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Friday, December 16, 2011

Godspeed, You Brilliant, Thought-Provoking Ass

Finally finished with finals, leaving me some breathing space to start getting caught up on some things that need to be said. And first up on the list comes the news this morning, that Christopher Hitchens has passed away, from pneumonia, contracted in the process of his twilight struggle against cancer. RIP, I say.

Why do I say that, about a man who I've never met and whose ideas I disagreed with more often than not? First, because wishing Hitchens's immortal soul Godspeed would piss him off, and he liked being pissed off. Second, because I'm a softy, in the way that Rod Dreher is a softy, who commented in a post of his, put up late last night, that he finds it "impossible not to like someone as, well, original and as gifted with the English language as Hitchens." (And gifted he was; there are many, many people who attempt to put on the mantle of George Orwell, and appropriate the attitude and emulate the skill demonstrated by the controlled fury and exacting brilliance of Orwell's prose: for Hitchens, unlike nearly everyone else, the comparison very nearly works.) But third, and most importantly, because in my disagreements with him, even more than my agreements, I came to understand something essential about conservatism, and about myself.

I read Hitchens's The Missionary Position, his ferocious screed against Mother Teresa, while I was working as a bookseller while still in graduate school. (He later repeated his basic thesis against Mother Teresa in Slate magazine, here.) After finishing the book, I realized something: I agreed with him. I agreed with his claim that Mother Teresa wasn't at all engaged in the humane act of healing the world which most of her admirers the world over imagined she was. Mother Teresa made Hitchens's angry, and he liked being angry, especially at anyone who believed in a God: she's just an illiberal authoritarian who cares more about building her little kingdom than solving any actual social problems!, his book screamed. (Or, as he summarized his complaint in Slate: "Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti, whose rule she praised in return, and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan.") My response to his attack, both when I read it originally and anytime I thought about it afterward, remained the same: You're right Hitch: Mother Teresa was concerned more with authority and God's kingdom...because she was convinced that that was where love and salvation and grace are to be found, not in anything so fallen, so liberal, as "society." Or as I wrote back then, with the help of St. Augustine:

Did criminals and murderers and wicked men contribute money to Mother Teresa's cause, hoping to gain something from their proximity to her? Very likely. Should that have troubled Mother Teresa? Not at all. After all, as Augustine reminds us, outside the City of God (and not one of us is fully in it, not now, not until the rest of God takes us), we're all criminals anyway:"What are kingdoms but great robber bands? What are robber bands but small kingdoms?" (City of God, Bk. 4, Chp. 4) This is hardly a good way to interact with others in a political sense: we must seek out standards of justice, build communities that exclude and include, form principles of law, all so that the limited goods of this life can be shared, rather than made subject to raw power and wealth. This is solid Catholic doctrine, and solid Christian doctrine as well: "If you want peace, work for justice." And it's true. But it's only true right here, right now, and the final supreme good of the believing Christian is neither here nor now: it is the eternal peace which the rest of God promises. In the meantime, justice is, well, valuable--but, in a very fundamental sense, it is limited too. "What about justice, whose function is to render to each his due, thereby establishing in man a certain just order of nature, so that the soul is subordinated to God, and the flesh to the soul, and consequently the flesh and the soul to God? Does it not demonstrate in performing this function that it is still laboring at its task instead of resting in the completion of its goal?" (City of God, Bk. 19, Chp. 4) Justice, and all mortal concerns, are by definition incomplete. Holiness, by contrast, in wholeness. If one wholly adored God, then the moral complications of discerning between what some deserve and others do not, of working out compromises when faced with hard moral choices, of deciding between just and unjust wars, indeed of all the necessary vicissitudes of ordinary life, would not trouble you one bit--and, as Hitchens proved (to me at least), that describes Mother Teresa's lack of care for the "real world," or "the big picture," or "the long term" very, very well. In short, I think Hitchens helps us understand why Mother Teresa really was a saint--and why most of us don't want to be one.

This argument--both Hitchens's against Mother Teresa, and mine with Hitchens--simply underscores his similarity to Orwell, who was notoriously divided in his feelings on Gandhi, sniffing that "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent." Hitchens always thought saints were guilty (like Gandhi too!), because saints are not of this (social, political, "real") world, and this is the only world which Hitchens every acknowledged. Whereas I, on the other hand, think any decent politics has to have at least some saintly involvement, at least sometimes, however convoluted or compromised the presence of that otherworldly (or higher-worldly) that saintlessly may be.

Hitchens unapologetic embrace of the "real world" also forced another realization of mine about conservatism, through the way he contributed to my own twisted odyssey over the war in Iraq. My support for it, as I've written a couple of times before, was almost wholly a creation of the theoretical framework which I embraced at the time (and still somewhat, to a limited degree and in a changed manner, hold to today): a kind of liberal (inter)nationalism, an emphasis upon the proper place for nations to exercise real world power in defense of culturally grounded expression of broadly liberal principles. Hitchens, who had been, up until the moment of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and, particularly, the American-led invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq, an unpredictable but still fairly consistent man of the left and a critic of American imperialist power, all of a sudden became a vicious defender of almost all things Western against what he termed the "Islamofascist" threat. Hitchens--in retrospect simply bizarre--obsession with the righteousness of the Western liberal cause (and the power to Western liberal states to impose that cause upon whole populations that were presumably more concerned with feeding themselves than being on the right side of some political theory!) was one that, for some years, I had a strange admiration for. As I put it at a conference once:

What happened as some of us watched the World Trade Center come down on September 11th was the realization, for the first time in a very long time, that one could actually see a boundary, a limit: there really was this place called "America," and it had a culture and a way of life and a meaning, and there was something outside of it, something that wasn't a function of, or susceptible to, the abstract forces o globalization, but instead took the corporate Americanization of the world and shoved it all back into national, historically embedded terms. In other words, all of sudden we could see ourselves as a community, not just a site of media and market exchanges, and a community worth loving as well. And to the extent which the struggle with Islamic fascism and terrorism proceeded on those terms, terms which presumed (and, we fancifully imagined, even encouraged the growth of, despite Bush's refusal to ever talk about any real kind of sacrifice) a solidarity with and commitment to one's own....well, the neocons and liberal hawks ended up leading a number of us national communitarians and Christian socialists around by the nose.

What I didn't say at the time was that Hitchens was, perhaps, the most articulate and challenging (and, to be sure, the least balanced) exponent of this kind of theoretical attitude, but I didn't need to say it; almost immediately upon making my comments, one of the other discussants declared my thoughts a species of "Christopher Hitchens conservatism"--and he was absolutely correct. In a perverse way, the ideological hothouse that was the Western world in the early days of the Iraq War managed to turn leftists that like community, like me, or even just left-liberals who like the idea of punching illiberal God-worshipers in the nose, like Hitchens, into people on the right--into, in short, conservatives, even imperialists, of a fashion. I was wrong about that. Hitchens remained in denial about it, as far as I know up until the very end.

That's a sad ending for this little essay, and an even sadder ending to the brilliant (in the very literal sense of "brightness"--Hitchens obviously loved both being at the center of, and being a generator of, both light and heat) career of an enormously talented writer. I would hope that this judgment doesn't sum the whole atheistic, combative, pig-headed, awesomely informed and opinionated man up. (George Scialabba, a much more balanced but equally well-informed writer, has a wonderful summary of Hitchens's work here.) I'm afraid I can't agree with frequent the one blogosphere commenter, who wrote that, "[Hitchens] supported the war in Iraq. That, to me, disqualifies practically everything else." No, for better and/or for worse, this particular asshole contained multitudes. Part of what he was (and, to his great consternation, I will insist still is) spoke to me; part of that speaking isn't with me any longer, thank goodness, but part of it still is. Hitchens, who has nothing if not a constant partisan, would have liked that, I hope.

Anyway, requiescat in pace, Hitchens. You won't like being at rest, but God knows you probably really need some.


Anonymous said...

RIP Chris Hitchens. Not sure I completely agree with your assessment of him, Dr Fox, but it was very well said.

Certainly Mr Hitchens had an incredible mind, and I definitely agree that he was indeed a master of the written and spoken word in argument. But there is, at the same time, something very regrettable in his refusal to acknowledge the literary worth in any text which was religious or religiously inspired (which, in the West which he so rigorously defended, still constitute the bulk of our literary world). It seems to me to be slightly a waste of potential.

Regarding his philosophical contributions, I'm afraid I haven't really shared your assessment there, since he was engaged more in speaking past my religious upbringing in Radical-Reformed Protestantism than against it. I never really bought into the sort of textual literalism which he erected as the model of 'true' religion and thereby directed most of his argumentation.

I am very much in agreement with your political assessment of him, though. I think Mr Hitchens was a teacher of politics in a very Confucian way (as in 'when three men are walking together there is one who can be my teacher'). Personally he demonstrated for me a few of the ironies and dangers of such a 'this world'-ly liberal-interventionist ideology, which proved quite as adept at mythology-building as any religious value system can be.

A fitting and thoughtful tribute to a man who delighted in controversy, though. Thanks!


David Watkins said...

Huh. You managed to find some real meaning in the Mother Teresa stuff, where all I ever saw was banalities (saints aren't really saints) rounded up and forced into the service of his anti-religious bigotry (something I seem to have been more sensitive to than you, curiously). I'm willing to concede that my various frustrations with CH may have led to an inhibited capacity to learn from and engage with his work.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Matthew, thanks for the comment. Regarding Hitchens's religious target(s), I can see your point: there is a very real sense in which many religious believers could read him serenely and with a shake of their head, recognizing that the concept of God and religion he was attacking didn't map at all onto their lived experience. For my part, as a Mormon I have enough authoritarianism in my faith life to recognize my own beliefs in his attacks...not that they dissuaded me from my beliefs, though.

David, please don't take me as any kind of truly insightful reader of Hitchens; I'm sure I wasn't. But I suppose I can accept some of the credit you're offering me: as I mentioned just above to Matthew, I recognized my own faith in Hitchens's attacks, and trying to understand what he found some bothersome about those authoritarian elements of a religion he didn't believe in got me thinking about what religion, and a particular kind of "saintly" appeal, really means for me as a political thinker. So he has helpful to me--and if that's helpful to you, all the better.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Matthew -

It's not fair to say that Hitchens' refused to acknowledge the literary worth or religiously-inspired work. He said many times that the King James Bible is a most remarkable creation, of cultural, literary, and political significance. He was a huge fan of devotionists like George Herbert, and wrote more than once about his appreciation for religious architecture.

Hitchens didn't think religion was necessary for the production of fine culture, however, nor sufficient. And he thought that religion has stifled the creation of culture much more than it has facilitated it. That's an empirical claim that can't be easily answered, but it isn't right to say that Hitchens automatically ruled out any art or literature of a religious provenance.

Rob said...

I'm not going to blog about Hitchins, but I still wanted to put my thoughts out there *someplace*.

When I got news of his passing, I was surprised by the level of visceral grief I felt. It only took a couple of minutes, but at least three of the stages of denial-anger-internalization-sorrow-acceptance were all there, about a gadfly whose logic I thought could be shredded like so much tissue paper in a hot strong wind.

What I wanted most from his loud-mouthedness was for him to be personally and thoroughly refuted on his own terms by some 20-year-old college sophomore somewhere, since that was the level of reasoning I thought he was slightly beneath.

Perhaps that's what I'll miss about him. Because his voice is no longer fueled by his energy, fewer people will rise to refute it, and their listeners won't hear the refutation. It's an opportunity missed, because none of the "brights" out there are as articulate or engaging as he was.

Better a clearly seen fallacy than a complex one; it's far easier to refute clear illogic. Hitchins rendered a service by making his stuff easy to understand.

And if I'm true to my own belief, then he's gone to a God he never knew, since no one ever taught him about that God, and to his revelation and surprise. Who knows, but what a guy like him won't turn on a dime, as soon as he sees where he's gone wrong?