I recently wrote to the effect that you only need to read a primary source when you want to confirm a person’s real views.This is an important distinction, because history tends to coalesce around figureheads, who we treat as “great men.” It shouldn’t happen, but it does. If we treated every quotation as pure philosophy, then all arguments would need to stand up on their own regardless of the speaker, and reading the sources would matters much less. Ancient writers aren’t known for writing directly. Unfortunately, sometimes we are misled, and disagreements tips us off to the need to go back to the primary sources. I recently had such an experience with Chomsky.
After Sam Harris and Chomsky’s email feud, I was initially thought Chomsky was more skeptical, and opposed Sam Harris. Someone called me out on that, and I ended up wasting a lot of time researching Chomsky’s views, vs Sam Harris’s.
I eventually concluded Noam Chomsky has his head up his ass, and can’t be trusted to be fair or objective on moral matters. (His refusal to condone the Charles Hebdo killings without equivocation spoiled him in my eyes. He is literally unable to condemn the worst of Islamic extremism.) In the fact-checking process I found there is a lot of propaganda against Sam Harris on the internet, and a lot of partisan dick sucking for Chomsky.
Harris doesn’t always engender himself to liberal mind-sets though. You sometimes have to look past his belligerent word choice and try to see his greater arguments sometimes, which can be hard if you don’t immediately agree. Even now, I haven’t been convinced by his arguments. He wrote “the End of Faith” after 9/11, and believed in unconditionally supporting the religious wars America has involved itself in. Regardless of whether he was justified, those wars have dragged on for twelve years, like Vietnam. Sam Harris and Hitchens both supported the policies of the Bush administration, because they consider Islam to be such a threat to civilization. I think moderating Muslims will be the key to victory, or at least peace, not fostering blowback.
Although Islam obviously sucks the life out people, and its scriptures prime it for violence and militancy, I don’t see why America needs to be the primary nation policing the barbarian states. Perhaps I have more of a problem with the sense of nationalism rather than the idea of opposing Islam though. I can’t help but think if America were not the strongest nation, and therefore the greatest threat to Russia, that country would soon be involved in the war on terror too. Frankly, I feel Islam will with time be forced to moderate like Christianity.
I guess the takeaway, is that although primary sources are rich in information that’s lost in secondary sources, sometimes you need to go further and investigate the authors too. When you’re trying to understand conflicts, or people really, even the primary sources behind an event aren’t enough. You have to look at what people have a history of writing, because some letters reference implicit views.