as he pretends, he’d be much more critical of the US than he is. (I wonder what he thinks of Martin Luther King’s 1967 claim that the US was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world?) As an old-school Zionist, Chomsky is also aware of the harmful role that orthodox Judaism has played in modern Israel. As for radical Islam, he has often pointed out that the US gets along just fine with fundamentalist Islamist states like Saudi Arabia, Muslim mass murderers like Suharto, and has financed and used jihadist terrorists as proxies during the Cold War and since — with the best of intentions, of course.

    As for ISIS, I think you’re misunderstanding him on that too. One can debate the importance of religion in the rise of ISIS (as one can debate the importance of religion in Reaganite / Bushite holy wars against Communism and “terror”), but it’s hard for me to see how anyone could pretend that US actions, which include invasion, aggression, torture, support for brutal dictatorships, and good old-fashioned mass murder, have no consequences in the Middle East or elsewhere. When the US and its clients systematically stamp out moderate, democratic elements, what will remain the most extreme hard-line elements, like ISIS. The same thing has happened around the world.

  • Jason Sherrick says:

    I don’t agree that the substance of his argument is “hidden beneath” his tone. He is crystal clear about his position, and Harris’ confusion about Chomsky’s stance on intentionality I can only describe as bizarre.

  • Doug says:

    Ed said:
    “Harris opens the dialog with a lengthy passage from his book where he essentially says Chomsky is an idiot, then gets all huffy when Chomsky is occasionally short with him.”

    Ed, you omit this part of Harris’s opening: “Needless to say, the whole discussion betrays the urgency of that period as well as many of the failings of a first book. I hesitate to put it forward here, if for no other reason than that the tone is not one that I would have ever adopted in a direct exchange with you.”

    He APOLOGIZES for the tone of it. He tries to have a civil, productive discussion and to be corrected on anything he misrepresented. Chomsky just spits in his face over and over again. Really bad form on Chomsky’s part.

  • TD says:

    He doesn’t actually retract the claim itself that Chomsky didn’t think through his position, which is the source of Chomsky’s frustration. He only retracted its tone – which becomes an obsession for Harris to the detriment of all possible understanding and dialogue about the issues at hand (the tone). Harris wanted to have a debate with Chomsky over his misreading of Chomsky’s decades of activism. Chomsky cautiously warned that this would be pointless unless Harris familiarized himself with what he was addressing. Harris plowed ahead anyway and when he repeatedly was shown to be ignorant of the facts and Chomsky’s position, he would back into tone policing Chomsky’s understandable frustration. Finally Harris concludes with exactly what Chomsky told him in the outset – that this was a pointless discussion.

    Chomsky has had civil debates with those he doesn’t see eye to eye with. But it takes a real show of good faith that Harris doesn’t display even once. If he would have retracted his statements on Chomsky and excused himself to become more familiar with Chomsky’s work, that would have eliminated all of Chomsky’s annoyance. But he didn’t do that. He just kept making excuses.

  • chris boys says:

    No one so far seems to grasp an essential point: Harris initiated this discussion, and the burden was on him to really listen to what Chomsky was saying. All Harris had to do to get the thing off the ground was to humble himself and have the disposition that perhaps he had something to learn from Chomsky. To me that seems an entirely reasonable way to proceed. I mean, if I had been Harris, just a consideration of all that Chomsky has done and accomplished in his life (including the very serious risks he took with the Pentagon Papers) would have made me want to listen and learn. If I had to ask for clarifications or perhaps restate some of what Chomsky was saying to better ask him if I understood what he was getting at — then fine, so be it.

    I wouldn’t have minded Chomsky’s acerbic tone and his obvious impatience etc. That would have been beside the point. Chomsky is an older guy, an older guy and a genius too — men like that are entitled to be cantankerous if they choose. Also, if you watch videos of Chomsky (even with knuckleheads as extreme as Alex Jones!) he is almost always very patient and willing to go step by step through things. Harris should have wanted to reach that part of Chomsky, and he should have done anything he had to to get to it.

    I was very disappointed in Harris in this thing. He didn’t seem to have much self-understanding. He should have taken the time and patience needed to get the discussion going. It could have been a good discussion, I believe, if he had done that.

  • Victor says:

    All I see here is Harris trying as hard as one can to use Socratic Irony and a very old and annoyed Chomsky trying to avoid what ultimatly happened, Sam Harris riding his coattails.

  • LFP says:

    Perusing some of these comments makes me think that 1) most people haven’t read anything Harris has written and instead rely on third-hand sound bites to form their opinion about him, and 2) the frothing anger than Harris elicits may be from religious people who had their feelings hurt by his clear and convincing anti-theist arguments. How else to explain such blind, emotional hatred?
    That said, this was neither an “exchange” or a debate: Chomsky came into it very angry and prevented any actual conversation from occurring — nothing of substance was thus said by either party. I expected better of Chomsky.

  • ben says:

    seemed like a decent display of professional trolling on both of their accounts. chomsky is in a league of his own regarding politics but I know who I’d rather share a long car ride with. peace out everybody :)

  • Deegeejay says:

    So well stated I could not agree more. Thank you.

  • Ben says:

    The “intent” of US foreign policy is either, if run by neocons, to spread American values by the barrel of a gun or, if run by neoliberals, to spread global corporate capitalism by the barrel of a gun and by the pressure of the international trade regime. While on the surface this is not as objectionable to most westerners as radical Islam’s heinous goals, I think trying to make some meaningful distinction between these two classes of evil is foolish of Harris and probably why Chomsky shows so little respect for his position. Its like saying “My evil is familiar, I find it bothers me less than the outsider’s evil, so stop being so critical of it!”

  • Matt says:

    I’m surprised Sam Harris did not appear to know what his friend Christopher Hitchens wrote about the Al-Shifa bombing since it clearly speaks to “intent” and if it’s a credible account, it also explains why Chomsky took the tone he did. Hitchens has a whole chapter in his book “No One Left To Lie To” entitled “Clinton’s War Crimes” which directly addresses this subject and he points out that the Administrations claims about the plant all fell apart within days. It was a legit pharmaceutical factory, there were no direct financial ties to OBL or AQ, and the Administration refused to turn over the “soil sample” they alleged contained “traces” of precursor chemicals for weapons. Further the US blocked a UN request for onsite inspection of the facility. Hitchens also cites a British engineer who was a project manager of the construction of the plant who claimed there was no space available for clandestine operations as well as a German Ambassador who reported the factory was used as a showplace for foreign visitors and not suitable to produce lethal chemicals. Further, Hitchens spoke to a CIA official who says that it was astounding that such an action was taken on such flimsy evidence as a soil sample in a country with which the US had both official diplomatic relations and back channels. Why not demand a short notice inspection of the facility and put everyone on notice who might be producing weapons or sheltering AQ assets? Why the rush to bomb? Hitchens also points out a piece from the New Yorker which states that 4 chiefs from the Joint Chiefs of Staff were deliberately not told of the action before hand because it was known they would argue against it. Oh yeah, and this action just happened to coincide with Monica Lewinsky’s return to the grand jury… So while Chomsky doesn’t bring any of this up, this is context for considering what the “intentions” were at the time. Since Harris doesn’t mention any of this context in his piece on Chomsky in his book or subsequently, I can understand why Chomsky would take the tone he did. It was a pretty controversial action, and Harris seems to be completely unaware why and has the temerity to challenge Chomsky on why he doesn’t accept the good intentions. I like Harris but he really didn’t do his homework on the facts and Chomsky knew this from the start and let him make a fool of himself litigating over the “tone”

  • Paul says:

    I think that Chomsky’s irritation and anger is partially attributable to having to talk down or deal with someone who is using intellectual verbiage to express rather banal and simplistic views about American exceptionalism, etc. The falseness of that and the obvious unawareness of the falseness by Harris would make Gandhi forget his politeness.
    More importantly though, Harris is providing justification for some horrible U.S. atrocities by trying to say we didn’t do them to intentionally harm anyone. The idea that it’s somehow “better” to kill several hundred thousand people because killing them wasn’t your aim by a mere by-product than killing 3000 when it was your aim is to kill them – that’s pretty bizarre and twisted logic for anyone who isn’t sociopathic.
    A father whose child is killed in an airstrike isn’t going to feel okay about it because the airstrike was undertook with good intentions. Add to it that the good intentions almost never meet even a minimal level of integrity or reason and another terrorist is born out of pain and rage and a need for revenge. That doesn’t excuse using terrorism to achieve justice or closure but it makes sense, if we want to be honest about it and what our reactions would be in the same situation.

    Harris can’t understand that because he’s had it educated out of him, emotional intelligence, and frankly, empathy. That’s what’s enraging, his denial, not just the intellectual ideas. Like most people, he’s not a sociopath, just such a well-trained part of the herd that he can’t see he is part of the herd.

  • Bob Shields says:

    Anyone who thinks Harris came out ahead of Chomsky is delusional. This was a KO for Noam.

  • Kernil says:

    Noam Grumpsky woke up on the wrong side of the bed…

  • Kernil says:

    It wasn’t even a debate. You are the one that is delusional.

  • Brendan says:

    I can’t fit everything I wanna say about this here. Basically, I think Sam Harris is more ignorant and dumber than Osama bin Laden

  • steve says:

    “When Harris then showed a video that clearly showed the literal quote that Chomsky said according to Harris, Chomsky simply didn’t respond,”

    he did respond – he said in the email following the one you cite:

    “the only source you have for “the fact” that you cite is something on Youtube in which, as you wrote, that I “may have been talking about both Christopher Hitchens and [you], given the way the question was posed,” or maybe about Hitchens, whose views I know about”

  • John Gammer says:

    Exactly! Harris doesn’t understand Chomsky’s argument. Chomsky’s position is actually surprisingly difficult for a lot of people to understand. People like Harris cannot comprehend that actions by powerful people on our side can be immoral.

  • Lisa M says:

    Exactly bad form and feeble didatic smack down. Just a Grandstanding move from a minor character to draw attention to himself by fanning a weak cinder of thought in an unwanted argument.

  • Thomas says:

    Didn’t this start with Chomsky referring to Harris and Hitchens as “religious fanatics”, aligning themselves (religiously) with the policies and actions of, specifically, the United States?

    I can see how that might have offended Harris, but I think that a better tact on Harris’ part might have been to portray Chomsky as something of a religious fanatic himself, and then just agree to disagree.

    One way to look at the conflict between Harris and Chomsky is to note that, in the conflict between US hegemony and Islam, Chomsky seems to see US policies and actions as more of a threat to humanity than Islamic jihad, while for Harris Islam is the greater threat.

    If it can be boiled down to that power struggle, if it’s a matter of choosing sides in that conflict, then I suppose I would have to side with the US, since I really would not want to live under what I understand as Sharia law.

    One question is, what place do considerations of ‘morality’ have in such a mass conflict, in a global struggle for power?

    I don’t think that massive collateral damage is ever really ‘unintentional’ in wars. Arguing the ‘morality’ of an action by one side vs an action by the other side seems pointless to me. It’s a struggle for dominance of one culture over another, both of which see the other as intrinsically ‘immoral’.

  • Salam says:

    Harris is a profound hypocrite.

    Would he ever point out that it was the gangs of Begin and Shamir who introduced terrorist bombing in the Middle East?

    I am not against Jews….there are good and bad of every religion.

    And people like Begin and Shamir were secularists….some if not many of these terrorists were even atheists.

    There would be no ISIS in Iraq if it is was not for the destruction of the Iraqi state and the formation of these gangs of youths who know nothing about Islam but are just gangs of criminals held together but former Baath army leaders who were removed by our stupid decisions to do sudden and massive debaathification causing massive unemployment.

    Let’s not forget that Iraq did not kill one of us.

    But our invasion led to hundreds of thousands of deaths of Iraqis and many more hundreds of thousands who are wounded…..many are probably in pain right now.

    Harris is too arrogant to be grateful for the Creator who created him and everything.

    Harris, the hypocrite, is profoundly evil and his ego is incredibly and grotesquely inflated.

  • Rich says:

    Guy – I think you just hit the nail on the head. For his part, I think this is why Harris decided to publish the exchange. I realize a lot of observers are interpreting this cynically thinking it to a publicity stunt… that doesn’t really seem to be in line with Harris’ past behavior.

    Harris has repeatedly put himself into awkward positions in the public eye because he is consciously breaking taboos; perhaps these are the eggs one must break to make a few omelets…

    At this point, and after following his work for a while, I don’t think this was actually a publicity stunt, and I suspect that in many cases, the people who are adopting a more cynical view of Harris’ intentions (funny how that word keeps coming up…) are essentially riding a wave of angst following from Harris’ past work; the long list of repeatedly broken taboos.

    Let’s just grant that Harris isn’t up to Chomsky’s level when it comes to foreign policy, or moral reasoning at the level of large groups or at the social / political levels (I think this is debatable, especially the latter point – but just take that as a given for now). Why not engage in a public discussion about these topics?
    Why not take the opportunity to open up and expand the conversation?

    Whether Harris is sincere in his intention or not, surely we should all agree that this discussion is worth having and its worth including everyone in that conversation. Harris’ arguable level of naivety or inferiority really shouldn’t be an issue, that’s just a chance for Chomsky to raise awareness of his take on this issue (since he knows so much more).

    The people who are saying things like “I can’t believe Chomsky has to be bothered with this at his age” are obviously not thinking about how important these issues are to everyone else. This is essnetially the same thing Harris said in his conversation last October with Cenk Uygur on TYT – he [Harris] is trying to include people in the conversation, and he’s at least *saying* that he’s not a fan of beating around the bush or talking down to his audience.

    Of course, one might wonder whether this is all just a cover for Harris’ so called American Nationalist / Israeli apologetic agenda or not. Surely this is something that observers can decide for themselves, but why is it that we can’t agree that this is a conversation we’re better off having in an open public forum to allow everyone to get informed about these issues.

    In the end, I’m just disappointed that it now looks like this may not happen (at least between these two…). Even if the discussion would be boring and unenlightening for Chomsky, this is chance for him to get his ideas out to a larger audience, and surely it’s beneficial if the public can become better informed about how certain incentives or political institutions are causing / allowing the US fail to behave morally on the world stage… I just don’t see the downside in opening up the conversation and making it easier for more people to get informed and engaged.

  • Ethan Bodnaruk says:

    After reading the exchange I did my homework on al-Shifa and came to similar conclusions. There really is a lot of reliable info out there on the topic, and it all points to really flimsy pretenses.

    I did not know, however, that Hitchens had written a chapter on it as well. Thanks for that info, and I will look it up!

  • Ethan Bodnaruk says:

    Ugh, my above comment was supposed to be a reply to Matt’s commen on May 4, 2015 at 11:49 am. So it’ll make much more sense in that context

  • Dee says:

    “Although I can understand many atheists – who became atheists because they had a rough time in a religious school or some reason like this” – actually i am an atheist because i was born into a non-religious family and can see through religious nonsense.

  • Sally says:

    I found the entire exchange to be quite hilarious. Chomsky addresses every single one of Harris’ points, yet Harris simply dismisses everything Chomsky says outright by insinuating that Chomsky is too emotional to argue. This is pretty typical of people who don’t have a leg to stand on. They can’t address actual points of debate and resort to casting suspicion on their opponent by gas-lighting them. NEWS FLASH, HARRIS: you can be emotional and still have a valid argument. The two aren’t mutually exclusive as you’d like to think. But aside from that, Chomsky’s attitude toward Harris was completely warranted in my opinion, and actually made the “debate” (if you could call it that, since Harris hardly did any actual debating) more interesting. What good is arguing about such topics if you can’t make a moral and ethical judgment about the person positing them? If Harris really believes what he says about intentions, that makes him a pretty terrible person lol Anything can be justified according to his logic as long as we just think positively about it! Never mind the real world consequences of actions! That’s what this really comes down to in the end. If we just slap positive thoughts onto any action, we can say they are “moral”. Typical idealistic BS.

  • Victor says:

    that was a good thumping to SH by NC. SH is just crying out loud in most of his conversations wanting people to like him. SH argument about intention is BS, how can you justify it when you know there “may” or in many cases “will” be civilian casualties. How are those intentions good. In such similar terms the terrorists can easily justify their intentions.

    SH and the other so call new age atheists are simply anti-theists and it sad to see that when people like SH can make such brilliant arguments and theories, they start sounding like fanatics as rightly pointed by NC because of their few irrational statements like “vast amount of muslims” with nothing to back this BS. Most of the problems are because of people and religion is a tool, if not religion there will be another tool, there are far more powerful tools like nationalism etc which are used by extremists. So this whole anti-theistic views and especially against Islam nowadays is total HS (Horse shit). Do something useful to the community, work on development, growth, harmony etc and eventually we will not have a need for things like religion, does not work by spreading hate you sucker.

  • Joseph says:

    Chomsky, begrudgingly, allows Harris to print this. Chomsky didn’t want to have discourse who was 1. simply doing it for his own gain and 2. because the guy has no care for nuance which is absolutely important in context and analysis. Harris is a generalist, has no values and only engaged with Chomsky to ride on his name.

  • todd says:

    poor sam got his feelings hurt

  • jes says:

    anyone know sams email? i can clear this whole thing up in a few minutes… ;-)

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.