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.


Unknown said...

What's up to every one, for the reason that I am in fact eager of reading this blog's post to be updated on a regular basis. It includes fastidious stuff. capital one credit card login

Travis Smith said...

It's going to be finish of mine day, but before finish I am reading this great piece of writing to improve my experience. outlook 365 sign in

Post a Comment