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Dec 16 / Great Apes

The Problem With Christopher Hitchens

As most people have probably heard by now, Christopher Hitchens passed away yesterday after a battle with esophogeal cancer.  In the wake of his death, my Twitter feed (among many other places) sprung to life with glowing praise for Hitchens.  He’s been described as a great wit, a powerful thinker, one of the best writers of the English language, and many other things.  He’s been praised for his directness and refusal to stand on ceremony.  Well then, in the spirit of that remark let me say that Christopher Hitchens was an asshole.

Why was Hitchens an asshole?  There’s his support for the vile and disastrous Iraq war.  There’s his disgusting sexism; he believed that evolution had made women unfunny and that sexual harassment was largely invented (and as an aside, it’s bizarre that Hitchens could say the same kinds of things that Margaret Wente gets excorciated for, and yet Hitchens is considered a great writer and Wente is considered a windbag).  There’s his pompous bigotry toward religious people, with examples being too numerous for it to be worth naming individual instances.

Of all the things that Hitchens has been praised for, it seems his style is the primary focus.  This is strange to me because of all the things one could criticse Hitchens for, I think his style has to be one of his greatest flaws.  He seemed to revel in being ill-tempered, impatient, and generally difficult to deal with.  This is a man who makes Richard Dawkins look humble.  I have to think that Hitchens’ style makes him perhaps the worst ambassador that atheists in particular could ask for.  He had no interest in trying to understand or engage with the other side, he just wanted to proclaim loudly how right he was and how wrong everyone else was.

Contrast that with Kurt Vonnegut, a well known atheist/agnostic humanist, who argued strongly for that worldview in his day.  For example, Breakfast of Champions, my favourite novel, recasts the language of religion to argue in favour of secular humanism.  Vonnegut doesn’t argue that religious people are stupid or evil or immoral; instead, he argues that all of the things that people search for in religion can be found in a sense of wonderment about our universe and the people we share it with.  For another example, read “Yes, We Have No Nirvanas”, published in Wampeters, Foma, And Granfalloons.  In it, Vonnegut tries to understand why his wife and daughter would follow the seemingly absurd teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, spiritual advisor to The Beatles.  Vonnegut pokes fun at Maharishi and the beliefs and rituals that he proposed, but the entire piece is driven by Vonnegut’s compassion for his family and his understanding of peoples’ search for greater things to attach themself to.

Unlike Vonnegut, who argued with a humble, patient understanding of the people he disagreed with, Hitchens more often than not seemed interested in showing off how smart he thought he was and how stupid he believed other people were.  He made little effort to engage those he disagreed with, to understand them, to argue with them on a level playing field.  And this is at the heart of why I could never stand Hitchens.  In my mind, a great writer (or orator) has to embody at a minimum the following three qualities: a compelling style of speaking or writing, intelligent and thoughtful insights into human behaviour, and compassion not just for those one agrees with, but for those one disagrees with as well.  Many people believe Hitchens had the first of those qualities, but I don’t think he had the second and he couldn’t have been further from the third.  What he was, to me, was a man who argued rudely, often in favour of harmful views, in a manner that had little respect for those who disagreed with him.  I don’t think that’s something that needs to be celebrated.


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  1. Karina / Dec 16 2011

    Well done and this fits my feelings well. I felt extremely disconnected from my twitter timeline last night to see the people celebrating his writing. Stylistically he had amazing talent but beyond that I could never enjoy what he wrote.

  2. Ryan / Dec 16 2011

    A few points:

    I certainly won’t defend everything Hitch wrote about women, but to paint an outspoken advocate for the idea that the empowerment of women was the very cure (not a component of it) to global poverty as broadly misogynistic seems to require more than a bit of confirmation bias.

    I challenge your claim of bigotry toward religious people. Hatred of religion itself is his most common theme, but it’s mostly over his idea of how horribly religious institutions treat people, including — and sometimes especially — their own members. Even the harshest criticism of religion is not automatically bigotry toward those who embrace it. I’ve read most of his work and, for all the times I’ve clashed with what I’ve read, I can’t recall ever observing hatred for people on the basis of what they believed (on the basis of promoting harmful ideas, yes, but this was not widely applied to believers in any work I read). You say the examples are numerous, so finding one or two should be a simple enough request to indulge yes? I’m really curious about what you’re referring to.

    Style is mostly a matter of taste. I won’t begrudge you yours. I will suggest that I don’t think Hitchens was ever really trying to win converts. He was a polemicist, and an exceptional one, which has been the focus of a lot of his recent praise. I read his books as attempts to energize atheists to understand why religion is not just wrong, but so often harmful, that some of them who are better at PR than him might take on a mission. The number of people speaking to his work’s encouraging them to come out of the atheist closet last night was quite a spectacle. His style no doubt put a lot of people off, but it was at least effective.

    You’ll probably face criticism for posting this in the immediate aftermath of his death, but I enjoyed the timing. One of my favourite Hitchens moments was his declaration that “If you gave Jerry Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox,” which came, If I recall correctly, two days after Falwell’s death. You have at least one stylistic in common with him now, and I mean that as a compliment.

    • Great Apes / Dec 18 2011

      Well, for example, there’s the passage where he’s quoted at the end of this piece (,3), where he talks about cluster bombs tearing through Korans. It’s not enough for him that his enemies die, no, what he really wants is for them to die in a way that debases their religious beliefs. He wants them to die in a way that proves that their religious beliefs are powerless to protect them against the might of NATO. Religious beliefs that are shared by many peaceful people around the world.

      As for misogyny, I can’t comment on what his views on women as a whole were. I think it’s perfectly plausible that he was a strong advocate for women on some issues. But I also think it’s fair to call him out for occasions when he took a starkly chauvinistic view of women, and I’ve certainly come across more of those.

  3. Phil / Dec 16 2011

    I agree – Hitchens was an asshole, but so what? Why not condemn all those on the opposite side of his debates as equal assholes? In religion, he argues against people who think that atheists are amoral and, in some cases, infidels. When faced with that sort of initial reaction, sometimes it is worth having someone who is bombastic to the point of being wrong. We constantly get to listen to the influence of the religions right in American politics who blatantly think any opposing argument is wrong because “god”, I think it was valuable to have an equally obtuse voice on the other side.

    This does not mean he should be idolized or every word be taken as truth. He was a provocateur and they are necessary to help us see past the usual lines and take a new view on a subject. In those aspects, despite his coarse nature, I found him useful and worthy of praise. All arguments have their muckrakers.

    • Great Apes / Dec 18 2011

      This piece was written in response to what seemed to me to be an over-eager attempt to paint Hitchens as a figure worthy of reverence (perhaps ironic, given his views). It doesn’t seem to be the place to discuss the people he disagrees with, because I wasn’t responding to them.

      As to whether sometimes it’s worth being bombastic, well, maybe, but I think my examples from Vonnegut’s writing show that it is possible to be opposed to something in a manner that’s respectful and, I hope, productive. One could come up with other examples of prominent atheists, like Albert Einstein or Albert Camus, who also treated the subject matter with respect and understanding.

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