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Not Speaking Ill of the Dead Christopher Hitchens

December 28, 2011

Christopher Hitchens by Boris Rasin
Creative Commons Licence

The web is awash with fawning obituaries for Christopher Hitchens, each striving to outdo the others in showing they knew him best, that their violent, alcohol-fuelled escapades with the great man were wilder, and their moments of intimate connection deeper, than anyone else’s. Scattered among these tributes are a few that condemn Hitchens for his warmongering and his fundamentalist crusade against religion.

Is it wrong to speak ill of the newly dead? Hitchens continued to attack people like Mother Teresa, Princess Di and Jerry Falwell after they died, so some critics say it’s now okay to malign him. I’m not so sure, as that brings us down to his level. Hitchens was a prominent, divisive figure, so we should be free to critique what he did and said, provided we respect him as a person. He was a man of great hatreds who delighted in attacking others, but that need not be our style. I reject the approach of those who denounce his personal qualities or explain his motivations with such labels as “narcissist.”

The importance of uncertainty, the use of evidence and the value of doubt over faith are all central to my world view. Hitchens made a similar claim, but the evidence does not support him. Certain that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that the Islamist enemy must be destroyed, he became a cheerleader for the so-called war on terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He praised the power of cluster bombs to pass through the Koran and kill Islamofascists. He was certain that the benefits of these wars would outweigh the costs, and he never expressed doubts despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Others who supported the invasions did change their minds and apologise for their mistake, but Hitchens never did.

I also believe Hitchens misconceived his campaign against religion, by treating it mainly as a set of factual claims and irrational imperatives. Sure, that’s what it is for fundamentalists, and that’s a problem, but for many people religion is much more: it is belonging to a community with shared moral values and practices, which nourish that part of the psyche laid waste by “getting and spending”, by a world that is “too much with us.” Ultimately it can be a way of revering the mystery of existence. Like any form of human culture, religion can be misused, as it is by fundamentalists, but that is no reason to abolish it.

Yet we need people like Hitchens. We need to read, listen to and respond to those we disagree with, especially ones as smart as he was, in order to test our own ideas and beliefs. I will miss his rants, by turns entertaining and troubling, and the way his thundering certainties sometimes provoked new directions for my own thoughts. Even when I agreed with him, I often came away with a new angle for thinking about an issue. We should value articulate antagonists far more than we do those on our side who confirm our own beliefs. So it’s a pity Hitchens was so contemptuous of his opponents, as he was when he called the Dixie Chicks “sluts” and “fucking fat slags” for criticising Bush’s invasion of Iraq (see this link for more).

Not wishing to follow Hitchens’s example, I will not speak ill of him. But if you think his still living disciples are fair game, check out Neal Pollack’s “I knew Christopher Hitchens better than you” on this link.

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