I mostly knew of Christopher Hitchens because of his atheism, and particularly because of his book god Is Not Great (capitalization intentional). Hitchens, of course, is one of the four so-called horsemen of the atheist apocalypse, together with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. And, of these, Hitchens has employed by far the most caustic rhetoric in his opposition to religion, and his reputation includes being probably the single person in the world who is most staunchly opposed to religion.
When I started to read god Is Not Great last summer, though, I didn’t notice this so much. What I noticed, immediately, was his exquisite writing. I suppose I noticed this more than many other people might because of my disdain for well-written prose as a rule. (It’s not that I actually dislike good writing, but so often it comes at the expense of actually having anything of content to say, and so I tend to avoid reading something that is described as being well-written. But, that’s the topic of a future essay.) And, for a while, he didn’t show his fangs, but rather recounted stories of his childhood as they related to religion, while occasionally pointing out mistakes that religious people made in talking to him about it.
He wasn’t able to keep up that tone for too long. After a little while, his hatred became obvious, to the point that I found it jarring to read his book. I have little tolerance for religion myself, but it was bizarre to see prose even more anti-religious than that which I was likely to find in my own head. I stopped reading god Is Not Great when I was roughly halfway through it.
But I read a few of his shorter articles, went to a talk he gave in Palo Alto, and watched at least one YouTube debate of his with a religious person. I found him to be always superbly prepared and ready to respond to any point. While I sometimes find his positions hard to accept, especially his support for the Iraq war, I also appreciate the difficulty in challenging anyone who has given so much attention to these issues. And, as a journalist, he has visited Iraq several times, as well as North Korea, and plenty of other places that most of us talk about, pretending we know what is going on when we really don’t have a clue. So, while he might occasionally be wrong, it’s awfully hard to pick up any single flaw in his reasoning. I admire that.
I picked up a copy of Hitchens’s latest book, Hitch-22, at LAX while waiting to catch my flight home from an Iwasawa theory conference. This book is a collection of memoirs, beginning with a chapter about his mother, to whom he always refers as “Yvonne” and followed by a chapter about his father, whom he calls “The Commander.”
Once again, I was captivated by his stories — for a while. I also admired his colossal lexicon; presumably I could have added a few words to my own vocabulary had I been more disciplined about using a dictionary to look up the many words with which I was unfamiliar. After a while, though, I started having more trouble understanding him, especially as he dropped names I’d never heard of without the slightest bit of explanation, as though these people are as well-known as David Hilbert. And, perhaps to those actively involved in socialist/communist politics and activism in England around 1970, they are.
As I continued on in the book, I became increasingly frustrated by my lack of knowledge of history, literature, and politics. Is he only writing for people his age? And would I have known about these people and events had I been alive in those days? (We can pretend for just a moment that I’m the sort of person who doesn’t refuse to follow the news, although I guess if we’re going to pretend such peculiar things, we can also pretend anything else we want.) So, that made me uncomfortable.
Then, there was Hitchens’s signature name-calling. Apparently, anyone who disagrees with him deserves the most vitriolic insults Hitchens can cook up. A bit childish perhaps, coming from a man in his sixties?
Let’s return to the question of the Iraq war. He’s not shy about being one of few leftist people who are outspoken in support of it. And he managed to write something that really annoyed me. He tells the story of a young man who was killed in Iraq, and in a newspaper article written about this man is a mention that he was inspired to fight in Iraq by reading Hitchens’s essays. Hitchens read this newspaper article and was suddenly personally involved in the death of a soldier. He started to question whether he was right to pen those essays.
I think that one doesn’t get to do that. If he’s going to support the war, he has to support it even when it starts involving him at a personal level. It’s just pathetic to support the war as long as he doesn’t know anyone involved, and then to fold the moment it starts to hit home at all, once he’s implicated in the slightest. Either support it or don’t, but he has to be consistent.
Still, between the obscure references, the name-calling, and his occasional display of cowardice, I was able to enjoy some of his stories.
And, he’s not exactly a coward the rest of the time. After all, he did volunteer to be waterboarded. That’s not exactly an undertaking for the faint of heart, although he did admit that he relented to his torturers after an embarrassingly short period of time.
I was able to enjoy chunks of this book, but I had to use a good deal of my discipline to encourage myself to finish it. (A few more enticing-looking books awaiting me didn’t hurt in this department.) It wasn’t what I was looking for in a book, but for a history buff with a big vocabulary, especially one who isn’t afraid of a bunch of controversial ideas, this could be an ideal book. That’s not exactly who I am, though.
I should end by saying that Hitchens is currently undergoing chemotherapy. We should all wish him well, but definitely don’t pray for him.