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Naughty but Clever Hitch: An Illicit Love

June 6, 2007

I haven’t actually heard it, but it looks like Christopher Hitchens has cleaned Mark Roberts clock, wrist-watch, alarm clock and other household timepieces on Hugh Hewitt’s show today. Read the comments. Ouch.

Mark is a very smart and good man. Hitchens is a very skilled polemicist. There’s a difference and I bet the audience will score the debate according to their preference.

As a contrarian, I am pretty much obligated by law to revere Hitchens. And I do, in a way. The guy is just fucking cool. He’ll kick your ass in the most intellectually demeaning way possible and have a great time doing it. You don’t want to be on the wrong side of Christopher Hitchens, except when he’s on the wrong side.

Which he is frequently.

Take his obituary for Ronald Regan, who died 3 years ago today:

The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump.

I was neither fan nor despiser of Regan growing up, but when he died I realized how much I had come to agree with his outlook on this country, and how great a leader he was. Still when I read this, I had to laugh at the audaciousness. Hitchens calls it like he sees it.

He did it to Jerry Falwell this past week too:

The discovery of the carcass of Jerry Falwell on the floor of an obscure office in Virginia has almost zero significance, except perhaps for two categories of the species labeled “credulous idiot.” The first such category consists of those who expected Falwell (and themselves) to be bodily raptured out of the biosphere and assumed into the heavens, leaving pilotless planes and driverless trucks and taxis to crash with their innocent victims as collateral damage. This group is so stupid and uncultured that it may perhaps be forgiven. It is so far “left behind” that almost its only pleasure is to gloat at the idea of others being abandoned in the same condition.

Hitchens is so ungracious that even in the immediate aftermath of death he cannot resist sinking the cold sharp fangs of his reason into the corpse. I think that’s sad, even for someone like Falwell.

He concludes:

In his dingy racist past, Falwell attacked those churchmen who mixed the two worlds of faith and politics and called for civil rights. Then he realized that two could play at this game and learned to play it himself. Then he won the Republican Party over to the idea of religious voters and faith-based fund raising. And now, by example at least, he has inspired emulation in many Democrats and liberals who would like to borrow the formula.

Maybe he’s onto something here!

Still I have to admire him for his tenacity, and I have to say a certain commitment to the truth. I’ve never come across another writer who can be so wrong at times – and still get me to agree with him. I would like to learn from that. But I, and Mark Roberts, are probably not inherently vicious enough to go there. More to the point, Hitchens is so closed to the idea of God I think only God could get through.

If I ever meet him, I would love to infuriate him by telling him I pray for his salvation. Because I honestly have on occasion. If he decided to go off on me that would be fine. I’ve been zinged personally by Don Rickles (long story). I could take Hitch.

For a recent debate where Hitch is on the right side try Zombietime’s account of Hitchen’s debate with Chris Hedges of American Fascists fame:

Hitchens: But, to what I think is the hidden agenda of the question: ‘Is George Bush on a Christian crusade in Iraq and Afghanistan?’ Obviously not, obviously not. Anyone who’s studied what’s happening in either of those countries now knows that the whole of American policy — and by the way a lot of your own future, ladies and gentlemen — is staked on the hope that federal secular democrats can emerge from this terrible combat. We can protect them and offer them help while they do so. We know that they’re there, that we are — I’ve met them, I love them, they’re our friends. Every member of the 82nd Airborne Division could be a snake-handling congregationalist, for all I know, but these men and women, though you sneer and jeer at them, and snigger when you hear applause and excuses for suicide bombers — and you have to live with the shame of having done that — these people are guarding you while you sleep, whether you know it or not. And they’re also creating space for secularism to emerge, and you better hope that they are successful.

Hedges: I feel like I should be reading Kipling’s White Man’s Burden.

Audience: Laughter.

Hitchens: What you mean is you wish you had read it.

Always be closing. Remember that Mark!

•••

All that to say, I thought I would dust off this unfinished draft I wrote back on Oct 12, 2005. It’s one of the 40 odd unfinished posts I have floating around.

One of my favorite themes here (besides the war) is the idea of people who are opposed to each other giving a begrudging respect, even fondness for each other. My fondness for Hitch is like E.J. Dionne’s fondness for William F. Buckley (click for more):

From Oct. 12, 2005:

Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne confesses today of an “illicit love”– that he has been a lifelong admirer of William F. Buckley, founder of the modern conservative movement and National Review magazine:

…if liberals are to exercise power again, they need to come to terms with Buckley’s genius in understanding how ideas interact with the day-to-day needs of politics. Buckley was more intellectual than most practical politicians, and more practical than most intellectuals…

My main criticism of Buckley is that he was far too effective on behalf of a movement that I think should be driven from power. And if you read that as a compliment, you’re right.

I must confess to having a similar regard for Christopher Hitchens. As a white, male evangelical Christian who supports the War, it’s pretty hard to get much respect from those who do not shard my world view (90% of my friends and colleagues these days). That’s why Hitchens is so useful. A bona-fide man of the Left, his masterful polemics have usually been targeted at the right, especially Ronald Reagan’s anti-Communist escapades in Nicauragua and El Salvador, the first Gulf War and the Cold War in general. All his life he has stood for revolution and the rights of common people to escape political and economic oppression. For those same reasons he now supports the war in Iraq, much to the distress of his admirers on the Left:

One might have thought, therefore, that Bush and Blair’s decision to put an end at last to this intolerable state of affairs [in Iraq] would be hailed, not just as a belated vindication of long-ignored U.N. resolutions but as some corrective to the decade of shame and inaction that had just passed in Bosnia and Rwanda. But such is not the case. An apparent consensus exists, among millions of people in Europe and America, that the whole operation for the demilitarization of Iraq, and the salvage of its traumatized society, was at best a false pretense and at worst an unprovoked aggression. How can this possibly be?

THERE IS, first, the problem of humorless and pseudo-legalistic literalism. In Saki’s short story The Lumber Room, the naughty but clever child Nicholas, who has actually placed a frog in his morning bread-and-milk, rejoices in his triumph over the adults who don’t credit this excuse for not eating his healthful dish:

“You said there couldn’t possibly be a frog in my bread-and-milk; there was a frog in my bread-and-milk,” he repeated, with the insistence of a skilled tactician who does not intend to shift from favorable ground.

Childishness is one thing–those of us who grew up on this wonderful Edwardian author were always happy to see the grown-ups and governesses discomfited. But puerility in adults is quite another thing, and considerably less charming. “You said there were WMDs in Iraq and that Saddam had friends in al Qaeda. . . . Blah, blah, pants on fire.” I have had many opportunities to tire of this mantra. It takes ten seconds to intone the said mantra. It would take me, on my most eloquent C-SPAN day, at the very least five minutes to say that Abdul Rahman Yasin, who mixed the chemicals for the World Trade Center attack in 1993, subsequently sought and found refuge in Baghdad; that Dr. Mahdi Obeidi, Saddam’s senior physicist, was able to lead American soldiers to nuclear centrifuge parts and a blueprint for a complete centrifuge (the crown jewel of nuclear physics) buried on the orders of Qusay Hussein; that Saddam’s agents were in Damascus as late as February 2003, negotiating to purchase missiles off the shelf from North Korea; or that Rolf Ekeus, the great Swedish socialist who founded the inspection process in Iraq after 1991, has told me for the record that he was offered a $2 million bribe in a face-to-face meeting with Tariq Aziz. And these eye-catching examples would by no means exhaust my repertoire, or empty my quiver. Yes, it must be admitted that Bush and Blair made a hash of a good case, largely because they preferred to scare people rather than enlighten them or reason with them. Still, the only real strategy of deception has come from those who believe, or pretend, that Saddam Hussein was no problem.

If you are one of my many friends who against the war, but has never read Hitchens, please read this whole article, especially taking note of his 10 positive results from the war so far. He continues:

It would be admirable if the president could manage to make such a presentation. It would also be welcome if he and his deputies adopted a clear attitude toward the war within the war: in other words, stated plainly, that the secular and pluralist forces within Afghan and Iraqi society, while they are not our clients, can in no circumstance be allowed to wonder which outcome we favor.

The great point about Blair’s 1999 speech was that it asserted the obvious. Coexistence with aggressive regimes or expansionist, theocratic, and totalitarian ideologies is not in fact possible. One should welcome this conclusion for the additional reason that such coexistence is not desirable, either.

His conclusion is as good a summary of the primary reason why I have started this blog; why I cannot sleep as well as I should; why I worry about the direction this country is headed; why I am greatly concerned and distressed as to where the hearts and minds of my friends – nearly all liberal – stand on this matter:

If the great effort to remake Iraq as a demilitarized federal and secular democracy should fail or be defeated, I shall lose sleep for the rest of my life in reproaching myself for doing too little. But at least I shall have the comfort of not having offered, so far as I can recall, any word or deed that contributed to a defeat.

However, on other days I am forced to recall that insofar as Hitchens is a non or even anti-religious person, there is much that divides us. It is not so much that he is clearly wrong at times (although he is that too), but that he can be spectacularly ungracious when it comes to religious issues and people- especially Christian ones. His current Slate article “Miers and Brimstone: Let’s stop pretending there’s no religious test for nominees” has plenty of spleen for everybody; but it reserves special contempt for evangelical Christianity as especially insidious and hypocritical.

What in God’s name—you should forgive the expression—is all this about there being “no religious test” for appointments to high public office? Most particularly in the case of the U.S. Supreme Court, there is the most blatant religious test imaginable. You may not even be considered for the bench unless you have a religion of some kind. Surely no adherent of any version of “originalism” can possibly argue that the Framers of the Constitution intended a spoils system to be awarded among competing clerical sects.

Fair enough. But I think the Framers could not concieve of an atheist of such passion and conviction as Hitchens, either. Some kind of religious affiliation was simply assumed. Moreover, insofar as the President is elected by the people, and is responsible for selecting justices, shouldn’t he choose someone at least somewhat in line with the majority of Americans?

Of the nomination of Harriet Miers, by contrast, it can be said that only her religion has been considered by her conservative fans to be worth mentioning. What else is there to say, in any case, about a middling bureaucrat and yes-woman than that she attends some mediocre place of worship? One could happily make a case that more random civilians, and fewer fucking lawyers, should be on the court. But the only other thing to say about Miers is that she is a fucking lawyer. Her own opinion of herself is somewhat higher: She does not attribute her presence among us to the laws of biology but chooses to regard herself as having a personal and unmediated relationship with the alleged Jesus of Nazareth, who is further alleged to be the son of God. Such modesty! On this basis, the president and his people have felt able to issue assurances of her OK-ness. So, as far as I can determine, she was set, and has passed, a religious test: that of being an “Evangelical” Christian.

The first person to read to the bottom of this post will get $10, unless it’s Tim C., who owes me $10, or Rob who can only collect in Gin.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2007 1:51 pm

    Hi Count,

    I listened to most of the Hugh Hewitt show on Tuesday. I was a little surprised at how few facts entered the discussion. The debate seemed to center more on the psychology of believers and non-believers.

    I was very disappointed in Christopher Hitchens. Like you, I think he is an intellect in most matters, but he seems to be so sure there is no God, he hasn’t take the time to develop arguments to make his case to anyone who would be inclined to believe there is a God.

    Pastor Roberts was the model of Christian humility. He often times agreed with the psychological impressions of Christopher Hitchens, but Hitchens really didn’t give Pastor Roberts any facts that needed to be refuted or supported.

    Pastor Roberts came across as a much more classy, thoughtful, and kind man. I was hoping for more, but I can’t imagine anyone representing Christian Character any better than Pastor Roberts.

  2. June 6, 2007 2:13 pm

    Debating the psychology of those who disagree with you in place of the facts seems to be all the freakin’ rage these days- just ask Rob.

    I’m sure that Hitchens came of boorish and small-minded like Bill O’Reilly often does when he hasn’t taken his flax seed for the day.

    That said, I wonder what it is in his background that makes him this way. Spleen of this magnitude doesn’t come from reason alone.

    It’s hard engage the belligerent in a Christian manner without getting hurt, or debasing yourself in the process. Kinda like the war in Iraq. Whoops! I said it again.

  3. June 6, 2007 3:00 pm

    Hi again Count,

    I’m not put off my Hitchens style. While he was boorish, his honesty still came through to me. My disappointment came with the lack of depth in any of his points. He sounded like he was still in High School and he couldn’t be bothered with arguments that require reasoning, not just impressions.

    I don’t think Pastor Roberts or Christianity has anything to worry about from Christopher Hitchens unless we all start elevating impressions above facts and reasoning.

  4. June 13, 2007 8:47 am

    The mind-reading of the motives of those we disagree with is indeed popular these days. It is related to what C.S. Lewis humorously called “Bulverism.” I just reread the essay, reprinted here: http://www.barking-moonbat.com/God_in_the_Dock.html and found it gratifying.

    The problem is not that such examination of motives is never valid, but that there are several tedious pieces which must be in place before we should draw conclusions. First, we must determine that the person’s idea is wrong or inadequate in some way. It is hardly very interesting to examine only the wrong motives of people with a correct knowledge, unless motivation itself is your area of inquiry.

    Second, we should confine ourselves to the actual evidence of what a person has said or done to try and divine motive. Grabbing a pet theory and assuming that it must be playing out in the psyche of others is merely reasoning in a circle. Example: if a man makes cynical comments about women, and in every conversation references his ex-wife within 60 seconds, we may guess that his personal bitterness has influenced his views. But if we can detect no pattern, nor note any unusual arguments or choice of phrasing, we should not hazard to guess that he makes those statements because he had a bad marriage.

  5. Andrew P permalink
    June 13, 2007 1:01 pm

    A question for you Hitchophiles:

    You readily acknowledge his tendency (habit? m.o.) of eschewing analysis, gainsaying reasoned opposition, moving the goalpoats, and using witty repartee rather than logic to “win” arguments, as he did on HH, indeed versus the gentlest of targets.

    Did it ever cross your mind that Hitchens’ neocon-“light” pro-war historic-clash-of-cultures rhetoric might be similarly flawed? That he might be willing to distort and dissemble on behalf of one of his hobby-horses as he does for another?

    As with the fair Ms. Coulter, it just might be that his ungraciousness, formidable as it is, is matched or exceeded by his blindness.

  6. June 14, 2007 6:21 am

    Andrew P. – Maybe so, but that door would swing both ways then, wouldn’t it? The excesses of viciousness from the left might then be considered a point against their ideas.

    Putting more energy into the wittiness of the response rather than the thought behind it has been more a mark of anti-traditionalists of all stripes. Hitchens is, paradoxically, a member of a sector of the left now so out-of-fashion as to make him an outsider again, so in discourse with current progressives he can use that type of attack again. His anti-religious stance is more the norm now, so his use of similar tactics on what used to be the tradition falls flat, as you note.

  7. June 14, 2007 10:53 am

    I finally listened to the first 2 hours of the debate the other day. I thought both parties came off better and more balanced than advertised. As is often the case in these debates of faith, the winner is often in the eye of the beholder.

    I’m not sure I’d agree with your charicterization of Hitchens, Andrew. My problem with Hitchens is more about a lack of graciousness, especially towards the dead, combined with a moral zeal that often devolves into the personal attack or the desire to humiliate one’s opponent. All in all, I thought Hitchens was fairly respectful of Roberts in this debate. As he shold be. People like Chris Hedges- well they are worthy of our contempt.

    I think Hitchens has good facts on Iraq, not so much on God. Not surprising since politics is his specialty and Biblical studies is not. I have no more trouble accepting his allegiance in one area and not the other than you would have say, with a godless socialist Frenchman who is anti-war.

    I can admire Hitchens coolness and moral gusto even as I recognize it as flawed. He can not only turn the table on you, but upend it and proceed to hurl every object from the cupboard at you for good measure. I like that when applied towards a worthy target such as Chris Hedges. Perhaps I see in it echoes of our gentle saviour who turned over tables and called the leaders of his day whitewashed tombs and a brood of vipers. Hitchens has every right to call to account his fellow lefties who expose themselves as morally bankrupt in the face of the challenges of a post 9/11 world.

    I have tried at length on this blog to raise these kinds of issues among Christians without resorting to that kind of rhetoric. The truth is though that beneath the surface these kinds of sentiments lurk on both sides. I have tried to walk the line between acknowledging that fact and taking a strong position on the War without denigrating the character of ideological oponents. I have probably failed in that regard, but it is still my intent.

    I also find it disheartening that you would belabor Hitchens methods on the first mention but never once that of our friend Mr. Asghar, for whom every exchange must eventually devolve into a discussion of my emotional shortcomings. Perhaps you overlook it because you agree with his conclusions. Fair enough, I think I do it with Hitch too, I’m just able to see it as a guilty pleasure when he crosses the line.

  8. June 14, 2007 4:02 pm

    Hi Andrew P.,

    I’m certainly not a Hitchophile, but I can answer your question.

    The reason many of us can consider Hitchens reasonable when discussing terrorism and unreasonable when discussing Christianity is the same reason some of us consider Pastor Roberts reasonable when discussing God and unreasonable when discussing the ONE Campaign: A particular idea is a separate entity from the person holding the particular idea. Ideas are considered valid based on the evidence supporting the idea. The character of the person holding the idea has nothing to do with it.

    A bad person can hold to a good idea just as a good person can hold to a bad idea.

    Apparently, there are many on the left and the right who would rather line up behind someone else than think independently. Too bad, but not everyone is like that.

  9. Andrew P permalink
    June 15, 2007 11:05 am

    [Hitchens] can not only turn the table on you, but upend it and proceed to hurl every object from the cupboard at you for good measure… Perhaps I see in it echoes of our gentle saviour who turned over tables and called the leaders of his day whitewashed tombs and a brood of vipers.

    Hmm.. Hitchens as a Christ figure. I’m not sure who would be more amused — Hitchens or Jesus himself.

  10. June 15, 2007 11:55 pm

    Andrew- Are we not to try to see Christ in all, even in this lowly ally of the neo-cons? I think HItchens blasting his fellow lefties for failing to stand up against totalitarians in the middle east is a wonderfully congruent image to Christ in the temple. But I have no illusions about his flaws (see essay above).
    Please don’t confuse my love for Hitchens- illicit as I admit- with love for wanting to be like Hitchens. I don’t even want to be the Christian Hitchens. I hope that he himself will one day provide us with that amusing spectacle.
    There is a parallel between Hithcens and I in that I seek to help my liberal Christian friends see how their values are often in conflict with their attitudes and policies regarding the war. I probably fancy Hitchens as something like what I would have been had I not become a Christian.
    As far as casting goes, I think he would make an excellent voice of Screwtape. Devil or angel? No, just human and a passionate one. I will not write off anyone just because they write a anti-religious screed. Mark Roberts is setting him straight on some facts. I doubt that will get Hitchens any closer to Jesus, but it might. In my experience, it took a lot more than facts.
    I know from first hand experience that God loves a stiff-necked jerk, perhaps that is why I am able to give them a chance once in a while.

    BTW, thank you for taking the time to comment. In light of recent events, it means a lot to me.

  11. tim c permalink
    June 17, 2007 9:27 am

    off topic, but happy dad’s day grec!

  12. tim c permalink
    June 17, 2007 10:32 am

    PS: what did I owe you ten bucks over?

  13. June 20, 2007 12:11 pm

    Good heavens you did read to the end! Actually, I think I may owe you ten bucks…. now perhaps $20 bucks. Good luck collecting!

  14. Andrew P permalink
    July 5, 2007 11:47 am

    I’ll try again:

    Here’s the Guardian’s Jophn Crace reviewing Hitch’s latest book in a style that seems just a little bit familiar…

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