Thursday, March 15, 2012

In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens

The name of this blog is owed to the late Christopher Hitchens; indeed, the very existence of this blog. For, although I was an atheist for some time before I became acquainted with Hitchens, it was the discovery of him - first via debates on youtube - that inspired me to "come out" as an atheist. I was at first exactly the kind of atheist that Hitchens defines himself against via the term anti-theist. After I realized that I could simply no longer believe in God, I nonetheless continued to say that I found Christ to be a great moral teacher and that I wished I could believe that religion was true and other such fluffy, saccharine nonsense. Hitchens was fond of quoting his fellow Brit C.S. Lewis, beloved today by evangelicals, who pointed out that appeasement is not possible between full belief in Christianity and a full rejection of Christ as an unethical lunatic. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that a "man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to" (54-56). Hitchens agrees (gasp) with Lewis on this. He boldly claimed that Christ's teachings were unethical, flying in the face of the moderate religious and moderate secular complacency. It was certainly a spur to me to reconsider some of my uncritical assumptions. Hitchens made a career of challenging orthodoxy and being a gadfly to the complacent and intellectually drowsy. I owe to him realizations of the fraudulent myth of Mother Theresa - whom Hitchens called, with characteristically deadly adjectives, a "thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf" - and the horrors committed by Henry Kissinger, who, according to the generally accepted narrative, is supposed to be one of the great and brilliant political theorists and statesmen of our time. Appropriately accompanying this intellectual intrepidity was an adamant defense of the values that Hitchens knew very well allowed him to exist as the kind of writer he was: that is to say, the values of the Western Enlightenment. Hitchens, for example, vigorously defended attacks upon freedom of speech, the most prominent case being that of his friend, the novelist Salman Rushdie, whose novel "The Satanic Verses" caused a fatwah to fall from the foetid maw of the Iranian Ayatollah; but he also defended the freedom of speech of less honorable types, such as the revisionist WWII historian David Irving.
In other words, Hitch was remarkably consistent in his defense of Enlightenment values. It was precisely this consistency that was responsible for his break with the left. Now, I want to take this opportunity, taking up the spirit of Hitchens, to challenge the orthodoxy surrounding his narrative—the story that was repeated on all the major news media when Hitchens died. The story goes something like this: Hitchens, the once stalwart Trotskyist socialist, defected to support George W. Bush's horrible war on terror, joining the ranks, it was often said, of the neo-cons. This heresy, for so many, is simple unforgivable—despite the fact that Hitchens was, for years while writing for The Nation, one of the strongest and most outspoken critics of Western capitalist imperialism (you will look in vain, for example, for anyone other than Hitchens in the major news media that challenged the justification of President Clinton's bombing of a pharmaceutical facility in Khartoum). Much of the coverage of his death by the left-wing magazine, The Nation included, focused, rather than upon his remarkable career as a leftist journalist, upon this heresy (or his legendary drinking feats—it is said that Hitchens, like Socrates, could drink all night and not get drunk). Hitchens has also come under fire from the Academic left, along with his fellow New Atheists: the charge here is generally that the New Atheists match the fundamentalism of the religious. These claims, as I hope to show, inaccurately represent Hitchens's positions.
First, the political fall from grace. Now, as Hitchens often pointed out, atheism, being merely the lack of belief, doesn't tell you anything about the other values and positions of the non-believer, political or otherwise. One need only consider the fact that Bertrand Russell and Ayn Rand were equally staunch defenders of atheism. The narrative of Hitchens's political conversion, however, has been used to challenge his humanism and his progressivism. Is support of the war on terror, then, incompatible with humanism and with progressive politics?
Hitchens certainly was a staunch defender, in my opinion by far the most compelling defender, of the war. What were Hitchens's arguments? At the root of his support was his opposition to totalitarianism—which was also the root of his opposition to monotheism, which he saw as the origin of totalitarianism. It was no mistake on his part that he constantly, and humorously, made the analogy between monotheism and North Korea, or monotheism and George Orwell's 1984—“a celestial North Korea” he would say to conclude a long description of the monotheistic worldview, making sure to reference the fact that for monotheists God can convict us of thoughtcrime. Hitchens, as a journalist covering geo-politics, had followed Hussein's regime in Iraq for several decades—and not disinterestedly. He had been actively involved in the struggle of the oppressed Kurdish minority in his years as an internationally oriented socialist. The primary argument, then, was a humanitarian one: the regime of Saddam Hussein had to go and it was first and foremost, for historical as well as political reasons, the responsibility of the United States to do the job.
Hitchens was, it should be said, not uncritical of George W. Bush (consider, for example, this analysis of him during the campaign in 2000, from Hardball with Chris Matthews: “...he's a man that's lucky to be the governor of Texas...he's unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things”); nor of his excruciatingly inept management of the war. This, however, did not shake his belief in the moral and political necessity of it. His adamant stand on this and other issues was connected with the fact that ultimately Hitchens was a moralist and repudiated the relativism that has come to dominate much of the discourse on the left. Indeed, Hitchens's break with the left establishment, which culminated in his leaving The Nation in the aftermath of 9/11 after two decades with the magazine, tells us more about a transformation of the left than about Hitchens (the exchange with Noam Chomsky in the pages of The Nation just before Hitchens resigned is rather informative in this regard). In other words, if inconsistency is to be charged anywhere it is to the account of the left. There isn't space to get to the roots of this transformation, but ultimately, I think the case can be made, it derives from a strain in continental philosophy that begins with Martin Heidegger and filters through the French post-structuralists like Michel Foucault. Let me highlight the difference this way: it is an exercise in futility to attempt to find within the oeuvre of either of these influential philosophers a claim even approaching the one that Hitchens would make so often in the last decade of his life: that is, that human morality and solidarity are innate in us as socially-oriented evolved mammals. The moral framework that is a pre-condition for human civilization is universal: hence, we can unequivocally, for Hitchens, condemn regimes and ideologies that transgress or erode it. In the many debates following upon the publication of god is not Great, Hitchens was at his vitriolic best when taking on the claim, so often made by believers, that we would have no morality without God. The genital mutilation community, he would say, is entirely religious; the suicide-bombing community is entirely religious...and so on. An honest reader of Hitchens's journalism through the years, in my submission, must admit that he was remarkably and admirably consistent in his moralism, which was, in the last analysis, grounded in his naturalism and humanism.
Hitchens was, moreover, never a non-interventionist. His friend, the novelist Ian McEwan, pointed out after his death that he was the only one of the remarkable group that was brought together by the British paper The New Statesman, including poet James Fenton and novelist Martin Amis, that supported intervention during the Falklands Crisis in 1982. Hitchens was certainly far from indiscriminate in his support for Western intervention in international affairs—indeed, he began his career as an orator, and as a leftist, speaking out against the Vietnam War while a student at Oxford University, and would continue to be one of the strongest voices against Western imperialism in the world. The other point of disagreement between Hitchens and the current left ties together the two themes under consideration: Hitchens's stance on what he unforgettably called “fascism with an Islamic face.” The general position of the left on this point is that the capitalist imperialism of the United States and Israel in the 20th century is at the root of our troubles with Islamic Jihad: the hens came home to roost (for the most cogent expression of this view, one need only look up the writings of Chomsky on 9/11 which can easily be found on the internet). In opposition to this view, Hitchens argues that the root of Islamic hatred of the West is to be found within Islamic ideology itself. He points out for example that the first attack on the United States as a sovereign country was on the shores of Tripoli, by Muslims who justified their attacks with scripture—Americans are infidels, end of story. This leads us to the second point, which is whether or not Hitchens, in taking such positions, is an 'Enlightenment fundamentalist'.
The New Atheists have come under fire from many in this way, and not just the religious—Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary critic, and Jackson Lears, a leftist historian, have joined the ranks of Dinesh D'Souza and others. Now, in an immediate semantic sense the notion of an 'Enlightenment fundamentalist' is an oxymoron; the OED defines fundamentalism only in reference to religious belief that is opposed to modern developments. But what is meant by this claim is that the New Atheists are as dogmatic in their defense of science as the religious in their defense of scripture. This, in my view, merely shows a lack of understanding of the positions of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and the rest. In untangling this ideological skein, one must distinguish two separate claims made by the New Atheists, an epistemological claim and an empirically based ethical claim: one, that there is no evidence that suggests the truth of any religious dogma—hence suggesting that ontological claims for the existence of God are unfounded; and two, that the world would be a better place without religion if one considers this from an empirical perspective. Only a confusion of these two claims could lead someone to argue that the New Atheists are fundamentalists. Their critics think because they claim that the world would be a better place without religion that they hope to eliminate religion from the world and have everyone accept their scientific worldview. From an ethical standpoint, rooted in empirical observation of the 'works' of the faithful in the world, a humanist might very well hope that religion disappear tomorrow; but from an epistemological and ontological standpoint none of the New Atheists, nor any humanist that I know of, would claim that people don't have every right to believe whatever they want—with one caveat. They must, as Hitchens often said, keep it to themselves. And this is the problem: the religious fundamentalists seem to be unable to keep their illusions to themselves. There is no mystery here; the problem is inherent to religion as well. The holy books command the religious not to keep their ideology to themselves. Tolerance for all but the intolerant is, and must be—for tolerance toward in the intolerant is self-defeating, the stance of those who hope to preserve democracy and pluralism. The New Atheists fight for the condition for the possibility of the success of democracy and pluralism—freedom of thought, inquiry, and debate. This requires, however, that everyone agree to certain rules of discourse—we cannot have a meaningful conversation on anything if everyone doesn't agree to root our debate in reason, logic, and evidence. The only ones that refuse these rules are the true fundamentalists: the religious dogmatists who claim that faith trumps reason.
Hitchens was throughout his long and remarkable career a consistent political progressive and a consistently moral humanist. Whether one agrees, in the final analysis, with Hitchens on the war on Terror or not, it would be wrong to pretend that a good progressive and humanitarian case cannot be made in defense of it—it is, moreover, a good debate to have because it raises important questions about the role of the United States in the world and the continuing conflicts in geopolitics. Hitchens disavowed his socialism, yes; but he did so because of changes on the left, not changes in his own political values. He never disavowed his Marxism: in one of his final interviews, he said, exhibiting his persistent love of irony, that he was a “very conservative Marxist.” By no sense of the word can Hitchens, nor any other of the New Atheists be considered dogmatists. One can disagree with the empirically-based claim that “religion poisons everything,” but it is a distortion to say that Hitchens and the New Atheists are fundamentalists. But let it rest there, before I am accused, to reverse an old phrase, of attempting to prove that a Newton is not an Ape.

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