The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: In Memoriam

Exactly one week ago the civilized world lost a brilliant and outspoken essayist to esophageal cancer.  It was his choice, in large measure. Christopher “Hitch” Hitchens lived on the edge – strong drink and cigarettes, burning the candle socially and professionally until the final days.  He was a journalist, war correspondent, writer, and literary critic — a man in love with life and its many distractions.

His edginess was most likely inspired by an early and profound distaste for religion and what he saw as the fanaticism of faith.  We find such early stirrings in the opening pages of his book, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He despised the religious sentiment so deeply that he even embraced the Bush war policies leading up to the invasion of Iraq. It was, apparently, Hitch’s own vain attempt at striking out existentially (not just verbally) at what he imagined was the fanaticism of Islamic fundamentalism and the theocratic state. If so, he was ill-advised to adopt such a position, and he was mistaken in his assumptions.  Indeed, while Islamic fundamentalists most surely were involved in the 9/11 events, Iraq was not a legitimate target in this respect, even if Hitch was looking for revenge, seeking to put this apparently fanatic religiosity in its place.

Furthermore, I would wager that a similarly fanatic faith is embedded in even the most obviously secular theories of the State — democratic, communist, or otherwise. Of course, Saddam was not a religious ruler; and Iraq was no theocracy.  Nor, apparently, is the USA, nor was the former Soviet Union.  Tangentially, however, there does seem to be a significant undercurrent of Christian religiosity haunting the halls of our government, especially today; and it has been argued that Marxism was a stand-in for religious belief in the former USSR.

But what is it about religion that many, including Hitch, find most disturbing?  In the first few pages of his book, he gives us not merely a clue, but a clear and concise statement of his position.

There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded in wish-thinking. (god, p. 4: emphasis mine)

Misrepresentation, servility, repression, and wishful-thinking.  These seem to me to be the cornerstones in every form of hierarchy — social, political, or religious.  And we find them in spades right here in the secular institutions of the United States.  Granted the misrepresentations do not necessarily concern the origins of man and cosmos, but they lead, nevertheless, to fundamental errors in judgment resulting in repression, servility and wishful-thinking.

Hitch was certainly an iconoclast in his own right, not unlike our dear friend Nietzsche, whom he decided to discuss at great length in his highly introspective and probably final piece of writing for Vanity Fair before he succumbed to the cancer. Trying to understand or, perhaps, ridicule Nietzsche’s aphorism: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Hitch recoils sharply from these words, which he had previously embraced and often repeated throughout his career.  Yet, facing his own premature death – which he points out is everyman’s fate but in slower motion – Hitch retorts: “In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.”  So, we find that old Hitch was ready to throw poor Nietzsche under the bus, just as he had thrown under the liberal Left when he went over to the camp of Bush and the “neocons” with their all-out attack on Islamic fundamentalism.

Now, Nietzsche was no advocate of the State, nor was he an apologist for religion.  Quite the contrary.  After all, it was Nietzsche, through Zarathustra, who declared for us – “God is Dead.”  Certainly, Hitch must have been thinking of this very aphorism when he wrote: “god is not Great.”  My point is that misrepresentation on both a cosmic and human scale, economic servilityrepression, and wishful-thinking (American exceptionalism, the American Dream) are themselves key ingredients in our modern secular State and its rationalizing self-justification (solipsism). Indeed, as Nietzsche often reminded us, it is not only religion that is a sickness of modern man, but the State as well.  Much of his work, including parts of the Genealogy of Morals, is devoted to a critique of the modern State.  But again, it is Zarathustra who reminds us:

Only where the State ends, there begins the human being who is not superfluous; there begins the song of necessity, the unique and inimitable tune. Where the State ends – look there, my brothers!

Certainly, Hitch was not unfamiliar with the political head-fakes, economic slavery, and governmental repression of the modern State, at least in those nations that boasted clearly dictatorial sovereigns. Indeed, he had a front-row seat to rebellions unfolding against authoritarian and fascist regimes across the globe, including Portugal, South Korea, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Chile, Poland and Spain. Yet, he somehow failed to see the same troubling fanaticism, the same demand for belief, the self-same authoritarian tendencies, and incipient fascism inherent in our own Western democracies, and in America specifically: increasingly characterized by “conquest abroad and repression at home (Diamond).”

He seems to have bought into the entire mythology of Western exceptionalism, swallowing the Spectacle whole.  As he wrote concerning the revolutions in Eastern Europe in the 1980’s: “Not to diminish the grandeur of those revolutions, the citizens essentially desired to live in Western European conditions of greater prosperity and greater liberty.” And he precedes that statement in the same piece for Vanity Fair in April 2011, reflecting upon the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt: “This really is a new language: the language of civil society, in which the Arab world is almost completely unlettered and unversed.”  Of course its a new language, and of course they want to be invited to the big party and into the big tent; after all we have been smugly rubbing it in their face for generations.  But, that is hardly the point. The real issue is that this party (greater prosperity and liberty) is a lie, and the lifestyle it suggests is completely abusive, enslaving, and unsustainable. Again, Hitch thinks he sees clearly the fanaticism of the Islamic State, but he ignores the fanaticism and fantasies propounded by and within the “democracies” of the West.

Indeed, what Hitch wrote (in the same piece quoted above) regarding the failure of the Iranian uprising in 2009, could be said about our own tepid attempt (e.g., the OWS movement) to address increasingly evident repression and habitual misrepresentations by our own government and elite.

As we sadly remember, the Ahmadinejad crew in Iran was also able to retain power in the face of popular (mainly urban) democratic insurrection. It, too, was ruthless in the use of force and able to rely on the passivity of a large and fairly pious  [gullible] rural population, itself dependent in turn on state subsidy [promises]. Heroism breaks its heart, and idealism its back, on the intransigence of the credulous and the mediocre, manipulated by the cynical and the corrupt. (bolding my words)

Perhaps Hitch let his deep disdain for the fairytales told by the religious hierarchies of his tender childhood, further reinforced by his close-up inspection of living and brutal theocracies, obscure a more matured and clarified vision of the repression, servility, and brutality imposed by the fairytales handcrafted in the civilized states of Western Europe and America.  Was he merely a prisoner of this Spectacle, like so many of us?

It is true, as some have said, that “[h]e was a master polemicist who never tired of railing against every tyranny over minds, hearts, and bodies he came across.”  Unfortunately, he may have missed, or never wanted to admit, the tyranny of the State – our State – as Nietzsche unsparingly pointed out.

State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters… State, where the slow suicide of all – is called ‘life.’ [Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The New Idol]

In the end, it would be unfortunate if our last memory of Christopher Hitchens is that of a rebel worshipping at the gates of hell on earth, the modern State and its merchants of death and enslavement.  But, perhaps we can benefit from Hitch’s heroic momentum, finding our way to move past the mythic fantasies and fanaticism of the State, as he so clearly did with those of religion. Rest In Peace Hitch. December 15, 2011.

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17 Responses to The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: In Memoriam

  1. javacat says:

    Thanks for writing this, Sandy, with affection and clarity, for recognizing achievements and flaws, and connecting it all to a broader landscape.

  2. John Bollig says:

    Sandy,

    Sadly, Hitch was an example of the intellectual disdain for the religious, their contempt for the values espoused and desire to create a valueless west. It is my foundation that faith is vital as a value core. That one needs an anchor to hang on to in these rough times. Indeed, the institutions most likely to survive Teotwawki are going to be faith based. The very faith based institutions are going to be the glue that holds us together when the secular humanist western culture crashes and burns. Our foundations, like it or not are religious based. All I am saying is that Hitch was in error about his veiwpoint on religion. In the age of Super Bugs, Super STD’s and AIDS. An abundance of sexual caution is survival. While some take it too far, repressing the sexual minorities that do in fact exist, it is a measure of the dangers that threaten humanity as a whole.

    • kulturcritic says:

      John, your thinking here sounds confused toward the end (re sexual minorities). And your general premise about values is unfounded. Religion is not necessary for a values orientation. Finally, I believe that ‘faith based institutions’ are at the CORE of the problem of hierarchy, enslavement and civilization. I guess you might paint me with the same brush as old Hitch. Sorry, my friend.

  3. bmiller says:

    Well, I appreciate your take on Old Hitch. It is well thought out. I liked to think of him as a gadfly, a court jester, soemone who within the confines of the system spoke uncomfortable truths.
    Tyranny is a hard mistress to kick out of bed. She comforts in ways we are often not aware. Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for the man who could write: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence”.
    As always, thanks for sharing the post.

  4. Pēteris says:

    So, the real question is, what is the State for? It seems, that ir evolved as a means for defending its members from outer enemies (plunderers), thus to enrich its citizens and make life more safe. Unfortunately, human nature works both ends, and organized force for defense soon turned out to an organized force for offense, in the beginning directed against outer “enemies” and then against “inner” enemies, the citizens of the state itself. Therefore, we can view the State as a device designed primarily for war and violence; war and violence in turn are tools for territorial, sexual and material conquest, a very vivid example of the animal side of the human being. No wonder that the State brings out the worst in men in the positions of power in the State.
    As for the faith, it is a very human trait: faith means INTENTIONAL world view, when some facts are emphasized by consciousness and others discarded as irrelevant. In a sense, as Castaneda put it, “we all are more interpreting than perceiving”. This intentional world view allows us to get some results from our actions. Even if these results are absurd in the greater context, they can be quite meaningful in local contexts, that are concerned with survival, mating, material provision and matters of social hierarchy at the given situation. For example, a leader can continue his mad conquests, detrimental to his people and other peoples, as long as he receives positive feedback in the form of admiration, honor, wealth etc. from his subordinates and followers, who most of the time share a common world view. Relative profit from actions is all that matters.
    As for Hitchens, he also had an intentional world view, as almost all of us do. Acting according to it should have brought him some profit in the form of success and fame, as we can see from this obituary.
    People prefer a fixed position from their leaders and celebrities. It is not only more easy to ponder again and again the same statements; it is also more easy for followers – neither the leader, neither the followers have to reconstruct their world-view according to the new facts and observations.

  5. Sydney A. says:

    vain = prideful
    vane = like a weather-vane

    “Hitch’s own vane attempt

    • Ozymandius says:

      @ Sydney A

      Gott to admit tho that their is a vane of trooth in wot Sandy has writ10. Go Sandy!

    • kulturcritic says:

      Love how my mistakes and other failures of observation bring out new commentators. Thanks, Sydney A.

      • amphibious says:

        Kulturcritic – if you really don’t mind the corrections, I’d suggest that distain should be disdain. Currently ploughing through “Hitch22”, approaching the demise of the british Labour Party and the onslaught of Thatcher.
        His predilection for “sumptuous menus and well stocked cellars” was prompted by mingling with his ‘betters’ at Oxford and he was happy “to sing for his supper” as the stroppy arriviste at their groaning tables.

        • kulturcritic says:

          Amphibious – of course I do not mind the corrections, especially when it is a new voice. I can’t believe I had so many errors in this one. I though I was always perfect. I will fix it. OMG, enjoy the Hitch22, what a stitch!! Hope to hear your voice again, amphibious. sandy

  6. Brutus says:

    Thanks for including your criticisms of Hitchens along with your admiration. (You actually seem weighted toward the former.) I’ve also admired his writing, but then as I learned more about him, I felt somewhat irritated by his glaring blind spots. So his legacy is more than a little mixed and ironic, especially considering how strongly he reacted against orthodoxy (by creating his own) and how he swung hard from left to right.

    And although I am also dismayed by John Bollig’s comment as it veer off its initial premise, I can appreciate the beginning of it. Humanity never seems to get it, and even after truth is shown to us in all its naked glory, we still refuse to get it. We collectively cling to fantasy and hope and denial, which calls to mind one of Gore Vidal’s pithy quotes: “Americans never learn; it’s part of our charm.”

  7. amphibious says:

    It seems that Hitch’s decision to emigrate to the US (though late in taking out citizenship) was the desire to be a Greek to the Hegemony’s Rome, a big fish in a small (intellectual) pond – far too much competition in Britain, most of whom were more cogent and rigorous.

  8. Interesting. Taunton’s book on Hitchens uses the same title.

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