December 16, 2011

RIP Christopher Hitchens

I, along with many other atheists, secularists, freethinkers, and ... writers of all stripes, too, saw the news just moments ago.

Christopher Hitchens, one of the leaders of New Atheism, an oftimes lion of literary style, critic, pundit, political commentator, analyst and more, has lost his battle to cancer at age 62.

I and other liberals eventually lost a fair amount of political faith with him over Iraq; I and other non-Gnu Atheists occasionally took issue with his pronouncements there, though he was less the bastion of white European privilege than Richard Dawkins and certainly less bombastic than a Sam Harris.

But, now is not the time to pick nits, nor to bury Hitchens in negative words, but rather praise the good in his material-based consciousness and self.

First of all, Hitchens "lived his dying" in a public and humanistic way. Humanistic in the best sense of the word, sharing his ups and downs of pain, chemotherapy and more, being sentimental without ever becoming mawkish or maudlin.

And, by living it in a public way, without doing so for such deliberate reasons, he insured there will be no mythos of a deathbed conversion to Christianity to be told anywhere.

Second, Hitchens lived his life in a public way, too. Not like a Jeff Jarvis, certainly not. But, whether on the Iraq War and his sentimentality for Iraqi Kurds, or his filleting of Bill and Hillary Clinton as economic neoliberals, or of Mother Theresa as an apparent sham, he never hid his opinions. And, he usually never hid the thinking and investigation, often extensive, that lay behind them.

Third, by his own lights, he often did a more-than-reasonable job of living by the Shakespearean dictum: "To thine own self be true." Whether it was following his inner political compass, discussing family affairs in his autobiography, or dissing and dishing on fellow authors in book reviews in Vanity Fair, he rarely pulled punches, whether metaphorical or occasionally physical.

At the same time, and not because he was an atheist, nonetheless, there seemed something a bit James Dean-ish about Hitch. Unlike the 20-something actor, the 50-something Hitchens had causes for which to be a rebel; however, often, the act of being a rebel ... dare I say, a Trotskyite rebel, seemed at least as important as the cause itself.

A somewhat tortured family history, combined with a seemingly Churchillian relationship with alcohol that, like Churchill's, went noticed in the non-acknowledgement more than anything else, seem to have been both cause and effect of such rebellion. It had a bit of Camus in him, but, even at the end, Hitchens, while a humanist, wasn't the existentialist to play Camus' rebel.

A thinker he was, as shown by his voluminous output, but not in that philosophical sense.

And, sadly, he said, even after the cancer diagnosis, that he never regretted either the smoking or the drinking. And, I think, kept up the drinking with whatever gusto he still had.

But, he was who he was, and for that, he'll be missed indeed.

Read "God is Not Great" or his "Atheist Reader," or "Arguably," his latest collection of essays. Or his book on the Clintons, or on Kissenger, both of which are even better, overall, than his Mother Theresa book.

That said, as I have hinted above, Hitch was no secular saint. Encomiums he gets above the fold, but more critique below it.

I noted there was something of the James Dean in him, even if his rebellions, on te the surface, seemed to have a cause. His "Islamophobia," while overblown, goes back to the Rushdie fatwa. That said, on that, he, like Sam Harris, stereotyped liberals and left-liberals, claiming they were all relativists. (On the other hand, his complaint wasn't totally illegitimate.) THAT, the certain degree of self-righteousness, was more a core issue, I think. (And one probably fueled by the Churchillian amounts of alcohol.) And, that seeming self-righteousness was, indeed, perhaps of a "Trotskyist" sort.

The rebelliousness? Sometimes it wasn't even that; rather, it was willful contrarianness, above and beyond the call. The Mother Theresa book, to some degree, was ultimately that. Yes, she may have been "using" poor Indian girls as poster children for birth control, but, was she still doing good at the same time? Yes.

His defacing a Syrian political sign? Stupid except to a deliberate contrarian, and especially to one fueled up on alcohol.

And, on his drinking, I think that's why Hitch not only said he had no regrets, but even more than his smoking in an age of smoking bans in public, refused to have regrets about drinking too much. He knew the alcohol fueled his rebelliousness, his contrarian spirit and more.

Speaking of all this, I must link to what may be the first major anti-encomium, complete with quoting extensively, focusing on his backing of the Iraq War:
People make mistakes. What's horrible about Hitchens' ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made. ...

Torture and murder by feckless American troops at Abu Ghraib? "Prison conditions at Abu Ghraib have improved markedly and dramatically since the arrival of Coalition troops in Baghdad," he wrote. How clever! Anyone objecting to the occupation of Iraq on the grounds that torturing and murdering people is wrong and illegal is now obligated to defend the "abattoir" that existed prior to our arrival.

Anyone complaining that the chief rationale for the invasion—the indisputable presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—turned out to have been a fantasy is being "childish," he wrote. "'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." ...

If you dispute the Bush Administration line that "terror" must be fought in Iraq lest it be fought on our soil, Hitchens alleged, you are guilty of dispensing "sob-sister tripe pumped out by the Cindy Sheehan circus and its surrogates." Sheehan's son had been dead scarcely a year at the time Hitchens wrote this. ...

But surely Christopher, you recognize that the war has been badly bungled even if all your hearts were in the right place, right? "We need not argue about the failures and the mistakes and even the crimes, because these in some ways argue themselves." ...

"If the great effort to remake Iraq as a demilitarized federal and secular democracy should fail or be defeated," he closed, "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." 
That said, Iraq is a symptom, not a cause. The self-proclaimed one-time Trotskyite "always was"; in terms of mindset, he never left the fold. Add to it the apparent alcoholic level of drinking, that "invisible line" crossed long before Iraq, and per the story, you get this:
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.  
Again, the psychology and mindset from Trotskyite background, but fueled, sadly, with alcohol.

And, in that way, he was perhaps a bad poster child indeed for Gnu Atheism. Althought P.Z. Myers palled around with Dawkins in person much more than Hitchens, it's clear which of the two was more of a psychological influence to him, Harris and other later members of the troupe.

For all we know, a sober Hitch could well have been both a better writer and a better true humanist.

So, while I will miss the literary skills he did exhibit, and be grateful for his pluses, I'll move on soon enough. An older-style secular humanist with his skills with the pen is out there, or more than one. One who sees religion's faults and foibles while also having charity and sympathy for religious belief, and religious believers.

That said, let's speak a bit more good of the dead, via others, too.

David Frum says that, among other things, his drinking declined late in life. And, I'll be damned, but per Reason's Nick Gillespie and confirmed by Wikipedia, Hitch joined Nat Hentoff as the most famous atheist pro-lifers. I never knew that.

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