The Huffington Post’s obituary of the late thinker and writer Christopher Hitchens observes that writing became “the perfect outlet for him to enrage and enlighten.” One gets plenty of both throughout Hitchens’s noteworthy exchange with renowned philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky on the death of Osama bin Laden.
The heated dispute began with Chomsky’s piece for Guernica Daily, which featured this unflinching pronouncement: “It’s increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law.” Chomsky makes several bold proclamations, among them that George W. Bush’s crimes “vastly exceed bin Laden’s.” Needless to say, Chomsky says the mission to kill bin Laden—and the entirety of the United States’ post-9/11 approach to combating terrorism—“provides us with a good deal to think about.”
It also gave Hitchens much to write about. In a piece for Slate entitled “Chomsky’s Follies,” Hitchens excoriates Chomsky for intimating that “[w]e have no more reason to credit Osama Bin Laden’s claim of responsibility…than we would have to believe Chomsky’s own claim to have won the Boston Marathon.” Calling Chomsky’s intellectualism into question, Hitchens challenges the implications of the former’s 9/11 narrative, which include suggesting that America brought the attacks upon itself and that, in Hitchens’s words, “America is an incarnation of the Third Reich that doesn’t even conceal its genocidal methods and aspirations.”
In a speech before over a thousand people at Nottingham High School in Syracuse, New York, last May, Chomsky addressed the Hitchens attack directly: “If I wanted to stoop to that level, there would be very simple responses. He’s been producing hysterical rants for 20 years… I just ignore them. They’re not worth responding too.” He does, however, disparage Hitchens (whom he calls a “brazen liar”) for falsely accusing him (Chomsky) of citing Clinton’s bombing of Sudan as worse than 9/11, when in fact Hitchens himself made those remarks.
[The pair’s dispute reveals two different approaches to America’s role in contemporary geopolitics—or, as Hitchens muses in his final rebuttal, “whether Bush or bin Laden is the Nazi.”
On the same day as Chomsky’s speech, book critic and columnist George Scialabba took Hitchens’s own scholarship to task in a piece for Guernica, deriding the manner in which Hitchens “has reenacted the drama of Dorian Gray: his prose style has waxed ever more elegant, while his political judgment and his polemical morality have decayed.” In distorting Chomsky’s views—in this case by taking them out of context—Scialabba argues that Hitchens epitomizes the failure of American intellectuals to engage in foreign policy discussions “beyond uncritical acceptance of the premises of state policy.” Unlike Chomsky, Hitchens and others have been dishonest in their evaluation of 9/11 and its aftermath.
Hitchens, of course, disagrees. His brief response in Guernica entitled “Refutations from a Stalinist Commissar-Lookalike” chides Scialabba for focusing on disagreements between Chomsky and himself from a decade ago, conveniently ignoring the arguments made in his more recent Slate article. He also criticizes Chomsky for his aforementioned assertions regarding the Sudan issue, telling him “to produce the reference or to withdraw both allegations.”
By the end of this dispute—not the first between these public intellectual stalwarts—one gets not just two renowned thinkers making increasingly amusing ad hominem attacks. On the contrary, it reveals two different approaches to America’s role in contemporary geopolitics—or, as Hitchens muses in his final rebuttal, “whether Bush or bin Laden is the Nazi.”
Chomsky, for his part, had little more to say on the record. But he did, notably, expand on his original piece, which ran in several publications—and which ran here as part of our syndication with TomDispatch.
The original Chomsky blog that started the kerfuffle received more than a million hits around the world. And the dispute, therefore, was our best editorial debate of 2011.