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.

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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

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Comments (57)
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  • 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… ;-)

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