Sam Harris Should Read Bernard Williams

In Shame and Necessity (Sather Classical Lectures, University of California Press, 2nd ed., 2008, pp. 68-69) writing on the ancient Greeks’ conceptions of responsibility and human agency via the tale of Oedipus, Bernard Williams writes:

[T]here is another aspect to responsibility, which comes out if we start on the question not from the response that the public or the state or the neighbours or the damaged parties demand of the agent, but from what the agent demands of himself….

Oedipus’s response, when he made his discovery, was self-imposed: “I have done it with my own hand,” he says of his blinding….he says that he afterwards came to think that what he had inflicted on himself was excessive. He also, at Colonus, says that he did not really do the things for which he blinded himself—and in a notably compacted expression: “I suffered those deeds more than I acted them…What these words express is…Oedipus’s attempt to come to terms with what his erga, his deeds, have meant for his life.

For what, if one can ask a very ingenuous question, is one supposed to do if one discovers that not just in fantasy but in life one has murdered one’s father and married one’s mother? Not even Oedipus…thought that blinding and exile had to be the response. But should there be no response? Is it as though it had never happened? Or rather, to put the right question: Is it as though such things had happened, but not by his agency….The whole of the Oedipus Tyrannus , that dreadful machine, moves to the discovery of just one thing, that he did it. Do we understand the terror of that discovery only because we residually share magical beliefs in blood-guilt, or archaic notions of responsibility? Certainly not: we understand it because we know that in the story of one’s life there is an authority exercised by what one has done, and not merely by what one has intentionally done.

In recent days, Sam Harris has, by virtue of an embarrassing–for him–email exchange with Noam Chomsky, made much of how some actions which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocents should be subjected to far less moral condemnation (if any) than those which resulted because of expressly ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ intentions. Bill Clinton’s orders to bomb a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Sudanese innocents thus gets off the hook rather lightly – as say, compared to the ISIS‘ slaughter of innocents (you may, if you like, substitute your favorite act of Islamist mass murder here to get the flavor of Harris’ arguments.)

In the course of the email exchange cited above, Chomsky rather effectively eviscerated the simplistic understanding of politics and human nature this view of Sam Harris’ rests on. Furthermore, as I noted in my initial response to a podcast in which Harris makes this claim in ponderous and pedantic detail, Harris’ view leads to the worst excesses of utopianism:  “I intended to bring about this future desirable state, therefore, all else is excusable, as I certainly didn’t intend to bring about any of these intermediate states. My mind is fixed firmly on the state to be realized, the one I intend to bring about. ” Or more colloquially, “it’s ok to climb over heaps of bodies if you are going to a ‘good’ place.” This sort of argument has the bizarre consequence of considering Dick Cheney to not be a war criminal for the mass murders he is responsible for–after all, Cheney did say he was doing it all for democracy.

As the excerpt above shows, Harris, who considers himself an educated man, should really read some Bernard Williams, and using him as an introduction, read some more about the ancient Greeks. Otherwise, he will find himself, time and again, getting schooled by those who know better.

Israel And A Jewish Solution To The Palestinian Problem

When I was eight years old, my mother told me the story of the Jews. We were on a month-long vacation, the mother of all road-trips; our destinations included the mountains and the valleys of Kashmir and the Garhwal. One day, after a long and tiring drive through innumerable twisting roads, we had reached our long-sought destination for the day, a charming forest bungalow, and after we had eaten dinner and settled in for the night, she drew my brother and me close to her and told us their tale.

It was a story that haunted and inspired me: a story of suffering and perseverance, of persecution and survival, of endurance and persistence in the face of adversity. It was a tale of dispersal and flight, of resistance, of the preservation of the things most precious to the Jewish identity. She told us of the Holocaust, of the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camps, and then, she told us of Israel, and its creation as a safe haven, finally, for an eternally persecuted people. She told us of a land reclaimed from the desert, made fertile and populated by a people who saw within its borders a chance to make their lives anew, away from the death and destruction that had been visited them during mankind’s most horrible conflict. She told us of their continued fight for survival through the wars that followed; their continued and enduring resilience. She told us of their learning and culture; she told us of their intellectual accomplishments in science, literature and the arts; she told us of the value they placed on education and lifelong learning.

And, then, unforgettably, bringing up the example of the Rothschilds, she told us of Jewish philanthropy, how a long-oppressed and suffering people had taken their immense, hard-earned wealth and used it for the greater good, deciding that their pain would be unique only in that they were determined to not let others suffer as they had, that they would do what they could to decrease the sum total of the inevitable pain and anguish that is every human’s lot on this earth.

I do not remember if my mother told us about Palestine and its dispossessed people. Perhaps she did, but only briefly. Perhaps she meant to tell us another time. Or perhaps she did, but I could not pay attention, for I was riveted by other components of the tale I had just heard.  Perhaps my mother only told me the Exodus version of happenings in the Middle East, and elsewhere. All stories are incomplete; this one surely was.

I grew familiar with the story of the Palestinians much later; the moral burden that placed upon the residents of Israel and perhaps Jews everywhere, only became clearer to me much later in my life. By then, because of the story I had first heard as a eight-year old, and its storyteller, and because–other than Edward Said–the strongest and clearest voices that pointed out Israeli missteps were always Jewish, I had come to believe–even as figurative scales fell from my eyes–that a resolution of the ‘Palestinian problem’ lay within the moral, intellectual and political reach of the Jewish people.

It might be their sternest challenge yet, to find the moral clarity and the political courage to undo undoubted injustice, one which Judaism’s ethical codes most certainly instruct them to.

Noam Chomsky, My Palestinian Student, and a Gift

A few years ago, at Brooklyn College, I taught a class on the formal theory of computation. We covered the usual topics: finite state automata, context-free grammars, Turing machines, computational complexity. As we worked through the theory of context-free grammars, I introduced my students to the concept of their Chomsky normal forms.  As a quick preliminary, I noted that this form was due to Noam Chomsky, “the MIT linguist well-known for his seminal work on the formal theory of linguistics.” I paused, and then went on, “Interestingly enough, Professor Chomsky is equally well-known for his radical political views and activism, especially regarding American foreign policy, Israel etc.” These quick remarks made, I went on to the business of production rules, non-terminal symbols etc.

Once class ended, I walked back to my office, and began the my usual post-class activities: checking email, drinking left-over coffee etc. As I did so, there was a knock on the door. A student from my class stood there. I had seen him before in class, but he had never spoken up yet. Now, he did so. He introduced himself with an Arab name. (I’m embarrassed to say I do not remember his name.) Then, he spoke again, “Professor, I just wanted to thank you. You brought up Chomsky in class, but you didn’t just say he was a linguist. You talked about his politics too.” Surprised, I said, “Well, I didn’t say that much. Just a quick note really.” My student, though, would have none of it, “Well, professor, too many other professors would simply not mention that aspect of him, as if it was an embarrassment. As a Palestinian, it made me really happy to hear you bring him up.” I didn’t quite know what to make of this, so I thanked him for his kind words. We then chatted for a bit about his background, his family, and that was that. (I remember asking him what passport he carried, a question that always fascinates me when it comes to the modern world’s stateless.)

As the semester went by, my student and I only spoke a few more times. He was unfailingly polite and courteous, and diligent with his work. We might have talked once more about Israel and Palestine, perhaps when some Middle East crisis du année had occurred. Finally, the semester wound down; I assigned the students their final exams, graded them, handed in their grades. Shortly thereafter, one day as I worked in my office, there was a knock on the door again. Once again, it was my student. In his hand, he held what looked like a gift-wrapped item. He thanked me for the class and then handed over the package, saying “This is for you, just a thank-you.” I was a little nonplussed and tried to decline, but again, he was persistent, pressing it into my hands, saying it was just a trifle. Finally, I thanked him and opened my gift. It was a copy of Avi Shlaim’s  The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab WorldHe went on, “I think you might find this interesting.” I agreed.

I lost contact with my student shortly thereafter; I often wonder where he is now. I often wondered too, what he must have felt like, unable, all too often, because of the settings he found himself in, unable to say what was on his mind; I wondered how much he had heard that he couldn’t respond to; I wondered how limited he must have felt his various avenues of expression to be if the mere mention of Chomsky’s activism by a professor in a classroom had felt like an affirmation of a kind.