Hitchens: the Great Contrarian

Christopher Hitchens died aged 62 on December 15th.

I first came across him as one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism- the New Atheists being Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris, “New” because they were taking the fight to the religious and irrational, and refused to give the respect to irrational beliefs and religions that the apologists of such beliefs generally demanded. They actively advocated the critical examination of religious beliefs and lent authority and scholarship to atheism, giving us all permission as it were to speak out.

In his 2007 bestseller God is Not Great Hitchens eviscerates the religious in a way that only he can:

Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.There is one more charge to be added to the bill of indictment: With a necessary part of ts collective mind, religion looks forward to the destruction of the world. By this I don’t mean “looks forward” in the purely eschatological sense of anticipating the end. I mean, rather, that it openly or covertly wishes that end to occur.

Later in the book he points out that, while great intellectuals of the past had already “ripped away the disguise of idolatry and paganism” and even risked martyrdom,

a moment of history has now arrived when even a pygmy like myself can claim to know more- through no merit of my own- and see that the final ripping of the whole disguise is overdue.

Hitch keeps it real

He goes on to compare religious faith with his own beliefs as a young man in Marxism:

When I was a Marxist, I did not hold my opinions as a matter of faith but I did have the conviction that a sort of unified field theory might have been discovered. The concept of historical and dialectical materialism was not an absolute and it did not have any supernatural element, but it did have its messianic element in the idea that an ultimate moment might arrive, and it most certainly had its martyrs and and saints and doctrinaires and (after a while) its mutually excommunicating rival papacies.

Hitchens describes his remarkable conversion from the youthful Marxist zealot who spent time in Cuba in Castro’s camps for International Socialists a few years after the death of Che Guevara, to sympathies with the neo-liberals and support for the Iraq invasion in his riveting memoir Hitch-22, published last year.

On the morning of September 11th 2001 Hitchens was boarding a plant to Seattle to deliver an attack on Henry Kissenger at Whitman College, Wa.. He came to see 9-11 as an attack on the secular liberal and Enlightenment values embodied in his adopted America, perpetrated by the same, most primitive and backward religious ideologies of apocalyptic nihilism which he had dismantled in the earlier book.

The anti-war demonstrations and what he saw as the hypocrisy of the Left became a pivotal point in Hitchens’ shift of ideological allegiance:

I didnt have to wait long for my worst fears about the Left to prove correct. Comparing Al Quaeda’s use of stolen airplanes with President Clinton’s certainly atrocious use of cruise missiles against Sudan three years before…Noam Chomsky found the moral balance to be approximately even, with the United States at perhaps a slight disadvantage.

The difference between himself and Chomsky came down to the fact that Chomsky regarded “everything since Columbus as having been one continuous succession of genocides and land-thefts, [and] he did not really believe that the United States of America was a good idea in the first place.”

Hitchens likewise takes an excoriating view of Gore Vidal who deigned to suggest that Bush and the US government may have had a hand in the attacks, either by design or by neglect:

President Bush had evidently forewarned himself of the air piracy in order that he should seize the chance to look like a craven, whey-faced ignoramus on worldwide TV.

He goes onto explain

As the Iraq debate became more intense, it became suddenly obvious to me that I couldn’t any longer remain where I was on the political “spectrum”. Huge “anti-war” demonstrations were being organised by forces that actually exemplified what the CIA and others had naively maintained was impossible: a declared alliance between Ba’athist sympathizers and Islamic fundamentalists….
My old friend Nick Cohen wrote scornfully that on a certain date, “about a million liberal-minded people marched through London to oppose the overthrow f a fascist regime”. But what is “liberal-minded” about the Muslim Brotherhood and its clone-groups, or about the rump of British Stalinism, or about the purulent sect into which my former comrades of the International Socialists had mutated? To them- to the organizers and moving spirits of the march in other words- the very word “liberal” was a term of contempt.

Fascinatingly, Hitchens- who spent a lot of time reporting from Mesoptamia- claimed that he did indeed see evidence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, and points out that the WMD card was previously used as an excuse to leave Saddam in power lest he unleash them. Yet he was no fan of Bush- “I probably now know more about the impeachable incompetence of the Bush administration than do many of those who would have left Iraqi in the hands of Saddam” – and is fiercely critical of the failure of the US military to make a credible plan to put the lights back on in Baghdad or prevent looting.

It seems ironic as well as sad that today on which we see the last US troops withdraw from Iraq, we no longer have a Hitchens to comment, to elucidate and educate us on the significance of this most traumatic period of modern history, and he will be missed for his ability to raise the level of debate and for the license he gave for the contrarian.

Christopher Hitchens 13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011 R.I.P.

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12 Comments

  1. Why “RIP”? Surely an atheist wouldn’t accept the possibility that you could do anything else but rest in peace after death.

    Although maybe it’s wise to hedge your bets on that one: if there were a Hell, then I suppose one of the chief propagandists of the war on Iraq, probably the bloodiest crime so far this century (dwarfing September 11) would be headed straight there. And while I appreciate Hitchens’ principled stand for atheism and the like, it’s unlikely that anything else he wrote would have the same impact in sheer terms of life and death as his pro-Iraq-war propaganda did.

    Sorry to have to be the one to say it, but even in 2003 it was a no-brainer for anyone who wasn’t blind, bought or stupid: Bush and cronies wanted the oil, and more importantly, needed a war to siphon public funds to Halliburton and to boost their popularity. Saddam and September 11 had no connection (weren’t the alleged hijackers mostly Saudi?), and Saddam was no threat to anyone outside Iraq. Nothing resembling real democracy has been brought to Iraq – but it has certainly been undermined in the US and Britain. Nobody said it better than Kipling after 1918:

    If any question why we died,
    Tell them, because our fathers lied.

    Ironically, one of the first articles that come up when you search for this Kipling poem is one of the last the Hitchens wrote in his life — one in which he expresses no remorse for his role in boosting the Iraq war.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2011/11/rudyard_kipling_s_war_poetry_the_obligations_of_veterans_day_and_gayle_mclaughlin_.html

    Graham, I recommend you try training your skeptical mind on the big liars instead of picking on a bunch of small-time spiritual gurus and New Agers.

    Reply
    • Too bad the US have now left Iraq without the oil which appears to be going mainly to China.

      As to whether there were wider reasons to dispose Saddham, Ill leave you to debate that with Hitchens himself.

      I think you’l find, if you read the post again, as well as the link you posted on Kipling, that the pro-anti war positions are not as simplistic or black-and-white as you are making out.

      Reply
      • Tom

         /  December 21, 2011

        “Too bad the US have now left Iraq without the oil which appears to be going mainly to China.”
        According to the article Graham, “Of a dozen deals the Iraqi central government awarded since 2003, four went to China.” One-third isn’t equivalent to “mainly”.

        “As to whether there were wider reasons to dispose Saddam, Ill leave you to debate that with Hitchens himself.”
        Unless you and Hitchens have an ability to predict the future, which I doubt, how could an article discussing some unforeseen (and tenuous) benefits of Saddam’s overthrow be relevant at all as a reason to originally have supported the Iraq war. (Ignoring the convenient tales of seeing WMD lying around in Iraq, btw).

        In the region of a million dead and four million displaced in an illegal war, and you still manage to pull out the conclusion that it was a good thing. I never realised “skepticism” was equivalent to towing a right-wing line.

        Reply
  2. Tom

    I’m sure that ‘skepticism’ isn’t necessarily commensurate with a lurch to the right, but that appears to what is happening here at Skepteco, why else would anyone take free-market libertarian, son-of-Thatcher-cabinet-minister, Matt Ridley’s bile about climate change seriously?

    If Graham is seriously proposing that the reason behind the war wasn’t access for Western oil companies to Iraqi oil, he should read Greg Muttitt’s excellent ‘Fuel on the Fire’ which sets out, through previously unreleased documents the meetings that went on between British oil companies and the British government in the run up to the war. Even if one believes that Saddam was a bad man, to defend the way in which the US military undertook his removal is extraordinary. Johann Hari has come in for a lot of criticism recently, but at least he had the courage, unlike Hitchens, to admit he was wrong in supporting the war.

    Is Graham supporting Hitchens’ views on this just because Hitchens also dissed religious people and was a noted skeptic? Sit and have a look at this http://tinyurl.com/cnrsfvx (only for those with a strong stomach) as the floodgates now start to open as US servicemen start to talk about what actually went on there. Think about what happened to Fallujah. The US invasion of Iraq was an absolute disgrace, a war crime, and I for one am proud to have joined the hundreds of thousands who marched through Dublin against the war.

    Ah but then presumably the reason I don’t think it was a supportable idea was because I’m not ‘rational’ enough?

    Reply
    • @Rob Hopkins- I would not be one to accuse you of being “rational”- you are in fact a professional promoter of woo (among other things)- and here I think we have also naivety and simplistic black/white thinking. Try reading the post again, and my response to Robert, and the links, and if you want to respond again, please a)stay on topic -the Ridley point belongs on another thread;
      b)be specific: on the internet it is always a good idea to quote directly what it is you are responding to. This can be done very easily by “right click- copy” and “right click- paste”. It avoids confusion and mis-quotation;
      c) Try to avoid ad hominems- I will snip them in future- eg. who Ridley is is irrelevant, the question is, is what he says accurate/valid or not?

      The world is a little more complex and nuanced than you and Tom (and most of the anti-war movement) would have us believe; in failing to acknowledge and explore this, you are making Hitchens’ point for him.

      Reply
  3. So calling Matt Ridley a “free-market libertarian, son-of-Thatcher-cabinet-minister” is an ad hominem attack (statement of fact really, can’t imagine there is anything there he would contest”, but calling me a “professional purveyor of woo” isn’t?

    Reply
    • … but calling me a “professional purveyor of woo” isn’t?

      statement of fact really, can’t imagine there is anything there you would contest?!

      This might be of interest- extract from recent interview of Hitchens by Dawkins- they discuss the Left-Right dimension in politics. I havnt seen the whole interview so this extract doesnt tell us much, but I do think just labelling views “Left” and “Right” and packaging all sorts of opinions on different topics together in this way is not very useful. Again, what is interesting here to consider is to ask, why did Hitchens move away from his hard-left origins? That is what I was opening for discussion in the post; while the comments above imply that merely tarring a position they dont like as being “on the Right” is sufficient to discredit it.

      I cant find it now, but another quote from Hitch-22 I had meant to include listed various dictators who would still be in power if, according to Hitchens, the Left had had their way;

      I have made it clear in the post- and it is quite unambiguous in the book- that Hitchens was no friend of Bush, and he was fiercely critical of the incompetence of Bush, and of any war-crimes committed by the West- how could he not be? What he rails against is the “moral equivalence” arguments from the likes of Chomsky and those on the Left who couldnt help but feel in some way America got its comeuppance in the 9-11 attacks.

      And of course he genuinely believed that, whatever the many flaws of US foreign policy of which he was often strongly critical, the threat from Jihadists, which was even if only by default (Hitchens thought it was often a lot more than that) aided and abetted by the Left, was a far bigger threat to progressive values and world peace.

      Perhaps the biggest threat is from the mindset that can only see things in simplistic black/white left/right terms. Remember, Hitchens spent a lot of time in the Middle East and had many friends in Iraq; he saw for himself the atrocities of the Saddham regime. I am certainly not assuming he was right about everything but you cannot just dismiss him because he was no longer playing for your team.

      Reply
      • A friend has just sent me this piece “On Reading Obituaries of Christopher” which gives a really good analysis from someone “who groped for “an anti-Islamist, anti-Saddam, pro-democracy left” in the new world order opened up by 9/11, as we watched our former comrades on the left go deeper and deeper into the abyss of isolationist, anti-American, anti-democratic “anti-imperialism” and its alliance with various forms of right-wing politics, an alliance we could not have imagined a few years before.”

        In short, the caricature of Hitchens is, again quoting Aaronovitch, “a self-comforting lozenge that the lazy intellectual Left sucks on to make its pain and doubts go away.”

        Reply
      • Tom

         /  December 22, 2011

        “That is what I was opening for discussion in the post; while the comments above imply that merely tarring a position they dont like as being “on the Right” is sufficient to discredit it.”
        – That’s a disingenuous portrayal of the comments which, ignoring the right/left thing for a minute, picked you up for your uncritical stance on the Iraq war. More than 60 people killed and 200 injured in 14 bombings today, and this is an “emergent democracy” which has “passed through a test of fire” (quotes from the absurd National Post article you link to above)?

        “you cannot just dismiss him because he was no longer playing for your team.”
        – He never played for my “team” (now who’s using unhelpful generalisations) and I don’t care what end of the spectrum he falls on. You and him are apologists for an illegal war which has caused endless suffering. End of. I’m sorry to have used the phrase “right wing”, as you’ll now cling onto that to sidestep the central point, a regular tactic of yours.

        “What he rails against is the “moral equivalence” arguments from the likes of Chomsky and those on the Left who couldnt help but feel in some way America got its comeuppance in the 9-11 attacks.”
        – I haven’t seen moral equivalence in Chomsky’s writings on 9-11. What I’ve seen has dealt in facts: that the U.S. state is a leading terrorist organisation, that the big shock of 9-11 is that what the US has done for decades overseas finally came home, and that Jihadism doesn’t spring from a political vacuum (i.e. the US has done itself no favours by inhibiting democracy in the Middle East consistently). Never have I heard or read him revel in it as a “comeuppance”.

        Reply
  4. Tom

     /  December 23, 2011

    That’s not an “interesting discussion” at all Graham. It’s complete crap which would only be swallowed by someone who’s looking to cling to the discredited ideology of their heroes.

    It’s a semantic debate but there’s a very real difference in meaning between your use of comeuppance in the moral sense of it being a deserved and equivalent harm, and what Chomsky’s asserting which is that 9/11 didn’t happen in a political vacuum. There was at least a modicum of cause-effect going on. I thought, as an enthusiast of the scientific method you’d have a vague understanding of that. If you maraud around the world using your hegemonic power to support/install dicatators there will be repercussions. Chomsky has, of course, consistently maintained that 9/11 was a shocking atrocity, causing many innocent people to suffer partly due to the actions of untouchable elites.

    Your characterisation of people opposed to the war as pro-Saddam, and anti-democracy is bizarre. They are simply anti unjustified and deadly wars..

    Reply
  5. Tom

     /  December 23, 2011

    {Snip- good-bye, Tom}

    Reply

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