Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens

This new video by The Thinking Atheist is a tribute to Christopher Hitchens. I thought the video’s final lines were particularly effective.

I used to subscribe to The Nation back in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when Hitchens was writing for it, and that’s how I came to know of him. Back then, I always found him interesting, though sometimes I thought his language was overly dense.

I eventually stopped reading The Nation, particularly after I moved to New Zealand, where copies were imported and very expensive. So I was basically unaware of the fire breathed on him by the left for his support for the “war on terrorism” and his positions that many on the left thought were Islamophobic.

The same positions and beliefs that infuriated the left didn’t endear him the right because of one thing that trumped everything: His atheism or, as he called it, antitheism. That is something that neither America’s left or right approves of, but the right has no tolerance for it at all.

Somehow, I managed to remain largely unaware of his antitheism until relatively recent years, but that’s not surprising: Until YouTube came along, and the Internet in general grew, I really had no way to know about Hitchens stridency on religious matters.

Stridency: That’s a loaded term, isn’t it? People use it to emphasise their disagreement with another because it implies a level of aggression. And yet, Hitchens often was strident, and I think that in this case it’s the most appropriate word.

Personally, I think his stridency was justified in a political landscape that had already become polarised. The right has legions of strident polemicists, the left has very few. Was he of the left? I think he was, the whole Islam-as-fascism thing notwithstanding. It seems to me that the left is often just like the right, demanding uniformity of belief and conformity with orthodoxy, even though few people are absolutely left or right. For me, it’s the totality of belief and opinion that determines where someone is on the ideological spectrum, not some arbiter of “proper” ideology.

Reading him in The Nation demonstrated to me the power of Hitchens’ intellect. He left no one under any illusions about what he thought about the issues of the day, or where he stood. He was, simply, one of the best polemicists of modern times.

Yet for many people it was his antitheism that defined him. Even though I agreed with his criticism of organised religion, I didn’t find him particularly persuasive in presenting atheism (the two are not the same things, after all). There his stridency sometimes got in the way for me.

I like people who display passion for their subject matter—as long as it’s intelligent passion, based on intellectual enquiry and not on mere emotion, hunches or the stories in a holy book. Those other things may have their places, but they don’t carry the argument for me.

So ultimately, that’s why I admired Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t always agree with him, and sometimes I thought he was too strident for my tastes, but his intellectual heft was palpable. He will be missed by many folks who love intellectual enquiry and debate based on facts and reason.

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