Exit Hitch

By Michael J. Smith on Friday December 16, 2011 01:29 PM

That's the now-late Christopher Hitchens, above, after his famous waterboarding stunt. I rather admired him for doing this; it seemed enterprising and reporterly. (I used to know a TV personality who had himself Tasered on live TV, and though as a personality he was a somewhat mixed bag, I admired that action too. Ballsy.) Now that Hitchens is no more, perhaps it's the best thing to remember him by.

I sorta remember enjoying Hitchens years ago, when he was fun, though he was always a flyweight. Met the guy exactly once; he was quite charming on that occasion. Even after his conversion to Blimpery and hawkery, I found it difficult to get too worked up over him; he seemed like Exhibit A for the inconsequence of the 'public intellectual', an institution perhaps best compared with the public convenience.

Hitch's fellow Muslim-basher Dawkins (*) annoys me a lot more than Hitch ever did, for some reason; perhaps it's because of that smug sense of intellectual superiority he has. Hitch always clearly thought of himself as a clever fellow, but then he was a clever fellow; whereas Dawkins thinks he possesses a world-historical mind, when in fact he's as shallow as an oil slick.

Hitch's and Dawkins' demented frothings about Islam seem odder in the American context than in the British. A surprising number of otherwise tolerant, sophisticated, educated Brits come a bit unhinged on the subject. I wonder how far back this goes. To the siege of Khartoum? Or is it a more recent phenomenon, connected to the much-increased number of Muslims in England over the last, what, forty years? Has this development irritated into activity some long-dormant virus of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism and self-satisfaction?

Hitchen's death has of course aroused plenty of comment on my Lefty mailing lists. One contributor wrote rather amusingly:

Hitchens in his prime was one of the world's best live debaters, and [had a ] unique technique -- bad arguments were a part of it so long as they were completely new. Chess players call these TNs or Theoretical Novelties. His ability to keep generating these and pull them out in debate was unmatched. And while his honest opponent would be thinking, Is there anything to that? What's the best reply? and thus looking like he hadn't thought things through, Hitchens would hit him with a zinger. ...

Anybody can win an argument when they're right. It takes a real artist to keep taking tricks when they're not.

I take exception to that last comment, though. In fact it's next to impossible to win an argument when you're right. Set against commonplace error, truth is as David to Goliath.

On the other hand, Hitch definitely became less readable when he took his right turn. I don't think this is because the booze caught up with him or anything like that. He was always as good a writer as he ever was. But it's hard to make yourself fun to read when what you're saying is just stupid.


(*) The duo beling collectively referred to as "Ditchkins". I wish I could claim credit for this coinage. I forget who did come up with it.

Comments (22)

"truth is as David to Goliath"

Or as Mark Twain put it "Lies can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its pants".

"...bad arguments were a part of it so long as they were completely new..."

I doubt that. Bad arguments are old, as is the perennial canard, "here's something you didn't think of..." followed immediately by one of those tired, old, bad arguments. Gets 'em every time! The trick is to be a conventionalist posing as a contrarian. This enables the audience to feel smug about the novelty of their conformism.


Terry Eagleton came up with ‘Ditchkins’

"The trick is to be a conventionalist posing as a contrarian. "

Great observation. Seems to be the shtick of just about every columnist and journalist out there.

He did great stuff on Clinton, Kissinger, Agnes Bojaxhiu, the misuse of the Chamberlain-Hitler pact, Thomas Paine, and, yes, religion.

I also really liked his recent debunking of the royalist mind-rape "The King's Speech."

His post-diagnosis attempts to tread water in the cesspool he dug for himself on the GWOT were increasingly pointless and incoherent, even by the low standards of that bog.


Several "fat and hairy ex-Trots" underwent the conversion from high-pitched Trotskyite schismatic to condescending right-wing pundit, Hitchens being among the last of the breed (unless "Lenin" of London, some of whose fans wanted more appreciation of his polemics here, follows the same route to Establishment friendly wordplay). Norman Finkelstein's astute taken on this serial poseur has stood the test of time:

A sharp political break must, for one living a political life, be a wrenching emotional experience. The rejection of one's core political beliefs can't but entail a rejection of the person holding them: if the beliefs were wrong, then one's whole being was wrong. Repudiating one's comrades must also be a sorrowful burden. It is not by chance that "fraternity" is a prized value of the left: in the course of political struggle, one forges, if not always literally, then, at any rate, spiritually, blood bonds...No doubt he imagines it is testament to the mettle of his conviction that past loyalties don't in the slightest constrain him; in fact, it's testament to the absence of any conviction at all.


Yeah. He was a guy with many gifts, and lots of people who knew him well were very fond of him. The personal side of things comes to the fore in the day or two after somebody dies; quite right too.

I didn't know him, so that element doesn't enter the picture for me.

There's a very short list of people whose deaths I'll greet with applause, and Hitch was never on it. But candor obliges one to observe that at his best, he was entertaining -- on the easy targets; and at his worst he was really, really terrible.

Still. He didn't do the kind of damage that a Kissinger or a Clinton did; he was just a Grub Street scribbler trying to live by his wits, and he did it. I love Grub Street and anybody who can live by his wits gets a tip of the hat from me. Sit levis terra.


Oh, and the Royals, like God, are an awfully easy target. Nobody gets any points for shooting fish in a barrel.


I had forgotten about that one too. I wasn't sure how I felt about that one. Daring. Was it after he got sick, or before. The one that cracked me up, the one that was possibly something of what people mean by the hitch they fell in love with before the marriage went bad, was the articles he did on getting himself fixed up. He had his hair waxed, got his teeth fixed, etc. Something like that. it was also for VF. He was fucking funny in that one.


It takes a certain panache to appear on Fox News and say "If you gave Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox."

Perhaps this was one of the "easy targets," as our host calls them; but it wasn't for a congenial audience. In a time when, as Martin Amis put it, "Being inoffensive, and being offended, are now the twin addictions of the culture," there's something to be said for a peddler of wares who will venture into a town and take on all comers. Good polemic training, if nothing else.

Hitchens turned into a barroom blowhard, hallucinating a vision of Democracy on the March, and always ready to connive at a dispute. And yet consider the average columnist, who would never imagine leaving the enchanted circle. One ends up as an Yglesias or some other bottled specimen.


"Dawkins' demented frothings about Islam" - way to go! Any evidence thereof? Help, Picador, this blog has gone off its nutter, but I guess I should have seen it coming.
Classical music enthusiasts are irredeemable - they refuse to back down from wholly absurd positions. They are forever locked in bubble worlds, insisting against all logic for the rightness of the their antediluvian causes.
Grown folks sawing away at beat-less sweeps of noise - a tip-off that its enthusiasts are sure to be locked in autistic cognitions.


He was the most entertaining intellectual performance artist of our time. Always a great show, especially when he was cringe-makingly, humliatingly wrong and had to try to fight his way out of it.

Best bit of cable TV I've ever seen: Hitchens and Ralph Reed on Hannity & Colmes right after Falwell's death. Go find on YouTube. A fun 9 minutes.

Peter Ward:


I think it is well arguable that Islam is the greatest man-made force for evil in the world today...

I hate to link the dirty trot Richard Seymour on this site, but he has done a good job taking on Dawkins here and elsewhere.

Certainly racism has to be inferred from his hatred of Islam; but it is curious that the most evil religion happens to be the dominant one in the part of the world US-UK are fighting hardest to conquer. And the second most evil religion to Dawkins is Catholicism, the religion of Britain's first colony. I think racism and kindred prejudices almost always have a pragmatic component, representing some general characteristic that can be attributed, accurately or not, to a people whose repression is sought in some fashion; that in this case Dawkins is providing a secular, liberal-friendly rationalization needed to generate the kind of prejudice that makes mass murder and other enormity acceptable.


I too hate to link to site of a tribe of former Marxists who now specialize in Libertarian agitprop, but there are some good points here from a Catholic target of Dawkins' bile:

There is an old Irish joke, retold here by Richard Dawkins, about somebody in Northern Ireland who responded to a survey question about religious affiliation by declaring himself an atheist. ‘Would that be a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?’ came the insistent reply.


I also felt some sadness about Hitch's passing even though he lost his way post-9/11. I still appreciate how he took aim at the Clintons in the late 90's, which was at the height of Slick Willy pwog worship. Plus, he was right to condemn Michael Moore as an opportunistic, exploitative propagandist.

And regarding Dawkins, I've increasingly been finding him worse than Hitchens ever could be in spite of Dawkins seemingly being less supportive of the GWOT. I suppose it's because Dawkins still comes across as more xenophobic and ethnocentric (on that note, so does Michael Moore).

Royalty may be an easy target, but that movie won all the awards and had a great many otherwise decent people utterly hornswoggled. Hitchens tore it to pieces with a dead-on explanation of why it was an atrocity.


We're indicting a ham sandwich here - the quote Peter unearthed is bizarre, admittedly, as "the greatest force for evil" has many, many contenders, including many religions, including the lack of sex practiced by humans, including specious generalized antipathy.

You can cuff around those celeb-libs all you want, for this or that failing of intellectual purity, but with the world in disarray, the movements for social progress in abject futility, the tax breaks and cultural prominence of the religious flat-earthers all around us, why not be nice and admire their substantial work to discredit the craven idols of modernity.
Dawkins "ethnocentric and xenophobic" - what, did he order fish-and-chips one too many times? Is he a Swansea supporter?


shag reminded me of Hitch's Brazilian-wax story, which I had forgotten about. That was indeed a thing of beauty -- the sort of thing he should have done more of.


Dawkins subscribes to the belief that every Muslim wants to implement Sharia law all over Europe.

And for the record, I don't particularly care for Islam (or any organized religion, for that matter) myself, but I also don't care for seeing all Muslims as less than human and re-colonizing the Middle East under the guise of humanitarian liberalism.


dawkins is a very nice example of why you savage a writer on gut response

mjs has long since sniffed out more then folly
in the posi-sci cult writings of richie
and waved his censors cuccumber at him

bravo ..right ??

from your higher roost
its good form
to shoot a fuck like that down
early on even only if its "a hunch "

better you spare all your resolute acolytes
that nauseating moment of betrayal
as this seeming "fellow " atheist
turns arm chair " secular crusader"
or some other such respiration
of bloody reactionary bitch essence



the good genprac fitz is good indeed except for one flubberation
unfortunately i see it as an apex flub

starts well:

"Dawkins’ patrician scorn for all forms of religion leads him to miss the essential point. Religious faith cannot be dismissed as a manifestation (or as a cause) of psychopathology or stupidity."

fair enough.and then this

" Religion, in Marx’s words, is ‘the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality’ ...‘the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not found himself or has already lost himself again’."

glorious scripture !!!!

but then cometh commonplace gibbling :

"In a world in which human beings are estranged from themselves and from others and lack control over their own destiny, they seek refuge and consolation in the worship of divine forces."

but i could weather that partiality
sans sour gripe
but for the follow on elaboration:

"Religion provides a distraction, an alibi, an evasion, an abdication of responsibility."

come now
does that series of venal qualifiers
come down from a higher plain
then richie tickie ??

better if doc fitzwiggle followed his own sound prescription:

" The persistence of religion
poses a range of specific historical and political questions
which Dawkins’ resolutely ahistorical approach does not
even begin
to answer."

nor does this answer either:

"a distraction, an alibi, an evasion,
an abdication of responsibility"

Speaking of Dawkins, how does one imagine he'd try to explain this recent finding?


Without raising the topic of epigenetics and the obvious importance of the environment here, how does one label such extreme adaptability selfish? I realize Dawkins allows for "exceptions" in his tale of biochemical greed, but isn't it true that we have almost no idea yet as to the actual balance of how many "winning" genes are actually, in fact, this altruistic?

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