Christopher Hitchens died two years ago today, leaving a hole that has since remained vacant and probably will be for a very long time. Hitchens was perhaps the most eloquent and forceful interlocutor on behalf of atheism, a never-hoarse foreman of the four horsemen. Hitchens is widely loved and hated which makes today a good time to remember as well as an ideal moment to talk about the role of “heroes” or maybe even the idea of them, to a skeptic. The practice of having heroes can be a fell thing, and we really need to talk about that.
No More Heroes
Cheer-leading for the woman or man taken to represent a person’s clique, geographic locale, nation, or provincial ideology is a pet peeve of mine. It makes people ignore or forgive obvious faults or transgressions that should not be, and it makes them (I’m saying them, I mean all of us) more credulous in their thinking. It makes it harder for almost any kind of positive change to happen. Psychologists understand it all quite well; people become ego-attached, and then defending a hero is little different from defending themselves, a reflex action we all take regularly.
During a recent Reddit AMA Steven Pinker said, Never be a disciple or yes-person of any thinker, no matter how brilliant –no one is right all of the time. Steven’s use of the word disciple is especially appropriate because the problem with heroes is that they can take on the inerrancy and rosey image of a saint. We should never have faith about the targets of our admiration, as psychologically difficult as that is. We should not hold them above contempt or assume the holes in our knowledge about them to hide details as impressive and immaculate as the parts we know.
Atheism and humanism should be a boon in this department. Our heroes don’t need to be saints or gods, flawless and perfect. They can be mostly ordinary people, who sometimes get it wrong, act like fools, and hold silly beliefs. I think Christopher Hitchens valued brutal honesty, especially about personal truths. So in that spirit, I will name his most heinous flaws and then why I nonetheless consider him a hero.
Vanity Fare: Unsavory politics & chauvinism
Hitchens became a vocal anti-empire type socialist by his teens and through college largely over the war in Vietnam and other issues. I have much to object to in that, but he disavowed the whole thing by 2001. I can’t claim I know the truest reasons for his changing outlook, but it happens that he became politically conservative and capitalist at precisely the apparent time and speed he became wealthy by way of criticizing imperialist capitalistic fatcats like Reagan and George HW Bush. It strikes me as highly self-interested.
Hitchens supported Bush II’s Gulf War and even defended the “War on Terror” and WMD claims. Such claims were seen as lies and nonsense by much duller men, but Hitchens defended them as late as 2007. That’s shameful both for the genuflecting to republicans and for being so obviously wrong.
Hitchens harbored plenty of sexist attitudes. He disapproved of any spouse of his working and rather notoriously said that women are not as funny as men, prompting a reply from Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman and Alessandra Stanley in Vanity Fair:
Good Speaker, Poor Debater
I take debate quite seriously as a tradition that enriches a society. Mr. Hitchens was always witty, beguiling, and just plain entertaining but philosophical debate about atheism is somewhere he just did not belong. He often treated them as if they were straight-forward speaking engagements but with the addition of a person coming to represent the target of his arguments. Whether debate or lecture, he would recite many of the same arguments, jokes, retorts, and so on. Sometimes verbatim. He did not respond to specific claims and questions made by his opponent or for that matter, members of the audience. He seemed to be delivering pre-canned replies that could range from relevant, to sort-of relevant, to totally irrelevant. As much as I hate to say it, apologist William Lane Craig beat him at their debate. My criticisms are most obvious in that exchange, as Craig is quite adept at noting all the arguments that Hitchens ignores or fails to address or even attempt:
Hitchens rhetoric was so punchy and poignant, his delivery so smooth and drole, that many audiences probably never noticed how badly he often lost on merit. Apart from not leading to a quality debate, that sort of thing gives comfort and fuel to our religious opponents, who rightly declare victory. We should never be too seduced by style over substance.
On the other hand…
He helped to put atheism into the widest public discourse that it has ever had. Many of the new media mavens who comment on religion and who ghoulishly attacked him as soon as he was dead owe their jobs to him. Some have admitted as much to me, privately. His book on religion was critical in this regard.
God is Not Great
By the time I read this book I had heard so many people, including atheists, decry it as little more than barbed vitriol that I braced myself. I expected I would not much like it. Afterward, I wondered if the critics had read the thing. Hitchens decimates his targets to be sure, but in almost every case he properly defined the scope and supported his case with solid evidence. Perhaps that is why the critics focus on the tone, the meanness of his spade-calling rather than debunking his assessment of the facts. It is the easier route, by far. I would also recommend The Portable Atheist, from which I learned much more. The similarity of the hollow, weak criticism of God is Not Great and Hitchens tear-down of Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position, is reason to question such critics. That leads me to this next point.
Time proved him right
Not that anyone has apologized. His work exposing the sickening fraud of Mother Teresa was (does this sound familiar?) called mean and shocking back in 1995 when the book was released (positive reviews notwithstanding). In recent years, more evidence has surfaced that Ma T had lost her faith but continued to lie about it for years. A 2013 University of Montreal study has concluded her image as a humanitarian was a myth, and that her facilities may have made things worse for the sick and indigent, not better. How sickening it is that Hitchens was derided as uncouth for uncovering the truth, that she was exploiting the vulnerable to build herself a brand. Where does the real obscenity lie?
He lived life on his own terms
His death was untimely and surely a consequence of his decades-long love affair with booze and cigars. Nonetheless, you have to envy the joy he took in the years he did have. He knew the risks, and decided that was how he wanted it. Even writing in the shadow of his own death, he had no lamentations or regrets and no self pity which brings me to one last point.
He was fucking fearless
Morally and otherwise. Hitchens occasionally admitted to his mistakes and faults, which is difficult to do even when you’re not a figure in the media. There is no clearer display of his personal and moral courage than when he allowed himself to be waterboarded after questioning that it was “torture” versus “advanced interrogation”. No idle gesture, this came at a time when many people tended to think the practice wasn’t a “big deal”. Writing a follow-up Believe me, It’s Torture, Hitchens did an about-face on the subject. He even allowed the event to be video recorded and released to the public, in spite of his sense of shame over his “performance” at enduring it.
Up with him, shall we put?
It’s too much to ask that a person must tower over millions of others in brilliance or some other feature we care about, but to have no other facet that offends. Taken seriously, that would leave a pool of zero, regardless. And yet, we also can’t jettison the idea of having heroes. Inspiration is a precious commodity in human life and it probably always will be. We must take it where we can find it, which I think we can do, even without naive or quasi-religious conceptions of those we admire. Perhaps accepting the truth of the world, that even those we take to be the best of us probably have deeply set flaws, should make the matter all the more worthwhile. The walls that separate us are thinner than we think, the distances shorter. You can’t share a whiskey and a smoke with a seraph. Here’s to you, Mr. Hitchens. As my friend Emery likes to say, we miss you Hitch.