Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A brief defence of Christopher Hitchens

Martin Luther King's “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, often overlooked in favour of the “I have a dream” speech, was a response to an open letter, entitled “A Call for Unity”, written by eight “moderate” white clergymen, urging Civil Rights demonstrators to be less confrontational in their actions. The clerics say that the demonstrators' actions may “incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be”. They instead encourage the “Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.”

 The subtext to such a letter is clear: protesting against racism and the second-class citizen status of African-Americans was making white Americans uncomfortable and they did not like being made to feel uncomfortable. There are vague promises about maybe possibly at some point doing something to improve the conditions of African-Americans, but the really pressing issue was for the demonstrations against the racist Jim Crow laws to stop and that African-Americans should stop upsetting white people.

 In his icily polite reply, Doctor King refuses to stop and instead describes his plan and his methods of civil disobedience. He also lays out his reasons for travelling to Birmingham, Alabama all the way from Atlanta, Georgia. He states simply “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here”. He also says “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. That last part particularly sticks with me, as it challenges the provincialist notion that one should only concern oneself with injustices close to home and let others sought out their own mess.

 The attitude of many people in regards to the late Christopher Hitchens, very often seems disturbingly similar to that of the eight white clergymen. He was and still regularly criticised for his often bombastic and unashamed denunciations of injustices perpetrated in the name of religion. His critics say that, while there may possibly be a tiny problem of religious extremism, absolutely nothing can and should be done about that until naughty old Christopher Hitchens stops being so mean to religious people. Emphasis will be placed on “dialogue” with the extremists and that by highlighting trivial things like bombing of girls' schools, honour killings and murdering homosexuals they are “inciting hatred”. If you cannot see the parallels then I suggest you reread what I wrote at the start.

 In order to avoid accusations of generalising, I am only going to focus on a few individuals and publications. I want to start with the website Salon.com, who on Sunday published a particularly spiteful and untruthful article about Christopher Hitchens. In this article, among other things, the author Curtis White claims that in his book “god is not Great”, Hitchens “reduces religion to a series of criminal anecdotes”. Anyone who has read the book will know that, while recounts of crimes caused by religion are present, there is far more to the book. The first half is a thorough scientific and philosophical debunking of religious myths and claims. Then again, research does not seem to be Curtis White's forte, as he goes on to accuse of being ignorant of the book “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist” by Stephen Batchelor, whereas Hitchens had read it and in fact gave it a very good review.

 You could say that's only one article. Except it isn't. Since his death, Salon.com has written FIFTEEN articles about Christopher Hitchens, of which only three could really be described as praising him in any way. You could also say that Hitchens himself never had any qualms about speaking ill of the dead, in fact he relished it. Ask admirers of Jerry Falwell, Mother Theresa or Jesse Helms. But here's the key difference: Hitchens' rule was that, “You should never say anything that you weren’t prepared to say when the person was around to defend themselves.” In the eighteen months since his death, Salon has published more articles about Hitchens than they had in the five years leading up to his death, including going an entire year – gasp – without a single article about him (November 2010 to December 2011). And none of the articles before his death were nearly as nasty as the ones they have published since his death. Maybe they were afraid of him? He did have a talent for humiliating his critics. They must have decided it would be much safer to drag his name through the mud once he was dead, an opinion Salon shares with his former publisher Verso, who recently published a venomous book by Hamas and Hezbollah lover Richard Seymour called “Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens” (a trial in which the defendant's case is never heard, just the ramblings of the prosecutor, who also happens to be judge, jury and executioner). It's interesting to note that Hitchens' critics never challenge him on substance, resorting instead to ad hominem personal attacks and presumptions based on what they think were his motivations. Never is the notion ever entertained, for example, that Hitchens' support for the Iraq war may have been based on honourable intentions, such as his long-standing support for Iraqi Kurds or his hatred of Saddam Hussein. No, it must have been because he was an imperialist warmonger.

 Similar treatment is regularly dished out to to Hitchens' fellow atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Whether it is Glenn Greenwald, Owen Jones, Tom Watson or Andrew Brown (who seems to have appointed himself as the Guardian's official Richard Dawkins correspondent), there is nothing prominent figures both on the left and the right prefer doing than accusing Harris and Dawkins of being bigots. More specifically, they are accused of being Islamophobic, a rather nasty way of equating criticism of religion with racial hatred. This charge was also often levelled against Hitchens. None of these clueless critics can seem to escape from the rather colonial mentality that a criticism of a religion is a slander against all it's adherents, as if people were homogenous blocs with absolutely no individuality or personality. I thought we had moved on from that way of thinking? Evidently not.

To criticise someone for their beliefs is not, nor should it be, wrong. In fact it should be encouraged. Even if they are dead. Political correctness has meant that we are often afraid to criticise others, especially the dead. I have no problem with people criticising Christopher Hitchens. Or Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins for that matter. But it is simply cowardice to keep quiet about someone for most of their life, then lay into them once they are dead. It is equally cowardly to, instead of debating intelligently the pros and cons of faith, simply label critics of religion as racists. Especially when it comes from people who are actually intelligent people. I used to have a lot of respect for Glenn Greenwald and Owen Jones. Not anymore.

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