This attempt by Sam Harris to goad Chomsky into playing the “idealism game” has simply added more fodder to confirm my opinion of Harris. It’s interesting to consider, both in the practice of the discussion and as a higher lesson in types of intellectualism. Re: the practice, Harris is right. Trying to launch this in e-mail was probably doomed from the start. (The more important thing to say is that Harris launched this because Chomsky expressed no interest in any sort of public exchange. Harris’ purpose is to sell books and sell his ideas. Getting Chomsky to take him seriously enough, even if merely to express his disdain, helps Harris sell his books and ideas. To his credit, Harris wins by gaining more attention through this opportunistic stunt.)
Also with regard to the practice, it seems like they both went for the “post at the top, no interleaving” method for e-mail exchange (though perhaps Harris reformatted it). And while this mirrors the classic letter writing style of days gone by, it’s not best for … “plodding” and “accusing”.
But w.r.t. the larger lesson, Chomsky is (I think obviously) a detailed thinker, whereas Harris is an abstract thinker. (For the 0 people who actually read my web log, we’ve been here before.) Chomsky is a true liberal, I think, fairly clearly identifiable for his willingness to engage in the gritty detail of a situation. Whether some act is moral or not can hinge on the tiniest detail, leave it out, it’s moral, put it back, it’s immoral. Harris is completely the opposite. He tends to like grand sweeping positions (e.g. his Islamaphobia), regardless of any situational details.
Both types of thinker can be considered intellectualist. Think of the stark difference between, say, a very fact poor discipline like philosophy versus a fact rich discipline like biology. Both domains take a great deal of attention, footnoting, citation, bookkeeping, etc. And you have to have a soaring intellect to be good at either one. But, at bottom, they are very different activities.
As to the final result of this exchange, it shows why abstraction is, if not the cause, always coincident with atrocity. Idealism is just as dangerous as it is motivational. Chomsky shows this quite well in the content of the exchange. And even the format of the exchange shows that Harris assume[s|ed] we can have a conversation like this regardless of the detail that it’s being done by e-mail… a detail that changes its character entirely.