Introduction to Faculty Panel on
Christopher Hitchens’ “The Moral Necessity of Atheism”
Tuesday, Feb 17, 2004
Women’s Center Living Room
The “How, Then, Shall We Live?” Series
I first came across Christopher Hitchens’ work when I began to subscribe in the mid-nineties to The Nation, the leading leftist periodical in America. If you have ever seen it, the Nation is a decidedly no-frills operation. They take no advertising as a matter of principle, and so the journal is printed on newspaper paper– in this way, he Nation marks by its appearance and feel its stark contrast in ideology to the magazines which are glossy and in the pocket of corporate advertisers. By and large, I liked reading the Nation, since I felt there was a commitment to Truth, or at least there was a freedom from capitalist bias which might help in speaking the Truth. This was an especial interest of mine during the confusing moral era presided over by Bill Clinton. But the fact of the matter is, The Nation just wasn’t much all that much fun– no New Yorker style cartoons, no Harper’s Index, no interesting or provocative book or film reviews– and week after week I left the magazine sit all but unread. All but, as I say, since I always made a point of reading Christopher Hitchens’ Minority Report. Hitchens always struck me as an independent voice in what was, I’d come to think, a journal largely unified in its political interests. Among dissenters, in other words, Hitchens was a dissenter, a voice raised in opposition to the voices raised in opposition. And it’s no simply because I like irony that I liked Hitchens. He also wrote well, memorably and powerfully. Unlike so much of what I’ve read in magazines- whether essays by John Updike, film reviews by Pauline Kael, political commentary by P. J. O’Rourke, etc., etc.,– Hitchens’ prose tends to stick in my head.
Over the course of the next few years, Hitchens’ name began to appear more and more frequently in whatever magazine I happened to be reading, or TV show I happened to be watching. There he was on Salon.com, slamming Newt Gingrich. There he was on Hardball with Chris Matthews, MSNBC’s political pundit shoutfest, slamming Bill Clinton. In fact, Hitchens’ political insights were always so damned interesting in the late 90’s that I found myself unconsciously taking them for my own opinion and citing them accordingly. During the lead-up to the impeachment proceedings, you may recall, the Clinton Administration bombed a factory in the Sudan which was reportedly was making weapons. Hitchens was the first to actually look at the scientific data and say, You know, that company really was making medicine like the Sudanese said it was, but this was not a mistake in intelligence, it was a deliberate ploy to distract attention from the political situation arising from the affair with Monica Lewinsky. On the basis of such articles, Hitchens wrote his book, No One Left to Lie To, in which the moral bankruptcy of the Clintons was indelibly spelled out.
But Hitchens is no conservative of the Fox News type, mouthing mindless right-wing clap-trap under the dishonest banner of being “Fair and Balanced.” You need only look at the utterly compelling book in which Hitchens calls for and proves that former Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, is a war criminal , whose crimes against humanity deserve to and must be punished according to all international law. And if I may build on this, Hitchens is not simply a political analyst; in fact, he has written just this month in The Atlantic a long and acute essay on Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Hitchens is a bona fide literary critic, although he writes in a journalistic style. His review of the King James Bible translation in the NY Times Book Review is extremely perceptive, and I will tell you that, one hearing him discuss Homer on C-SPAN’s Book Chat with translator Stanley Lombardo, I learned a thing or two myself.
So, he’s provocative and smart. Let me end with just an example on which I’d like to digress shortly before I let these fine folks have a crack at this piece on atheism. In a piece in Salon attacking Mother Theresa entitled “Saint to the Rich: There was less- and more- to Mother Teresa than met the eye,” (yes! an attack on Mother Teresa! Hitchens certainly likes his sacred cows roasted up well-done!), the article begins, “”Saints,’ George Orwell wrote in 1949, ‘should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent.’” He goes on to enumerate the failings of Mother Teresa as a hypocrite who provided a moral fig-leaf to brutal tyrants and corporate millionaires by accepting their contributions which in turn where funneled not to the relief for the poor but to missionary work advocating anti-abortion and anti-birth control policies. But of particular interest to me is the opening of the essay, a quote from George Orwell. In particular, the quote comes from Orwell’s essay on Gandhi, of whom Orwell was deeply suspicious. Gandhi, another holy person of India given a free pass by most Western intellectuals, but who for Orwell was the emperor with no clothes.
In a sense, I think Orwell thinks of himself as a latter-day Orwell– indeed, his latest book is entitled Why Orwell Matters. In particular , I think of Orwell the essayist, the man of letters, who gave beautiful radio addresses on Hopkins’ poetry during the Second World War and wrote movingly about shooting an elephant in Burma. But also in the mix is the Orwell who, though a dedicated socialist, wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, an indictment of the Socialist movement in Britain during the Depression, and who also wrote the powerful condemnation of the inhuman politics of Stalinism in 1984. So let us say that Mother Teresa is Hitchens’ Gandhi; who then are the wrong-headed fellow travelers of Hitchens’ Wigan Pier? In his resignation letter from the Nation in September 2002, Hitchens wrote, “I have come to realize that [this] magazine … is the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.” A year earlier, in his response to the 9/11 attacks, Hitchens wrote an article called “Against Rationalization,” I believe Hitchens found his totalitarian enemy. As he memorably wrote then, “…the bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there’s no point in any euphemism about it. What they abominate about ‘the West,’ to put it in a phrase, is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from state. Loose talk about chickens coming home to roost is the moral eqivalent of the hateful garbage emitted by Falwell and Robertson, and exhibits about the same intellectual content.”
Bin Laden, the Taliban, Falwell and Robertson– in short the voices of fundamentalist religion, about which, well, Christopher Hitchens has a lot to say.
Link to Hitchens’ talk at Sewanee here.