"Totally coup, yo."

Christopher Hitchens: Twilight of the Idols

Dec

18

by

An obligatory eulogy for a truly great man

I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn’t ever have to rely on the press for my information.
- The eminently quotable Christopher Hitchens

A people is a detour of nature to get to six or seven great men.— Yes: and then to get round them
- Friedrich Nietzsche

I became a journalist, though some may dispute that title, for remarkably similar reasons. The cacophonous drumbeat for the Iraq War was my political alarm clock. At the time, I was living in Seattle in a place charmingly dubbed “The Heroin Hotel.” The first time I heard the name Christopher Hitchens, I was babysitting a scab-ridden junkie who was going through detox. The building manager/den mother needed to go get some pot for the junkie’s nausea, and asked if I’d keep an eye on him. He was sweating profusely, groaning, and periodically puking into a bucket. I turned on the TV to drown out the painful retching. And there was Hitchens, making an extremely erudite case for war. I thought, “Who is this pretentious, lying piece of shit?” So, for me, Hitchens’s legacy includes both his impeccable grasp of the English language, and the needless death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

 

Though I hated him immediately, what made me dislike him more was that I eventually came to like him. The title of his Mother Teresa takedown, Missionary Position, is enough to enshrine him in the halls of awesomeness for all eternity. And despite his ever-shifting justifications for the Iraq War, it’s damn hard not to appreciate the rhetorical venom he heaped on supremely deserving religious idiots.

As a guy who’s tangentially involved in the skeptic/atheist community, I’m friends with people who’ve shared with him scotch and conversation, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat jealous (and when Hitchens actually typed my name, I felt honored). But as a guy who’s tangentially involved in the skeptic/atheist community, Hitchens bothered me greatly, for the same reasons I’m bothered greatly by the skeptic/atheist community: the weird compartmentalization, the seeming inability to apply that cold reason to politics. How much more useful would these smart people be in discrediting myths like Saddam’s WMD than, say, obviously ridiculous propositions like God or chupacabras?

Hitchens can be counted among a tragic number of intellectuals to whom 9/11 represented the moment they stopped being intellectuals. He was so quick to denounce Islam, for its role in “terrorism,” without a) honestly defining terrorism, and b) sufficiently addressing its underlying socioeconomic motivations. The fact of the matter is that what we call “terrorism” is just relatively ineffective warfare for poor people. I’m all for mocking every religion, publishing the odd Muhammad (PB&J) cartoon, and challenging the moronic political correctness of the left. But without repeatedly addressing — or ignoring altogether — the root causes of terrorism, Hitchens proved himself as myopic as Sam Harris. (And if you’re in doubt about Harris being more a reactionary than he is guided by empirical data, check out this debate he had with Robert Wright. And, sorry, but if you’re unswayed by Wright’s fact-based arguments it’s likely because you’re an illogical Harris fanboy/girl.)

Religion, just like hating religion, can be used to justify all manner of terrible things. One of those terrible things was the Iraq War — even though it had absolutely nothing to do with it. Christopher Hitchens used his undeniable genius to help justify one of the greatest tragedies of our time. And reading a near-endless string of sycophantic goodbyes from people who’re supposed to pride themselves on their capacity to reason is, for me, a great deal sadder than his untimely death.

(And for a more thorough, and likely satisfying, counterpoint to the slew of postmortem blowjobs, read this excellent Alex Pareene piece at Salon – or this equally honest obit by John Cook at Gawker.)

In Hitchens’s last article for Vanity Fair, he rightly eviscerated Nietzsche for his notoriously awful sentiment: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” But Freddy had a point about humanity being a detour to get to a few great people, and then round them. For some atheists and skeptics, Christopher Hitchens could arguably be counted among the few great people we needed to get to. And now we need to get past him.

_______________________________


  • matt

    this says about all that can be said. Except for what the guys at Counterpunch and exile said.

  • http://youtu.be/Z6V2E4Sxfis joe dixon

    I disagree with this idea of him being an intellectual. Smart? Perhaps. But he was no great thinker. In point of fact he was quite lazy and vastly in love with his own brain. Intellectuals continue to learn and grow. Hitch considered himself an expert on everything already and saw nothing new to discover. Simply put, the man was a war monger and a boorish sexist of the 1970s variety. Fuck him.

  • http://vectorpress.blogspot.com Trevor

    Murphy, thank you for being honest and even-handed with all this. I’m not a fan of his – my reaction when he croaked was, “Ding dong, the Hitch is dead!” – but I recognize he still made some contribution to the discourse.

  • JammaLammaDingDong

    Blasphemy.

    The Lord Chupacabrahova ridiculous? Oh, you will burn my friend, you will BURN.

  • Paul Simmons

    Great job, Ian Murphy. You nailed it. You can say good things about Hitchens’ writing and thought without whitewashing his shortcomings.

  • colincowherdsannoying

    but will he make the 2011 loathesome having died and gone to… molecular heaven?

  • john gallivan

    it’s ignorant to agree with everything someone believes.
    BUT! once a month i youtube the hitch destroy jerry falwell. look it up.
    that goofball fratboy sean hannity ends up getting more of an ass kicking
    than reverand jerry. most satisfying.
    warning: if you do not like ‘special’ kids getting punk-slapped, avoid this.
    hannity loses. remember the bills losing to the redskins in the superbowl?
    remember how one sided it was?
    this was much, much worse. which makes it much, much better.
    ENJOY!

  • http://acksisofevil.org/innerside.html Scooter

    I enjoyed Hitchens’ polemic. He was a wonderful satirist. Delightful when you agreed with him, infuriating when you didn’t, but he was always entertaining.

    I think he was more a court jester than a great thinker. He was all over the place. Denouncer of Islam as the scourge of the planet, yet a champion for Palestinian rights.

    I quit trying to unravel him years ago.

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      I don’t see how that’s being “all over the place.” Just because you think people have basic human rights it doesn’t mean you need to respect their stupid religious beliefs.

  • http://acksisofevil.org/innerside.html Scooter

    In the overall context of Hitchens it is. He has made statements about Islamic culture that have been quite sweeping, and alarming. Has been an important critic of Israeli treatment of Palestinians, but supported bombing the shit out of Iraq. The disconnect is glaring if you consider his sweeping denouncements of all Islamic cultures.

    I’m not sure one can include Hitchens in the grand scale of human rights defenders.

    He’ll be missed tho. I saw him when he was in Houston a few months ago at the AAI/Texas Freethought Convention with Dawkins and the gang. I MCed the comedy night and repeated some of his greatest punchlines as an homage, then wrapped up with a few jokes at his expense. They didn’t go over well, so I hollored, “What’s wrong, not soon enough?”

    I bombed.

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      It’s not like he was for invading Iraq because he liked the idea of killing lots of Iraqis though. He thought it was in their best interest. Obviously he was wrong about that, but still I don’t see how that’s really a disconnect. Islam is a stupid and generally hateful religion. Palestinians should be treated like human beings. There’s no contradiction between those two statements. One criticizes bad ideas, the other defends a group of people. It’s only a disconnect if you can’t distinguish between attacking ideas and attacking people.

  • http://acksisofevil.org/innerside.html Scooter

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/10/ffrf_recap.php

    PZ reviews Hitchens’ talk at FFRF. It’s kinda old, but you get the point.

  • Johnny

    He was a neocon. He loved war-mongering and loved Bush, kissed his ass enough to meet with him in the White House. Is it okay when he does it or something because he’s also bigoted against religious people or something?
    Rest his soul, but seriously.

  • Johnny

    People rationalizing how his neocon-ism is better than other saber rattling are only showing themselves to be unprincipled and hypocritical.

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      I’m not rationalizing anything. People can be wrong about some things and right about others. Very few people writing about Hitchens dying seem to be able to grasp that. But you prove my point by being unable to distinguish between attacking obviously bad ideas (like Islam) and attacking – or defending – people (like Palestinians).There is no contradiction or disconnect between saying that Islamic theocracies suck and we’d be better off without them; and that the people who happen to hold such bad ideas shouldn’t have to live in a giant prison colony. You can respect a person and their rights without respecting their crackpot ideas about pedophile cult/militia leaders 1500 years ago.

      Also, there’s no such thing as a soul.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Ian_Murphy Murphy

    Josh,
    I agree with everything you’ve written here. Some people are, apparently, incapable of differentiating between attacking ideas and people.

    However, it’s just wrong — inaccurate to equate Islam with terrorism. I realize you did not make that equation, but Hitchens did, repeatedly, so no matter how deserving Islam was of Hitchens’s ridicule, his critique is forever tainted by his incredibly dumb post-9/11 neoconservative worldview. (And whether or not Islam is inherently more backward or violent than other religions is a debate for another time.)

    You know I despise Islam, of course, but targeting that religion in the way Hitchens did, and Harris does, requires a craven ability to basically ignore Western imperialism. So while it’s all well and good to say Islam is bullshit, it’s wrong to say that Islam is the cause of terrorism — not to mention that terrorism is small fries in terms of body counts.

    And, as you mention, he was right on about lots of other things like human rights…sometimes. Abu Ghraib didn’t seem to bother him too much. And while I’m at it, it’s important to remember that not only was he wrong about Iraq, he bought into the entire “War on Terror” thing too.

    So, yeah, it’s a bit harder to separate Hitchens’s critique of Islam from his myopic post-9/11 politics. I can see why Johnny’s having trouble with that, at any rate.

    And it’s cool that we have slightly different views on this. May The BEAST forever be a free speech zone!

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      Yeah, it’s fair enough to say he went too far with the whole “Islamofascism” thing. I’m not so much defending the guy himself as much as I really hate it when people try to equate criticizing religion with being “bigoted against religious people.” Hardly anyone would ever accuse even you or me or anyone else here at the BEAST of being “bigoted against conservatives,” and I don’t think I’ve ever even heard anyone utter the phrase “bigoted against liberals.” But for some reason it’s fine to accuse people of being bigoted against religious people, as if beliefs like that are encoded in their genes and are therefore off limits for criticism.

      I agree that Harris and Hitchens definitely overstate the case for Islam being the root cause of terrorism, and it’s obviously more complicated than that. The only thing I think can be said in some mild defense of their perspective would be that US/British/etc. imperialism isn’t limited to the Middle East, but suicide bombing attacks against civilians inside the imperialist countries as a response to it kind of is. If terrorism were caused by imperialism alone, we’d be seeing 9/11s coming from all of Latin America, Africa, Indochina, and pretty much everywhere else. I haven’t heard of any massive attacks organized by Vietnamese terrorists against France or the US – who had killed something like 5 million people there -, but we do see that coming from places like Saudi Arabia. And it’s probably safe to say that the people of Saudi Arabia are way more oppressed by their own rulers than by imperialist forces, while Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were pretty much wiped off the map by one of the most one-sided military assaults ever. I don’t mean to say that terrorism can be justified, but if anyone could make that case it’d be them.

      But as you say the body counts of US state sponsored violence is way beyond any blowback that’s happened. To really take the Hitchens/Harris perspective to heart you’d have to automatically assume that violence by powerful states is justified by default, which is clearly bullshit.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Ian_Murphy Murphy

    Ha, well, I wasn’t defending Johnny either. The whole being “bigoted against religious people” thing is hilarious. I am proudly bigoted against all kinds of people by that thinking — like people who watch “Walker, Texas Ranger” reruns. Ze human race vill not be pure until zey are eliminated from ze gene pool!

    We’re not really disagreeing about much here, I guess, but Hitchens did come across as being a bit of a bigot — or at least a hypocrite. Naturally, he critiqued all creeds, but his hyper-focus on “Islamofascism,” while palling around with the Bush admin gave the impression of a kind of bigotry, in that most Muslims happen to be brown. Of course, he wasn’t racist at all, as evidenced by his support of Palestine, the Kurds, and according to the personal accounts of everyone who knew the guy. I mean, dude drank scotch with my Black/Jew girlfriend and, from what I hear, he was totally awesome. (If you haven’t read this horrible article about his supposed “white supremacy”…yikes. It’s just so wrong.)

    I dunno. I’m actually just trying to put myself in Johnny’s reactionary, Liberal knee-jerk sandals. I’ve just thought of something, though: For a while I’ve been looking around for a good phrase — a single-word, succinct equivalent for racism as applied to religion, and maybe I’m a total fool for not being able to find it right off, but perhaps the reason why is because there isn’t one! The idea is totally nonsensical, and it’s not equivalent, for the reasons you explained. Wow, I am very stupid at times…OK, many times.

    You make some really good points about Islam inre: terrorism. First, and this is the thing that really freaks out Westerners, although “terrorism” isn’t, suicide bombing is unique to Islam…probably because of the virgin thing. Second, while the US Dept of State has designated ‘terrorist groups” all around the world, how we define “terrorism” is often a semantics game, and there are certainly other countries that have suffered worse at the hands of US/Brit/French imperialism, Islam transcends national borders. So while Indochina got bang-on fucked, the only practical response was traditional, albeit asymmetrical, warfare. Basically, no one in Thailand, or wherever, is going to go fight, die, and even blow themselves up for people in Laos. (Not on the scale of 9/11, of course, but I’d be remiss not to remind you of the ’98 African embassy bombings. And, sure, Saudi Arabia is responsible for its own oppression, but they are, like, our oil-rich bff in the region.)

    I think that’s why there is a bit of truth to the Hitchens/Harris POV; Islam does, or has the capacity to, solidify opposition to this sort of traditional resource-war imperialist action. The Muslim meme can turn traditional nation vs. nation conflict into global jihad. All of a sudden, theoretically people in Thailand might give a shit about people in Laos — using two generic, not-very-relevant examples. Replace them with Muslim nations, and you’re cookin’ with jihad!

    But, yeah, ultimately Hitch’s hyper-focus on Islam and “terrorism” — purely by the numbers — is totally fucking revolting. Going ape-shit over 3,000 deaths on 9/11 while actively cheering on the murder of some 120,000 Iraqi civilians could be considered “loathsome” in some circles. But I know you’re not debating me on that.

    OK. Good chat. Weird chat. But good. And weird. But mostly good.

    And Happy Birthday! (Josh is officially old today 12/29/2011)

  • Christoph

    Your eulogy hit the nail on the head. Hitchens was definitely a study in contrasts. His arguments on religion as a whole are often insightful and incisive, but politically the man could be all over the place – veering from neoconservative to neoliberal views on various issues. He was an ardent Bush and “war on terror” supporter, but then supported the election of Obama and offered some incredibly amusing takedowns of the Republicans during that period. His views on Palin and her supporters were especially riotous. His derogatory views on the Clintons seem to border on obsessiveness, but he was equally derogatory about Reagan (something no other Neocon would ever cop to).

    And I have no idea where this “sexist” thing comes from, but everything I have read and watched from him has strongly indicated that he was an outspoken supporter for equal rights for women, gays, atheists, and non-caucasians. Although he was exceptionally misguided in the whole post-9/11 nonsense, he proved that you could be correct in one area and be wrong in another – something that seems to confound today’s people who seem to believe that, contrary to the foolishness of such a thought process, you must be correct on everything or else all of your views on all matters can be dismissed altogether. I don’t know of anyone who is correct on everything.

    Plus I must admit that I was a bit impressed that during that whole “is waterboarding torture or not” idiocy, that Hitchens actually put his money where his mouth is and volunteered to be personally waterboarded and then denounced it as such. That was definitely something precious few neocons were willing to do.

    In the end, depending on the issue, sometimes he was right, sometimes he was wrong, but he was never boring and he did have guts. That alone sets him apart from the garden variety of today’s corporate crap media.

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