On balance: regarding critical perspectives on Christopher Hitchens’ life

While most of the other male Noumenons are quite fans of Christopher Hitchens, and to some extent, I quite like his ‘God is not Great’. There is, however, a number of pieces going against the grain orbituary pieces which place the man in a more critical light. I’ve just sent them to the other Noumenons and it has enlivened a midnight discussion at present. We have found the articles through Leiter Reports, and it certainly provides food for thought. The critical allegations which I find really challenging to the legacy of Hitchen’s reputation and writings are the following:

  1. Hitchens’ position on Iraq, specifically, the allegation that he said that he did not ‘change his position’ about supporting the war, but shifted from an initial WMD line of justification (following Blair/Bush), but the justifications that I recall him often saying (when we came across him ff 2006) were on the basis that Saddam Hussein was a dictator and any dicator should be removed with a democratic order. These are clearly different reasons and it is bad faith, and disingenuous to say the justification is the same, it is difficult to say it is not changing a position of support, when the platform of support is vastly different.
  2. Hitchens’ talk of Islam or ‘Islamofascism’ was one of those thematic soundbites that he had (along with the very notable: ‘we are created sick [by God], and commanded to be well’).
  3. There is one specific allegation pertaining to his reference to the Dixie Chicks (who in my view are a bit of a cultural obscurity) as ‘fucking fat slags’ (sic). There are many different ways to cut across or try to prosthyletise sexist language (e.g. ‘its a generational thing’/’journalism is full of men’), but it’s just poor rhetoric at best, or crass chauvinism at worst.
  4. The personal character of Hitchens is one who drinks often, Hitchens himself acknowledges this in various interviews. I recall a saying of his in an interview where he quipped that if one couldn’t be without a drink to be a creative writer, then they are a failure. According to personal testimonies, Hitchen’s character when drunk was highly uncomfortable and a bullying character. Michael is currently writing a book review on A.C. Grayling’s ‘The Good Book’, where he earlier made a pertinent comment to me that the problem with Grayling’s address of the character of Solon in Humanist “Book of Acts” is that he’s too positive and not critical. Michael’s point is that it does an injustice to Solon’s deserved reputation as a great man not to acknowledge that he was not perfect, and that his reforms (such as the measure to end slavery debts) did cause problems as well as solving others. So, when I asked Michael earlier if these critical appraisals still affected his admiration of the departed Christopher Hitchens he simply replied: Is Solon a great reformer?


Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

As with many other important things, I found out on a regular visit to the BBC’s news website that Christopher Hitchens had died. Many of his regular readers, or fans, if you will, were expecting this news ever since his cancer was discovered. It is normally the custom in honouring the dead, to start with a platitude about life, living or death. I feel that this would be a tired cliche, and could be found in orbituaries and other such memoriam posts around the internet and print media.

If there’s one thing I can say about Hitchens is that he wrote broadly. Hitchens was well read and the ‘texts’ which he imbibed in varied from political philosophy, new atheism, English Literature to the more lowbrow nuances of popular culture. Hitchens covered a wide range of bases which captured the zeitgeist of the past three or four decades, and from my limited life experience, he captured the 2000s pretty well, for an author of a elder age where youth was emphasised in the public sphere, he showed a razor sharp understanding of the times and even when his interpretations and analyses were often disputed vehemently, he provoked a discussion on topics which one would not normally consider.

Hitchens in various parts of his ‘Arguably’ anthology, alludes to figures whom he has been compared to, such as Gore Vidal and George Orwell. The former in his social views and public profile, and perhaps the latter, in that both were journalists with a conscientious socialist bent. Hitchens proved that the journalist could be an intellectual, and in an ever changing world, the agenda and focii of the intellectual should also broaden.My own influence from Hitchens would be that he showed the possibility and desirability of combining elements from disperate subject matters, traditions and merging of a ‘high’ cultural corpus with a ‘low’ cultural focus to create focussed articles which were more readable than the literary and intellectual figures which he would reference. The passing of his life also represents to me a changing mindset and environment going on around the world. In the way that people would talk about historical moments such as the 1968 student movement, or the fall of the Berlin Wall. I suspect that 2011 would be the year of dissent and global disquiet about the status quo.


Book Review: Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens

I have a penchant for big books. At the present moment, I’m trying to prepare for a very hard job assessment interview by reading a whole textbook on social research methods, at the same time I am reading a book by Anthony (‘AC’) Grayling which is also a large book, but according to the cover of the book (and the title), its not just a big book, it’s “The Good Book”, talk about self-publicity. Because I surround myself purposely with difficult things: big books; books on scientific method; books written by Adorno; black metal, or trying to learn badminton with a motor skills disability, I make an effort to lighten up my life from time to time. I enjoy a good laugh, I enjoy children’s literature, I act like a child. This is usually a way of making myself seem more accessible to people, if they really knew that I was thinking about the importance of despair, or whether Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer uphold Kantian tradition, I don’t think people can really peer inside.

Why have I just written a paragraph about myself in what is titled a book review for Christopher Hitchens? It is my ode to the man. A good essay should start with a preamble, an academic essay should start with ‘In this essay I shall do x,y,z which relates to systematic concerns a,b,c’. Hitchens writes in the former style, for a man who reads things of the former. Hitchens is a man of diverse personality and immensely wide interests. Hitchens consistently writes in a personable manner and shows humour that is unexpected and pathos in things we so easily wish to forget.

Hitchens’ series of Essays in this publication, released earlier this year (perhaps the most ‘newest’ book I’ve read that’s worth blogging about), are on a variety of subjects, most are from various publications such as Vanity Fair, Slate Magazine and The Nation, and most are within the past decade. Many of the topics are contemporary, such as the use of words such as ‘like’ or ‘y’know’ which are filler words taking place in sentences. When I find Guardian Journalists such as Jess Cartner-Morley and politicians even as eminent as the Prime Minister using such filler sentences, I know that a cultural epidemic is taking place. A great essay is one which makes one so self conscious they look over their back, or in the mirror, to become more self aware. I personally am, like, y’know, trying to sort of, kinda get rid of, y’know, the filler words that I over use, really.

Hitchens should not be typified as one of the ‘Four Horsemen’, or the archetype of ‘New Atheists’. This would undermine the breadth of his work. Perhaps notably, few of his essays address the typical subjects he embraces in his public talks on the evils of religion or from his book ‘God is Not Great’. This is a good thing, it’s terrible to repeat your ideas (note to self, keep this one in mind). Hitchens reveals a more nuanced appreciation of the Arab world in this anthology, as he addresses many of his experiences in countries such as Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a level of liberalism and sophistication in many of these countries which is ignored by the mainstream media. Hitchens addresses the side effects of war through his book reviews on figures such as Rebecca West, events during the inter-war years, and a very powerful essay on the consequences of ‘Agent Orange’ in Vietnam. Hitchens addresses subjects of great gravitas, many of which are often ignored.

Some subjects couldn’t be more contemporary, One essay on the Eurozone crisis (written in 2010) may well have been written a fortnight ago. Hitchens addresses issues relating to EU diplomacy and tensions in this political communion. I tend to read the author as more British than American, but Hitchens is very apt at speaking from a US point of view as well. I forget (perhaps too easily) that Hitchens predominantly writes for a North American audience. Hitchens displays familiarity with many of the literary greats of the 20th Century, from his visit to see author V.S Naipaul, to a review on J.G. Ballard, as wll as his numerous allusions to Gore Vidal (a man who is often compared with Hitchens) and Martin Amis. Hitchens is a man with many famous friends. This is evidenced by an evend held this month at the London Southbank, which celebrated the life and work of Christopher Hitchens (Hitchens was set to attend but became suddenly unwell prior to the event).

One forgets too easily that Hitchens, before he became the fanboy object of many a ‘New Atheist’, was a journalist for his bread and butter, who observed on many foreign affairs. One theme prevalent in this anthology is the cultural role of a ‘hack’ in the modern world. Hitchens addresses the numerous views on how ‘inferior’ the journalist is in comparison to the historian, or the poet. Hitchens rightly points out how the public intellectual at least in perception, varies significantly from the journalist, yet despite the criticism to what is his bread-and-butter profession, Hitchens shows by example that one can be a journalist as well as an intellectual. I think that one day, Librivox will release an edition of Hitchens’ ‘Arguably’ and future people will see it in the same way I would see a collection of essays by George Orwell, another journalist of merit. It will be a work of historical importance, successfully capturing the zeitgeist of what was the Noughties generation; a baby-boomer and gen x, y generation; what life was like during the early internet age. Hitchens made art out of the internet newspaper, it may be true that online ‘publications’ are mostly full of things that will easily be forgotten over the decades, but buried in all that shit are a few gems of authorship. Gems such as the work of Christopher Hitchens.

The anthology was written, if I am to believe the introduction, at the urgency of keeping active. As many readers may know, Christopher Hitchens is enduring oesophageal cancer. Hitchens addresses his condition briefly and in his candour, admits that his writing and public engagements are the one thing that keep him going. Knowing that his death is immanent, it is as if he writes now (or perhaps better said, he reads now) as if her is already a dead man.

As a closing remark, I recommend anyone whether reading the book or not, who is not squeamish about matters sexual, to read the insightful, humourous and profoundly unusual essay ‘As American as Apple Pie’. To put it crudely, it’s about blowjobs.I can’t imagine George Orwell or Gore Vidal writing about such a subject!


Links: ‘Valuing the Humanities’ discussion, and Munk debate with Blair/Hitchens

In answering a query made by a previous comment, I submit two links pertinent to the Munk Debate on religion. The motion advanced was: religion is a force for good in the world. Promoting the case was Tony Blair, former UK prime minister and against, Christopher Hitchens. Here is the official Munk foundation webpage and here is a podcast from CBC with what I think is an editorial. The latter is open access and the former asks for a fee to download or stream the full debate.

Another link to put up here. Michael made a post last week concerning the ‘Valuing the Humanities’ panel discussion. The British Philosophical Association has uploaded a downloadable mp3 here with the full discussion.


(Link) Hitchen’s reported lapses into homosexuality

I thought I would share a piece that I found on the Telegraph. An interesting take on how to ‘fast track’ to the inner circle (no pun intented) of the conservative party, that, or being a female Muslim.

The journalist Christopher Hitchens is on a roll right now, chiefly for his devastating put-down of Anna Ford, after she dissed his friend Martin Amis, but also by virtue of his new memoirs Of his occasional lapses into homosexuality at Oxford, he recalls that these included “mild and mildly enjoyable” flings with two youths who later became members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. Cue for a pause, for the bad-minded among us to work out which Tory ministers were at Oxford with Chris H. But it wouldn’t matter much if we guessed right. Once, being outed as gay would be political death among Tories. Now it’s pretty well a short cut for inclusion in David Cameron’s A-list. [Melanie McDonagh]


Three Polemicals: The cultural merit of religious culture

There seems to be two ways (inter alia) in which we can distinguish the views of Dennett, Hitchens and Dawkins.

1. The issue of ‘Brights’

From what I’ve read, it seems that both Dennett and Dawkins believe that it is a good thing to come out as an atheist, agnostic, secular or ‘rationalist’. This is good as a statement of solidarity against religious belief and its prevalence in the world. Dawkins asserts that coming out as a bright is comparable to coming out as a homosexual in the 1960s-70s, in that its a minority affair and people are still stigmatised for it. This is an interesting analogy to make, especially given both the fight that gay rights still has to make, and the progress it has made so far.

Hitchens differs on this issue, stating that irreligiousity is no position at all. To be an anti-theist (the preferred term) is a negative, and it is pointless to be assertive about a thesis that essentially does not have any propositions except negations. Hitchens gives the conciliartory example of Hume, who had friends and amicable relations with religious persons and his views, while challenging through the written word, did not encapsulate him as a person. This is an issue of, what some people call ‘Freedom of the Pen’. Both points seem to be correct, although Hitchens’ justification seems like a red herring here. It is contingently true that in many parts of the world, coming out as a secularist leads to much unpopularity, in that sense, there is a political and ideological significance, at least contingently, for ‘coming out’.

2. Should we abandon religion and religious belief?

Hitchens makes this point very strongly, and so does Dawkins to a lesser extent. What I find interesting and convincing in the argument of Hitchens and Dawkins is the unifying component of the explanatory thesis ‘religion ruins everything’. Dawkins addresses how a lot of evil comes from religious belief, such as New Labour policies, the deleterious notion of ‘diversity’ (although not developed as well as I would have wanted this point to be), and intolerance. Hitchens’ line of thought on this issue is persuasive in that he points out how many of the recent global incidents are related to religion. The violence in Serbia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and historical Europe are almost entirely fuelled by religious figures, in such a way where it is exceptionally difficult to give the defence of distinguishing between the ‘official doctrine’ and ‘misinterpretation’.

There are ways in which wars are not labelled as religious, and keeps a certain kind of truce in war, by re-labelling the nature of the conflict. Factions divided by ethnicity gloss over the fact that this division is also religion-based. ‘Eth nic cleansing’ is a terrible phenomena, but even more terrible is the fact that it is just as discriminatory against religious groups than it is an ‘ethnic’ one. It is uncouth to acknowledge a religiously based war where there is one, compared to the more packageable and media-friendly ethnically based hatred. There are a lot of other appeals that Hitchens makes, such as the horrors of childhood genital rituals. Hitchens gives the example of how children had died from a circumcision ritual which involved manually removing the foreskin with his teeth; some children had contracted genital herpes as a result.

By making the moral and social corruption of religion total, there is a sense in which Hitchens (and Dawkins) assert that religion must go. It is by trying to argue for the totalising negative effects that such an argument can work; Dennett by contrast, remains agnostic on the issue that religion needs to die. Dawkins does establish that religion has an very important cultural significance; Dawkins goes into great detail to describe how there are many phrases in English which are derived from the King James version, there are also a great many literary references that cannot be understood without familiarity with the Bible. Consider the poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ (Plath), which is an interesting twist on the miracle story of ressurection.  Hitchens is perhaps the most notable in this kind of argument because he almost accepts his own inner conflict on this issue; while religion ruins everything, a life without the reference to the past, and the past’s preoccupation of religion and religious ideas is untenable. Our cultural heritage stems from these many biblical references, and these influences make our culture rich.

Consider the case of Yiddish culture, it has been said and reported on that there is a state of decline in Yiddish culture. Most of Yiddish culture seems to be based around New York City. Although Yiddish culture seems to be fighting for its continuation by the few proponents it does have, there are many influences in New Yorker culture that have been exported, this ranges from inflections or synonyms for male to the music and harmony of George Gershwin. There is a sense in which, our deference to religious culture, in terms of how it has influenced people and still continues to influence us in popular culture or even high culture, is important for the continuation of great music, comedy, poetry etc. This seems to be the biggest concession of the New Atheists; but not one that is harmful to their argument. It is this concession that seems to make the notion of an aggressive atheist seem redundant (granted that they acknowledge this issue).

As a side point, I have heard that many historians of ancient and medieval philosophy tend to have a religious background; Martha Nussbaum being the popular example. This seems to make more sense to me when considering Hitchens’ point that he earlier made, that skills such as biblical referencing, memorising passages are skills of exegesis, that is, the critical, expositional and interpretative abilities that are transferrable from the study of religious texts to say, the works of Aristotle. I’ve found, for instance, that every particular historical thinker has their own set of exegetical problems and issues, here are a few of them:

1. Authorship – as there are questionable authors in the Old and New Testaments, there is also the similar problem of authorship in Aristotle scholarship
2. (mis)Translation – there are issues in Kant scholarship between translation that is readable in english, or translation that is accurately verbose, syntactically complex that genuinely reflects the complexity of Kant’s original German – consider that, with modernising the bible to account for modern english to the point of diluting it.
3. Consistency – Leibniz changes his views throughout the corpus of his work, such to say that a systematic view is difficult or perhaps not desirable. Whether there is a unified view, or a series of works that enable thought and encourage certain ways of thinking is a disputed issue. Why does the work have to be systematic anyway? A similar point can be made in Nietsche studies
4. The significance of writing style/role of interpreters: Song of Songs is a poetic love story, whereas the letters of Paul tend to be more didactic; does the differing writing style entail a different method or presentation of dogma? Catholicism deals with this by stating dogma through the various encyclicals and systematic theologies which present ‘how to read the Bible’ . Another movement attempts to study biblical texts in historical ways. Aristotle studies has a comparible history; there are the interpreters who had seemed to have a high status in disseminating Aristotle’s works with elaboration and guarding a certain kind of reading. Catholicism too has its doctors, like Augustine and Aquinas, who carry the ‘recieved view’ of Catholic beliefs. There are also ‘hereticals’ who interpret differently. Difference in interpretation can be treated with eccentricity, respect, or as a view in its own right, consider the case of Kripke’s work on Wittgenstein.

In short, there is a certain cultrual and educational import, but this is apparently a small concession for the New Atheists, as it is not a concession on beliefs, but the cultural impact of religions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not an argument used ‘against’ atheism.


Three polemicals: Pork

Do you like pork?

Upon reading Hitchen’s extended essay, God is Not Great. I considered writing a single piece of a review but I thought against it. Instead I will pass over particular issues as vignettes; some issues brought up are quite original, some formulaic in the New Atheist tribe, but Hitchens is a figure who I am surprised to find some enjoyment of reading. Not to say that I agree; here is one particularly curious notion he addresses: Pork.

Islam and Judaism are typically horrified by the eating of pork; and Hitchens does not wish to give the standard explanation concerning how improper cooking of them brought illness; instead, he appeals to the perception of pigs as animals which are barbaric and dirty. The cultural prejudice against the pig, which is completely the opposite in Britain (so Hitchens claims), has led to the Islamic world either banning, or severely editing works such as Animal Farm, or Winnie-the-Pooh.

This prejudice, Hitchens argues, is challenged when we see pigs in more habitable and humane living conditions. When pigs are given free reign, they act in more individualistic, amicable and even an intelligent manner. There is a sense in which pigs are human-like, in their ability to seemingly have conversations between each other, and form personal bonds and rituals of hygiene when they are not herded and under strict surveillance by humans.

If treated in such a manner where they are herded and under strict control, they would act frightened, irrational, and in a constant state of panic. Given this, it would seem understandable to perceive them as frantic and disgusting beings, as we have seen them, and put them, in their worst situation. It is the human analogy of pigs that also sheds light on the frantic behaviour of human beings when they are oppressed. Being an expert on George Orwell, Hitchens’ allusion (unstated) to 1984, I think, is presumed upon the reader and, surprising enough; a Foucauldian point is made in this analogy. Through the agencies of state surveillance, we become like the prisoners in Bentham’s panopticlon. This is no representation of humans insofar as it is a contingent situation; mutatis mutandis, we can be just like those pigs in factory-farmed conditions.

The last observation I wish to make is that, despite the aforementioned undeveloped and somewhat profound point, Hitchen’s makes a point which is very weak; there is a point at which he insinuates that the very value of the taste of pork is a reason to oppose the notion that pork-eating is abhorrent. Clearly here, Hitchens is no friend of the vegan, or the various dietic and sustainability arguments against meat-eating, but I will not address it from that angle. Hitchens is making an appeal to experience and the pleasurable nature of pork to base a wider assertion of his approval of pork in the guise of an essay’s argument.

While it is far too juvenile to make the point that the liking of pork is a subjective matter; but one might make the point that it is simply a matter of disposition as to whether one likes pork or not, and is not the subject of genuine and disinterested approval. More often than not, my recent experiences with pork have not been great; although that is not to say that there have been good, if not great times with the ingredient.

While it is certainly possible to elaborate on how the pork is prepared or additional ingredients; what kind of food and drink accompanies pork well. While it is possible to argue the merits of pork between people; there must be some assumed shared culinary ground. In other words, there is a point where which disposition may fundamentally decide whether one likes pork or not, and one simply cannot argue for or against that which one is disposed by. I shall still consider it moot, as my own view on pork is moot. It seems wanting, however, to bank on the revelation that pork by means of its taste alone, provides a merit for the eating of pork. Pleasure in the agreeable is hard to argue about.


The charge of (literary) elitism: Hitchen’s on God is not Great

I have been reading Christopher Hitchens’ popular book, God is Not Great. I must say, that I quite thoroughly enjoyed the book and thought that there are some particular strengths of it which may be construed as weaknesses, depending on the nature of the reader. This led me to have a certain realisation. Hitchens writes, perhaps, in a way that presumes too much of the reader. This is not a work written for accessibility, or in other words, it presumes a certain level of readingand educ ation, as well as, oddly enough, a knowledge of pop culture.

I find it quite odd how some books I think that few of my immediate peers would actually be able to understand certain references. I recently read Anderson’s ‘Free’, and in that, there are a lot of references to social networking, open source initiatives and bascially, very geeky things like google reader that most people will be baffled about.

Regarding the case of Hitchens, I think a more serious case can be made. I feel that it excludes a certain kind of reader, and I feel that, if a reader has already accomplished tasks like reading Hume, one really doesn’t need to read why ‘God is Not Great’. In other words, the aim of the book is to not preach to the ‘converted’, but convince a non-antitheist audience.

I have a certain fear of this book, that it is parasitic on other arguments and works. However, another take on this is that Hitchens knows the ‘other side’, namely, the arguments of his opponents, and he knows his Biblical exegesis quite well. I find a lot in common in my intellectual and literary sentiment. The namedropping involved in Hitchen’s book is part of his eccentric writing style and, given that he is not an academic but a journalistic writer, it is more a sign of pride than self-indulgence.

I find it unfortunate that Hitchen’s critics attack on the basis of ad-hominem. Hitchens does not deserve this, especially because there are lots of elements in his book that are unique, non-parasitic and signify that he is not trynig to be exclusive in rallying out old arguments and rehash. Hitchens, for instance, talks of his contact with the Sai Baba cult and how he is recognised as a minor prophet by Sai Baba followers (this is a particularly sad story, yet funny and disturbing at the same time). Hitchens also, through his journalistic pursuits has an interesting story about Mother Theresa which says more about the people trying to beatify her than any kind of religious insight whatsoever.

I did some homework on Hitchen’s bgraphy and it looks like any ignorant reader would find it easy to make an ad-hominem argument against him. Hitchen’s was part of a Trotskyist group and a writer for a socialist publication, and then he is later associated with having ‘far right’ views, like the support of the Iraqi invasion (which is quite an interesting perspective on the issue). I find myself quite liking Mr. Hitchens, and the fact that he is terribly knowledgeable for a man who wrote for Vanity Fair.