I can't decide what to think of Christopher Hitchens. I never met the guy, but I saw him interacting with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and he was funny and intelligent, I would probably enjoy having a beer with him. His “God is Not Great” book is one of several volumes that have created the overnight sensation of the “new atheism,” and while it doesn't say anything new (nor, for that matter, do most of the others, authored by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Vick Stenger – though I think the one by Daniel Dennett is of a different caliber), it is a refreshing reminder that one can still write as irreverently as Voltaire in this post-9/11 world.
Which brings me to Hitchens' blunder: his continued support for the Iraq war. I just can't wrap my mind around it. I've read several of his articles in Slate, and the guy seems to be living in a parallel universe. In a piece published on 10 April 2006, for instance, he kept arguing about the Niger connection to the alleged attempt of Sadam Hussein's regime to start a nuclear weapons program. Although Hitchens admits that at least some of the documents used by the White House to make its case were forgeries, he still thinks there was something there, because it is inconceivable that a high-level emissary from Iraq went to Niger just to get help in breaking the flight embargo against Iraq. Perhaps, and that justifies an invasion and occupation how?
Hitchens engages in almost comical exercises of mental gymnastics to maintain his position in spite of all available evidence, as in the following gem from the April 10 article: “the Bush administration only ever asserted that the Iraqi regime had apparently tried to open a yellowcake trade in Africa. It has never been claimed that an agreement was actually reached.” Right, so we went to war with a nation that hadn't even managed to establish trade involving one of many components that go into making a nuclear weapons program, while we keep talking to one that does have and openly threatens to use nuclear weapons (North Korea), and are staunch allies of another that is using the nuclear threat against its close neighbor to resolve border disputes (Pakistan). Some logic, Mr. Hitchens.
I could go on and on with in-depth analyses of the Hitchensian position, but the point is that Hitchens has fallen prey to the same sort of reaction that got hold of the late Oriana Fallaci and turned the former radical liberal, who risked her life to fight oppression in Mexico, into a vicious racist obsessively preoccupied with the fall of western civilization at the hand of the Muslim infidel. In both cases we have intelligent and clearly well-intentioned people who are jolted into an irrationally dangerous position by a dramatic event. 9/11 certainly did change the world as we (especially Americans) know it. But much of that change amounts to a realization of things that were there before, such as the disastrous consequences of decades of American foreign policy, including the support of dictators like Saddam Hussein and former allies like Osama bin Laden.
What we should have learned from all this was that exporting democracy is not accomplished by bombing people and occupying their country, but rather through the steadfast refusal to support oppressive regimes around the world just because they happen to be helpful either politically or economically (the list is long: Pakistan, Iraq, China, El Salvador, Chile, Panama, South Vietnam, Egypt, and so on and so forth). I sympathize with Hitchen's and Fallaci's rage. And rage is a good thing, because it gets people to do something about horrible situations. But the problem with rage unaided by understanding is that it often makes us react against the wrong enemies, or by adopting the wrong means. A mistake that one expects from simpletons like Bush and devious beings like Cheney, but not from sophisticated intellectuals like Hithens and Fallaci. Oh well, two down against intellectual sophistication.
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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
What's the matter with Christopher Hitchens?
Posted by Unknown at 1:38 PM
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...though I think the one by Daniel Dennett is of a different caliberReplyDelete
Just out of curiosity, and having never read any of the books you mentioned, is Dennett's book of a higher or lower caliber than the others? I've recently seen some scathing criticism of Dennett over at Pharyngula (mainly about Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which I enjoyed), so I'm curious to see what you think.
Christopher Hitchens - Atheist AnomalyReplyDelete
She: “So what do you think of Christopher Hitchens?”
He: “It’s odd really. What we have in Hitchens is a profoundly sad and angry atheist alcoholic who loves to voice his unique negative opinion about nearly everything. One so seldom finds those characteristic in combination with each other. No wonder other atheists find Mr. Hitchens so intriguing.”
"In both cases we have intelligent and clearly well-intentioned people who are jolted into an irrationally dangerous position by a dramatic event. 9/11 certainly did change the world as we (especially Americans) know it."ReplyDelete
The world was in trouble long before 2001, all the way back to when J. Carter turned on one of our moderate allies in Iran. The war, attacks against the US, hatred towards the US, it's all about our position with Israel.
In some persons minds, strangely enough, there really is nothing else.
And when they give way to becoming angry or offended about a such a minuscule country that is supposed to be so insignificant and irrelevant,(because they do not believe the bible to be at all legit) I think those same people began to lose their ability to choose to do anything else but that.
Not a good place to be.
That is what makes the dialog on these issues turn so irrational. It is spiritual.
I meant to imply that Dennett's book is by far superior to the others. I also liked Darwin's Dangerous Idea, though I depart from Dennett when he becomes vicious about Gould.
Hi, Massimo. I happened to follow a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ramadan, a Cambridge-based intellectual who tries to establish a dialogue between the Islamic and non-Islamic communities in Europe. For that purpose, Ramadan often talks with controversial people, guys who would never get a US visa. However, it is hard to imagine how else one could have a feeling of what is really going on in the Islamic community.ReplyDelete
Hitchens' point was very simple. All religious Muslims are potential terrorists; those who speak with them are their potential accomplices; hence Ramadan is a potential terrorist who uses the freedom we (the Europeans) offer to him to overturn our free social system. Even for a European with no religious beliefs as I am, it was inevitable to take sides with his much more tolerant and subtle counterpart.
I always thought that fanaticism is the sad consequnce of extreme religious views. By listening to Hitchens I realised, much to my surprise, that being an atheist and a fanatic is indeed a possibility. At this point, his opinions on Iraq are not overly surprising either.
I meant to imply that Dennett's book is by far superior to the others.ReplyDelete
Ah...good to know. With the recent glut of "New Atheism" books and my current lack of time for recreational reading, I'm unlikely to read more than one. I may try Dennett's.
I also liked Darwin's Dangerous Idea, though I depart from Dennett when he becomes vicious about Gould.
Agreed. Like many people, I certainly have issues with some of Gould's interpretations, but Dennett went overboard. I recall wincing my way through those parts in his book...
On Dennett's DDI it certainly seemed that he committed the genetic fallacy in his treatment of Gould. He did not sufficiently refute any of Gould's ideas to justify attributing them to a yearning for skyhooks.ReplyDelete
Some of the ideas that Dennett lays out in Breaking the Spell made it into pop culture last night through the lips of Grissom on CSI when he speculated on hyperactive agency detection.
nice seeing you here! Your comment, unfortunately, increased my dislike of Hitchens. And yes, there can certainly be such a thing as an intolerant atheist. As I have written several times on this blog, the problem is with blind ideological commitment, and that cuts across the religious-non religious divide.
"I always thought that fanaticism is the sad consequence of extreme religious views."ReplyDelete
Quite true. It is also fanaticism to assert that Darwinism holds the supreme view of the universe and reality. I am often surprised that some, who claim to question everything, really don't. In the end, progressivism is particularly narrow in what it admits and accepts as admissible and acceptable. :)
The Peer review of today has become not unlike the ancient bible scribes and scholars who spent a great deal of time weeding out "improper interpretations" of the text. In the case of PR, however, if the text happens to point to ANYTHING potentially supernatural, it's like, "off with your head, dude"! No fanaticism here. Not here, not now, NO WAY!
But this IS the actual face of progressivism. And with a title like that there comes the implication that there could not be a MORE COMPLETE WAY to view the world and universe.
But is that not really narrow and exclusivist in doctrine too?
I believe that it is
Instinctively, it is rather telling that each one of us seems to immediately understand that no matter what our prefs. are that there can only be TWO WAYS to see supernaturalism. Is it not funny and odd that here really can't be more?
This post about Christopher Hitchens portrays him in a very unpleasant life, and if true, says a lot about the man that makes me reluctant to embrace him as a brother in the promotion of atheism even more so than my disagreement with him over the Iraq war.ReplyDelete
Cal, who is aseserting that Darwinism holds the supreme view of the universe and reality? You're attacking a strawman--again. Darwinism does, however, explain biodiversity very nicely, thankyou, with no need of the magic man hypothesis.ReplyDelete
A living thing being actually "created" by a predetermined plan is extremely rational and not at all magical.
The fossil record has shown us that we are losing biodiversity, not accruing it. Darwin did not understand the drift of the what the fossil record was saying anymore than he understood what number of forces shaped a given genome. He stressed mainly environmental forces alone. Yet if you removed one creature out of a eco-system today, at least a bazillon environmentalists would line up to tell you what an catastrophe you are about to create. Darwin was the forefather, in sense, of environmentalism, I think. BUT YET, NOT A VERY GOOD ONE because he proposed long ages between the creation truly feasible food chains, which anyone in their right mind knows, will (and would) never work.
What he proposed would have had to be magic to have worked at all.
Hahaha, keep going, Doña Quijote. It's stopped being pathetic long ago and is actually rather entertaining now. Please, don't talk about "in their right mind", you clearly do not know what that means...ReplyDelete
Oh, dear, Cal, showing your ignorance of biology, aren't you?ReplyDelete
I'm going to use my ESP and offer Cal $500 for Darwin's blotter.ReplyDelete
You know, the one that soaked it all up, and got it all backwards.
Based on various articles of his, I think that Hitchens' view is that Iraq was heading for catastrophe no matter what - he's argued that, if left alone, it would have eventually collapsed into anarchy anyway (an argument I have a lot of sympathy for). Therefore, it was better for outside powers to go in sooner rather than later and try to make the best of a bad situation.ReplyDelete
My problem with his position is that he's allowed his disgust at the opportunistic nature of some sections of the anti-war movement to blind him to the (many) mistakes of the coalition. I can understand the reasons he supported the invasion, even respect them a little. But his willingness to overlook the sheer mendacity and incompetence of the Bush Administration and its allies is incredibly galling.
Hitchens' point was very simple. All religious Muslims are potential terrorists; those who speak with them are their potential accomplices; hence Ramadan is a potential terrorist who uses the freedom we (the Europeans) offer to him to overturn our free social system.
The main criticism of Ramadan is that he puts forward completely different views depending on which audience he's addressing - making it difficult to judge how moderate or reactionary he really is.
But his willingness to overlook the sheer mendacity and incompetence of the Bush Administration and its allies is incredibly galling.ReplyDelete
Hitch is very tough on the Bush Administration. He's not a fan of Bush, nor is he pleased with the way things are going in Iraq. He simply feels that removing Saddam was the right thing to do, and that we cannot leave until the country is stable. He also feels that abandoning the secular left in that country to the religious extremists would be shameful. He's right on that last point.
Aparently Hitchens made quite a splash at the Freedom from Religion Foundation meeting.ReplyDelete
"The world was in trouble long before 2001, all the way back to when J. Carter turned on one of our moderate allies in Iran."ReplyDelete
No Cal, we should go all the way back to 1954 when we helped overthrow a democratically elected secular Mossadeq govt. in Iran and replaced it with your so-called "moderate" dictator-monarch the Shah.
Thanks again for your display of ingnorance Cal!
"....I think that Hitchens' view is that Iraq was heading for catastrophe no matter what - he's argued that, if left alone, it would have eventually collapsed into anarchy anyway (an argument I have a lot of sympathy for). Therefore, it was better for outside powers to go in sooner rather than later and try to make the best of a bad situation."ReplyDelete
The big problem with this view is the arrogance that presumes that the U.S. govt. or other outside power has the knowledge, the capacity, or the moral supeiority to go around and fix countries social-political circumstances in an disinterested manner.
This from the guy who has written so eloquently on how and why Henry Kissinger should be considered a war criminal! He should know better!
I would like to argue this point further, but I broke my finger this weekend, so will leave it at that.
Good question M. The best way I can put it is that Hitchens must think WWIII is imminent and that we don't want to be the Neville Chamberlin's trying to appease the (Islamo-)fascists. Instead, we should nip it in the bud using any means necessary.ReplyDelete
I, like you, disagree and think we are from the situation in 1930's Europe and that there is still plenty of room to work things out amicably, if we would ever try. That is why the Iraq War is actually hurting Hitchens' cause - if 'the West' faces a legitimate and imminent threat from Islamo-fascists in the near future, the experience in the Iraq War will likely make us reticent to act for fear of not repeating the mistakes of the Bush-Blair era.
I guess it goes to show that even the brightest and most knowledgeable people can be lead astray on some issues.
Having lived in Iran for four years of my youth (1974 -'78), I'm glad to see I'm not the only one here who understands what a calamity that coup was for us. However, it goes further back than that, with other powers, from the British installing Shah Reza I, to the joint Russo-British invasion of Iran to secure its neutrality during WWII, to the pillage conducted by Big Oil to the detriment of the Iranian populace.
While nothing excuses the murder of innocent civilians, our American habit of conflating the explanation of a situation with excusing it is hamstringing a resolution. Iranians have plenty of reasons to distrust and even hate the industrialized world, and we disregard them at our own risk.
Clarification: The coup of 1954, not the Revolution of 1979 (another calamity).ReplyDelete
Cal, You categorize I ran under the shah as MODERATE. Whew - that's a stretch. He was one of the most repressive heads of state in modern history. Now I think we can get a handle on where you're coming from.ReplyDelete
This thread is probably dead, but I will pose the question anyway and check back.ReplyDelete
I was just reading today a Hitchen's review of the Mother Teresa book in a week's old Newsweek magazine (Doctors office).
In it was a cryptic comment by Hitchens that said something like this:
"To Catholics, abortion is considered an abomination (and if it matters I concur)........."
I took this to mean that Hitchens was making a statement about being against abortion, which I found quite amazing. It just seems odd that he would be. Does anybody know if he is against abortion, and what his reasoning be behind this?
Hopefully you'll check back.
Yes, I've seen similar comments from Hitchens in other pieces. He never bothers to elaborate, so it's hard to say exactly what he means, but I'll speculate anyway.
First, I think any reasonable person believes that abortions should be avoided - they certainly are not recreational! Most would also agree that the emotional and physical ramifications of abortion are serious, even when it is a 'good' choice. Perhaps Hitchens is simply referring to those aspects of abortion, but I suspect, with you, that he means more.
I have indeed known atheists (not many) who think abortion should be illegal on the premise that the fetus deserves equal rights as a human being, without invoking that it has a soul or anything. Maybe Hitchens believes this - he does seem to be a proponent of innate rights (except for citizens of Islamofascist countries?). I think his main beef with Mother Theresa et al though is that they claim abortion is the most serious threat peace. Even if you are seriously troubled by abortion, this is an exaggeration by any measure. So it's not inconceivable that someone like Hitchens could be both against abortion and against some anti-abortionists.
Re "Cal, You categorize I ran under the shah as MODERATE. Whew - that's a stretch. He was one of the most repressive heads of state in modern history."
Mr. Dennis has to be kidding me. The Shah was an angel compared with his successors and actors such as Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein.
Thanks for the response. I too have heard a very rare atheist come out against abortion, i.e. the owner of the The Raving Atheist site. I always thought that they were being contrarian just for the sake of being contrarain. Which sometimes seems to be Hitchen's gig.
While I can on one level understand the argument that "life begins at conception", I have always thought it absurd to think that life equals personhood, and thus is deserving of the rights of a person.
And of course, it would be better if all unwanted pregnancies were avoided by responsible contraceptive use.
I was just surprised that Hitchen's would be against abortion, or better said, against the right to choose.
And that was the context of the statement, Mother Teresa's absurd assertion that abortion is a threat to world peace.
I've heard Hitchens talk and read his book and was also troubled by his use of langauge like "our superiority over our enemies who must be defeated."ReplyDelete
The ironic thing is he criticizes the Christians for being 'relativistic' in their doctrine of 'love thy enemy' when in fact Christians and other theistic groups are some of the worlds strongest sources of absolutist behavior. Relativism is usually seen among those who actually think each problem out rather than get pre-fab answers from ancient scrolls.
Hitchens talks about the superiority of the west as if it was, dare I say, 'Divinely Appointed' rather than opinion.
In Biology superiority is measured after competitions are complete by seeing who was the winning population/species - it's not something that can be determined based on first principles (although we might try to predict who the winner will be we reserve the title "superior" to those that actually win - and of course it is a context-dependent and temporary title).
I've seen Massimo make the same mistake (to a lesser extent) of claiming moral or cultural superiority that Chris makes.
The superior culture will be the one that infects the minds of the most people - and monotheism is a much more infective memeplex than rationality+atheism, and thus is 'superior'.
Any other use of the term superior can be criticized as being biased to favor the group claiming to be so.
I haven't read "The End of Faith," but it sounds like your assessment is fair, if Harris really refers to ESP has having been "stygmatized."
btw, it was Sagan, not Dawkins, who made the comment about open-mindedness and brains falling off.