Hitchens's Eulogists and Detractors

When Hitchens was asked earlier this year “whether he felt he had been a good person”:

he gave a dismissive shrug: “Not particularly.” For that definition to apply, he said, the world expects a good deal of selflessness. “And while no one scores very high on that, I score lower than most.” He had seen his adult life partly as a sustained act of compensation or redress for the boredom and limitations of his stiflingly conventional, middle-class childhood.

So what, I asked, did he wish he’d done more of?

He laughed. “Everything…”

Since my views on ethics judge being good as living well and not as merely serving others for its own sake, would count him a great person for all of that powerful good he accomplished by “selfishly” living as greatly as he could—but also a bad one for the ways his mistakes hurt others’ own abilities to flourish. All of us are entitled to our eulogists, and our detractors (as Nietzsche once wrote, though making a different point in The Gay Science 1). So, in that spirit, let’s start by giving a hearing to Hitchens’s detractors.

John Cook thought Hitchens’s stomach would have been turned by the “outpouring of grief, good will, and teary encomia” which have come upon his death and so decided to honor Hitchens with vigorous criticism for his mistaken support of the Bush Administration’s Iraqi invasion:

Hitchens’ style—ironically, given his hatred for tyranny and love of free expression—brooked no dissent. There was little room for good-faith disagreement or loyal opposition. His enemies were not just wrong, they were stupid or mean or small-minded or liar or cheats or children or cowards. It was thrilling and gratifying to see that articulate viciousness deployed against the Clinton cartel, or Mother Theresa, or Henry Kissinger—against power and pretense. To see it deployed in favor of war, on behalf of a dullard and scion, against the hysterical mother of a dead son was nauseating.

In the months and years since Hitchens publicly proclaimed his pride in the invasion of Iraq for Murdoch’s ideological crib-sheet, 78,708 Iraqi civilians and 2,548 U.S. troops have been killed. He did immense good in his life, and unforgivable harm.

Alex Pareene also thought Hitchens would have rebuffed so much fawning and so spent his column arguing that Hitchens’s Iraq War culpability was especially great for how he traded on his left wing credentials:

There was no more forceful intellectual voice in support of the Iraq War than Hitchens. There were others who were more prominent, more influential or more persuasive, but Hitchens was the perfect shill for an administration looking to cast its half-baked invasion plans as a morally righteous intervention, because only he could call upon a career of denunciations of totalitarianism and defenses of human rights. (The fact that the war was supposed to be justified by weapons Saddam was supposedly developing didn’t really matter to Hitchens.)

And so we had the world’s self-appointed supreme defender of Orwell’s legacy happily joining an extended misinformation campaign designed to sell an incompetent right-wing government’s war of choice. The man who carefully laid out the case for arresting Henry Kissinger for war crimes was now palling around with Paul fucking Wolfowitz.

Once he became an unpaid administration propagandist, Hitchens, formerly a creature of left-wing magazines whose largest mainstream exposure was in Vanity Fair and occasionally on Charlie Rose, was suddenly on TV rather a lot. The lesson there, I think, is that the popular American mass media will make room for even a booze-swilling atheist Trotskyite if he’s shilling for a the latest war.

And to be honest, his post-9/11 conception of an epoch-defining clash of civilizations between the secular West and the jihadists is more than slightly ridiculous.

Inspired by that, PZ Myers joined in by recalling the infamous occasion on which he felt that Hitchens had slipped into genocidal lines of thought:

Then it was Hitchens at his most bellicose. He told us what the most serious threat to the West was (and you know this line already): it was Islam. Then he accused the audience of being soft on Islam, of being the kind of vague atheists who refuse to see the threat for what it was, a clash of civilizations, and of being too weak to do what was necessary, which was to spill blood to defeat the enemy. Along the way he told us who his choice for president was right now — Rudy Giuliani — and that Obama was a fool, Clinton was a pandering closet fundamentalist, and that he was less than thrilled about all the support among the FFRF for the Democratic party. We cannot afford to allow the Iranian theocracy to arm itself with nuclear weapons (something I entirely sympathize with), and that the only solution is to go in there with bombs and marines and blow it all up. The way to win the war is to kill so many Moslems that they begin to question whether they can bear the mounting casualties.

Slaughtering civilians does not seem to be a solution that ever brings peace…unless it’s carried to the degree that an entire people is exterminated, and then the only peace is the peace of the grave.

Hitchens was a complicated fellow: talented and intelligent, and on some subjects he was warm and humane and a true child of the Enlightenment. And on others, a bloodthirsty barbarian and a club-carrying primitive. At least in his final months it was the civilized and thoughtful humanist who emerged most.

Glenn Greenwald first offered trenchant defense of the justification for speaking ill of the recently departed when dealing with public figures:

When someone dies who is a public figure by virtue of their political acts — like Ronald Reagan — discussions of them upon death will be inherently politicized. How they are remembered is not strictly a matter of the sensitivities of their loved ones, but has substantial impact on the culture which discusses their lives. To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems — enforced by misguided (even if well-intentioned) notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts — is not a matter of politeness; it’s deceitful and propagandistic. To exploit the sentiments of sympathy produced by death to enshrine a political figure as Great and Noble is to sanction, or at best minimize, their sins. Misapplying private death etiquette to public figures creates false history and glorifies the ignoble.

And then made the case against Hitchens and the media that loves him:

Corey Robin wrote that “on the announcement of his death, I think it’s fair to allow Christopher Hitchens to do the things he loved to do most: speak for himself,” and then assembled two representative passages from Hitchens’ post-9/11 writings. In the first, Hitchens celebrated the ability of cluster bombs to penetrate through a Koran that a Muslim may be carrying in his coat pocket  (“those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. So they won’t be able to say, ‘Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.’ No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words”), and in the second, Hitchens explained that his reaction to the 9/11 attack was “exhilaration” because it would unleash an exciting, sustained war against what he came addictively to call “Islamofascism”: “I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”

 

There’s one other aspect to the adulation of Hitchens that’s quite revealing. There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins. Part of that is the by-product of America’s refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq. That act of aggression is still viewed as a mere run-of-the-mill “mistake” — hey, we all make them, so we shouldn’t hold it against Hitch – rather than what it is: the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud. But what these paeans to Hitchens reflect even more so is the warped values of our political and media culture: once someone is sufficiently embedded within that circle, they are intrinsically worthy of admiration and respect, no matter what it is that they actually do.

Kevin Drum aruged Hitchens’s poor political judgment started earlier and was consistently bad. And that he wasn’t even a very good writer:

Politically, he spent the 80s as a Trotskyite, the 90s in transition as a lunatic Bill Clinton hater, and the aughts as a cheerleader for the Iraq war. This is not exactly an enviable track record of considered judgment.

As a writer, he was all over the map. His prodigious memory was, indeed, prodigious, and he was capable of brilliance. And yet, quite aside from his subject material, I never much warmed to him. His writing contained provocation aplenty, but far too much of it, I thought, was tediously bloated, a few hundred words of dashed off substance wrapped around many more hundred words of tired
reminiscences, random bile, and frustratingly circuitous filler. It certainly wasn’t unreadable, and sometimes it produced a charm of sorts, but mostly it neither persuaded nor even really entertained on any kind of sustained basis.

Melissa McEwan fleshed out the misogyny charge, taking considerable umbrage at Hitchens’s insistence that women can’t be funny:

Christopher Hitchens didn’t think I was funny. He didn’t know me, but he was certain that I was not funny, because I’m a woman.

That was only one of many things that Christopher Hitchens was sure he knew about me, and other women, and lots of other people who belonged to groups outside his tribe: Male, white, straight, cisgender, Western, educated, wealthy, atheist.

It was his certainty that he knew things about me, without ever being obliged to consider my existence, that always kept me at an arm’s length from his work. And his work was good. Sometimes it was genuinely great. Even when I disagreed vehemently with him, I never failed to appreciate the confidence and competency of his craft. He was a superb writer.

One of the finest aspects of his writing was how it told us something about him, even when he was not his subject—though he usually was, even when he was ostensibly writing about the Iraq War, or women’s capacity to be his equal, or godlessness. His work invited people to know him.

Even as it belligerently asserted, I don’t need to know you.

He was called, and regarded himself as, a contrarian, which is one of those words, like “traditionalist,” which is frequently used to mask the small-mindedness of a big mind. I didn’t know Christopher Hitchens, beyond what he let all of us see, and I don’t know why he could conceive and articulate complicated cultural ideas, but so often fail to embrace simple concepts, like the value of acknowledging the individual beyond the borders of self.

I won’t presume to guess. I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know me.

I think it is probably wrong that Hitchens would have rejected the praise he’s received as some of his detractors have claimed. Mick Brown relates an amusing anectdote and cites Hitchens’s encomia to the philosopher AJ Ayer to give a fuller sense of Hitchens’s approach to, and thoughts about, obituary:

When I interviewed Christopher Hitchens at his home in Washington in February, the discussion – sadly, inevitably – turned to the subject of mortality. He and a friend, he said, contemplating their demise, had mused that there would come a day when the newspapers would come out and they wouldn’t be there to read them. “And on that day, I’ve realised recently,” he went on, “I’ll probably be in the newspapers, or quite a lot of them. And etiquette being what it is, generally speaking, rather nice things being said about me.” He shrugged. “Just typical that will be the edition I miss.”

As a journalist, polemicist, author and indefatigable man of letters, Hitchens devoured the written word as much as he exulted in it, and he would be enjoying the obituaries and tributes in today’s newspapers, dwelling on his fiercely brilliant intellect, the grace and elegance of his language, his combative nature and his raffish charm. Hitchens took a characteristically robust approach to eulogy and remembrance. He could be generous in his praise – he once lionised Professor Freddy Ayer as “a tireless and justly celebrated fornicator”; but brutal in his condemnation: within hours of the televangelist Jerry Falwell’s passing, Hitchens was fixing him as an “ugly little charlatan”, adding that “if you give Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox”.

You can read the full enema Hitchens gave Fallwell. You can also watch him defend it, in one of my favorite 10 mintues of TV ever, below:

So having established he can both spit on graves and have his own defiled with the best of them, but also that he really would prefer some kind things said about him, let’s turn to a few of my favorite eulogies offered in the last couple days:

Stephen Fry meditated on the ways that Hitchens’s vaunted stylistic talents contributed integrally to the substance of what he said:

 I want to disabuse you of is the notion that Christopher was all earnest purpose and humorless political and atheistical fervor. He fought for causes all his life, he stood up against bullies, he outraged those who assumed he was a natural ally, he poured OUT his energies in a thousand ways but always, always with wit, with panache, with a sumptuously exquisite use of language, with a deep understanding that the connection between style and substance is absolute. A true thing badly expressed becomes a lie. As a writer and speaker, his awesome command of English is a part of his greatness, it explains how he came to be something that Britain, or indeed America, can rarely boast of, and usually have little but contempt for—a public intellectual. The phrase makes one go a bit gooey with embarrassment, but Christopher opened up debate and gave voice to ideas and causes that without his talents would have been less ventilated and less understood.

PZ Myers dwelt on Hitchens’s qualities which made him appealing regardless of whether one agreed with him or disagreed:

We knew him well; that is, he was one of those people who opened himself up so thoroughly, who expressed himself so excellently, who had a personality so strong, that millions of us can hold him in our mind’s eye. I can see him now — there’s a glass in his hand, his eyes are calm and steady, and he’s speaking in measured tones and with flawless English sentences with passion and reason perfectly intertwined. Even if I didn’t agree with him, I’d be standing awed and respectful before his clarity and elegance.

David Frum, in a rich and varied discussion of his friendship with Hitchens paid tribute to both the pugilistic and the sensitive sides of the man:

A friend of theirs once took Christopher Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue to dinner at Palm Beach’s Everglades Club, notorious for its exclusion of Jews.

“You will behave, won’t you?” Carol anxiously asked Christopher on the way into the club. No dice. When the headwaiter approached, Christopher demanded: “Do you have a kosher menu?”

 

For such a pugilistic intellect, Christopher Hitchens could be surprisingly sensitive and deferential. I well remember my anxiety before the first time he joined a party with my in-laws. My father-in-law is perhaps the only person I know who has visited even more countries than Christopher, but politically … uh oh. Peter Worthington is not one to mince his words about anything, least of all his view that British colonialism did the people on the receiving end much more good than harm. But when Christopher heard that Peter had been with Hitchens’ beloved Indian Army on the eve of the 1962 Himalayan war with China, politics flew out the window, as the great journalist in him extracted every anecdotal detail.

After recounting many of the dizzying number of experiences and contradictions that made Hitchens unique Emile Hirsch amusingly wrote:

the man was just too all over the map. Anyone else want to pick a fight with Mother Teresa?

And to answer him—plenty of atheists do now. Thanks to Christopher.

Speaking of Hitchens’s influence on atheists, Crommunist Manifesto argues that Hitchens will grow even more powerful in death:

Hitchens’ legacy is far greater than simply the sum of his writings. This is not to minimize his writings, incidentally, which are a sumptuous treat that can be tasted as much as they can be read. Hitchens was an expert swordsman with his words, flourishing with elaborate descriptions, parrying with excruciatingly-chosen diction, and thrusting with cutting vernacular straight through the heart of whatever woebegotten position was foolish enough to ignite his ire. But his words did not simply defeat his chosen opponents – they were a flag waved proudly above the din of pitched combat, calling forth new and eager legions of burgeoning soldiers of freethought to enter the fray.

Those who snidely crow their intention to “pray” for Hitchens are nothing more than myopic fools, claiming victory as the conquering general retires from the battlefield, but failing to notice the approaching horde of approaching warriors made stronger and bolder by the leadership of the recently absent. Christopher Hitchens’ death is lamentable, to be sure, but like Obi-wan Kenobi, he has become more powerful in death than theists can possibly imagine. I suggest you reserve those prayers for yourself – not that they’ll help, but they might make you feel better as your position gets torn to ribbons by the next wave of anti-theist polemicists.

Richard Dawkins believes Hitchens became a more powerful atheist spokesman not just in death but in the noble way he died:

Before his illness, it was as an erudite author, essayist and sparkling, devastating speaker that this valiant horseman led the charge against the follies and lies of religion. During his illness he added another weapon to his armoury and ours – perhaps the most formidable and powerful weapon of all: his very character became an outstanding and unmistakable symbol of the honesty and dignity of atheism, as well as of the worth and dignity of the human being when not debased by the infantile babblings of religion.

Every day of his declining life he demonstrated the falsehood of that most squalid of Christian lies: that there are no atheists in foxholes. Hitch was in a foxhole, and he dealt with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to be able to muster. And in the process, he showed himself to be even more deserving of our admiration, respect, and love.

Farewell, great voice. Great voice of reason, of humanity, of humour. Great voice against cant, against hypocrisy, against obscurantism and pretension, against all tyrants including God.

It was for reasons such as these that I lionized Hitchens. Bill Maher felt similarly.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • John Morales

    That so many believe Christopher would have approved of (fair-minded) criticism of him after his death is itself an encomium, back-handed as it may be.


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