Friday, December 23, 2011

The Old Hitch Is Finally Dead

In 1997, Christopher Hitchens collected himself before an audience of eager undergraduates, mustered his legendary booze-fueled courage, and commenced to beat up a nun. “So the old bitch is finally dead,” he said of Mother Teresa, a figure who in his peculiar moral accounting had ranked way down there in the nether regions with Kissinger, Stalin, Bin Laden, Bill Clinton and Gandhi.

In fact, Mother Teresa never had a chance of stacking up to Hitchens in the bitching category, but surely he was right about one thing. Death puts an end to it all—the bitching and bombast and pompous faux eloquence. Only a truly magnificent grandiosity enabled Hitchens to carry this off—the vulgar puns and borrowed metaphor and long nested clauses strung together in mellifluous cadences that, once parsed, revealed neither genius nor error, but simply incoherence—without any of his adoring throng suspecting that their literary king (“the greatest essayist in the English language,” Christopher Buckley now helpfully suggests) was, in fact, stark raving naked.

Hitchens was a bamboozler, a swindler, a literary bunko artist. He had a fine memory and a knack for mimicry and used it to hypnotize his marginally educated audience (which is to say, all of us nowadays) and distract them from the grift, which rarely strayed from the basic toolkit: to pass off innuendo as evidence, bald assertion as argument, and dissembling as fact.

It was in that last category that he truly excelled. My favorite example is in “God is Not Great” when he writes about the Big Bang theory.

“Fred Hoyle, an ex-agnostic who became infatuated with the idea of “design,” was the Cambridge astronomer who coined the term “big bang.” (He came up with that silly phrase, incidentally, as an attempt to discredit what is now the accepted theory of the origins of the universe. This was one of those lampoons that, so to speak, backfired, since like ‘Tory’ and ‘impressionist’ and ‘suffragette’ it became adopted by those at whom it was directed.)”

There are a couple of misdemeanor factual errors here (Hoyle was an ex-atheist, not an ex-agnostic, and Hoyle claims, at any rate, that he was not trying to discredit anything, but merely grasping at a way of describing a theory he found silly). But the felony lies in his arrangement of facts, by which he manages to suggest that Hoyle models a religious habit of putting ideological concerns ahead of observational science. The truth of this case, it turns out, is precisely the opposite.

Hoyle coined the term “Big Bang” when he was still stridently atheist. He hated the Big Bang theory because it struck him as entirely too religious—as if the “Let There Be Light” moment of Judeo-Christianity had been smuggled into the pristine halls of science. He wasn't alone. Many secularists in the scientific community at the time found the Big Bang repugnant. Their rejection was in no small part due to the affiliation and style of dress of the theory’s author, George LeMaitre, who was a Roman Catholic priest.

So in an honest telling of the “Big Bang” story, it was the atheists who let their predilections interfere with the honest pursuit of science and the priest LeMaitre—a name that Hitchens manages never to mention in his various discussions of the Big Bang and cosmology—who stood by the theory that evidence ultimately bore out. Bald-faced lying is nothing to admire, of course, but it should be said that very few people have ever distorted the truth with ellipsis and the cunning organization of facts as adeptly as Hitchens.

Alas, this sort of shameless misdirection is in no outlier in the Hitchens canon. Consider the bizarre moral reasoning in his attack on Michael Moore:

“If Michael Moore had had his way, Slobodan Milosevic would still be the big man in a starved and tyrannical Serbia. Bosnia and Kosovo would have been cleansed and annexed. If Michael Moore had been listened to, Afghanistan would still be under Taliban rule, and Kuwait would have remained part of Iraq. And Iraq itself would still be the personal property of a psychopathic crime family, bargaining covertly with the slave state of North Korea for WMD.”

It sounds devastating, but does Hitchens give us anything here other than a confession that the ends absolutely do justify the means? Did Christopher Hitchens support war against each one of Earth's oppressive regime? And if not, why not? And if not, can we hold him morally culpable for the suffering of all those North Korean slaves, for the Iranian activists and minorities, for Russian journalists, for Tibetan monks? Such a view would make the list of Christopher Hitchens’ moral turpitude nearly as long as the list of people he personally “indicted” for moral turpitude. So often with the great man’s great quotations, the distance between devastating and witless is just a few seconds consideration.

Over time and with great diligence, he made of himself a magnificent hypocrite. He once praised himself for working with Stalinists towards the common good of abolishing apartheid, but then condemned Mother Teresa for accepting money from Charles Keating, the Savings and Loan chiseler, and giving it to the poor. She took money from anyone and hired no white glove forensic accountants to vet the source before spending it on the destitute and dying.

Beyond theological differences, there really isn’t all that much basis for denouncing diminutive nuns who spend their lives picking up sick and dying people off the street to minister to them. So Hitchens’ assault continued mostly in the guilt-by-association vein, quickly reaching a point of absurdity. Hitchens was outraged, for instance, when Mother Teresa allowed her zeal for the poor to bring her into contact with the President of the United States, even to the point of exchanging niceties at the White House. He writes: “In the basement of the very building where Mother Teresa sits, a Marine Colonel named Oliver North (who forsook the Catholic Church for evangelical Pentecostalism after being vouchsafed a personal vision) is toiling away on the enterprise which will nearly succeed in destroying the Presidency that spawned it.” Huh? He attempts to tie up these bizarre subplots (though not the personal Pentecostal visions—that one just gets left hanging) in even brighter shades of yellow: her presence at the White House means she likes Ollie North, and Ollie North was associated with the Contras, and the Contras had death squads that killed missionary nuns. So like Michael Moore and the depredations of Saddam’s idiot children, Mother Teresa had blood on her hands. One could as easily (much easier, actually) paint the picture of Hitchens, given his associations, endorsing Stalin’s purges or secretly rejoicing at the bombing of Cambodia.

These episodes served as the training sequence for his masterwork, the case where sanctimony and liquor conspired to compose a breathtaking tableau of unwitting self-indictment, the juncture at which contrarianism at long last jumps the shark: the denunciation of Gandhi.

Hitchens regularly paid lip service to the idea that doubt is an essential quality of the rational mind, but he never exhibited a ghost of it. His world was relentlessly simplistic and anyone who saw colors beyond black and white was not to be lauded for mental agility, but denounced as unprincipled. Casuistry is one of his favorite words, and he uses it exclusively in the pejorative, as the whole process of trying to discern how to live out the good and the just in the turbulent circumstances of life is, for Hitchens, nothing but cowardice. You just pick a side and you demonize the rest.

Religion was the demon side. So for Hitchens, with that peculiarly simplistic cast of mind, this meant that all religious people had to be bad. So he went through the list and sorted them one by one. Martin Luther King, Jr., it turns out, really was a good guy, but was not actually religious. He was, instead, a secular humanist like Hitchens. Making this argument in the face of King’s words and deeds is, of course, fatuous beyond all reckoning, but more palatable than trying to argue that he was evil. Gandhi, however, being less known and more foreign to Hitchens audience, remains unreconstructed. In the Hitchens universe, Gandhi is religious and a real bastard because of it.

Why did he make this particular distinction? One obvious benefit was that being on MLK’s side allowed him to demonize religious leaders whom MLK himself scorned. Hitchens quotes from MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” an eloquent epistle in the style of St. Paul, in which MLK decries the cowardice of the many white ministers who urged King to be patient and to wait for some future liberation, rather than pushing for justice now, because the minds of the majority were inevitably changing, and if only King would slow his movement down for a decade or two, it could all be accomplished without effort or strife.

It’s natural to share in King’s (and Hitchens’) scorn for these men. And yet something funny happens on the way to Mumbai. Just a few pages later, having left behind America and its many racist white Christians and its many Black secularists pretending to be Christians, Hitchens begins his flaying of the father of the Indian nation. One of the great sins committed by Gandhi, it turns out, is stirring up civil strife during WWII, when Britain could least afford the soldiers needed to tamp down the rebellious Indians. Moreover, there was no need for all the disorder, for according to Hitchens, Gandhi’s agitation merely gunked up the works of what the British were going to do, more elegantly, of their own accord. Someday.

“For decades, a solid brotherhood between British and Indian secularists and leftists had laid out the case for, and won the argument for, the liberation of India. There was never any need for an obscurantist religious figure to impose his ego on the process and both retard and distort it. The whole case was complete without that assumption.” [Author’s italics]

For decades? If the “case was complete” and had been “for decades,” then very obviously some other element was needed. As in King’s situation, the necessary element was courage and agitation and moral leadership. Hitchens appeared to recognize that in the first context, but here he takes the opposite position: the good white folks in London had it all worked out, if only the ambitious little man would be patient, if only Gandhi would have slowed his movement down for another decade or two, it would all have happened without effort and without strife.

The fair rebuttal to Hitchens’ insipid and morally repugnant colonialist critique of Gandhi is to recommend that he read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and recognize himself there. But since he cited that text only a few pages earlier, the ignorance appears to have been invincible.

IF one seeks to justify Hitchens’ half-cocked style, the place to look would be "The Trial of Henry Kissinger." The Kissinger book is the one episode in which Hitchens’ enthusiasm for the purifying flames of extirpation were most grounded in real evidence. But even in that work, first published as a series of articles in Harpers, one is amazed at the mismatch between the confidence and gravity of the accusation—the bluster, in other words—and the actual evidence presented.

I remember sitting down with the article and being delighted at its opening: The charges were so severe, the language so bombastic I was giddy with anticipation. Could it be that he’s right? In fact, could it really be that he is wrong, that he would dare to publish such words without having brought to light material that will yield, either directly or indirectly, an actual indictment? But as page gave way to blistering page, the piece slunk into its clip-job torpor. There was nothing new here. No smoking gun. Just the sense we’ve always had that America had crawled down into the gutter and sullied itself during the cold war and Kissinger had been more comfortable among the rats than most.

Hitchens styled himself journalism’s grand inquisitor. He would rather burn the innocent than allow the guilty to go free. And once in a while, the net trawled up a creature like Kissinger, scuttling along the floor of his silent sea, and one didn’t mind that the process by which he was investigated, accused and convicted was slapdash and capricious. He’s probably guilty of—if not exactly that bad shit, some other equally bad shit. But more often the damage is collateral. More often, the victim’s only crime was being someone whose immolation would bring new attention and renown to the inquisitor. That meant, first and foremost, he condemned a lot.

The success of these gambits over the years is truly a testament to Hitchens’ skills as a writer. He chose his facts so carefully, packaged them so artfully, and fired them off so relentlessly that even a careful reader might forget that they added up to little or nothing.

“You have neither read nor understood the First Amendment,” Hitchens once said to a fellow talking head on television. The rhetorical slap came loaded with Hitchens’ customary hauteur—with the real look and feel of a devastating riposte—and exited with his customary lack of impact. After all, if his interlocutor hadn’t even read the material he was arguing about, how would it add to the insult to say that he hadn’t understood it? How can that even make sense? Hitchens point is not and never has been about making sense. The point is the sound. La-de-da; la-de-dum. You have neither this nor that. Harrumph! The authority was in the music, the persona, the booze, the mythology, the chest hair—anything but in the logic.

Notice how he returned to that particular bit of melody in “God is not Great” in a quixotic attempt to undo Biblical religion with a sufficiently tortured reading of a single paragraph. He put it this way:

"How can it be proven in one paragraph that this book (the bible) was written by ignorant men and not by any god? Because man is given "dominion" over all beasts, fowl and fish…Most important, in Genesis man is not awarded dominion over germs and bacteria because the existence of these necessary yet dangerous fellow creatures was not known or understood. And if it had been known or understood, it would at once have become apparent that these forms of life had “dominion” over us, and would continue to enjoy it until priests had been elbowed aside and medical research at last given an opportunity."

Ignore the fatuousness of the argument; ignore Hitchens’ apparent ignorance of the pre-Lapsarian contingency of the paragraph; ignore his apparent confusion about the meaning of scriptural “inspiration;” ignore the grandiose notion that he, among all atheists, found the self-defeat line—the death star’s garbage shoot—that causes the bible to self destruct. Consider just that now-familiar grammatical conundrum “known or understood.” Once again, it sounds like it ought to make sense, but in fact, it makes none. As above, its only purpose is to add sonic gravitas to an otherwise feeble—or entirely absent—argument. But I suppose it goes further than that: as in the LeMaitre example, there are missing names here: Pasteur and Mendel, the two foundational figures for the field of medical research, one a religious devotee and the other a priest. Hitchens covered his nakedness with extra syllables.

What’s left at the end is a kind of literature in cigarette form. A quick hit with no nutritional value. This sort of banter is common to literary types, particularly when they gather at cocktail parties in New York or DC, and Hitchens was an avid player at that parlor game. Christopher Buckley’s eulogy includes an anecdote in which Hitchens, responding to Buckley’s statement that Stalin was a seminarian as a young man, immediately quips: “Indeed, was he not one of the most promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?” You kind of had to be there, I suppose, but you can imagine the delight in the way it sounds—in the deadpan way Hitchens must have pronounced it—and in the fact that Hitchens could marshal the (almost) proper use of ordinand, the fact that Stalin was Georgian, that Tbilisi was its capital, and deploy them all in the (to American ears) impressively formal sounding “indeed, was he not” construction. All this in a fraction of a second. The joke does not illuminate, as great comedy does, but it is enough to amuse. He wins the round. So goes the career. In retrospect, Hitchens was a man made for twitter, if only it had afforded him an extra fifty or sixty characters for that Edwardian padding with which he so loved to shield himself.

To be sure, this isn't a generous eulogy, but Hitchens was never prone to such. The man surely had his virtues. Indeed, we have been regaled with them over the past week. He was quite funny. He boasted an unusual hairiness. He had a great love for talking over bourbon and long dinners. And two out of three ain’t bad.
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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Article of Faith: Atheists Are Good; Believers Evil

"I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca—or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame, the Shwe Dagon, the temples of Kyoto or, of course, the Buddhas of Bamiyan."
--Richard Dawkins

For a guy who makes a big deal about having no beliefs, Dawkins takes a lot on faith. In this case, he confesses his belief that only religious people would do such dastardly things as destroy religious monuments or works of art, and he would like you to join him in this astonishingly blind faith.

That probably explains why, in his list of religious shrines and architecture, he failed to include the other Notre Dame, the massive, magnificent medieval church at the Abbey of Jumieges, its monks run off by ideological cleansing, its library burned and its walls turned into a stone quarry in the atheist spasm of the French Revolution. I don’t suppose Dawkins’s faith will restore the burnt manuscripts or erect those walls again, any more than it will restore the desecrated tombs of St. Denis, its defaced memorials and melted metal sarcophagi. But it is a faith, nonetheless.

Similarly, Dawkins’s faith blinds him to the atheist demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (photo above), the largest church in Russia, and one of the most magnificent Orthodox churches in the world. On December 5, 1931, the atheist Soviet regime began setting off dynamite at its footers. Like Bamiyan Buddhas, the Cathedral was denigrated as a sacrilege, a reminder that the people who once lived in that place held views the ruling regime considered heretical; like the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Cathedral withstood the first explosive assaults; and like the Bamiyan Buddhas, after repeated detonations it finally fell; unlike those statues, however, it fell in the middle of a city and its rubble had to be cleared away--a process which took over a year.

We have only skimmed the cream here. Thousands of churches and monasteries were expropriated in Russia and a huge number of them destroyed. In stark encyclopedic terms it looked like this:

“In the period between 1927 and 1940, the number of Orthodox Churches in the Russian Republic fell from 29,584 to less than 500. Between 1917 and 1935, 130,000 Orthodox priests were arrested. Of these, 95,000 were put to death.”

The historical record for atheist regimes is pretty clear, even if it is largely absent from these new atheist texts, these exhaustive catalogs of moral turpitude. The fact remains: This is what people with views like Dawkins’s have done when they have gotten political power.

“Admittedly,” Dawkins writes, “People of a theological bent are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they’d like to be true.” Of course, he is talking about other people here, but the choice of “admittedly” is an interesting slip.
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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dawkins Needs a Fact Checker

Early on in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins charges that society gives preferential treatment to religious groups, and that because of this inequity, traditional religions continue to exist in an era of science. A key piece of evidence for his argument is the case of a jerky Ohio boy who wore a shirt to school bearing those three ever-effective ice-breakers, “Abortion is murder, Islam is a lie, and Homosexuality is a sin.” The rest of the story is pretty predictable. The school asked him to change shirts, the boy refused, and the parents sued. To anyone with much familiarity with American jurisprudence, the outcome was also pretty predictable. The kid won.

Dawkins relates the surprising part:

The parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it on the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. But they didn't; indeed, they couldn't, because free speech is deemed not to include “hate speech.” But hate only has to prove it is religious, and it no longer counts as hate. So, instead of freedom of speech, the Nixons' lawyers appealed to the constitutional right to freedom of religion. [italics original]

I was stunned when I read this. Did the court really say that these political and ethical judgments, even when rudely expressed, were “hate speech?” And how had I missed that critical juncture where we had sloughed off our first amendment rights and slithered away towards perfect harmony and politesse? I had to agree with Dawkins. It was plainly un-American that religious speech be allowed to offend, but not other types. How could this possibly be hap.... But then an entirely different thought arose: Is it possible that Richard Dawkins, renowned scientist, simply got the whole thing wrong, entirely backwards, and never bothered to check? Indeed, isn't that the only possibility? Less than a minute of Googling confirms it. There you will find the full text of the court opinion, which presents a typically American and wholly predictable affirmation of free-speech rights: the plaintiff asserts his freedom of expression was violated; the court agrees. There is no mention of the practice of religion, no religious exemption, no consideration of the kid’s religious rights at all; nor is there any mention of “hate speech.” All of these phantasms vanished in the crisp, dull prose of the court. The kid can wear the shirt because Americans—sinful homos and stumblefuck rednecks alike—can say whatever they goddamned well please.

It's a puzzle how Dawkins got this so wrong. Obviously, it starts with a defective cultural understanding of America. He is coming from a European tradition in which courts are much more willing to curtail free speech in order to keep everyone calmed down. And perhaps he had a bad source—a dubious web site or book that he never bothered to verify. Dawkins does this with surprising regularity, putting blind faith in friendly sources, as if he knows they are right merely because they agree with him. On more than one occasion in his book, he writes some version of “I know this is a specious form of data, but we should pay attention to it nonetheless.” Frankly, I get a little nervous when a prominent scientist starts telling us that we can learn a lot from bad data; it's kind of like Bernie Madoff telling us not to worry about the actual trade tickets. Dawkins never explains how he knows when exactly to pay attention to bad data, but I think the answer is pretty clear: whenever it helps you tell the kind of story you wanted to tell.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dawkins's Brilliant Insight: If There Were a God, the FCC Would Have Shut Him Down!

The problem with God, you see, is that since he listens to everyone's prayers at once, he must be very complex--as well as being an enormous bandwidth hog--and since the universe must originate with very simple things, God cannot have been there at the beginning. How do we know the origin is simple? Because that's how things tend to work in the universe--complexity emerges from simplicity--and since we know that any God must be in the universe, we can then deduce that there is, in fact, no God.

Wait, God is something in the universe?

Isn't that like imagining that the author lives in the book or the programmer in the software or the cook in the soup? Remember, we're arguing about whether there is a creator, so we're arguing about something that, by definition, stands apart from the creation. What sense could it possibly make to talk about the putative God as if it were part of the universe and as if it were bound to follow the particular habits of that universe--complexity from simplicity, for instance. If there is a God, those habits of nature are something he made up, not something he is subject to. You don't expect the programmer to follow the rules of his program or the author to be bound by the rules of his fiction. It's impossible that TS Eliot wrote the Hollow Men, because it says that "between the conception and the creation...falls the shadow." Therefore, the poem, once concieved, could not possibly have been created; rather, it must have sprung naturally from a cactus.

So why is Dawkins carrying on his silly circularity? Why does he argue against, not any real person's perception of divinity, but his own idiot God who floats around out there doing feats of signal processing?

Ah, now I remember. It is a point of faith for Dawkins that there can't be anything outside the universe. Well, once again, we have to say, "If that is your one inviolable assumption, fine, but then why pretend to carry out a deductive argument about whether it is true?"

Really, why embarrass yourself with stuff like this: "Such Bandwidth! God may not have a brain made of neurones, or a CPU made of silicon, but if he has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and non-randomly constructed than the largest brain of the largest computer we know." Again, he assumes that God is "constructed" by the universe. Weird place to find the universe's creator.

Christopher Hitchens carries on in just as silly a manner with a homunculus God of his own creation, but where Hitchens's God is cast by John Cleese and the boys, Dawkins's is drawn from Star Trek. God is an extra special deluxe computer, like V-ger. And how the hell did a crummy old space probe get enough memory to record everything that is happening in the universe, anyway? Similarly, how does God have enough processor to keep it all running. And who can have built such a thing. Cray? The Military? Xenu?

In other words, if one posits a God with characteristics that are absurd enough (he lives somewhere out in space, for instance), why bother with the whole long-assed argument? I suppose it's just a little bait and switch he's running, where you begin talking about the God discerned by other people and then impute to that God a set of ridiculous properties of your own invention. After all, it's always easier to win an argument when you get to state the other guy's positions for him.

But here's a question I have for our ultrabright scientific con artist from across the pond: Can it really be true that mathematics exists, and that its numbers go on infinitely? Well do tell then, where can all those numbers possibly be stored? Awful dang big hard drive, ain't it?
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Sunday, February 6, 2011

News Flash: Nazareth Really Did Exist!

According to a story by the Associated Press, there really was a Nazareth when Jesus was alive.
Archaeologists on Monday unveiled what may have been the home of one of Jesus' childhood neighbors. The humble dwelling is the first dating to the era of Jesus to be discovered in Nazareth, then a hamlet of around 50 impoverished Jewish families where Jesus spent his boyhood.
This may not come as much of a surprise to you, since this fact is chronicled in the 1900-year-old texts of New Testament and has generally been accepted since that time. But the New Atheists, like Frank Zindler, editor of the American Atheist, have their doubts--rather, they have their certainties, and one they seem to enjoy pulling from the carpet bag from time to time is the idea that Jesus' Nazareth simply did not exist.
Zindler's argument relied on the fact that no contemporary texts beyond Luke's gospel mention the little town, and that no archaeological evidence had been uncovered--until now, that is.

Ah, well, most likely Zindler and his Ultrabright friends will jettison this little bit of con artistry with nary a mention. There will be no retraction, no "oops," no perturbance of any kind. Their vast assurance will continue to sail on through time and space with a machine-like lack of self-awareness. But it is instructive for the rest of us--those who are actually interested in an honest assessment of our peculiar existence here--to look at how Zindler went wrong, because the style of argument is common to many Ultrabright sophistries.

The salient feature of these canards is that the speaker exist at a knoll of perfect acuity, from which he can look down on the ignorance of prior eras. This kind of parochialism is fraught with intellectual risk, but especially when one's arrogance extends, not just to the past, but to the future as well. Consider the general format of the argument to see what I mean:
  1. We haven't found archaeological evidence [for some Biblical claim].
  2. We haven't found a second textual source [for that claim].
  3. Therefore, we know that the Bible is wrong.

In order for this argument to make sense, you must assume that the phrase "and we never will" has been lopped off the ends of statements 1 & 2. You must, in other words, accept that we know all there is to know about the subject, and that we have made all the discoveries that will ever be made about it, almost as if history has come to an end with us. That sense of being at the culmination of human history has ever bedeviled utopians and megalomaniacs, and the Ultrabrights often display characteristics of both.

We should also note that this style of argument would never be made in the reverse direction. No other ancient text would be considered invalid just because it does not find support in a second source. Normally only multiple contradictory sources would cause you to dismiss a text. But the Bible is just as special for the Ultrabrights as it is for the most credulous fundamentalist. The book must be considered false until corroborating evidence confirms it.
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