Monday, December 19, 2011
Hitched to War and Bigotry
There are two types of atheists in the world. One is the kind for whom atheism is a means to an end. They observe the injustice in the world as a basic affront to reason, and thus see within this context their refusal to believe in a traditional higher power. It’s an incredibly humanistic urge: that the attempts to turn poverty, war and inequality into some kind of universal truth should be destined for the dustbin of history.
For these people, atheism is merely one aspect of a desire for a profoundly better world where human potential is filled in the here and now, not in some far-off heaven. Think of the atheist espoused by John Lennon when he urged us to “imagine no religion,” and you start to get a sense for what I’m talking about.
Then there are those atheists who behave more like petulant children being ignored at an adult dinner party. “Look over here,” they scream. “I’m an atheist and that’s more important than anything else! I’m right and all of you are idiotic chumps for not realizing it!”
For these people, everyone who believes in God is simply brainwashed and worthy of sneering contempt--no matter if they are your run-of-the-mill Evangelical or a liberation theologian culling the radical Jesus in a the fight against poverty. It’s an elitist kind of posture; their atheism doesn’t advance anyone’s cause, nor is it designed to. It’s designed to make them feel special. Despite their rationalistic veneer, no amount of reason or logic can puncture their smugness.
Christopher Hitchens is a rare thing. During his lifetime he went from being the first kind of atheist to the second. And on the way down he hit a particularly nasty branch on the ugly tree; it’s this branch that turned him into a remarkably un-reconstructed, arrogant, chest-thumping neo-con.
His loss of any meaningful rooting in real and meaningful humanism is what allowed him to stump for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq with an almost gleeful bloodlust, and call for the imprisonment of anti-war Members of Parliament like George Galloway. It’s what allowed him to equivocate in the “Ground Zero Mosque” debate, running cover for the bigots (many of them devout Christians) and calling Islamophobia a “fake term.” Plenty of solid writers have had their legacies soiled by being lured into the embrace of the establishment; that never makes it easier to witness.
When I first became an activist, I read Hitchens’ “Minority Report” column in The Nation religiously, if you’ll pardon the unfortunate turn of phrase. Call it a collision between my deep love of a well-written word and my burgeoning radicalism that naturally attracted me to his articles. Even by this moment, Hitch had poked more than a few holes in his leftist creds (supporting war in the Balkans, backing impeachment proceedings against Clinton on ostensibly left-wing grounds).
But there were plenty of other laudable moments. Before the first Gulf War, Hitchens had embarrassed a virulently pro-invasion Charlton Heston by asking him to name all of the countries bordering Iraq going clockwise; Heston couldn’t. When asked on television during the 2000 elections how we should regard the race between Bush and Gore, he replied “the same way they regard you: with contempt.” It’s hard as a writer to not want to be that good.
All of that came to an end of course after 9/11, when Hitch fully embraced the role of neo-conservative ideologue. Most of his former readers were chagrined by his turn to the right and vicious war-cries against “Islamofascism,” but it also made it easier to digest his departure from The Nation.
As my own path as a writer-activist gravitated me into music journalism, I paid less and less attention to Hitchens. For one thing, his racist, pro-war rants became simply part of the chorus, albeit better written than the likes of what Cheney, Rumsfeld and certainly Bush could muster. For another, he wasn’t in my “field.” Hell, I didn’t even know if Hitch listened to music.
There was, however, one exception, and it came in the months after the invasion of Iraq--the country Hitchens had once defended against the US’ imperial designs. Countless pundits joined in the witch-hunt that erupted after the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines said she the group “do not want this war, this violence,” and that they were “ashamed” George Bush was from their native Texas. Radio stations banned them, their CDs were steamrolled in public, Lipton dropped them as a sponsor.
Hitchens felt compelled to join in with this abuse. At a debate on the war in June 2003 he was asked asked about the Dixie Chicks and burst into an angry tirade: “Each day they dig up dead bodies in personal death camps run by a Caligula dictator, and I’m being asked to worry about these fucking fat slags--do me a favor!” Later that day, at another panel, he renewed his vindictive, calling the group “sluts.”
In this one sequence of sentences, Hitchens had finally broken with the eloquence and subtlety that had once made him respected among most rabble-rousers. This was a man who had spent the past two years fishing for every single argument he could pull out of his bag to support the US’ war on the Muslim world--including the charge that they “objectify women.” And yet, here he was displaying the same vitriol his supposed enemies were accused of. It was clumsy, it was cheap, and it was also very, very sexist.
It’s all this that makes me very glad that he never had a chance to comment on the detention of Indonesian punks in the name of “Shariah law.” Of course, nobody can know what a dead man is thinking, but the neo-con version of Hitch never missed an opportunity to pompously draw attention to “Islamic depravity.”
Hitchens had moved away from his own Trotskyist beginnings by the time punk began to take root around ‘76 or so, and it’s a good bet he never knew anything about it. But as the bottom-feeding Robert Spencer has already shown with his own writings, one doesn’t have to know a damn thing about punk rock to use it for your own nefarious purposes. Spencer, Pamela Geller and other professional Islamophobes have unsurprisingly written fawning obits for Hitch since his demise; after all, his use of the bully pulpit to thump hard against Islam opened the door for knuckle-draggers of their ilk.
All of this makes his story run deeper than simply going from the left to the right or anti-war to pro-war. It’s the story of a man who became everything he once ostensibly hated. Hitchens always tried to couch his turncoat-isms in some sense of continuity, hoping to pull one over on his readers. What he never got was that the rest of the world is a lot smarter than he thought. When he let his vitriol fly during his last decade, his unapologetic elitism was on undeniable display. And it’s something of a tragedy that this might be what he’s ultimately most remembered for.
First published at SOCIARTS.