Friday, December 16, 2011

Contrarian (or at Least Contradictory) Thoughts on Christopher Hitchens

Since discovering the writings of Christopher Hitchens in the pages of The Nation (before he had a post 9/11 hissyfit and stomped off its pages) many years ago, I’ve had an odd relationship with him as a reader, mixed with admiration and disappointment.  

Given his passing, I’ve found myself revisiting these feelings, and offer the following thoughts for whatever they might be worth . . .

First, cancer can suck it.  

Second, seriously, cancer can suck it.  Hard.  

Third, my ambivalent feelings about Hitchens come in part from the mixed bag of his political positions.  Yes, Kissinger did criminal things.  But the man who made the case against Kissinger turns around and supports an illegal and immoral war in Iraq?  Yes, waterboarding is obviously torture.  But Bush deserved reelection? 
That, however, is garden-variety differences in opinion on specific issues.  I feel a bit more conflicted about Hitchens because (I think) of a deeper disconnect.  On one hand, I admire his rhetorical skill greatly, as well as his willingness to take on conventional wisdom.  But on the other, I found myself turned off by what I felt was too often a boorish and bullying style when he turned his sites on targets that, while perhaps in need of criticism, also called for a more nuanced approach than Hitchens was willing or able to deliver.

Take, for example, his infamous skewering of Mother Teresa.  On one hand, it’s probably good to cast a skeptical eye on figures in society who seem beyond reproach and ask if our unqualified praise is merited.  Is it possible that, in celebrating the alleged virtues of poverty and championing policies of the Catholic Church (e.g. no contraception), Mother Theresa at times did and said things that might have run counter to her professed mission to help the poor?  I don’t know, but it’s a question worth asking.  On the other hand, to lambaste the woman as a “fanatic, fundamentalist, and a fraud” is like lighting a candle with a flamethrower: obscene overkill lacking any careful use of that quality Hitchens professed be committed to—reason.
It was that needlessly bombastic, pugilistic rhetorical style that made me feel a bit uncomfortable even when I found myself in general agreement with him.  It’s also what made his career, so I can’t say that he would have been better off taking a more nuanced approach to his topics, but I felt he sometimes gave “reason” and “intellect” a bad name by wielding them like a Bowie knife rather than a scalpel.  

When turned against those with status and power, Hitchens’ sharp-bladed wit could make him a rhetorical freedom fighter.  But when used against those without, it could be bullying plain and simple.  The latter was on inarticulate display when he loutishly flipped off the audience on Bill Maher’s television show twice because they had the temerity disagree with him.  And like most bullies, Hitchens seems to have had an utter inability to admit he was wrong.  In that same Maher telecast, he made the risible claim that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein had some sort of working relationship.  The fact that the war in Iraq had proved to be a disaster based on false premises was not an occasion for him to rethink his position, but to double-down on his claims to infallible wisdom, to the point of simply lying to cover the fact that he was obviously and horrifically wrong.

Hitchens’ passionate (fundamentalist?) atheism also revealed this tendency to simplify a complex issue for the sake of skewering others.  Yes, certainly fundamentalists of a variety of religious stripes are largely ignorant and all too happy to dehumanize and persecute those they deem heretical.  But to call religion in general the “sleep of reason” is to betray a colossal ignorance of huge swaths of intellectual history (See: Aquinas, Thomas).  

Contrary to Hitchens’ claims that religion has been the primary cause of inhumanity and misery in human history, I’d suggest that the true culprit is utter conviction in one’s own certainty.  True, religion is the most obvious place to find this enemy of basic humaneness in its undiluted form, but unquestioning certitude is not a necessary component of religious belief.  Nor is religion the only place to find it.  People have demonstrated equal devotion to utterly non-spiritual beliefs and entities (the “People,” the “Worker,” the “Ubermensch,” etc.) with equally appalling results.    Even reason itself cannot ‘scape a whipping.  Like religion, reason can be, and often has been, used clumsily, wrongly, and contradictorily to excuse all manner of evils.

To me, Hitchens often seemed to partake in the same sins he so effectively pointed out in others.  He derided those who claim to have absolute metaphysical knowledge, but claimed just such knowledge for himself in his evangelical atheism.  He rightly nailed to the wall those who saw nothing wrong with inflicting death and destruction on innocents for the sake of realpolitik, but championed just such action himself in the case of Iraq.  He championed “reason” as a God-term, but often showed an inability or unwillingness to examine issues with the degree of subtlety reason demands.

But such are contrarians, of which Hitchens was certainly one.  We probably need such folk, in all their self-contradictory, self-satisfied pugnacity.  And God knows (said this agnostic) that we need more good writers of Hitchens’ large caliber.  

It’s just a shame that such qualities often bring with them a degree of obnoxiousness and bullying aggression that diminishes the many positive qualities that folks like Hitchens possess.  

But maybe, in a time when critical and creative thinking is denounced as heretical or treasonous, and demonstrating an ability to communicate above a sixth-grade-level is derided as “elitism,” we are beggars who shouldn’t be choosers.

And we are certainly the poorer in many ways for Hitchens’ passing.