Exceptional Claims

Principle, Personality and Christopher Hitchens

by Sean Bell

1 March 2012


Peter 'Bonkers' Hitchens and His Brother, Christopher

I rarely experience generational differences with my father—a taste for Bob Dylan and a love/hate relationship with technology keeps our view of the modern world fairly level—but where ‘New’ Atheism had begun to excite me, it made Dad suspicious. He found it difficult to get worked up about certain philosophical conclusions concerning God’s non-existence several decades after he had reached them himself. When I flat-out asked him what he thought of ‘New’ Atheism, one non-believer to another, all he could do was sigh deeply: “Hasn’t it all been done already?”

Of course, Dad was right—this was hardly unexplored territory. Or as Tom Flynn of the National Council of Secular Humanism put it: “Something new was afoot, but it was only this: for the first time, uncompromising atheist writing was coming from big-name publishers and hitting best-seller lists. You could buy it at the airport. In consequence, people who had never before experienced atheist rhetoric got their first exposure… Readers familiar with nineteenth- and twentieth-century freethought literature—which, of course, most people weren’t—knew that everything the Horsemen were being praised and condemned for had been done before. Well. Many times.” (Tom Flynn, ‘Why I Don’t Believe the New Atheism’, Secular Humanism.org)

When he was right, there seemed no one better suited to articulate an embattled truth; but when he was wrong, he crashed and burned hideously, spitting accusatory venom at all-comers as he did so.

So, for all its notoriety, what did ‘New’ Atheism truly achieve? What did all its sound and fury signify? A few books glancingly troubled the bestseller-lists; some profitable controversy was drummed up for the media, who loved every minute of it; no politician endorsed atheism’s rediscovered energy, nor did any grand mass-movement emerge. Nevertheless, a coherent opposition to religion was reborn, in the shape of four middle-aged, self-righteous polemicists, to confront an era bloodied by the spectre of religious violence and warfare. And ultimately, ideas were spread and talked about, which should never be underestimated.

For many my age (25 and feeling every day of it), the joke begun by Bill Hicks’s mockery of an absentee ‘prankster God’ reached its punchline with Hitchens’ eloquent evisceration of religion’s claims to virtue: “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.” While Dawkins may have become the Horsemen’s best-known name, it was Hitchens who gave a distinct character to atheism in the cultural imagination, who lent it his personality and mannerisms, his bilious distaste and verbose arrogance, to articulate the bewildered anger of an atheist in the early 21st century.

Hitchens’ own atheism was in equal parts the result of mammoth ego and a keen and questioning intelligence, nurtured on the traditions of European democratic socialism; but like many, his feelings on the matter were brought into sharp relief by the tragedies of 9/11. He saw the direct, real-world body-count of religious hatred, and reacted instinctively. Responding philosophically, he declared war on God. Responding politically, however, he declared war of an entirely different kind. Far beyond his fist-fight with the Almighty, maps were being redrawn in the corridors of power.

“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”
—Albert Camus.

“All the gods are dead except the gods of war.”
—Eldridge Cleaver.

More has been written on the subject of Hitchens and the Iraq war than anyone should ever have to plough through, and the passage of time has not left it any less absurd or depressing to re-read. The short version is: he backed the wrong horse. In the chaotic months leading up to the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the world seemed to run on apocalyptic Wonderland logic, and the long, gruesome years after it, Hitchens and reality parted ways, and he descended into the murkiness of self-contradiction and self-delusion.

Judging by the devastating examples of the past decade, when future generations write of ‘liberal interventionism’, it will be in histories of imperialism. The original intentions behind it might turn up as an amusing footnote. After 9/11, Hitchens unyielding attacks on ‘Islamofascism’ quickly grew into unashamed support for the neo-conservative project in general and its Iraq adventure in particular, becoming as bizarrely entranced with the idea of a ‘New American Century’ as Bush, Cheney or Ashcroft. The joke began circulating amongst British journalists that Hitchens would now have to share the nickname of his brother Peter—a pious, far-right crackpot who wrote for the rabidly reactionary British tabloid the Daily Mail—who had long been known in Westminister press circles and beyond as ‘Bonkers’ Hitchens.

Perhaps it was the experience of No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, his acidic leftist deconstruction of the Clinton presidency—which bizarrely endeared the still nominally anti-capitalist Hitchens to the Republican Right for the simple reason that he had jumped up and down on the Clintons more effectively than they ever could—that helped convinced Hitchens he could find a new ideological home in the uncharted wilds of ‘liberal interventionism’. In the process, he disenchanted admirers, lost friends, and emerged as spiteful and bullying, decrying his opponents as apologists for tyrants and friends of terrorists. In an open letter published in the Nation, the poet and critic Katha Pollitt responded as well as any: “You’ve placed yourself quite forthrightly on the side of Bush, Cheney, Perle and Wolfowitz, whose plans to remake the entire Arab world long predate 9/11, and who seem completely unembarrassed by their own shifting rationales for invading Iraq. (Not even they, however, claim it has anything to do with opposing religious fanaticism. That is your own delusion.)”

Hitchens affected to feel no remorse, only disgust. He had burned bridges before, without regret: when he reflected on his early years as a loyal Trotskyite, it was with the zeal of a convert, all too ready to pitilessly mock the political certainties of his youth for which he was never able to find a satisfactory replacement, and which contrasted so vividly with his philosophical alliance with the neocons, almost Lyndon LaRouche-like in its weird, contradictory symbiosis of left and right wing ideas into a darkly paranoid whole. “Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence” is a Hitchens quote that will endure, and in the case of Iraq, he could never meet his own standard.

Nobody actually uses the phrase ‘sellout’ anymore—in fact, I’m beginning to suspect they never did. The term tends to suggest far more about its user, and their rather precious notions of ethical principles and standards, than it does about the person being described. Personally, the reason I never used it—other than a healthy aversion to hippie clichés—was that I had another word which seemed far more clear-cut: ‘traitor’.

It’s a word that still carries a lot of weight in certain circles, but I don’t know what else to call the rationalist who supported an irrational war; the enemy of capitalism who waved a flag for an invasion predicated on capitalist self-interest; the atheist who opposed all religion, and then dreamed up a double standard that allowed one set of believers to bomb the other, but not vice versa; the man who, as a young and idealistic socialist, once subscribed to the position that became a slogan—“neither Washington nor Moscow”—but eventually couldn’t stand being left alone in the middle.

For better or worse, there will be no one to replace Hitchens for the next generation—so many of the disparate environments that moulded him do not really exist anymore, at least not as they once did. The boozy, nicotine-stained anachronisms of Fleet Street and the byzantine inner-world of the old British Left have not vanished entirely, but evolved into something else… not necessarily for the better. But his example endures, in some aspects inspiring, in other parts cautionary.

As I write this, No One Left to Lie To, Letters to a Young Contrarian and God is Not Great sit on the bookshelf beside me. I think they’ll stay there, for now. That is as much a tribute to Christopher Hitchens as I can honestly muster. Hopefully, being able to acknowledge both the flaws and the virtues of Hitchens is more intellectually honest than Hitchens himself, at his worst, was willing to be. I would be a liar, however, if I denied that at his best, the most compelling and powerful atheist voice of our time helped me—and countless others—achieve a philosophy of our own; a private understanding with a beautiful, godless universe.

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