For decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy, and the further left one travels along the political spectrum, the more one feels his influence. Although I agree with much of what Chomsky has said about the misuses of state power, I have long maintained that his political views, where the threat of global jihadism is concerned, produce dangerous delusions. In response, I have been much criticized by those who believe that I haven’t given the great man his due.
Last week, I did my best to engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics. As readers of the following email exchange will discover, I failed. I’ve decided to publish this private correspondence, with Chomsky’s permission, as a cautionary tale. Clearly, he and I have drawn different lessons from what was, unfortunately, an unpleasant and fruitless encounter. I will let readers draw lessons of their own.
Jonathan Gottschall is a Distinguished Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. His research at the intersection of science and art has frequently been covered in outlets such as The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, Scientific American, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nature, Science, and NPR. His book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice Selection and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. His latest book is The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch.
Sam Harris gets back in the VBW ring for another round on moral responsibility, ethical theories, and the grounds for our obligations to other people. Are we at a genuine stalemate when it comes to blame and desert? Is Tamler a closet consequentialist? Is Sam a closet pluralist? Why is Dave such a big Wagner fan? Plus, Twitter shaming: what is it good for? Settle in, get comfortable, pour yourself a drink, you’re in for the long haul on this one.
The Very Bad Wizards Interview #1 Sam Harris, David Pizarro, and Tamler Sommers talk (and then talk some more)
0:00-47:00—Intro and costs and benefits of religion
47:00-1:17:00—Drugs, the self, free will
1:17:30-end—Blame, guilt, vengeance, moral responsibility
David Pizarro is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His primary research interest is in how and why humans make moral judgments, such as what makes us think certain actions are wrong, and that some people deserve blame. In addition, he studies how emotions influence a wide variety of judgments. These two areas of interest come together in the topic of much of his recent work, which has focused on the emotion of disgust and the role it plays in shaping moral, social, and political judgments.
Tamler Sommers is an associate professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Houston with a joint appointment in the Honors College. He is director of the Honors minor Phronesis: A Program in Politics and Ethics. His research focuses on issues relating to moral responsibility, criminal justice, honor, and revenge. Sommers is the author of two books: Relative Justice: Cultural Diversity, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility (Princeton, 2012) and A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain (McSweeney’s, 2009). He received his PhD in Philosophy from Duke University in 2005.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu in 1969. The daughter of a political opponent of the Somali dictatorship, she lived in exile, moving from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. Like 98 percent of Somali girls, Ayaan was subjected to female genital mutilation. She embraced Islam while she was growing up, but eventually began to question aspects of the faith. One day, while listening to a sermon about the many ways in which women must be obedient to their husbands, she couldn’t resist asking, “Must our husbands obey us too?”
In 1992, Ayaan was married off by her father to a distant cousin living in Canada. In order to escape this forced marriage, she fled to the Netherlands where she was granted asylum and then citizenship. In her first years in Holland she worked in factories and as a maid—but she quickly learned Dutch and was then able to study at the University of Leiden. She soon began working as a translator for Somali immigrants, where she witnessed firsthand the clash between liberal Western values and those of Islamic culture.
After earning her M.A. in political science, Ayaan began working as a researcher for the Wiardi Beckman Foundation in Amsterdam. She eventually served as an elected member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006. While in parliament, she focused on furthering the integration of non-Western immigrants into Dutch society and on defending the rights of Muslim women. She campaigned to raise awareness about violence against women, including honor killings and female genital mutilation—practices that had followed Muslim immigrants to Holland. In her three years in government, she found her voice as an advocate for an “enlightened Islam.”
In 2004, Ayaan gained international attention following the murder of Theo van Gogh, who had directed her short film, Submission, depicting the oppression of women under Islam. The assassin, a radical Muslim, left a death threat for Ayaan pinned to Van Gogh’s chest.
In 2006, Ayaan was forced to resign from parliament when the Dutch minister for immigration revoked her citizenship, arguing that she had misled the authorities at the time of her asylum application. However, the Dutch courts later reversed this decision, leading to the fall of the administration. Disillusioned with the Netherlands, Ayaan then moved to the United States.
Ayaan is a fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. She is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, currently researching the relationship between the West and Islam. Her willingness to speak out for the rights of women, along with her abandonment of the Muslim faith, continue to make her a target for violence by Islamic extremists. She lives with round-the-clock security.
In 2005, Ayaan was named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” one of the Glamour Heroes, and Reader’s Digest’s European of the Year. She is the author of The Caged Virgin, Infidel, and Nomad. She is now working on Short-cut to Enlightenment, a dialogue between Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and three of her favorite Western thinkers: John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper, and Friedrich Hayek.
A few weeks ago, Ayaan and I had a long conversation about her critics and about the increasingly pernicious meme of “Islamophobia”—which our inimitable friend Christopher Hitchens once dubbed “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.” [NOTE 5/11/14: This wonderful sentence seems to have been wrongly attributed to Hitch (who was imitable after all). I’m told these words first appeared in a tweet from Andrew Cummins. Well done, Andrew!]
The following text is an edited transcript of our conversation.
A young man enters a public place—a school, a shopping mall, an airport—carrying a small arsenal. He begins killing people at random. He has no demands, and no one is spared. Eventually, the police arrive, and after an excruciating delay as they marshal their forces, the young man is brought down.
This has happened many times, and it will happen again. After each of these crimes, we lose our innocence—but then innocence magically returns. In the aftermath of horror, we seem to learn nothing of value. Indeed, many of us remain committed to denying the one thing of value that is there to be learned.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, a journalist asked me, “Why is it always angry young men who do these terrible things?” She then sought to connect the behavior of the Tsarnaev brothers with that of Jared Loughner, James Holmes, and Adam Lanza. Like many people, she believed that similar actions must have similar causes.
But there are many sources of human evil. And if we want to protect ourselves and our societies, we must understand this. To that end we should differentiate at least four types of violent actor.
Steven Graff Levine has specialized in California state criminal law for more than 23 years. He was a Los Angeles County district attorney for 13 years, a staff lawyer for the California Supreme Court for three years, and now has an ongoing criminal law defense practice to help those in need of legal assistance in all types of criminal matters. Steve is a 2010 graduate of the prestigious Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers College and was named a 2012 California Super Lawyer . He has been involved in prosecution, defense, and appeal in thousands of cases and has conducted more than 125 jury trials, including more than 20 murder trials.
Rory Miller served in corrections for seventeen years, as an officer and sergeant working maximum security, booking, and mental health; leading a tactical team; and teaching courses ranging from Defensive Tactics and Use of Force to First Aid and Crisis Communications with the Mentally Ill. For fourteen months he was an advisor to the Iraqi Corrections System, working in Baghdad and Kurdish Sulaymaniyah. He has a BS degree in psychology, served in the National Guard as a combat medic (91A/B), and earned college varsities in judo and fencing and a mokuroku in jujutsu. He is the author of Meditations on Violence, Facing Violence, Scaling Force, and several other books.
Matt Thornton has trained in the martial arts for more than thirty years and was among the first Americans to receive a black belt in the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He has been a mixed martial arts (MMA) coach to some of the world’s top athletes, including multiple-time UFC champion Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, Forrest Griffin, and others. Matt is the founder of SBGi, a martial arts academy with thirty-plus affiliate schools in more than eleven countries. His writing has appeared in Black Belt Magazine, Inside Kung Fu, Martial Arts Legends, Fighters, Martial Arts Illustrated, and other journals.
* * *
Supporting the Blog and Podcast
SamHarris.org is supported by the generosity of its readers. If you find my essays, interviews, or podcasts useful, please consider becoming a sponsoring member of the website. —SH
You can also become a patron by making a one-time donation in any amount.
Get Sam's Newsletter
Joining our email list is the best way to hear about Sam's upcoming books, articles, podcasts, and public talks.