On Christopher Hitchens
Jun 25, 2012

On Christopher Hitchens

When asked, several years back, what he thought of fellow leftish dissident Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens made the point that while he respected much of Chomsky's work, Chomsky was overvaluing his core issue - criticism of principally US imperialism - and thus saw the Balkans conflict entirely through this lens, missing the importance of factors outside of imperial influence. Ironically, my principle criticism of Hitchens is that he, in turn, over emphasizes a single factor - in this case the religious one - and by seeing everything too much through this lens his analysis becomes distorted.

Take, for example, Hitchens' outspoken (as ever) support for the Iraq war which really solidified his break from the left and resulted in his leaving the Nation Magazine. At its core lies a view of the Middle East that sees it quintessentially as a religious conflict, a clash of civilizations. Indeed, Hitchens notes that 9/11 and the benefit of waking the American public up to the existence of this religious war. Hitchens found himself on the righteous side of the conflict and welcomed the confrontation.

It is not that his view is maliciously generated; for instance, he gives a robust exposition of solidarity for the oppressed secularists under the Ba'ath regime whose empathy was sorely missed by many other Iraq war supporters. It is just that his myopia for the religious conflict skews the possibility for objective analysis. Among Iraq war cheerleaders, I prefer the views of those such as Michael Ignatieff - the former Canadian Liberal Party Leader who gave academic credence to the war - whose analysis is grounded entirely in humanitarian concerns without the baggage of religious cheerleading. Regardless, a couple hundred thousand dead later, at least one side of that argument gets a pyrrhic vindication.

Outside of Iraq, Hitchens' main issue, of course, is his stalwart defense of atheism and attack on religion. Many of my opinions on religion (I too am an atheist) have been influenced by the debates of the "new atheists", of which Hitchens is a core member. The atheist position is well articulated by the word smith and much credit can be given to the increased exposure he has given to these ideas in society through his books like God is Not Great, and his numerous public appearances. The value in Hitchens, for me, is not in dealing with the canonical religious arguments; these are all rather trivially dealt with by oneself and I would prefer deferring to the likes of Bertrand Russell for the intellectual arguments on these points. The value comes instead in the tone and rhetoric used. Namely, Hitchens espouses the idea that it is not just acceptable but perhaps even obligatory to speak strongly, emphatically and, most importantly, negatively about religion. This may seem trivial, but the privileged status of religion in society is often so strong that numerous social barriers prevent doing this. Hitchens also makes a compelling aesthetic case against religion which, even if not particularly important, is interesting and broadly appealing.

Where I diverge with Hitchens is on the significance of religion relative to other factors. While religion is indeed prevalent, false, and consequential in society, the roots of many conflicts have other political or geopolitical roots. We go too far when we over attribute the problems in society to religious problems. For instance, religion is often used as a tribal identifier, and certainly there is extensive tribal conflict, but the root issue is our tribal nature and religion is but one identifier. Even then, it takes numerous other factors on the ground before the existence of religious tribalism results in an actual conflict. A view, say, that the Israel-Palestine conflict is due to religion - even if an ostensible religious conflict exists - is too simplistic. Or take the seemingly religiously motivated nonsense in the Republican party in the US, much of which is due to the tendency to polarize and double down on issues. Hence the prioritizing of gay marriage, not because that horrific Leviticus quote has any special prominence over similar edicts on menstruation or eating shellfish. By focusing so myopically on religion, Hitchens' analysis becomes fundamentally skewed. 

A few words of praise must be offered, not because one needs to praise the recently dead, but because they are apt. Having followed his columns for years and having recently read Letters to a Young Contrarian - an interesting, insightful and important book for young contrarians like myself - I can assert that Hitchens is a gifted writer to which I aspire to write like. At his advice, I should backtrack. Hitchens is a gifted speaker to which I aspire to speak like. Having a voice of your own, and cultivating that voice, is integral to both speaking and writing and Hitchens has one hell of a voice, if you will pardon the word choice. Having a voice, however, necessitates having thoughts to voice, and Hitchens was full of them. I don't always agree with his points, but I am always challenged by them and am the better for the interaction. And so I submit by final revision: Hitchens is a gifted thinker, to which I aspire to think like. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

Share this post:

Tweet It! Facebook Add Feed Reddit! Digg It! Stumble Delicious Follow

Post a Comment

Frequent Topics: