Towards a Hagiography of Christopher Hitchens

Posted: December 20, 2011 in Braak, crotchety ranting, Politics
Tags: , , , , ,

Hahah, I am kidding, I don’t believe in hagiographies in the first place, and if I was going to participate in one, it definitely wouldn’t be for Christopher Hitchens.  Maybe David Hume?  Probably that guy, I guess.  But he, at least, was a philosopher; what’s the point in idolizing, or iconoclast…ing (iconoclasm?  Icono…I guess it must be “iconoclazing”) iconoclazing a writer like Hitchens?

As you may know, Christopher Hitchens died recently, and a lot of people have had some things to say on the subject.

A friend suggested that she saw a number of blog posts glorifying him, which I’ll admit that I haven’t seen.  I did see a couple RIPs, and a couple of “well, it’s sad that he’s gone, because he was a good writer, if a bit of a self-righteous prick,” and many more, “hey, remember how Hitchens supported the war in Iraq?  And how he was pretty sexist, and a drunk, and a militant secularist?  And also that time he had his balls waxed?” articles.

I’ve got to admit that I don’t really understand the purpose of this, because one good thing about Christopher Hitchens is that no one hesitated to say any of this shit when he was still alive.  It’s not like Mother Teresa, someone so charitable and saintly that we were all a little leery of questioning the actual long-term value of unabashedly opposing birth control in a nation crippled by its population density (well, all of us except for Hitchens, obviously).  There was no reverence with regards to Hitchens, no sacred cow we were all afraid to slaughter.  People gave Hitchens the business for all his dumb shit all the time; for all intents and purposes, Christopher Hitchens might as well still be alive for however a person’s opinion on him has changed.

The thing is, I can get why the idea of a political figure might change after death.  A cat like Osama Bin Laden, there was a lot that we needed to believe about him in order to prosecute the War On Terror, so it’s reasonable that some people might, after his death, write some articles about, “Yeah, he was the architect of a plot to murder a lot of people, but he was also, in his own, kind of terrifying way, still a human being.”  Likewise, as a symbol for terrorism, he might also need to be worked into a cultural narrative, so probably you’d write an article about how he was the symbol for all that was evil in the world, and his death represents our victory over it.

The reason for this is that symbols are relevant because of the narrative in which they’re seated.  That’s what hagiographies are for — Ronald Reagan was turned into a symbol after he died, taken from being a human being who lived in a complex world and made decisions based on complex scenarios, and into someone who mattered more as a representation — as a character in a narrative — than he did as a person.  There’s a lot of strategic political use in turning Ronald Reagan into a symbol, and there’s a lot of moral use in turning a symbol like Bin Laden back into a human being.

But Christopher Hitchens?  Who was lionizing Christopher Hitchens?  How much danger were we in of some young person looking at his body of work and saying, “Yes, I, too, want to grow up to be a witty, articulate, drunken boor!”  Well, maybe a lot, but again, it’s not like Hitchens and his work was scrubbed clean after the advent of his death.  It’s all still there, he’s still just as much Christopher Hitchens as anything; no one went back with fig leaves to cover up the naughty bits.

Incidentally, my own opinion has a softened a little on Christopher Hitchens.  (I don’t, as you all well know, prefer to talk about the dead in public, reserving my thoughts on the subject for evocations at the Black Wells that…well, let’s just say that I have my own rituals for dealing with the spirits of the deceased; the point is, since I’ve started, I feel like I might as well go at it.)

I don’t approve of his warmongering, but then I didn’t approve of his warmongering either, so in that light nothing has changed.  But now that I’ve given it a little thought, and now that it doesn’t need to be actively opposed, I think that I understand it a little better.  Christopher Hitchens was born in 1949, not long after World War II, and I think growing up in the shadow of the Last Good War, the last time we were genuinely sure that the military action we were engaged in was the Right Thing to Do, made a lot of men hungry for the notion of a just cause.  Then, he comes of age during Vietnam, a war which defined a lot of his political positions and his place in the culture.  These twin poles:  the memory of the just war, the betrayal of the bad one, are what I suspect really guided his politics.

If you look back at his work, I think it’s clear that Hitchens, like most cynics, was a romantic, and he spent most of his life looking for a cause to stand for.  He was spoiling for a fight, and — again, for as much as he was a self-righteous prick — he was a deeply moral person.  So, when he thought he had something, a cause to fight for in Iraq, he went to lengths in order to describe that cause as righteous, to convince himself as much as to convince anyone else.  It wasn’t that he believed that we were right to go into Iraq; the compulsion was much stronger:  he needed to believe that we were right to go into Iraq.

I suspect the same was true with his fight against religion.  He did do a lot of good in this area, in terms of letting atheists know that they weren’t alone, and making the unusual prejudice against atheists in politics (in the US, anyway) pretty clear.  Of course, he was also a polemicist, which means he was much more valuable as an opponent — because he forced you to think long and hard about your position, and to articulate it as clearly and unassailably as possible — than he was as an ally.  As an ally, he was a bit of a pain in the ass, actually.  God Is Not Great, while it addresses some important ideas, is filled with universal statements, unnecessary aggression, and a smear of vitriol that occasionally made you embarrassed to be on the same team.  Certainly, it didn’t help anyone reach any kind of amicable conclusion.

But you know, there you have it in a nutshell:  Hitchens didn’t want an amicable conclusion.  He wanted a fight, the kind of righteous, soul-filling fight that his father had enjoyed in The Last Good War.  And for that he needed an adversary that was unequivocally evil.  When Iraq didn’t pan out, he went after the Church, and he did what writers always do:  he turned it into a symbol of fascism and oppression, made it into the enemy that he wanted, so that he wouldn’t have to hold back when he fought it.

Christopher Hitchens, like the saint whose name he bears, spent a lifetime in search of a worthy master.  But he was born in the modern era, and an intellectual, and an atheist, so there was no Jesus by the river for him to find.  With no worthy master waiting for him, all that energy and wit went to finding a worthy adversary.  It’s what happens, even when you’re a smart guy:  you use the tools you have.  Even when you think you’re being rational and objective, you’re still seeing the world in a way subtly deformed by your past experience, by the culture of your birth, by your genetics probably.  Hitchens could no more see how he was the product of a generation that needed to find a Just Cause and a Worthy Adversary than any man can see the back of his own head.

Or, well, of course I’m just projecting, aren’t I?  I can’t know what was going on inside Hitchens’ mind any more than he knew what went on inside Mother Teresa’s.  That’s a thing that we all do, I think:  we look at the behaviors of other people and, with no real frame of reference to understand them, attribute those causes to the motivations that we experience.  It’s a long-winded way to, instead of saying “This is what Christopher Hitchens was like,” say, “This is why I would have been like Christopher Hitchens, if I’d been him.”

So maybe that’s really the point of the hagiographies and the anti-hagiographies (diabolographies?); obviously, it’s nothing to do with Hitchens or his legacy.  It’s about us, and what we want people to know about us.  How we remember Christopher Hitchens in public is really just a way to say how we want to be remembered.

So, good enough, Christopher Hitchens.  You caused trouble, you did some good things, and you did some bad things.  I won’t say that I miss you, because honestly I thought you’d died a couple months ago.

(Of course, Christopher Hitchens and I, both atheists, neither would have nor do believe that Christopher Hitchens’ ghost can hear me, which means I’m not talking to him at all, am I?)

  1. Mary Jones says:

    Diabolography needs to be a recognized term.

  2. Moff says:

    Hitchens is one of those figures like Heinlein, whose work I can find plenty to admire about, but who bears the dubious honor of inspiring thousands of people to unquestioningly champion his brand of critical thinking.

  3. Carl says:

    Exceptionally well-said. I suspect CH’s death is garnering so much attention because he was a public intellectual and razor sharp verbal wit who, because he managed to piss off both right and left, enjoyed near-universal name ID. In a culture that has consciously abandoned public intellectual discourse in favor of slack-jawed rah-rah partisanism, this is a rarity.

  4. John Jackson says:

    Ah, I commented on Facebook before I saw this, so I’m bound to probably say two different things. It is a shame that a critical thinking polemicist whose best ability was to force his debating contemporaries to think through their arguments better winds up inspiring people to blindly follow his conclusions. I like to think that people aren’t so dull. I do love the reference to most cynics being romantics: I can’t argue with the point, but I also have no idea why this appears to be true. As for disliking hagiography, well, it’s something human societies will always do. You point to the minds/people who affected your mind/soul and honour them with as much even-handedness as you can muster. That’s the point of them in my mind, at least. In today’s world with four thousand blogs updated within minutes of someone’s death, and at least five major papers in every nation giving three or five different writers space to tribute the recently departed, it makes sense that there will be overkill. (Sorry about that accidental pun, but I just can’t bring myself to change it.) I think the best tributes I read to Hitchens were from his writer friends and editors who simply compiled his “best” columns.

    Though, I mean, the entire point of this piece is how hagiographies are pointless and don’t contribute much, and yet it’s still another hagiography, or diablography or whatever.

  5. braak says:

    I think that hagiographies are, by definition, NOT even-handed. But I don’t hold much with the notion of even-handedness in the first place. I follow the philosophy of the Whale Biologist, and just calls ’em like I sees ’em.

  6. braak says:

    The fact that cynics are frustrated romantics is a truism that I can’t recall from where I heard it, but it always seems about right. It does require a distinction in “cynic”, though, because we talk about a person being a cynic, and we talk about a person behaving cynically, but those aren’t necessarily concomitant, I don’t think.

    Rick Perry cynically uses whatever fervent beliefs his constituency expresses in order to sell off whatever remains of Texas’ public services. We wouldn’t call him a cynic, though, we’d call him a sociopath or a narcissist or just a fucking asshole.

    The kind of people we call cynics are people like Hitchens, who are constantly griping about duplicity and hypocrisy and, essentially, people like Perry who represent this kind of idea that everyone in the world is an asshole who’s just out for themselves.

    The only people who gripe about that are the people who believe that humanity can and should be better than that. Those people are romantics, and their frustrations over humanity’s failures are what we called cynics; if they really didn’t give a shit, they wouldn’t bother complaining. They’d just become governors of Texas and rob their states blind.

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