Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Courage of Chris Hitchens

Allow me to associate myself with these words from Freddie deBoer:
The stand against Nazism and all fascism is our duty, but it is one that we wage best by recognizing as one that can remain unspoken. The reduction of that duty to grist for the mill of professional ambition dulls its edge and trivializes one of our most important political responsibilities.
This comes in a post criticizing self-righteous anti-"Islamofascists". But I think that this conclusion lets Hitchens, James and Applebaum off the hook. What made Gunther Grass, George Orwell and the rest of them significant, brave voices of anti-fascism back in the day was that they were writing in a time when fascism was popular and spreading. Britain was riddled through with fascist sympathizers before WWII, for example, and especially on the right. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that group also included much of the left of the country. For Orwell to do what he did back then was gutsy because he was kind of on his own for a great period of time. Islamofascism (I'll use the word without quote marks from now on) appeals to relatively few people and isn't spreading. Denouncing it--especially in America--takes zero moral courage. So when these idiots pat themselves on the back for it, it's pretty annoying. It's like applauding yourself for saying that you believe that women deserve equal rights to men. Of course they do, at this point it's just assumed.

Putting aside the decidedly unsexy notion of fighting for things that most people say are right but that few people seem too willing to fight for (e.g. opposing torture), if Hitchens really wants to be remembered alongside Gunther Grass and Orwell, the best way of doing that would be to try to find the areas where the current consensus is wrong and to work to correct it. There are the obvious, under-the-radar causes like drug legalization and prison reform, but perhaps there's something else we've never heard of that Hitch could research and bring to our attention. Such a thing probably wouldn't generate the moral thrill of writing scathing, sanctimonious articles about Islamofascism (that don't really matter to anyone), but it would have the benefit of maybe making the world a better place. And I don't really think that Hitchens has done that. As it stands Hitchens is mainly famous for his antitheism and for being pro-Iraq War. I think he's added some value to the former conversation (though I naturally disagree with his views) but I think the other half of that equation cancels it out. I think one could easily make the case that the world would have been worse off without Gunther Grass, Czeslaw Milosz or Orwell. These men helped us to better understand and react to the world. It's unclear to me how the world would have been worse off without Hitchens and those other puffed-up clowns.

I do wonder where Hitchens will wind up in the pantheon, finally. He probably won't make it in. They don't put banal thinkers in the pantheon, after all. But probably the closest match I can think of is Rudyard Kipling. There is the same broadly tragic scope to both mens' thought: Hitchens bolloxed it up when it counted--after 9/11--and Kipling similarly proved to be a man of his times rather than a transcendent figure with his championing of the Empire. The only thing Kipling did that transcended his time and place were his poems, which are still read today. Hitchens doesn't even have that. Of course, Islamofascism will eventually lose in the long run. But that will have nothing to do with Hitchens's work. It will have to do with it being an unsustainable system, as Communism was.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.