THE COURAGE TO SPEAK

The recent death of Christopher Hitchens, like all deaths of semi-famous people these days, prompted a wave of tweets, posts, and social networking eulogies ensuring that for one day we all paid more attention to Hitch in death than we ever did in life. While that dynamic is strange on its own, what puzzles me more is the way that so many people spoke fondly of him for his willingness to say unpopular things and his general reluctance to give any shits about offending people. That's worth a closer look.

There is little doubt that Hitchens was a talented writer. At his best he was a skillful, provocative raconteur who found great joy in taking shots at the powerful. His takedown of Mother Theresa was classic Good Hitchens; I mean, who takes shots at Mother Theresa?? Well as it turned out, he made quite the argument that perhaps she was not the living saint she was made out to be. This is good writing. He was also the rare media loudmouth who was willing to stand behind his opinions. When the editor of Vanity Fair challenged Hitchens, who had spoken dismissively of claims that waterboarding amounted to torture, to receive a waterboarding, he did it (and concluded, obviously, that it's hard to imagine what is torture if waterboarding isn't). The bottom line is, anyone who reacts to the death of Jesse Helms by penning a column entitled "Farewell to a Provincial Redneck" is doing something right.

At his worst, Hitchens was little more than an unusually eloquent drunk, a misogynist, xenophobe, and warmonger who seemed to take leave of his critical thinking skills when the question of scary brown foreigners reared its head. He described his pro-Western worldview as a matter of "defending civilization", but in practice it looked a lot more like garden variety Islamophobia (arguing that the Iraq War death toll was "not high enough") and neocon foreign policy frames. He argued that women are not funny in a manner that he considered unbiased, rational, and unemotional, but the end result was a rant worthy of any drunk in a bar ranting about his ex-wife. He painted Michelle Obama as a race-baiting militant out for Whitey on the basis of a paper she wrote in college suggesting that black students feel alienated on campuses that are almost entirely white. These are not the attitudes of a critical thinker – they are the knee jerk reactions of an old man quite comfortable with the social hierarchy that places white Anglo-Saxon men firmly at the top. We'd expect to hear such arguments from Glenn Beck, and we often do.

Hitch fans have always been eager to excuse away these outbursts as ideas with which we don't agree, but for which we still tip out hat to the author for continuing to champion unpopular viewpoints. He is one of the most frequent recipients of the "Well I didn't agree with everything he said, but blah blah blah" type of praise one reserves for people we antiseptically call "controversial." The problem is that there is no inherent value in saying unpopular things. Some of these unpopular viewpoints Hitchens put forth are unpopular because they are stupid, without intellectual merit, or simply offensive. The Westboro Baptist Church has unpopular views. So does Michele Bachmann. So does Thomas Frank. Do all three deserve our praise?

Hitchens is probably compared to HL Mencken more than any writer in the past half century, and for good reason. They were the leading dyspeptic commentators of their day, using pens filled with bile to write scathing obituaries of the powerful and aggressive criticisms of the popular. But Mencken was also a racist, a reactionary in his own right (though he detested that quality in others) whose ideal world saw women in the kitchen, the colored folk in Their Place, the world subservient to American interests, and people like himself exalted. There is nothing courageous or laudable about that. Does it mean that nothing Mencken, Hitchens, or any other flawed personality may have written is without value? No. But the tendency to praise them for their willingness to say controversial things is a strange one. The popularity of a viewpoint plays no role in determining its merit. To applaud him for bravely writing sexist, racist, or culturally hegemonic ideas suggests that we are glad that someone said such things. I for one am not.

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66 Responses to “THE COURAGE TO SPEAK”

  1. Arslan Says:

    "The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda's action against RTLM began on 23 October 2000 – along with the trial against Hassan Ngeze, director and editor of the Kangura magazine.

    On 19 August 2003, at the tribunal in Arusha, life sentences were requested for RTLM leaders Ferdinand Nahimana, and Jean Bosco Barayagwiza. They were charged with genocide, incitement to genocide, and crimes against humanity, before and during the period of the genocides of 1994.

    On 3 December 2003, the court found all three defendants guilty and sentenced Nahimana and Ngeze to life imprisonment and Barayagwiza to imprisonment for 35 years – this was appealed. The Appeal judgment, issued on 27 November 2007 reduced the sentences of all three – Nahimana getting 30 years, Barayagwiza getting 32 and Ngeze getting 35, with the court overturning convictions on certain counts.

    On 14 December 2009, RTLM announcer Valerie Bemeriki was convicted by a gacaca court in Rwanda and sentenced to life imprisonment for her role in inciting genocidal acts."

    OH NO! Doesn't the International Tribunal realize that there is the 1st Amendment, which applies to THE ENTIRE WORLD, and guarantees TOTAL FREEDOM OF SPEECH TO EVERY PERSON OR ORGANIZATION?!

  2. Major Kong Says:

    The Nazis hardly invented antisemitism in Germany. There was a long history of it going all the way back to the middle ages that they tapped into. Read Martin Luther sometime.

  3. Arslan Says:

    Yes, thank you for the obvious. But did you notice that during the 2nd Reich(1871-1918) there was conspicuously LESS extermination of Jews? In fact Jew extermination mysteriously spiked starting in 1941. What the court was saying was that Streicher took things up a notch. Without the constant dehumanization and demonization spread by people like him, it would have been a lot harder to convince people to go along with the extermination.

    Hitch reduced Iraqis and Muslims to something inhuman, so that people can watch video of cruise missiles slamming into populated cities, or watch gun camera footage of civilians being mowed down with 30mm shells and not get outraged or even bat an eye.

  4. Major Kong Says:

    I completely agree.

    I was just pointing out that Hitler didn't somehow brainwash an entire country into a mass of mindless zombie slaves. He didn't take them anywhere they weren't ready to go.

  5. Some Guy Says:

    Do I have to approve of heroin to like "Sweet Child O' Mine"? This is bullshit.

  6. JohnR Says:

    "To applaud him for bravely writing sexist, racist, or culturally hegemonic ideas suggests that we are glad that someone said such things. I for one am not."
    So? I for one, am (although I don't regard people who do that as particularly brave). I'm always glad to see assholes write or say deplorable or horrible things – it gives me the chance and the reason to respond (which I don't, alas, always do without the intial stimulus). My responses may be ignored or sneered at, but better something laughed at than something never said. A discussion is better than a tacit agreement. My major complaint is more that only "important" people get noticed in this way, although nowadays even unimportant people can occasionally break into the big time if they're persistent with their blogging efforts and draw enough attention.

  7. AK Says:

    @JohnR
    "it gives me the chance and the reason to respond (which I don't, alas, always do without the intial stimulus). My responses may be ignored or sneered at, but better something laughed at than something never said. A discussion is better than a tacit agreement."

    Is that entirely true, though? Wouldn't it be better if we lived in a world where people of different races were respected, rather than having some asshole endorsing – and spreading, mind you – xenophobic and racist thought, and providing moral legitimacy for a psychotic and cynical drive to war? Do you need such a particularized evil to rail against, simply to craft an opinion?

    Hitchens was a prick. He was a good enough writer to make those who agreed with him overlook the fact that he was a massive prick. This has resulted in incredibly fractured obituaries. There aren't actually "Good Hitchens" and "Bad Hitchens," there is simply Hitchens and such divisions are based on nothing more than the agreement of commentators with the different portions of his oeuvre. Hitchens was always cruel, racist, misogynistic, and dismissive of critical thinking that disagreed with his knee-jerk reactions. The fact that he was sometimes right, and sometimes eloquently so, does not make him a person I would want to align myself with.

    I respect him for one thing, which was the dignified and philosophical way he dealt with his sickness and death.

  8. Graham Says:

    The outpouring of grief over the death of Christopher Hitchens was only slightly less demented than that over the death of Kim Il Jong. The difference being that those mourning Hitchens really should know better.

    His book on Mother Theresa, with its puerile title, was a light preliminary to a full investigation that never happened. I can't understand why it gets so much attention.

    The invasion of Iraq on totally fabricated grounds separated those with a shred of decency and an ability to assess evidence from those who do not. Hitchens failed utterly, preferring the suitably hazy view from a BlackHawk seat beside Paul Wolfowitz.

    Hitchens' writings were full of double and triple negatives to such an extent that one wondered what on earth he was really trying to say half the time. This technique gave him plenty of wriggle room for later when he changed his mind. Being a contrarian means never having to believe anything you say.

    But smart? Smart enough for this son of an esophagal cancer victim to pickle his esophagus until, until – it killed him!

    Hitchens' writings were never anything but a device in the service of the ego of Christopher Hitchens, a journalist who never produced anything that might make even a footnote to history.

  9. JohnR Says:

    @AK:

    "Wouldn't it be better if.." Yeah, I think so. Unfortunately, the world we live in seems to be inhabited largely by humans rather than by angels. Xenophobia and groupist thinking are part of who we are, to a greater or lesser extent. I agree that Hitchens was a prick (not that that's always a bad thing). He was also an asshole and frequently a major-league douche-bag. Well, there it is. If you were to ask my family and friends, I suspect the consensus would be that I, too, am an asshole (albeit a lovable one). Many of the people I know are assholes. Well over half of the drivers on any road around here are assholes, if not absolute cunts. We're all more than just that one aspect, of course, although some of us (Karl Rove, say) are sufficiently gleefully and unrepentently foul that the particular aspect that amounts to being a bulging sack of pus is a pretty fair description of who we are. Anyway, I'm wandering into another lane here, so let's drop that. The upshot is that people are who they are, and even assholes can have something valuable to say in their own offensive and infuriating way.

    and

    "Do you need.." Well, yes. I may be alone in this but I find that most of my thinking is more reactive than original. Furthermore, I find that it's easier to make a point as a rebuttal than as a simple statement. It helps me to focus my thinking to point out the errors and mind-boggling stupidities that infest the claims of other people. I believe there is something in some old book about that – eyes and motes and stuff. Those old guys seem to actually have had some understanding of human nature, if you can believe it!
    So, guys like Ed do the heavy lifting with deep thoughts and rants and stuff, and guys like me come in and, hyena-like, savage the corpus of their writing in inappropriate and ignorant ways, while tittering maniacally and drooling all over the page. It takes all kinds, as my old Grandmother used to say at Christmas, looking at me.

  10. LanceThruster Says:

    I think we take everyone piecemeal to some extent. I'll quote the founding fathers as providing particular wisdom on a given issue, and then read how one of them felt that we would only succeed as a nation if we were a "Godly' one.

    Gack!

    I was in proximity to Christopher Hitchens during some freethought conventions and lectures right around the time of Iraq II and hung out a bit afterwords to hear him opine further. I got the sense that what ultimately was his motivation was the opportunity to highlight in the most forceful fashion (by waging aggresive warfare supposedly against the notion) that some religious beliefs really are fanatical horseshit that don't deserve any sort of apologizing for. Problem was that not everyone follows their goofy horseshit in the same way and to coddle up to our own religious Taliban further muddies the waters.

    I always enjoyed reading him whether I agreed with him or not, and I felt that in regards to a confrontation with Islamic radicals, he was willing to try to convince himself while claiming to be doing so for others that it was worth a little hypocrisy (much in the same way Alan Dershowitz can excuse and justify any atrocity Israel commits for the "greater good").

    I'll miss Christopher and will continue to quaff pints in his honor for what he got right, and his willingness to try to make his own case as convincingly as possible for what I disagreed with.

  11. Sassan Says:

    What an ignorant piece of drivel written by an obvious apologist for militant Islam – one of those sadomasochists Hitch always referred to.

    To start, Hitch was one to whom alcohol actually enhanced his performance. His friends ranging from Salman Rushdie to Ian McEwan tell stories on how Hitch would write articles while consuming liquor. He was not what we term as a "drunk". A drunk cannot operate well in their daily lives. Hitchens used alcohol as a social enhancer in prolonging and making more lively "the debate" as he would say.

    Then you claim that Hitch was a "misogynist". What a shameful and ridiculous claim. Hitch was a fighter for women's rights throughout his whole career. In fact, this was one of the issues in which he was most passionate about. True, he thought women were not as funny as men; but that does not make him a "misogynist". Using this claim as "evidence" for him thinking women were less superior to men is ridiculous and a grave distortion and lie about Christopher Hitchen's viewpoints and morals.

    Then the writer clearly demonstrates to us that the point of this article is that he or she is simply one of those leftists who felt "betrayed" as if Christopher Hitchens owed you anything. He was always from his early days against totalitarianism; and after getting to know the great Kurdish people of Iraq, he felt a sense of moral and duty to stand for freedom and dignity from the grips of a fascist and genocidal maniac. Christopher Hitchens had no problem with "brown people" (whatever racist connotation the writer him/herself seems to hold while claiming otherwise); in fact, he was a supporter of freedom and democracy for the Iraqi people.

    While people like you would sit in the face of evil and allow evil madmen to propagate, oppress, and cause mass genocide to their own people; Christopher Hitchens felt a sense of moral, duty, and dignity for the fellow human being irregardless of skin color or where he or she happened to be born. In fact, the Kurdish people regard Christopher Hitchens as having been a great friend of theirs and this is something we should be proud of, not shun. If you had your way, Saddam Hussein would be continuing the oppression and terror of the Iraqi people to this day.

    And yes, we have to defend civilization. Again, the writer further demonstrates the sadomasochism that he or she has prescribed to. We have an enemy that wants to bring an end to humanity – and we must defend human civilization against such barbaric madmen. And guess what? I speak as an Iranian and as someone who is proud to have called Christopher Hitchens a great friend of the Iranian people and our plight for freedom, democracy, and self-determination. For example, we have a regime occupying Iran at the current moment which at their very core is aiming to bring an end to humanity in the "return of the hidden imam". This is the CORE of their beliefs (the radicals/terrorists running the government, not the Iranian people). In order to achieve this aim, as a prerequisite they must "reconquer" Jerusalem leading to a global war in which 2/3rd of humanity is to perish through war, havoc, famine, and chaos. And where do they get this wacky belief from? From the Hadith to which they take very seriously.

    Humanity has had dark moments through its history, but we can not afford such catastrophes in the era we live in: the era of apocalyptic weaponry. In the era of such weaponry, we must understand that the survival and advancement of the human race is not guaranteed. And I speak as someone "born" a Muslim and have a great deal of greater understanding than Islam than you. OF course, you are willing to be the sadomasochist, in being the apologist for evil, oppression, and religion tyranny. Shame on you.

    "The pacifist is as surely a traitor to his country and to humanity as is the most brutal wrongdoer." – Theodore Roosevelt

  12. Elle Says:

    Hitch was a fighter for women's rights throughout his whole career.

    As long as those rights didn't include reproductive rights (mind-bendingly ill-informed essays on abortion / birth control), economic and social rights ("I'm not having any woman of mine go to work."), or the right not to be called a "fucking fat slag" for disagreeing with him on Iraq.

  13. Sassan Says:

    Elle Says: "As long as those rights didn't include reproductive rights (mind-bendingly ill-informed essays on abortion / birth control), economic and social rights ("I'm not having any woman of mine go to work.")"

    Hitchens was always pro-choice. His answer to the question of whether life starts at the moment of conception was an intellectual one – he never wanted abortion to become restricted or to become illegal in the first trimester.

    In regards to the economic and social rights of women, you fail to mention that Hitchen was simply answering a question as to whether he would like to have his wife and the mother of his children to raise their children around the clock in not having to work since they were financially well off. In fact, in psychological and evolutionary terms, the bonding between the infant/child and the mother is the most important for development (of course father is extremely important too) but that bonding that is afforded by breast feeding is something the father cannot do.

    Therefore, you fail to demonstrate in the slightest manner how these personal approaches Hitchens undertook in his own life had anything to do with him not being for the equal rights of moth males and females. He never advocated for this to be law and only answered this when repeatedly pressed but made sure to emphasize in his interviews that it is the choice of the women to decide to work or not. He never advocated any matter to become the social norm or for there to be discrimination against the female sex.

    Again, he was an advocate and fighter for the equal rights of women all over the world. This was one of his pressing issues which he fought so very dearly with his intellect and wit.

    The problem is some of you atheists are not rational at all. You cloak with yourself with another ideology that has become a substitute for you in the place of religion (not referring to you Elle, I am referring to the original writer of this article). It is Marxism. What good does it do to become atheist simply as a supplement to ideology rather through reason and intellect? It is so awfully clear the aim of this writer who is not only against the so called "issues" he brings forth against Hitchens (since nearly all of them are grave distortions and lies) but he or she is really against western civilization. This is what the sadomasochism does to you: it results one to becoming an apologist to Islamic extremists and become a self-hating westerner. If it wasn't for western civilization, the world would not have progressed through all its scientific and technological advancements.

  14. Elle Says:

    he never wanted abortion to become restricted or to become illegal in the first trimester.

    These two things are not the same.

    In regards to the economic and social rights of women, you fail to mention that Hitchen was simply answering a question as to whether he would like to have his wife and the mother of his children to raise their children around the clock in not having to work since they were financially well off.

    I'm not sure how this exculpates Hitchens. It is, of course, for every family to decide how they divide reproductive labour and participation in the labour market, but his comment is laden with assumptions that are antithetical to a rights-based response to gendered roles.

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