Wednesday, July 20th, 2011
69

I Love You Christopher Hitchens, You Irritating Bastard

Christopher Hitchens, along with Robert Hughes and Spy magazine's Michèle Bennett, first started me imagining that I would like someday to be a journalist and critic. These jaundiced observers of the follies of the late 1980s and early 1990s had in common an elegant style of attack, and a positive relish in the peppering, roasting, carving and dishing up of sacred cows. Hughes, by far the most scholarly of the three, went on to produce magnificent books and documentaries (and to survive the terrible injuries he sustained in a super-hairy car crash in 1999); Bennett's true identity has never been revealed, but I hope he or she is thriving, and writing still. I like to imagine I've been enjoying the Bennett oeuvre all along, under some other august byline. But Christopher Hitchens! Ach, Christopher Hitchens. How I have loved him, despite the ordeals he has put me through. He'll go and be a fearful crank about atheism or "Islamofascism" for ages and I get all mad, and then he writes this freaking brilliant column about the Murdoch scandals and I'm crazy about him again. Old loves are like that.

In the Feb. 1995 issue of Vanity Fair, a memorable Hitchens piece described the aftermath of the Channel 4 broadcast of Hell's Angel, a blistering half-hour takedown of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Written by and starring Hitchens, produced by Tariq Ali, marred by a terrible soundtrack and viewable on YouTube, Hell's Angel exposed Mother Teresa's ties to various despots and thieves, and questioned the wisdom of handing out the Nobel Peace Prize to a woman whose famous clinic for the poor had repeatedly been found unsanitary and badly run, refusing, for example, to give painkillers to the dying—maybe because she really did believe, as she once said, that "[t]he suffering of the poor is something very beautiful."

In this VF piece Hitchens recounted with unmistakable delight the media rumpus occasioned by Hell's Angel. "Fleet Street in full cry, going at it foot, horse and guns. Many yells of delight and relief that someone has finally pulled the chain on the ghoul of Calcutta, but many outraged squeaks and howls about my lack of chivalry. [...] Best of all, a cartoon in The Spectator saying that the Hell's Angels have complained." Already you could see that he loved being (a) on TV, (b) notorious and (c) lambasted, in this case by the horrified fans of Mama T., as he called her. Here was a foretaste of the name-dropping polemicist to come. But the writing had terrific style and bite, and wonderful jokes, too, including one regarding his description of Mother Teresa (born Agnes Bojaxhiu in 1910) as "a presumable virgin":

Yet another BBC interviewer makes much of this moral loophole, demanding to know how I can know anything about Mama's intactness. Losing patience, I say that the whole point is that I don't know. Who can say what happened with the dashing boulevardiers of Skopje when Agnes Bojaxhiu was but a pouting and trusting lass?

Good as all that was, the piece stood out in my mind for the next sixteen-plus years for another reason entirely. Hitchens wrote,

In the old days of Private Eye, the great Claud Cockburn would sit the team of hacks and satirists around the table and say, "Right. Who does everybody think is wonderful? Who gets a free pass?"

The talk would run on, the hacks mentioning this name and that, until someone said, "I know! Albert Schweitzer!"

"Good, then," Claud would say. "Let's have a go at old Schweitzer."

In our own day, scandals like the ones at the News of the World (and earlier, those at the Times) have drawn attention to the sometimes blurry line between hard-hitting investigative brio and depraved, careerist corporate hackery. Hitchens's then-paradoxical combination of total irreverence for every sacred institution and total reverence for revealing the truth was, and remains, irresistible. If I were to claim a personal manifesto for the practice of journalism (I won't, but if), Cockburn Sr.'s remarks would describe it perfectly. There's a vast difference between tabloid scandal-mongering, which is done for money and is despicable, and exploding the lies we are continually told by and on behalf of the Man, which is crucial, and worthy.

Earlier in his career, Hitchens hewed to this line, arguing passionately for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece in his 1987 book, Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles, and railing against the British monarchy in The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favorite Fetish (1990). I especially loved hearing his howls of rage against Kissinger, which were certain to appear at the slightest mention of the old war criminal's name.

All of which is to say that the gift of Hitchens to the readers of this earlier period was a bone-deep and abiding skepticism. A real reason for going after all the muck that's fit to rake.

WAR, HUH, GOOD GOD
Hitchens' post-9/11 support of the Iraq War caused many admirers to desert him in dismay. But Hitchens' true crime was not his support of the war, for which he became a cheerleader almost from the start. It was his betrayal of skepticism itself.

In his 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, he relates how his politics changed as he watched the Twin Towers crash down.

I was very suddenly and very overwhelmingly actuated by pity. I know that this is the pathetic fallacy at work and I daresay I knew it then, but it was like watching the mute last moments of a dying elephant, say, or perhaps a whale. At any rate, the next emotion I felt was a rush of protectiveness, as if something vulnerable required my succor. Vulnerable? This commercial behemoth at the heart of an often-callous empire? Well, yes, at the risk of embarrassment. [...]

From an early age, I had dreamed of Manhattan and identified it with breadth of mind, with liberty, with opportunity. Now it seemed that there were those who, from across the sea, had also been fantasizing about my longed-for city. But fantasizing about hurting it, maiming it, disfiguring it, and bringing it crashing to the ground [...] Before the close of that day, I had deliberately violated the rule that one ought not to let the sun set on one's anger, and had sworn a sort of oath to remain coldly furious until these hateful forces had been brought to a most strict and merciless account.

From here he launches into a defense of his newfound flag-waving and war-mongering. One of the principal arguments in Hitch-22 is a highly questionable one, viz., that the author knows more about the Middle East than do us bumpkins who "weren't there"; because he has traveled in and reported extensively on the Middle East, he has access to knowledge denied most of the rest of the world; he knows for sure that those Islamofascists are Evil with a capital E and need to be stamped the hell out. The fact that there were many, many others with equally immediate and/or specialized knowledge, such as Brent Scowcroft and a load of generals and diplomats who were also "there," who had sky-high security clearances and still opposed the war, goes unspoken.

Scott Lucas' book, The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens and the New American Century is a really splendid, well-reasoned, painstakingly thorough account of the run-up to the war. Lucas goes unerringly after the failure of Hitchens and others to acknowledge that wrongheaded U.S. policies might be even partly responsible for anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East in general, and for the crimes of 9/11 in particular. And Hitchens' "Mission Accomplished" moment in November of 2001 regarding the alleged victory in Afghanistan ("Well, ha ha ha and yah, boo", he crowed) comes in for a well-deserved bashing.

Many public intellectuals were swayed by the lies of the Bush administration before the war, the worst effect of which was that their eloquence and rhetorical skills were used to muddy the waters of the debate. Many a Republican cousin of my own relied on the pronouncements of Hitchens or of Andrew Sullivan to score a point at Thanksgiving dinner. Lucas remarks on this, too, in The Betrayal of Dissent: "Hitchens and his American peers assumed an important role in the War on Dissent by providing an alternative 'Left' which could be embraced." In effect, these writers were playing Saruman to the Sauron of the politico-military-industrial complex.

It's startling to compare Hitchens' continued loyalty to "the sort of oath" he swore on 9/11 with Andrew Sullivan's March 2006 recantation in Time, "What I Got Wrong About the War." Here, Sullivan focused on three "huge errors" made by conservatives in the run-up to the catastrophe. First, overestimation of the competence of government ("We got cocky"); second, "narcissism," a blindness to "the resentments that hegemony always provokes" among America's friends as well as its foes; third, a misunderstanding of culture: "There is a large discrepancy between neoconservatism's skepticism of government's ability to change culture at home and its naiveté when it comes to complex, tribal, sectarian cultures abroad." He went on to enumerate some of what he saw as the positive effects of the American invasion, concluding that it was too early yet to say that we have failed.

In 2001, Andrew Sullivan literally wrote against dissent in the "watch what you say" vein popular among conservatives before the war: "The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column." An evolution as profound as Sullivan's really shouldn't be a mere matter of "changing sides" as if one were talking about football teams; that would only be exchanging one dogma for another. Just because progressives and Democrats were right before the war, it does not follow that they will be right all the time, so it won't do to switch sides from black to white, when what you have come to realize is that there are shades of grey.

I wrote to Sullivan and asked him how he felt about his 2006 piece in Time, and he replied (email edited for punctuation):

I stand by everything I wrote then. I remain glad that Saddam is gone, but the costs of the war far exceeded its benefits, and the collateral damage to so many civilians and soldiers will always trouble my conscience. I remain ferociously anti-Islamist, but have come to see the perils of mere military action in the long war on Islamist terror; and of taking Washington conventional wisdom for granted.

Far from taking the Sullivan route, Christopher Hitchens more or less doubled down on his earlier suggestion that Saddam Hussein was possessed of WMD in Hitch-22, despite what Hans Blix or anyone else had been able to produce in the event.

Underneath a Sunni mosque in central Baghdad, the parts and some of the ingredients of a chemical weapon had been located and identified with the help of local informers. I was told this off the record, and told also that I was not to make any use of the information. It was thought that, when the use of a holy place to hide such weaponry was disclosed by the intervention, it would help to change Muslim opinion.

Really! "Ingredients"?! And to have made such discoveries at the bargain-basement price of $785 million and counting! #whoa

(Just as an aside, I was also bummed to note the absence in Hitch-22 of loose cannon and super-lefty George Galloway, the independent MP for Bethnal Green and Bow who, in 2005, reduced then-Senator Norm Coleman to a tiny little heap of ash after giving the best address to Congress I have ever seen. But Galloway's takedown of Hitchens was equally remarkable. "You're a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay!" he shouted. For once Hitchens had zero comeback. "Your hands are shaking! You badly need another drink.")

The real trouble is that on 9/11, I guess, or around then, Hitchens started making statements like, "Only a complete moral idiot can believe for an instant that we are fighting against the wretched of the earth. We are fighting [...] against the scum of the earth." ("It's a Good Time for War," Boston Globe, September 8, 2002.) This obtuse self-certainty represents the dead opposite of the original Hitchens way of going about things, at least as I understood him. Suddenly he was all, we smart people will figure it out for you little people! We have heroisms and slogans! We are Vulcans and/or super-atheists and you are just there to listen to our opinions and buy our books. How attractive it must have been, how tempting, to be so certain.

Some people feel more comfortable in a black and white world, but it had been Hitchens himself who had early taught me to prefer grey, and only grey; to hold both black and white in your mind together, to appreciate the way they are washed into one another, mixed in like Stoppardian jam into the porridge, impossible to separate or even define. But then he left that world of infinite shades.

"A CRUDE EXISTENTIAL MALPRACTICE"
Hitchens' blind faith in the rightness of his own opinions seems to originate in his hatred of religion; a hatred formed in the standard "opiate of the masses" manner of Marxists everywhere, which over time mutated into this anti-religious fury that blames every bad thing that has ever happened on religion. The religious are Hitchens's shadow figures; he ridicules their certainties while positively wallowing in certainties of his own.

The atheistical triumvirate of Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins has done a good deal to set back the clock on real skepticism. The smugness with which these guys take to the airwaves is repellent enough, but really, first off, they need to stop calling themselves skeptics. Because they really, really believe in something.

god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens' best-selling diatribe, enumerates his (quite justifiable) hatred of the crimes committed in the name of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc., without bothering to acknowledge that the cruel and greedy will twist any institution at all, religious or secular, to suit their purposes. All three authors appear to believe that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc., are literally evil organizations.

Can these authors (one of whom wrote The Selfish Gene, one of the most fascinating and brilliant books of the last century,) really be so boneheaded as to fail to understand that every institution, political, academic or religious, can be, and has been, ennobled by free-thinking, brilliant men and women as often as they have been perverted by criminals and thieves and idiots? Yes, there is Pat Robertson, and there is Fred Phelps, and there are also Dr. Rowan Williams and Reinhold Niebuhr and Bishop Fuglsang-Damgaard and countless principled and even heroic men and women of faith, it seems ridiculous to have to say.

The Dialectic of Secularism, Jürgen Habermas' 2007 dialogue with the odious but far from stupid Papa Ratzi, is one katrillion times more satisfying intellectually, better reasoned and more exciting re: the possibility of a new Enlightenment than anything the Super Atheist Triumvirate has come up with. In 1999, Habermas said in an interview:

For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.

Compare this with Hitchens' bald assertion in god is not Great that "Religion Kills," or with this, from his introductory chapter: "[P]eople of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments [...] Religion poisons everything."

god is not Great is full of this adolescent stuff. But then Hitchens lowers his fists for a moment, and you will find a beautiful and interesting passage like this one, on page 121, about John 8:3-11 (the "he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone" part):

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and the killing of witches may seem brutish and stupid, but if only non-sinners have the right to punish, then how could an imperfect society ever determine how to prosecute offenders? We should all be hypocrites. And what authority did Jesus have to "forgive"? Presumably, at least one wife or husband somewhere in the city felt cheated and outraged. Is Christianity, then , sheer sexual permissiveness? If so, it has been gravely misunderstood ever since. And what was being written on the ground? Nobody knows, again. Furthermore, the story says that after the Pharisees and the crowd had melted away (presumably from embarrassment), nobody was left except Jesus and the woman. In that case, who is the narrator of what he said to her? For all that, I thought it a fine enough story.

But instead of being fans of the King James Bible or of the Dalai Lama or whatever, Hitchens mawkishly advises that we seek the infinite in "the beauty and mystery of the double helix" instead. Why not a rose? Seriously.

THE EDEN OF BLANDINGS CASTLE
The character of Hitchens recalls a lot of larger-than-life figures. One is James Boswell, because he too was a reckless, dissipated and passionate man who attached himself to a writer of less skill but far greater renown than himself (I can think of no other context in which Martin Amis could legitimately be compared to Dr. Johnson, but in this one instance he really can). Hitchens is also like any number of Bloomsburyites, Apostles or Bright Young Things; one could easily imagine him in the pages of Dance to the Music of Time, a type somewhere between Quiggin and Stringham, chasing Pamela Flitton around.

But most of all, Hitchens recalls another fictional character: one of Wodehouse's finest creations, and the literary personage whom, I suspect, Hitchens himself would most like to resemble (he is known to be a great admirer of Wodehouse). I refer to the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, the younger brother of the Earl of Emsworth, an elegant, witty bon vivant of that earlier fin de siècle.

Everything about this Musketeer of the nineties was jaunty. It was a standing mystery to all who knew him that one who had had such an extraordinarily good time all his life should, in the evening of that life, be so superbly robust. Wan contemporaries who had once painted a gas-lit London red in his company and were now doomed to an existence of dry toast, Vichy water, and German cure resorts felt very strongly on this point. A man of his antecedents, they considered, ought by rights to be rounding off his career in a bath-chair instead of flitting about the place, still chaffing head waiters as of old and calling for the wine list without a tremor.

This is how characters in Wodehouse novels spend their autumns. As Evelyn Waugh, whom Hitchens also admires, said so famously:

For Mr Wodehouse there has been no fall of Man; no 'aboriginal calamity'. His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit. They are still in Eden. The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled. The chef Anatole prepares the ambrosia for the immortals of high Olympus. Mr Wodehouse's world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

Wodehouse's is a dream world where you can smoke and drink for decades on end and never get cancer, and where everything else comes right eventually, too. Its charm and naiveté mirrors the essential Hitchens worldview, what with its unending evenings of revelry and schoolboy cheek and hobnobbings with the rich, brilliant and crazy, with its maybe foolish trust in the possibility of knowing the good guys from the bad, or right from wrong.

Galahad Threepwood is a friend of star-crossed lovers, the personification of kindness and gallantry—and a writer. Two of Wodehouse's best novels, Summer Lightning and Heavy Weather, center on the potential publication of Threepwood's scandalous "Reminiscences," the prospect of which scares every character liable to be mentioned therein (pretty much all the olds) into all kinds of improbable antics. It is understood however that, though many moved heaven and earth to ensure that the "Reminiscences" remained secret, they were as red-hot as advertised by those few who'd read them. It pains me to relate that the same cannot be said of Hitch-22.

The love of Christopher Hitchens, so big and so freely given, makes him lovable still. There is a lot to enjoy in the book. But taken as a work of literature (as opposed to a political polemic, which I am probably done yelling about) the chief sins of Hitch-22 are those of omission.

This memoir is not so much a memoir as a mash note to all the fabulosos whom Hitchens has befriended, but most of all to Martin Amis, the love of his life. The "small but perfectly-formed" Amis rates not only his own chapter of Hitch-22, he is mentioned on page after page. By contrast, Hitchens' wives and children are all but absent, undrawn, ciphers almost. The epigraph of the Amis chapter is a quote from Amis himself: "My friendship with the Hitch has always been perfectly cloudless. It is a love whose month is ever May." (That is not quite true, I think. There was a spat over Stalin in there somewhere.)

There are also ungenerous descriptions of Martin's father, the great novelist Kingsley Amis, who'd become in Hitchens' estimation "an elderly man, querulous and paranoid and devoid of wit". Apparently the boys once got sore when Amis Sr. took them to see an Eddie Murphy movie. The old man had become coarse and racist, Hitchens says, and no fun anymore. The fact that Kingsley Amis found his son's novels unreadable (and often said so in public) goes unremarked, which is really grating. There was clearly more than one reason for the coolness that developed between father and son. For all that, though, there is a spectacular description of the "golden late summer" when the two Amises were very close.

"Dad, will you make some of your noises?" It was easy to see, when this invitation was taken up, where Martin had acquired his own gift for mimicry. Kingsley could "do" the sound of a brass band approaching on a foggy day. He could become the Metropolitan line train entering Edgware Road station. He could be four wrecked tramps coughing in a bus shelter (this was very demanding and once led to heart palpitations). To create the hiss and crackle of a wartime radio broadcast delivered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt was for him scant problem (a tape of it, indeed, was played at his memorial meeting, where I was hugely honored to be among the speakers). The pièce de résistance, an attempt by British soldiers to start up a frozen two-ton truck on a windy morning "somewhere in Germany," was for special occasions only. One held one's breath as Kingsley emitted the first screech of the busted starting-key. His only slightly lesser vocal achievement—of a motor-bike yelling in mechanical agony—once caused a man who had just parked his own machine in the street to turn back anxiously and take a look. The old boy's imitation of an angry dog barking the words "fuck off" was note-perfect.



PAIN WE OBEY
In August of last year, Twitter lit up with a link to Hitchens' blog at Vanity Fair, where he had announced, with characteristic flamboyance, that he'd been diagnosed with esophageal cancer (he is currently in a course of experimental treatment).

He is one of the only writers in the world who could make such an announcement fun to read.

I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. [...] Within a few hours, having had to do quite a lot of emergency work on my heart and my lungs, the physicians at this sad border post had shown me a few other postcards from the interior and told me that my immediate next stop would have to be with an oncologist. Some kind of shadow was throwing itself across the negatives.

The previous evening, I had been launching my latest book at a successful event in New Haven. The night of the terrible morning, I was supposed to go on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and then appear at a sold-out event at the 92nd Street Y, on the Upper East Side, in conversation with Salman Rushdie. My very short-lived campaign of denial took this form: I would not cancel these appearances or let down my friends or miss the chance of selling a stack of books. I managed to pull off both gigs without anyone noticing anything amiss, though I did vomit two times, with an extraordinary combination of accuracy, neatness, violence, and profusion, just before each show. This is what citizens of the sick country do while they are still hopelessly clinging to their old domicile.

The heartbreaking thing is that there is video of him online on that very day. He'd been in the hospital that morning and had the fluid pulled out of his lungs, and then he went on "The Daily Show" late that same afternoon. It's knee-weakening to watch, knowing he'd only just finished yawking his guts up moments before he walked onstage.

"You haven't taken it easy on this model, body, that you have," observed Stewart.

"No."

"Yet you don't look like shit. And you should … it's somewhat upsetting."

"There's crying inside, A, and B, there's an oil painting up in my attic that is beginning to look distinctly … seedy, I think you might say."

"EVEN THE ENQUIRER IS CHARMED"
The literary and cultural critic, full of subtlety and heart, vs. the religio-political polemicist, bullying and pigheaded, full of wanting to have his way at all costs. A creature of the most extreme contrasts. Childlike and wondering, haughty, combative, his cool Oxford contemplativeness at fatal odds with the nearly incoherent, raging casuistry.

Even when I have longed to clock this author over the head with a brick (a frequent occurrence), he has always been so much fun. And I could never deny the clarity and charm of his voice. That's why people really, really don't want him to die; you have to look pretty far for anything but wishes for a speedy recovery in the comments in the cited VF blog post, despite all the complaints about his being a windbag, a sellout, a self-aggrandizing polemicist, and so on.

The title of Hitch-22 refers to the following paradox:

It's quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time: to maintain that there is no totalitarian solution while also insisting that yes, we on our side also have unalterable convictions and are willing to fight for them. After various past allegiances, I have come to believe that Karl Marx was rightest of all when he recommended continual doubt and self-criticism. Membership in the skeptical faction or tendency is not at all a soft option [...] To be an unbeliever is not to be merely "open-minded." It is, rather a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.

So there is the matter of dialectic, in which both parties are presumed to care about the truth, no matter where it will eventually be found, and then there is debate, taking sides; the question of freedom of thought and expression invariably melding into the question of passionate conviction, passionately defended. Where doubt and faith collide. Because after dialectic, after having arrived at a conviction, it then falls to the combatants to fight those who resist the "truth"; no longer to doubt or continue to seek the truth, but to do battle for it. Hitchens, a born fighter, has an insufficient amount to say about the nature of his own faith in Hitch-22, sticking instead to a pretty hopeless insistence on himself as a "skeptic."

As Scott Lucas put it in a recent email, "Whatever Hitchens' merits as a polemicist, he does not 'try and keep opposing ideas alive in the same mind.' Arguably, his effectiveness is precisely that he does not do this—instead, he decides on one point of view (on a book, a film, Kissinger, Clinton, Iraq, Kosovo, God) and then tries to grind those who differ [...] into the dust with his invective. [...] Show me a passage from Hitchens on politics and point out where "there are no certainties" in his declarations—if you can find these, you are a much better literary detective than I."

Maybe Hitchens' career really is just about fame itself. Professional advancement in almost every field is about self-promotion, about "making a splash," gaining notice, flattering the "right people" and all that. (At this he has ever excelled; a game of the Friday group at The New Statesman involved thinking up the least likely statement to be made by each of those present. For Hitchens: "I don't care how rich you are, I'm not coming to your party.") It's a performance, too, an almost schoolboy rendering of "narcissistic vanity and the longing to be thought clever, smart and notorious," as Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd described Hitchens in a 1995 TV column. And Scott Lucas has the same feeling, not just about Hitchens but about pretty much every pundit in Washington, New York and London, and it's hard not to agree: "A commentator is usually not engaging with the purported subject at hand but using it to put himself/herself top of the totem pole."

But there is the business, there is the performance of a journalistic persona, there is the professional bon vivant, and there is also the man, whose voice on the page is still so young and alive, and who belies all the bullshit sometimes, even now.

In a November 2010 debate at the Prestonwood Christian Academy (which is for the moment still available on YouTube, against the apparent wishes of Academy officials), Hitchens, who'd been debating with some Creationist or other, spoke directly to the young people in the audience (starting at around 4:33). He was ostensibly there to defend his atheism, but ended by encouraging these young people to live and think freely. I hope very much that this recording will be preserved and passed around a lot and shown to many, many more young people. It is crackling with excitement, conviction and beauty, it is passionate and moving.

[T]he offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can't give way, is an offer of something not worth having; I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don't know anything like enough yet; that I haven't understood enough; that I can't know enough; that I'm always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom, I wouldn't have it any other way, and I'd urge you look at those of you who tell you, those people who tell you, at your age, that you're dead until you believe as they do—what a terrible thing to be telling to children—and that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don't think of that as a gift, think of it as a poisoned chalice; push it aside, however tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way.



Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like A Gentleman, Think Like A Woman.

69 Comments / Post A Comment

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Here is my rule of thumb on going to war: if you think it's a good idea, you don't have any right to do it. You gain the right to go to war only when you are so badly injured that you can't even think straight.

Louis Fyne (#2,066)

@Niko Bellic How does that apply to say Rwanda, when the grievous harm is not being inflicted on your own person?

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Louis Fyne It doesn't have to be on your own person (and obviously I didn't mean just physical injury). The assumption (the belief!) is that we are able to feel for each other. Holocaust wasn't inflicted on the persons of (all of the) soldiers who went to fight Hitler, yet their fight can be fully justified by the injurers inflicted by Hitler on the whole of humanity. That's why they call them crimes against humanity, and not "crimes against a (large) number of persons".

Why NOT a rose, indeed.

Aloysius (#1,808)

"The smugness with which these guys take to the airwaves is repellent enough, but really, first off, they need to stop calling themselves skeptics. Because they really, really believe in something."

You can "believe" something and still be a skeptic. Skepticism is more concerned about your reasons for believing something. The three skeptics you mention are pretty thorough in explaining the reasons they believe what they believe. Your substantive arguments pretty drastically hyperbolize their points of view, but Hitchens himself addresses all your basic contentions in God is Not Great. Otherwise your criticism favors adjectives over evidence.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Aloysius Skepticism is more concerned about your reasons for believing something

Is that a fact?
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/skepticism

1 : an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object
2 a : the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain
b : the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics
3 : doubt concerning basic religious principles (as immortality, providence, and revelation)

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

@Aloysius Said better than I said myself.

Aloysius (#1,808)

@Niko Bellic I don't see how my definition is incompatible with Merriam-Webster. If skepticism meant you didn't believe in anything we'd call it nihilism. The three authors often invoke Russell's teapot as a way to characterize their method of belief. A skeptic will admit that he can't have absolute knowledge that a teapot isn't in orbit around Jupiter, but may still express the belief that there is no such teapot.

scrooge (#2,697)

@Aloysius You are confusing "believe" with "believe in".

The teapot argument is compelling. Still, until science can explain why there is not nothing they're logically in the same boat as theists.

Aloysius (#1,808)

@scrooge. 'You are confusing "believe" with "believe in".'

In this case it's a distinction without a difference. Again, skeptics aren't nihilists, and there is no requirement they believe in nothing.

And using the entire universe as evidence of God at most gives you a flimsy sort of pantheism. The logical problems of theists only begin there, and often end by assertions that wafers that turn into dead guys, and that you are forbidden from eating shellfish.

scrooge (#2,697)

@Aloysius Ok, let's try it. You're saying that:

"If skepticism meant you didn't believe in anything we'd call it nihilism" and "If skepticism meant you didn't believe anything we'd call it nihilism" have the same meaning? I could be wrong, but I doubt you'd find many to agree with you there.

"And using the entire universe as evidence of God at most gives you a flimsy sort of pantheism. " You don't explain why, or where pantheism comes in, you just assert this. True, it sounds good, in that orotund Hitchens sort of way.

"and often end by assertions that wafers that turn into dead guys, and that you are forbidden from eating shellfish." This is ungrammatical. And why should it bother anyone if Christians want to express their beliefs in symbolic action? We all do this one way or another.

Aloysius (#1,808)

@scrooge. If I had wanted to say that those two phrases had the same meaning I would have said as much, instead of admitting the distinction but saying it doesn't make a difference as to my argument.

And if you don't understand the weaknesses of the teleological argument I'm not going to explain them to you, although you might want to look at the "formal objections and counterarguments" section of the teleological argument Wikipedia page.

Neither am I going to defend my faulty grammar (honestly? I'm typing this on a cell phone) nor respond to an accusation of pretension that uses the word "orotund" (next you're going to say I'm sesquipedalian).

Finally it is the small minority of religious people that only attributes symbolic value to their religious texts, and the tend to only do so in arguments such as this one.

scrooge (#2,697)

@Aloysius It is not a distinction without a difference. Hitchens, for example, believes there is no God. That means he is not a skeptic – see Merriam-Webster definitions, esp, #3.. But he does believe in certain things — the principles of the American constitution, for example. Therefore, he is not a nihilist.

The citation from Wikipedia does not contradict my assertion that the fact that neither atheists nor theists can prove their argument nor disprove the argument of their opponents means that they are philosophically at a stand-off.

I forgive you your lapse in grammar. We all make such mistakes from time to time.

The use of "orotund" in this sentence was deliberately self-referential and ironic.

"Finally it is the small minority of religious people that only attributes symbolic value to their religious texts, and the tend to only do so in arguments such as this one." Which polll are you using to support this argument?

Aloysius (#1,808)

@scrooge. I can believe the sun will come up tomorrow and still retain my skeptic cred. This is because my belief is supported by the evidence. Maybe it won't come up, but it's high probability justifies my belief. Whether I believe the sun will come up, or believe in truth, justice, and the American way, I can still be a skeptic. There is a semantic distinction between the concepts, but this distinction makes no difference to my argument.

Assertions of the existence of God uniformly lack evidence, and due to their improbability need not be believed. Hitchens repeatedly uses Russell's teapot to explain his disbelief in God. He doesn't attempt to prove a negative, just asserts that one can disbelieve improbable claims about the supernatural.

And it's not just an issue of theists saying "there is a God," and atheists saying "Nuh uh." Assertions of God's existence rarely refer to God as an abstract concept, and tend to attach to the concept gender, personality, powers, personal interest and intervention in human affairs, etc. All of which are totally unsupported by evidence, and require enormous leaps of faith.

I need not refer to a poll, because belief in the supernatural is inherent in the idea of religion. Although I do notice that in this case you are more than willing to dismiss an assertion made without evidence. So I will concede this point, if you concede yours about God's existence.

scrooge (#2,697)

@Aloysius Sorry, Aloysius, I concede nothing except that I have no further time to devote to this.

1st LT L Diablo (#18,123)

@scrooge Hitchens says, "there is no evidence for god, and I'm glad for it". Get his actual position correct first–then critique it. This is the lest any of us can do if we even pretend to be honest.

scrooge (#2,697)

@1st LT L Diablo Dear Towel, I think you're misunderstanding something here. Nothing in your comment refutes anything I said.

f. carter (#238,727)

@1st LT L Diablo Christopher was most of time drunk,was and perhaps still was Gay, and married. in and out off jail when he was young, hated his family.
After have said that: most people thought this guy had it all together when it came to God.

Now the poor SOB lays 6 foot deep in some cold cementery all dressed up with no where to go!

I love this gorgeous piece of writing. Don't know if I love or hate Hitch any less or more than I did before?!?!?! I DO know that I want to read both Summer Lightning and Heavy Weather and that it was very nice of the editor not to [sic] Mr. Sullivan's punctuation.

beatbeatbeat (#3,187)

@snackychocolate Seconded. Really great read.

So Sullivan really used the word "Islamist," straight up, plain, with no modifiers? Why do so many "reasonable liberals" pay so much heed to this "reasonable conservative?"

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@Butterscotch Stalin Because they have no idea that he also championed "The Bell Curve"?

@Kevin Knox That's what immediately came to mind when he said he "stood by" his work!

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Butterscotch Stalin @Kevin Knox So few conservative pundits are offering anything like real engagement, as Sullivan does. One is free to disagree with a lot of what he says, but I consider it a positive relief to have at least one with whom I can at times agree, and fervently. I have enormous respect for his courage in facing down the warmongerers of the right, which can't have been easy. And finally, Virtually Normal is a great favorite of mine; a really fantastic book.

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

I was intruiged by your analysis of Hitchens' evolving war position, but then you said a lot of inane things about his Atheism/Anti-Theism which showed me conclusively that you don't know what you're talking about. The Hitch/Harris/Dawkins are a boon for skeptical and critical thinking. Have you ever watched Harris talk about the Moral Landscape? Religion IS a poision. IT IS EVIL. You clearly dont understand the argument that 'Religion poisons everything'.

"Yes, there is Pat Robertson, and there is Fred Phelps, and there are also Dr. Rowan Williams and Reinhold Neibhur and Bishop Fuglsang-Damgaard and countless principled and even heroic men and women of faith, it seems ridiculous to have to say."

Dr. Rown Williams advocated Sharia Law within Britain. He's not a hero, he's an imbecile. TO have to say otherwise is to be bone-headed and not really understand the implications of Sharia Law or Multiculturalism in Europe and what it means for Muslim Women (severe sentences that accord with Muslim interpretations; German law states that we have to respect holy books, etc).

You say that The Hitch taught you to understand things in shades of gray, but when you seemed to suggest in this article that Hitch/Harris/Dawkins are like attack dogs of atheism, you misunderstand what they are really saying and how important it is. You need to go back and watch a Hitch/Dawkins debate and listen to a Harris lecture. What these men are fundamentally attacking is the religious impulse, not religious people. There's nothing wrong with being totally outraged and passionate about our criticisms of religion. Hitchens has got to be one of the few people who is as outraged as any human being should be. I'm sorry that you had to write such a great article and then really mess up when you analyzed the hitch and his views on religion. It's sad, actually, being that you seem to be such a huge fan. Your conclusion is insulting and crass – suggesting that hitchens is in it for the fame and money – and suggests, again, that you don't know what you're talking about.

This article is medium-brow posing as high-brow. The only interesting or relevant bit is the war bit; even that is a bit sloppy, IMO.

@Babak Golshahi@twitter You know, I also tripped over the new atheist critique contained here, amid what I found to be an otherwise interesting and complex piece.

Yet the tone of your response is, for the most part, so over-the-top unhelpful that it flirts with becoming a discredit to the underlying ideas. There may be nothing "wrong" with being passionately atheistic, but that's not to say — in the spirit of empiricism — there surely aren't smarter ways to go about it.

scrooge (#2,697)

@Babak Golshahi@twitter Really, Babak! Rowan Williams did not suggest that English law should be replaced by Sharia law, as your comment seems to imply. By calling him an imbecile you are severely undermining your own credibility. This is a complicated subject, with many subtleties. RW seems to appreciate them a lot more than you do.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1577928/Archbishop-Williams-sparks-Sharia-law-row.html

vespavirgin (#1,422)

@Babak Golshahi@twitter Ah, this old thing. Anyone who points out that Hitchens's adoration for atheism is over the line, skeptic-wise, is always lambasted. It's passionate atheism that makes me refer to myself as an agnostic. One need not read "god is not great" very closely to see that Hitchens's opinion is presented as smug fact. If you're smart like Hitchens, you must be an atheist. If you're not an atheist, you're dumb and potentially evil.

Nice essay, Maria.

@Babak Golshahi@twitter I'm not used to finding "comments" I agree with posted anywhere, so I was pleasantly surprised to find yours. Your analysis of skepticism is bang on. Hitchens does not rule out the possibility of a creator, he merely says it is unlikely given what we now know about the origins of the universe. Of course this is very much the position of a skeptic. But let me be clear about the author of this article. Bustillos fails to grasp two of the subjects she tackles here, misunderstanding and misrepresenting Hitchens'opinnions on both Iraq and Religion. It would take a long time to list all of the errors, so I'll focus on one aspect. I wrote the following to the friend that sent me the link to this piece:
the article is irritating, but it has some great anecdotes and quotes at the beginning, as well, later in the article it draws my attention to previously unknown sources of criticism. Chris Hedges (who is not mentioned in this article) also has intelligent criticisms of the new atheists, yet this writer (I make liberal use of the term here) is very content to make a straw man of Hitchens in relationship to both his political arguments and his religious ones. Here is one example of this turgid writing (and there are many more).
"But instead of being fans of the King James Bible or of the Dalai Lama or whatever, Hitchens mawkishly advises that we seek the infinite in 'the beauty and mystery of the double helix' instead. Why not a rose? Seriously."
For starters, just notice how sloppy the sentences are in this paragraph ("or whatever"). Once you've soaked that up consider the following: while Hitchens would never describe himself as a fan (as it is short for fanatic) of anything, and he has indeed attacked the Dalai Lama (see Love, Poverty & War), he has great reverence for the King James Bible as a work of literature and says so just about every time he mentions it. Hitchens proposition that the double helix is beautiful is not contrasted against any suggestion of the ugliness of ancient literature, but of the rather uninspiring image of a burning bush (a purported miracle) which he rightly points out is not that impressive to us in the twenty-first century, even when it does appear to spontaneously combust, for we tend, especially on days like today (anticipated to be the hottest day on record in Toronto, and leading to almost unheard of forest fires in our province), to see a relationship between the chemical properties that cause fire and the actual fire. A rose may be magnificent to some, but to others the inner workings of life are somewhat more awe-inspiring.
If you are interested I'd be glad to list all of the errors related her assesment of his political arguments, but for now I must bid you goodbye. Thanks again for the post.

scrooge (#2,697)

@John David Palmer@facebook What is a towel, anyway?

Scum (#1,847)

@Babak Golshahi@twitter

What, son? The Moral landscape is one of the worst books ive ever read (no hyperbole) and it's ridiculous to imply that someone like Sam Harris represent an intellectual step up from someone like Bertrand Russell. The atheist movement is at its very nadir intellectually and its because of the counter certainty approach employed by idiots like Harris. They are determined to leave God without any gaps to creep into even if it means filling them with stuff as or more dubious than the concept of god itself.

1st LT L Diablo (#18,123)

@Scum — The central conceit of The Moral Landscape is so clear and self-evident that only true rube would claim it the "worst book ive ever read". You are either too obtuse to understand basic moral syllogism or just one of those religious water-head types that is congenitally incapable of 21st century thinking. I cannot even imagine being a person like you. It would be one thing to disagree with it– that is all part of the dialectic– but to call Harris an "idiot" is just to show your ass. What a filthy little beast you are…

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

@scrooge I never suggested that he replaced it. If you read what I said carefully, you'll have noted that I said he advocated for it – which could just as easily mean it would exist alongside it.

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

@Scum I'm sorry you think Harris is an idiot – I don't think he's a step below Russel intellectually and I bet you don't have a real argument for suggesting why anything Harris has written or lectured on is somehow idiotic compared to Russell. The fact is Harris isn't trying to fill any 'god gap', as you suggest. Your last sentence is nonsensical. As soon as you said Harris was an idiot you lost all my respect. Go back and watch a lecture on the Moral Landscape and identify for me what exactly is 'idiotic' about his approach exactly. Specificity counts here, son.

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

@vespavirgin

An Agnostic is someone who has heard the evidence from the Holy Books and arguments from Skeptics and identifies him/herself as still unsure. It is NOT the position that you simply are not sure whether there is a god or not. The correct definition of Agnosticism is, therefore, frankly retarded if you ask me. The definition of Atheism is simply: 'One without a belief in, or one who lacks a belief in, a god or gods.'. If you are UNSURE whether a god exists or not, there is no reason for you to beleive affirmatively that there is one, hence you are an Atheist. An Atheist, if presented with evidence of a god, would gladly believe. Atheism is not an absolutist position. I am sorry you seem to interpret Hitchens' position as 'smug' and feel like if you are not an Atheist you feel dumb. The fact is that if you read carefully, Hitchens does not attack religious people, but, as I stated before, the religious impulse. Religious people are not dumb — they just believe something that simply isn't true often for reasons outside their own immediate control.You don't have to be a 'passionate atheist' to realize this article misrepresents, simplifies, and misunderstands Hitchens all over the place. Fundamentally the author does not 'get it'. You want to refer to yourself as an agnostic because you don't understand the definition of 'atheist', that's your business.

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

@scrooge You are correct, however – I should have been more clear in my initial response.

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

@John David Palmer@facebook Thanks so much! It's nice to have my somewhat long-winded comments appreciated! Your comment definitely clarifies in additional ways I would have liked to if I could (in my initial comment).

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

@sethcolterwalls Fair enough. My initial outrage is likely the result of having been so giddy to read what I had expected to be a charming analysis/appraisal of The Hitch, only to find myself being instinctively irked by misrepresentations of important arguments. If I could go back and adjust a bit of the language I would – I still think, however, that the crux of my criticism, while it could have been a bit more encompassing, is for the most part accurate.

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

@sethcolterwalls I have to admit, I am a bit over-the top in my enthusiasm for the 'new atheism'…I suppose that shows a lot in my criticism!

f. carter (#238,727)

@babakgolshahi I love your double talk about atheistism, sure Chris was misunderstood he loved god and all of us, what a crock shit! wake up sir! and smell the thorns…this guy was evil and died an evil death of pain and self torture

1st LT L Diablo (#18,123)

Look, this article was fun to read for a while (I like shades of grey too– and lionizing and lamenting the Hitch is my old job) but the obtuse and fall-down-drunk manner in which you describe the religious debate is just too much.

First of all, the trinity (Hich, Dawk, Harris) all admit that there are "good folk" among the faithful–this is not their goddamn point. The textual substrate for their religious philosophy (hint: the Bible, Q'ran, blah blah) is what is suspect. Next, the corollary behavior that we all know and love (suicide bombing, inquisitions, teaching nonsense to children, et.al.) is seen as a logical result of the obscene 'morality' of these stupid books (and empirical evidence is supplied). This is not saying there are no good people that are religious; it is saying the religious texts are stupid and evil and the people who believe in the them are more likely to do and say stupid and evil things as consequence. Duh.

I think you are just retarded on this matter and should go ruminate over something else. Jesus Xmas what a display of moral stupidity.

vespavirgin (#1,422)

@1st LT L Diablo You're a towel.

1st LT L Diablo (#18,123)

@vespavirgin a "wet" towel?

Babak Golshahi@twitter and 1st LT L Diablo made me smile because they reminded me of one of my favorite South Park quotes, regarding atheism: "Logic and reason aren't enough: You also have to be a dick to everyone who doesn't think like you."

1st LT L Diablo (#18,123)

@The Defeatery that is fair– I am a dick. But, the larger crime here is not being able to recapitulate the actual arguments set forth by one's literary enemies. Otherwise, one is just engaging in dishonest strawman arguments; and if I have to choose between being a dick, or being a dishonest person– I choose the former. The article's author chose less wisely–and frankly that is one rung lower on the ladder into hell in my opinion. The least anyone can do is give an honest account of their nemesis' actual arguments then try to skewer them. But few people can do this– and I take exception to it. I can politely disagree with someone if they have radically different views from me– as long as they do not engage in this kind of immoral tactic (see: lying). Being "nice" to dishonest folk aint on my to-do-list. I hope you can see the subtle difference. I think we are both right — I am a dick– and the author is lying. Win/Win. ;)

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

@The Defeatery

The reason people think Atheists think everyone has to think like them is because a lot of the time people don't really understand the argument correctly. The quote you mention itself is telling – it suggests that having logic and reason ARE enough. The fact is that they are OF COURSE not enough. Every argument requires a careful dissection – having reason and logic are only the necessary pre-requisites to forming a cogent argument. I'm certainly NOT a dick to everyone who doesn't 'think like me', because I'm not expecting people to think exactly like me, what I desire out of people is that they interpret things correctly. The author clearly hasn't – she fundamentally misunderstands Christopher Hitchens' aims and positions, then lazily concludes essentially that he's just in it for the money. To me this is indicative of someone who hasn't done their homework and hasn't listened carefully enough to a Hitchens debate. Especially coming from someone who goes out of her way to brag about how much of a fan she is (which makes me expect all the more from her analysis), what I would expect is that she at the very least would correctly interpret his view on religion. This article fails where it counts. I don't see how I'm being a dick just because I was basically offended by how she slanders Hitchens' good name here.

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

@The Defeatery

Other people not 'getting it' doesn't make you a dick. Why lower yourself just because someone else doesn't clearly understand the argument? Only people who don't have an argument of their own resort to name-calling. The episode of South Park referenced was almost impossibly stupid and inane. The suggestion of said episode was that Atheists will somehow form their own tribes and attack eachother just like Religious folk. The fundamental flaw there is that Atheism is based on Skepticism, which is in turn based on the Scientific method. If you know any scientists or know anything about Science, you'll know that Science is essentially a collaborative effort. The goal is to use the scientific method (not blind dogma) to advance competing theories. When one theory is proven wrong, another theory replaces it. This is like the greatest thing for a scientist. How can you form Atheist tribes when all atheists agree that without evidence, there needn't be a belief in a god or gods? It's an absolute INSULT to science and to skeptical, rational thinking in general to suggest somehow that the scientific method is equal to the way religion evolved (tribally).

Turboslut (#1,036)

Hitchens may be, on occasion, a boozy, infuriating, warmongering nuance-ignoring dick, but he is a vanishing breed of public intellectual, one whose prodigious education, voluminous vocabulary and endless stock of literary references somehow illuminate his writing without making him seem like a dreary bore tossing out big words. For all his drawbacks, his prose and his clear love of the whole and mighty canon available to him elevates his writing beyond the utilitarian, utterly featureless responses of his boosters and foes. For that, if nothing else, he'll be missed.

LondonLee (#922)

@Turboslut I used to work at The Atlantic so I would also add his amazing ability to turn in a brilliant review at 2am after two bottles of Johnnie Walker Black.

scrooge (#2,697)

@Turboslut Matter of taste, I suppose. Personally, I find he reminds me of that formerly well known windbag, William F Buckley, who was full of polysyllables but empty of sense.

@LondonLee Awesome!

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

@LondonLee Hitch in an interview: "Johnny Walker Black – Breakfast Of Champions. Accept no substitutes."

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Personally, I don't see what the obsession with this question of the existence or non-existence of "our creator" is all about. If "he" "shows up" one day, would I be the only one who would still be asking the same question: OK, but who created you? That question will obviously never have an answer by the very definition of it.

As for all this religion business: it' hard enough for people to make their own living, so it's understandable that they'd want (and have) to delegate at least the making of their own morality, philosophy, history, ideology, etc. It's just easier to think (and say) it's all there in The Book. Religion has done a lot less damage in societies where people can afford the time to learn and to think.

Mindpowered (#948)

@Niko Bellic

Uhh, it has to with whether that collection of Bronze age taboos you've been foisting down peoples throats, has any justification.

If there is a "creator" then there is an ultimate authority who will back you up in your belief. If not, then essentially you are wasting yours and others time.

rich bachelor (#8,586)

I'm reading 'Hitch-22' right now, and I'm liking it largely because he writes beautifully. Yeah, I said it: "beautifully." Now, am I surprised that he has assumed a number of positions over the years that I'm utterly at odds with ? Of course not.

And that Habermas quote was a bunch of academic sleepy-time speak; to have used it as an example of how to write about this subject *well* was a huge misstep.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@rich bachelor Ahoy! (Maria here.) You'll get no argument from me that the Hitchens style is far clearer and, yes, more beautiful than that of Habermas (in English, at least; I don't read German.) The quality of their respective ideas on this subject, though, is another matter entirely.

rich bachelor (#8,586)

@barnhouse
Well, allow me to politely agree with you, then.

helplesscase (#9,843)

This was going pretty good till you got to the "Existential Malpractice" part. How many more times are we going to hear the pious lie that guys like Hitchens and Dawkins have "done a good deal to set back the clock on real skepticism?"

Matt Cornell (#8,797)

Thank you for this thoughtful piece on the enigma of Hitchens. As a non-practicing atheist, I found this critique of the New Atheism particularly illuminating.

http://web.overland.org.au/2011/06/the-left-the-right-and-the-new-atheism-a-response-to-pj-myers/

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Matt Cornell Oh my GOD what a fantastic article it is superb thank you very much.

I adore Christopher Hitchens. I read an article of his in Vanity Fair years ago about the South (I live in Athens, GA) that pissed me off so dreadfully that I wrote my first letter of response to my beloved magazine. I was incensed! Fired UP! The artfully arranged arguements of the article were full of SUCH gorgeous words… I swear, it just made me love him more!

f. carter (#238,727)

@Bryn Meredith Adamson@facebook too bad you were not married to him, so the you could put up his hate and walking around in his shorts drinking it up, like a common drunk

Scott Lahti (#19,076)

In his clarion call to free thinking, Christopher Hitchens recalls the words of the tragically undervalued essayist John Jay Chapman to the Class of 1900 at Hobart College:

When I was asked to make this address I wondered what I had to say to you boys who are graduating. And I think I have one thing to say. If you wish to be useful, never take a course that will silence you. Refuse to learn anything that implies collusion, whether it be a clerkship or a curacy, a legal fee or a post in a university. Retain the power of speech no matter what other power you may lose. If you can take this course, and in so far as you take it, you will bless this country. In so far as you depart from this course you become dampers, mutes, and hooded executioners.

As a practical matter a mere failure to speak out upon occasions where no opinion is asked or expected of you, and when the utterance of uncalled-for suspicion is odious, will often hold you to a concurrence in palpable iniquity. Try to raise a voice that will be heard from here to Albany and watch what comes forward to shut off the sound. It is not a German sergeant, nor a Russian officer of the precinct. It is a note from a friend of your father's offering you a place in his office. This is your warning from the secret police. Why, if any of you young gentleman have a mind to make himself heard a mile off, you must make a bonfire of your reputations and a close enemy of most men who would wish you well.

I have seen ten years of young men who rush out into the world with their messages, and when they find how deaf the world is, they think they must save their strength and wait. They believe that after a while they will be able to get up on some little eminence from which they can make themselves heard. 'In a few years,' reasons one of them, 'I shall have gained a standing, and then I will use my powers for good.' Next year comes and with it a strange discovery. The man has lost his horizon of thought. His ambition has evaporated; he has nothing to say. I give you this one rule of conduct. Do what you will, but speak out always. Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt, but don't be gagged. The time of trial is always. Now is the appointed time.

f. carter (#238,727)

@Scott Lahti You say he was a free thinker? laughable, the man was a confusion to himself, practice homosexuality in his younger years and perhaps in his later year also, guy like him are die hard…He was always half drunk, loved going to jail. Left England for the USA for easy pickings…furthermore he was not able to get along with his won family.

I say with all conviction, this so call man, would have looked nice in a SS uniform going after Christians during Hitler' era!
Now! he lays 6 foot deep all dressed up and no where to go!

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

The author needs to reference more of Hitchens' C-Span appearances, many debates and lectures (including ones on topics as diverse as slavery reparations, the death penalty, and many, many religious debates). The article itself is long-winded without being comprehensive, in my view.

Christopher Hitchens is the Alan Rickman of American letters. http://tradepaperbacks.net/the-alan-rickman-of-american-letters/

f. carter (#238,727)

I really cannot understand what's all the hell-bent on dear Hitchens since when does hate and stupidy and ignorance ranks as number one with book dealers. Here is a man if you to call him a man, broke almost every moral law, and belittle people with a passion. This guy was once a homo perhaps was until his dying days. Most of the time he was drunk, he said he wrote best when he was half gone.
He was throwing in jail more then once he seemed he hated his own family.
The guy really thought he had a monopoly on hate. Christopher would have looked nice in a S/S uniform going after Christians during the Hitler era !

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