And Yet … we need Christopher Hitchens now more than ever

December 30, 2015 at 11:31 am (anti-fascism, Anti-Racism, atheism, Champagne Charlie, hitchens, humanism, intellectuals, internationalism)

“Patriotic and Tribal feelings belong to the squalling childhood of the human race, and become no more charming in their senescence. They are particularly unattractive when evinced by a superpower. But ironies of history may yet save us. English language and literature, oft-celebrated as one of the glories of “Western” civilisation, turn out to have even higher faculties than used to be claimed for them. In my country of birth the great new fictional practitioners have in their front rank names like Rushdie, Kureishi, Mo. This attainment on their part makes me oddly proud to be whatever I am, and convinces me that internationalism is the highest form of patriotism” – C Hitchens, ‘What Is Patriotism?’, The Nation, July 15/22, 1991.

Someone who for reasons best known to themselves, appears to love me very much, brought me ‘And Yet …’ for Christmas. This was, undoubtedly, the most welcome present I could have hoped for, containing as it does, the full panoply of Christopher Hitchens’ wit and wisdom on subjects as varied as Hillary Clinton, Hezbollah, Orwell’s “list” and … male body-waxing (hilarious, of course).

The publishers’ blurb is slightly misleading in describing this collection as being made up of “previously unpublished” material: in fact all these essays were first published the various publications (Slate, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, etc) to which Hitchens was a regular and prolific contributor. But it’s excellent to have them brought together and readily available in book form.

Inevitably, we start speculating on what the man would have to say about contemporary political developments, like the West’s betrayal of Afghanistan, the resurgence of neo-Stalinism and Putin-worship on sections of the “left”, or the rise of that piece of sub-human excrement calling itself Donald Trump; Hitch’s 2007 thoughts on the subject of Jerry Falwell give us a pretty good clue as to the latter:

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I Fisk You a Merry Christmas

December 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm (Asshole, crap, Galloway, hitchens, Rosie B, twat, wankers)

This is fisking for dummies, but it’s Christmas after all:-

Let’s just hope God is merciful, Chris
By George Galloway

WELL, he kens noo. I hope that the deceased, unbelieving English man of letters Christopher Hitchens has discovered that God is not only great but merciful too.

[Now, when Christians say that kind of thing in pious tones, you know they are lying.   May all my enemies go to hell, Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel]

I had taken a self-denying ordinance over his demise at the weekend from osophageal cancer on the grounds that one should not speak ill of the recently dead and there would be nothing good to say about him considering the circumstances.

Two things forced me to shorten my purdah. The first was the way in which almost every one of the eulogies and profiles, in which I had declined to be represented on grounds of taste, nonetheless managed to attack me in the process of praising him.

[Oooh George – I’ve read loads of these, and y’know, you’re not mentioned THAT much.  The American ones don’t mention you at all.  But of course if your google alert says “George Galloway” – and I’m sure it does, not out of mere vanity though yours should never be underestimated, but for litigation opportunities – that’s how it must seem to you.]

The second was the sight of his friend Tony Blair, his voice catching with emotion in the “death of Diana way”, telling us what a great man he was.

This canonisation of the departed by some of the worst hypocrites operating in the English language must be halted before it slithers any further.

[Weel, I’d be very careful of the “h” word if I were you.]

Hitchens was the only-known case of a butterfly changing back into a slug.

He wrote like an angel but placed himself in the service of the devils.

He was a drink-soaked former Trotskyite popinjay, the Englishman in New York who discovered there were large bundles of right-wing dollars available for apostates like him. If they were prepared to betray their friends, their principles and sell the soul he didn’t believe he had in the first place.

[And I’m sure your work for Iran’s Press TV is done for a small pittance, barely enough to keep you in cigars.  Also the “popinjay” – which one is the dapper little chap and which one the untidy handsome guy out of you two?  And though it’s the season for recycling, couldn’t you have at least come up with some new insults?]

Easy. As Groucho Marx once put it: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”

Thus, the man who once praised Saddam Hussein in adoration and opposed the first Gulf War when the Iraqi tyrant was still occupying Kuwait, was transformed into the main literary cheerleader for the second war.

[Ah, well you would know about “adoration” of Saddam Hussein, not to mention his rapist offspring.]

And he was still blowing the weapons of mass destruction trumpet long after its tinny notes were discredited.

The man who once championed the Palestinian cause became a little echo for Benjamin Netanyahu, denouncing the 10 Turkish dead on the ship Mavi Marmara as “Hamas-sympathisers” who got what they asked for.

[Do you mean that they DIDN’T sympathise with Hamas?  I’m shocked.  And – get your little head around this – it’s possible to champion the Palestinian cause and not become a pimp for what Hitchens would call “gaunt fascists with an Islamic face”.]

Sure his ditties were witty, his parsing precise and, if you like your men drunk, slurred and slobbering, he could be charming no doubt.

[You really know you were outclassed on all fronts – “ditties were witty”, “parsing precise” – is that your way of showing you can do that writing thing as well?]

But when you’re slobbering in support of the re-election of George W Bush for his catastrophic second term, or backing Bush’s handling of the clean-up operation after Hurricane Katrina (where he was the only man in the country other than Bush who thought the Federal Emergency Agency was doing a “heck of a job”) and you have written the script for the most disastrous massacre since Vietnam, I’m afraid literary pretence must be put in its proper place. Down the lavatory.

Hitchens and I shared the ring in an epic “Grapple in the Apple” back in 2005 in Manhattan.

Thousands of people queued around the block for ringside seats paying top dollar for the privilege. You can watch it on YouTube or wait for the DVD, with commentary and my updates, which I will produce shortly.

[My dear, plug your work in the visual media as you will, your most popular appearance on YouTube will continue to be pretending to be a cat in a red leotard.]

Ultimately, the real reason for the ­tear-stained eulogies from the British media commentariat for the late Mr Hitchens is that, by and large, the writers and editors are weeping for themselves.

They share his guilt over the Iraq War and deep inside they know it.

But all the salty tears in the world will not out that damned spot. The next reason is class.

Hitchens was a toff, a Lord. And the English-speaking world, it seems, still likes to love a Lord.

[Admiration undeservedly won, nothing to do with talent of course.  And congratulations for the best example of resentful envy and self-promotion ineptly disguising itself as principled opposition I’ve seen in a long while.]

Above: lest we forget: Galloway is, and always has been, a liar, pro-fascist appeaser and enthusiastic sucker of “strong-men”‘s cocks (writes  Jim Denham).

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December 17, 2011 at 11:10 am (hitchens, literature, Rosie B)

Well, there’s nothing much I can say.  Everyone, from close friends to fans to enemies are talking about this event which we knew was imminent.  I came home Thursday evening after a works night out full of red wine and good food , turned on the radio and there it was, the news that the writer Christopher Hitchens had died.  The tributes are pouring in, the reminiscences, the summings ups, the paying off of old scores. The famous, the obscure, the mandarin and the meanest of spirits are all having their say. I’ve read a few of their pieces and liked David Frum’s best of all for its warmth and this final paragraph from Jacob Weisberg.

Here’s what I learned from Christopher Hitchens in the 25 years I knew him. Don’t let anyone else do your thinking for you. Follow your principles to the end. Don’t flinch from the truth. Repeat until the last ounce of strength drains from your body.

Though cut short by today’s standards, Hitchens had a full life – full of combativeness, friends, drink, cigarettes, reading, politicking, travel, lecturing and most of all writing.  However hangovered he was, Hitchens would write.  Even in his last days with his veins running morphine and tubes stuck in him at every point, he would be carried from his bed to a chair to continue writing.

The world does seem drabber and emptier. This is a definite diminishment. The brilliance, the wit, the love of language are gone.  Even those who loathed him for political reasons would have liked to have had him on their side.

I’ve tried to find some fitting words from the poets eg W H Auden’s lament for the death of Yeats.

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day . .

. ..  .

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

There’s another tribute to an English writer, as untidy and as argumentative and as loved by his friends as Hitchens was.

“He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. -Johnson is dead.- Let us go to the next best: There is nobody; -no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

If there is a next best, please send me his or her name.

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9/11: Hitchens on “chickens coming home to roost”

September 10, 2011 at 10:47 pm (anti-fascism, Chomsky, hitchens, intellectuals, Jim D, terror, Troothers, United States)

You don’t have to agree with Christopher Hitchens on everything (certainly, I don’t on the Iraq war) to recognise him as a very serious and principled commentator, whose defence of basic principles of democracy, free speech and anti-racism is in marked contrast to much of the so-called “left” and the so-called “anti-imperialist” so-called “left” in particular. This was never more clearly illustrated than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In his 2010 autobiography, ‘Hitch-22’, he describes his reaction to being told by a student at Whitman College, Washington State, a day or so after the attack, that “You know what my friends are saying? They are saying it’s the chickens coming home to roost.”

I have always had a dislike for that rather fatuous and folkish expression, and this dislike now came welling up in me with an almost tidal force. (What bloody “chickens”? Come to think of it, whose bloody “home”? And, for Christ’s sake, what sort of “roost”?) And I could suddenly visualise, with an awful sickening certainty, what we were going to be getting by way of comment from Noam Chomsky and his co-thinkers in the coming days. This realisation helped me considerably in sorting out the discrepant and even discordant discussions that were taking place in my interior, and I soon enough sat down to write my regular column for The Nation. I titled it “Against Rationalisation.” I did not intend to be told, I said, that the people of the United States – who included those toiling in the Pentagon as well as all those, citizens and non-citizens, who had been immolated in Manhatten – had in any sense deserved this or brought it upon themselves. I also tried to give a name to the mirthless, medieval, death-obsessed barbarism that had so brazenly unmasked itself. It was, I said “fascism with an Islamic Face.” In this I attempted to annex Alexander Dubcek’s phrase about Czechoslovakia adopting “Socialism with a Human Face,” and also to echo Susan Sontag’s later ironic re-working, following the military coup in Poland, of the idea of Communism going the other way and degenerating into “Fascism with a Human Face.” Obviously, this concept is too baggy to be used every time, so I am occasionally “credited” with coining the unsatisfactory term “Islamofascism” instead.

Anyway, I didn’t have long to wait 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 (which were at least ostensibly directed at Al Quaeda targets), Noam Chomsky found the moral balance to be approximately even, with the United States at perhaps a slight disadvantage. he also described the potential civilian casualties of an American counterstroke in Afghanistan as amounting to “a silent genocide.” As time had elapsed, I had gradually been made aware that there was a deep division between Noam and myself. Highly critical as we both were of American foreign policy, the difference came down to this. Regarding almost everything since Columbus as having been one continuous succession of genocides and land-thefts, he did not really believe that the United States of America was a good idea to begin with. Whereas I has slowly come to appreciate that it most certainly was, and was beginning to feel less and less shy about saying so. We commenced a duel, conducted largely in cyberspace, in which I began by pointing out the difference between unmanned cruise missiles on the one hand and crowded civilian airliners rammed into heavily populated buildings on the other. We more or less went from there.

Gore Vidal also, could hardly wait to go slumming. he took the earliest opportunity of claiming that, while Osama bin Laden had not been proved to be the evil genius of the attacks, it was by no means too early to allege that the Bush administration had played a hidden hand in them. Ot at least, if it had not actually instigated the assault, it had (as with Roosevelt at Pearl Harbor!) seen it coming and welcomed it as a pretext for engorging the defense budget and seizing the oilfields of the southern Caucasus. His articles featured half-baked citations from the most dismal, ignorant paranoids. President Bush had evidently forewarned himself of the air piracy in order that he he should seize the chance to look like a craven, whey-faced ignoramous on worldwide TV. Vidal’s old antagonist Norman Mailer was largely at one with him on this, jauntily alleging that endless war was the only way to vindicate the drooping virility of the traditional white American male. Thus did the nation’s intelligensia, and a part of the mental universe of the New York Review of Books, show its readiness in a crisis. I thought I had to say a word for the fortitude that the rest of society was manifesting.

I had another motive that is perhaps plainer to me now than it was then. I could not bear the idea that anything I had written or said mayself had contributed to this mood of cynicism and defeatism, not to mention moral imbecility, on the Left. I did not want that young lady at Whitman College to waste her time  drawing facile and masochistic conclusions. I had said all I could about American policy in South Africa and Chile (Salvadore Allende had been overthrown and murdered on another 11 September twenty-eight years before) but as I asked an audience in Georgetown in a later debate with Tariq Ali, could anyone imagine Mandela or Allende ordering their supporters to use civilian airliners to slaughter more civilians? Any comparison of that kind, or any extension of it to Vietnam, was –  quite apart from anything else – viley insulting to the causes and struggles with which it was being compared.

More sound stuff on 9/11 from C. Hitchens, here

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We’re still here! Humanity still exists! (God probably doesn’t…)

May 21, 2011 at 5:00 pm (Champagne Charlie, Christianity, comedy, good people, hitchens, religion, United States)

Humanists and atheists celebrate

…but we must all break with our pathetic grovelling to religion, including some who claim to be “Marxist“s:

The intellectual case from Chris Hitchens (note his convincing argument that religion is a form of masochism and a  “sinister and creepy impulse”):

And the musical/ emotional case, from Pops Armstrong (a believer, but first and foremost a humanist):

Bria says: “Wow…. people dhadt don’t believe nd God ion know what’s wrong wit yall….. but really nobody knows when idts gon end but God so chill out wit dhadt people at mhy skool (nd 8th by dha way) tlking bout ima stop cussing ima stop gang banging all dhis ish but for what ahh day ain’t worth notin win yhu did idt all yhoe life now dha world bout 2hew end nd yhu wanna stop be yhoe self dhadts what God likes he put us on earth for ahh test nd obviously nobody iz gon pass it…!  so chill out wit dhis end ovf dha world junk…! becuz idts some sick person who did notin wit his life trying 2hew scare america nd at 6:00 gon be at ahh top of ahh mountai like a freak..! nd notin gon happen,,,! dhis coming from ahh black african american girl…..! so chill..! cuz who made dhis stupid lil junk nd making dhis stupid lil junk yhu lolok fucking stupid nd america’s laughing at yhu at 5:55 ima be widtv my mom at ahh concert nd my friend said see yha monday so i’ll see yall monday”

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Hitch 22: on Edward Said

April 17, 2011 at 10:41 pm (anti-semitism, fascism, hitchens, intellectuals, islamism, israel, Jim D, literature, Middle East, palestine, Pro-War Left, secularism, United States)

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens’s autobiography Hitch 22. As you’d expect it’s an excellent read: witty, erudite and searingly honest. Hitchens is essential reading, even for those of us who think he’s sometimes got things wrong. He’s certainly several million times more thoughtful and principled than most of those who squawk about/at him.

The book itself  is powerful stuff, especially when he’s writing about his friends and his immediate family. His mother Yvonne, for instance, who committed suicide with her lover when Hitchens was in his mid-twenties.

But politically, the best bits are when Hitchens discusses his own intellectual development, and how since 9/11 he’s broken with the “anti-imperialist” fake-left, even though that was his own background and many of the “anti-imperialists” were friends of his. None more so than Edward Said, with whom Hitch had a protracted and painful falling-out:

“In those days [the late 1980’s – JD] though, an adherence to Arafat was at least compatible with the Algiers declaration of the PLO, which Edward [Said] had striven to bring about. To remember this agreement now is to recall an almost-vanished moment: the PLO was to renouncethe clauses in its charter which either called for tghe demolition of the Israeli state or suggested that Jews had no place in Palestine to begin with. At Algiers, Edward’s reasoning prevailed and the “Left-rejectionist” alliance, of George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh, after stormy and emotional debate, lost. Morally, I felt that this deserved more praise than it received: Edward and those others who had left the land of pre-1947 Israel now in effect gave up their ancestral claim to it, in order that the generatons dispossessed or expelledor occupied after 1967 could have a chance to build a state of their own in at least a portion of “the land.” This self-denying renunciation had a quality of nobility to it.

But in those days the Palestinian “rejectionists” were secularists and leftists. Here was another moment, then, when one was witnessing the death of a movement rather than the birth of one (also, the birth of a movement based on death). There came a day I can’t forget when I was in Jerusalem with mu old comrade Professor Israel Shahak. This honest and learned old man, a survivor of the ghettos of Poland and the camp at Bergen-Belsen, had immigrated to Israel after the war and later become the loudest individual voice for palestinian rights and the most deadly critic of  the Torah-based land-theives and vigilantes. Shahak it was who had introduced me to the life-giving work of Benedict (formerly Baruch, until he was excommunicated and anathematized) Spinoza. One of the great unacknowledged moral critics of our time, Shahak did not save his withering reproaches only for the Zionists. I wish I could replicate his warm Mitteleuropa gutterals on the page:

Christopher, you have maybe followed this new debate in Gaza between forces of the Hamas and of Islamic Jihad? You have not? Then I must tell you: it will repay your interest.

Here was the ominously emergent great subject (we are speaking of the late 1980s and early 1990s). The “Islamic Jihad” forces in Gaza were saying in their propaganda that the whole of Spain, and not just Andalusia, was alnd stolen from Islam and that its immediate return should be demanded. The Hamas starategists were responding that, full as the Palestinian plate currently was, this might not be the moment to call for the Islamization of the entire Iberian peninsula. Perhaps for now, just the return of Andalusia would do. However, and almost as if not to be outdone, the Hamas website did feature the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic fabrication originally perpetrated by the Christian-Orthodox right wing in Russia which (because a forgery after all is at least a false copy of a true bill) is wrong to describe even as a forgery. At around the same time, my friend Musa Budeiri, a professor at Birzeit University on the West Bank, told me that religious Muslim students were coming to him and announcing that they would no longer be studying for the humanities course that he taught because it required that they take instruction in Darwin…

As I later found on revisiting Gaza, I was being given by Shahak and Budeiri a premonitory glimpse of the new form that paranoid militant Islam was beginning to adopt. Hitherto, the Palestinians had been relatively immune to this Allahu Akhbar style. I thought this was a hugely retrograde development. I said as much to Edward. To reprint Nazi propaganda and to make a theocratic claim to Spanish soil was to be a protofascistand a supporter of “Caliphate” imperialism: it had nothing at all to do with the mistreatment of the Palestinians. Once again he did not exactly disagree. But he was anxious to emphasise that the Israelis had often encouraged Hamas as a foil against Fatah and the PLO. This I had known since seeing the burning out of leftist Palestinians by Muslim mobs in Gaza as early as 1981. Yet once again, it seemed that Edward could only condemn Islamism if it could somehow be blamed on either Israel or the United States or the West, and not as a thing in itself. He sometimes employed the same sort of knight’s move when discussing other Arabist movements, excoriating Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, for example, mainly because it had once enjoyed the support of the CIA. But when Saddam was really being attacked, as in the case of his use of chemical weapons on noncombatants in Halabja, Edward gave second-hand currency to the falsified story that it had “really” been the Iranians who had done it.  If that didn’t work, well hadn’t the United States sold Saddam the weaponry in the first place? Finally, and always – and this question wasn’t automatically discredited by being a changeof subject – what about Israel’s unwanted and ugly rule over more and more millions of non-Jews?

I evolved a test for this mentality, which I applied to more people than Edward. What would, or did, the relevant person say when the United States intervened to stop the massacres and dispossessions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo? Here were two majority-Muslim territories and populations being vilely mistreated by Orthodox and Catholic Christians. There was no oil in the region. The state interests of Israel were not involved (indeed Ariel Sharon publicly opposed the return of  the Kosovar refugees to their homes on the grounds that it set an alarming – I want to say “unsettling” – precedent). The usual national-security “hawks,” like Henry Kissinger, were also strongly opposed to the mission. one evening at Edward’s apartment, with the other guest being the mercurial, courageous Azmi Bishara, then one of the more distinguished Arab members of the Israeli parliament, I was finally able to leave the arguing to someone else. Bishara (who incidentally told me that Israel Shahak had been the best and kindest professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he had studied) was quite shocked that Edward would not lend public support to Clinton for finally doing the right thing in the Balkans. Why was he being so stubborn? I had begun by then – belatedly you may say – to guess. Rather like our then-friend Noam Chomsky, Edward in the final instance believed that if the United States was doing something, then that thing could not by definition be a moral or ethical action.”

Great stuff!

I fear, however, that I shall be writing more about Christopher Hitchens in the not-too-distant future: he presently has inoperable Stage Four esophageal cancer. There is no Stage Five.

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What Cancer’s Up Against

November 14, 2010 at 6:02 pm (hitchens, Max Dunbar, religion)

Hitchens dislikes the ‘New Atheist’ title. ‘It isn’t really new,’ he says, ‘except it coincides with huge advances made in the natural sciences. And there’s been an unusually violent challenge to pluralist values by the supporters of at least one monotheism apologised for quite often by the sympathisers of others. Then they say we’re fundamentalists. A stupid idea like that is hard to kill because any moron can learn it in 10 seconds and repeat it as if for the first time. But since there isn’t a single position that any of us holds on anything that depends upon an assertion that can’t be challenged, I guess that will die out or they’ll get bored of it.’

Later, Anthony writes: ‘Not for the first time, I feel a twinge of pity for that tumour. Does it realise what it’s up against?

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Changing Trains, Nearing the Terminus

August 28, 2010 at 8:27 pm (hitchens, literature, Rosie B)

I wasn’t going to bother with Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens’s memoir, because I read some excerpts in the Sunday Times and they were all about him and Martin Amis, displaying the laddish side of Hitchens which I don’t like.  I don’t like Amis much either, as his prose is always turned up to eleven, with full strobe lighting, so after a page or two I want to hide in the chill out room.

However I picked up the book, and found that like most things by Hitchens it was hard to put down, though very uneven.  It isn’t so much a womb to cancer-ward autobiography as a series of essays.  The one on Amis is a gushing eulogy on his brilliance and way with words even including  this paragraph on Amis’s attempts at political polemic:- (p167)

I have often thought that he would have made a terrifying barrister.  Once decided on mastering a brief, whether it be in his work on nuclear weapons, the Final Solution, or the Gulag, he would go off and positively saturate himself in the literature, , and you could always tell there was a work in progress when all his conversation began to orient itself to the master-theme.  (In this he strangely resembled Perry Anderson, the theoretician of New Left Review . . . )  Like Perry, Martin contrived to do this without becoming monomaniacal or Ancient Mariner-like.  There was a time when he wouldn’t have known the difference between Bukharin and Bukunin, and his later writing on Marxism gets quite a few things wrong. . . His labour on the great subject of Communism is also highly deficient in lacking a tragic sense, but he still passed the greatest of all tests in being a pleasure to argue with.

If I was in the dock, the thought of Martin Amis defending me would have me sweating with fear as I anticipated the size of my cell and the nastiness of my cell mate, and would develop into the kind of terror that empties the bowels as the judge made scathing remarks on how the barrister for the defendant seems to be  reading his brief from an auto-cue.  Amis’s writings on nuclear weapons and Stalin are those of a smart sixth former who has swotted up the subject for a week or two to meet an essay deadline.  That is sheer indulgence from Hitchens, and the same goes for the pages about the word games he and his mates played at their Friday lunches.  The mates are great talents – Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Clive James, Julian Barnes – but you end up knowing them less and liking them less.  There is no perspective on them, and this is from a writer who could give you in a page a sharp vignette of a terrified North Korean official, shaking with fear when asked an unscripted question.

These word games are like the doings of lovers – enjoyable for the participants, but no-one else wants to hear about them.  He says that they help to put on intellectual muscle, but it’s possible to think that they encouraged a tendency to meretricious juggling and pyrotechnics – words for words’ sake – that you get from Kingsley Amis at his worst, Clive James rather a lot, Hitchens himself too much and Martin Amis everywhere.

His account of his parents are him at his most sensitive and serious.  Hitchens is a good literary critic and with his full heart and brain he reads his parents closely, the low-spirited father, the lively mother, then like a good literary critic he steps back and sees them in their historical and cultural context. His mother, the life-force, gasping in dull English provincial towns, socially ambitious for him and also wanting a bit of fun and dancing, his father, the Commander, once a naval officer in World War II, bitterly disappointed with the Britain that was not a meritocracy for the likes of him but a plutocracy that was destroying much what he valued.  Both are tragic figures – his father who felt that his dutifulness was unrewarded in work or marriage, his mother because of her frustration and ultimate suicide.  Except for the suicide, this is the every day tragedy in George Eliot or George Gissing, that of unfulfilled lives.

No-one could say that of Hitchens’s life.  He hardly mentions his wife, Carol Blue, but whenever he refers to her dry wit and understatement I wish I was having a drink with her this minute.  She’s also clever, glamorous and beautiful, so like this as in many things, Hitchens has had a best of times, doing the work he loves and has a talent for, with a host of friends and a place in the heart of things.

His has been the intellectual rock-star trajectory, as typical of its time as practising chords for those with musical ability and then heading up from the dirty clubs to the stadiums.  It’s the Byronic swagger of our day, and you would have to be a leftist saint not to envy it. At Oxford, Hitchens was getting the political gigs and his first proper shag was with a groupie who had pinned photos of him on his wall.  For a full analysis of his place in the left political scene, I would read Andrew Coates’s piece here.

So what got him into left wing politics?  A sense of economic injustice doesn’t seem to have been the driving force and he says of his mother’s sympathy towards his activism (p18) :  “Her politics had always been liberal and humanitarian, and she had a great abhorrence of any sort of cruelty or bullying: she fondly thought that my commitments were mainly to the underdog.”  It’s been the chance to bring down the overdog that has fuelled Hitchens, whether the British foreign minister that he and his activist chums shouted down at what was supposed to be a debate at Oxford or Saddam Hussein with his Neronian excesses of vanity and creative cruelty.  He wants to topple these people from their high thrones, and he admires anyone whether it’s an American grunt or a Kurdish nationalist who will put their lives on the line to do so.

Like other British rock stars he eventually broke America and indeed fell in love with it, aligning himself with its government’s actions after 9/11. The big story about Hitchens is that of his changing sides from the polemicist who damned the First Gulf War to the polemicist who ardently supported the invasion of Iraq, to the point of accusing all those who opposed it as fellow travellers of clerical fascism.  (For analysis of this and how it could lead him into misrepresentation for the sake of partisanship, read Guttenplan’s excellent piece in The Nation).  Hitchens wanted effective action.

He says in his chapter, Mesopotamia from Both Sides (p311):-

I never quite lost the surreal sense that I had become in some way a pro-government dissident and that of all the paradoxes of my little life, this might have to register as the most acute one.  But it was the demonstrators in the streets. . . who struck me as the real conformists of the scenario.  Accused of becoming a sell-out by working for the interwar Yugoslav republic Rebecca West’s guide. . . Constantine in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, confesses that, yes: “For the sake of my country, and erhaps a little for the sake of my soul, I have given up the deep peace of being in opposition.”  I, too, began to find that I could see things from the point of view of the governors and that I was on the side of those striving to build up a new state in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In any case, the opponents of the war were themselves aligned with the view of other governors and states, many of them much more smelly than George W. Bush.

In Hitch-22 there are other pieces of interest eg his version of how he and Said fell out and some gossip about Gore Vidal.  Except for the pieces on his parents it’s not Hitchens at his best. On the whole, I don’t think he is up there with Swift, Hazlitt, Cobbett, and Orwell as one of the great English essayists and polemicists.  We’re reading and quoting Orwell sixty years after his death and I can’t see that happening with Hitchens.  But he is cleverer and wittier than most, and it’s a bad blow that it looks like his writing career is going to be cut short.  His recent piece on his own cancer is as fine and vivid as anything he has done.

The saddest thing about Hitch-22 is the book jacket.  This shows a flattering picture of him, handsome face, high intellectual forehead surmounted by a very full rug for a man of his age, the whole decorated with a curlicue of smoke from the fag in his fingers, in an irresistible combination of brilliance and loucheness. Then I look at the photos of him after the chemo, hair gone and cancer-aged by ten years and I want to cry.

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Eagleton’s return to Christianity?

July 6, 2009 at 11:33 pm (Christianity, Guardian, hitchens, Jim D, literature, religion, science, secularism)

Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are old enough and ugly enough not to require my assistance in seeing off their critics. But I am becoming rather irritated by reviews that claim Terry Eagleton, in his recent supposed riposte to “Ditchkins” (Reason, Faith and Revolution: reflections on the God Debate) “successfully shreds” and “effortlessly and ruthlesslytears apart” Dawkins and Hitchens. The first quote comes from Piers Paul Read writing in the Observer on 24 May 2009, the second from Jonathan Bartley in  the Guardian of  4 July: both writers, incidentally, are campaigning Christians, though that fact is not prominantly signalled or mentioned in either article.

I should, at this point, make it clear that I have not yet read Eagleton’s book, but from his numerous recent articles on the subject of religion, and from the (mainly sympathetic) reviews, I have to say that I find it difficult to believe that this pompous, vacuous and intellectually dishonest shyster could “shred” either Dawkins or Hitchens on the subject of religion (or anything else). The most widely quoted and admired “argument” in Eagleton’s book seems to be this: “(Dawkins) falsely considers that Christianity offers a rival view of the universe to science…(Hitchens makes) the same crass error…Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything…it’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

What the hell is that supposed to actually mean? The most charitable explanation is that Eagleton is rehashing an argument previously, and much more convincingly, presented by the late Stephen Jay Gould, who called it “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). Put briefly, and crudely, NOMA postulates that there is no real conflict between science and religion because the two operate in entirely different  domains; science is empirical, factual and theoretical, while religion is concerned with morality and value. These two “magesteria” operate by different intellectual criteria and do not overlap. Science asks “how” things happed, while religion asks “why”. It’s an attractive theory, especially for people who are frightened by full-on atheism and are seeking a sort of half-way house. Gould argues for it quite convincingly, but ultimately it’s a cop-out and a sleight of hand. Religion must stand or fall on the same intellectual basis as every other belief, and any attempt to provide a special set of rules for religion is, in reality, an admission that the intellectual case for belief simply doesn’t stand up. At its worst (and I suspect Eagleton’s version falls into this catagory), it’s actually no more than a fancy version of the Ontological argument (dating back to the 11th Century) for the existance of God :

1. God is the most perfect being concievable.

2. It is more perfect to exist than not exist

3. Therefore, God must exist.

Whether in its “sophisticated” NOMA form, or the crude circularity of Ontology, this is a strange line of argument for a “Marxist” (as Eagleton still, apparently, claims to be) to be putting forward. In fact it’s a version of what Plekhanov called “dualism”.

But is Eagleton any longer any sort of Marxist at all? And has he returned to his Christian roots? The Catholic Piers Paul Read seems to think that Eagleton is still, nominally, a Marxist and an atheist, but predicts that “Eagleton himself is en route for Damascus and will one day stop kicking against the goad.”  In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that Eagleton submitted to the goad some time ago: when asked in a recent US radio interview whether he prayed, Eagleton avoided giving a straight answer...

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Give the marbles back!

June 21, 2009 at 12:49 am (history, hitchens, Jim D)

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

Lord Byron, “Childe Harold”

With the opening of this wonderful new museum , there is no longer any excuse: give the marbles back!

More than 200 years after a British diplomat arranged to have large sculptures from the Parthenon shipped to Britain, Christopher Hitchens says the objects should now be returned. A new state-of-the-art museum in Athens wants them, but officials at the British Museum plan to hold on to one of their most famous collections.

Listen to Hitchens talk about the subject here

… and see also new article in NY Times on the same subject… A Home for the Marbles.
H/t: Will at the Sots

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