- December 18, 2011
Clearly atheists cannot be saints, but the media response to Christopher Hitchens’ death doesn’t fall far short of a kind of secular canonisation. I’m not going to comment on those who knew him as friends, because friendship generates its own priorities, but enough already, of this brave seeker after truth/new George Orwell/contrarian business.
I liked Hitchens’ writing once, and I used to have two books of his collected essays, but I wasn’t a full-on disciple. Despite his undoubted skill and stylistic brilliance, I sensed a self-important writer who was a little too in love with his own brilliance and – a terrible and endemic fault in English writers in particular – with his own cleverness.
Despite all this, I was shocked and disgusted by his trajectory after 9/11. It wasn’t just the swing to the right – a tediously familiar journey that many others have made. It was his coarseness and arrogance, the bad faith and slickness of his arguments, the willingness to hire out his Oxbridge brain and rhetorical skills in the service of the crudest warmongery, the horrible glee that he seemed to take in killing – a tendency summed up by the following quotation about the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan which Corey Robin includes on his website:
[stextbox id=”alert”]’If you”re actually certain that you”re hitting only a concentration of enemy troopsâ€¦then it is pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they”re bearing a Koran over their heart, it”ll go straight through that, too. So they won”t be able to say, “Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.â€ No way, “cause it”ll go straight through that as well. They”ll be dead, in other words”‘[/stextbox].
I remember reading that at the time and feeling revolted by the cruelty and bloodthirstiness of this armchair warrior who was supposed to be some kind of great humanist intellectual, and it wasn’t the only time Hitchens said such things. Another time he delivered a speech at a US Army Base in which he lamented the fact that the Army hadn’t killed more ‘jihadists’ at Falluja, as if enough people hadn’t already died there.
Hitchens wrote about war the way some intellectuals do when they want to demonstrate some kind of macho affinity with soldiers, as though tough guy language somehow compensates for the amount of time they spend in bars, restaurants or at the desk and makes them one of the boys.
He never seemed to consider or reappraise his arguments about the Iraq war and the militarist US response to 9/11 in general, regardless of its many lies, manipulations and contradictions, and even when the war produced totally different consequences to what he himself had predicted. It was all a thrilling and enjoyable – and lucrative – game to him, and he simply moved the goalposts every time and moved on, cheering on the bombs and killing.
All this was combined with a spiteful, sneering and vindictive contempt for anyone who thought differently, whether it was the Dixie Chicks (‘fucking fat slags’) or Cindy Sheehan, whose anti-war campaign was dismissed by Hitchens as ‘the sob-sister tripe pumped out by the Cindy Sheehan circus and its surrogates’. This was a ‘sob-sister’ whose son was killed in the war that Hitchens celebrated and glorified at every conceivable opportunity, and who might have been owed a modicum of respect, even by those who disagreed with her.
But not Saint Hitchens, who by that time respected no one except the powerful. And polemics against religion don’t constitute moral courage either, in my book. I saw some of his debate with Tony Blair and had to duck out well before the end. It was like listening to the sound of two tin men clashing, to hear these two men, both of whom in part, owed their celebrity status and their money to their support for war and militarism, debating whether religion was a force for good.
Hitchens’ role as a dogmatic atheist certainly brought him a large new audience, but n the end I find it difficult to imagine that, for all his undoubted talent as a polemicist and provocateur, Hitchens would have received the kind of largely uncritical accolades he is receiving had it not been for his transformation into a ferocious but ultimately hollow cheerleader for US military power after 9/11.
And as Glenn Greenwald puts it, in a superb piece on Salon:
[stextbox id=”alert”]’Nobody should have to silently watch someone with this history be converted into some sort of universally beloved literary saint. To enshrine him as worthy of unalloyed admiration is to insist that these actions were either themselves commendable or, at worst, insignificant. Nobody who writes about politics for decades will be entirely free of serious error, but how serious the error is, whether it reflects on their character, and whether they came to regret it, are all vital parts of honestly describing and assessing their work. To demand its exclusion is an act of dishonesty.’[/stextbox]
Too right, but there’s a hell of a lot of dishonesty around.