Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hitchens is Dead, Long Live Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens passed away last night at the age of 62. I was never exactly partial to him. Actually, I was largely troubled by him. It was somewhere around when he declared that women aren't funny, or when he defended the Iraq War well past the salad days of its efficacy and popularity.

Hitchens belonged to the largely repellent secular libertarian philosophy of stringent logic and reason. He believed in what he saw, and was able to make damning, thrilling sport of critically dissembling many of the backwards oddities he saw in society, most particularly religion. It was always clear that he was thinking. It was always true that he grew, and developed his opinions. This was one of his greatest strengths as an intellectual and as a writer: you could trace a trajectory of his thought, and his personal philosophy remained internally consistent.

However I disagree, very strongly, with a lot of his conclusions and his haughtiness. He cheered the war in Iraq as a way of extinguishing the flame of dreaded religion, and create a secular state of reason. Islam was the dreaded boogeyman rising over his perspective on our involvement in the Middle East, a never-ending war against a faith that allegedly seeks the murder and extermination of 'infidels.' It was the same propaganda as the conservative machine, the very same as he once professed disdain for, spread as a way of turning people onto imperialism, 21st century style.

Yet it was his piece, linked above, on why "women weren't funny" that sealed it. A cheeky piece of the faux-pro-women chauvinism where women can't be funny because they are attuned to a higher calling, or something. It's the same weird backwards sexism where putting a woman on a pedestal, on which is inscribed her essential duties and traits that, as a woman, have been inscribed to her by evolution (which could easily have been replaced with 'divine plan' in the Hitchens' article*). Of course, his general attitude of "I'm such a stinker!" it grating or ingratiating depending on how you view it.

Hitchens' flavor of secular libertarianism is generally a viewpoint that I take umbrage with frequently. It's a perspective that favors real, tactile events as opposed to the more covert and subtle operations of human interaction, like language and experience and narrative. Hitchens would have rolled his eyes and drolly dismissed anyone who suggested that, perhaps, evolutionary perspectives on gender are greatly influenced by the essentializing characteristics to men and women based on cultural heritage and - yes - sexism. He would have further chortled at the notion that maybe he, himself, is perpetuating structural sexism without really thinking about it. But, libertarians of that sort don't see themselves as beholden to such social factors, and don't suspect socialization has formed them one way or another. They're "individuals," and social structure has no bearing on who anyone is, period.

So, this is why I never got behind Hitchens fully. But I have to give him credit for two positives of his career. One, his facility with words was incomparable. He was a talented writer, and his logic at least had an internal consistency so that you knew that no matter how obnoxious his opinions, it was clear he had given it a major focus of his mind. His polemic was not from rank, unreflective bile, but rather a desire to stimulate conversation, and then to steamroll said conversation with his own self-righteousness.

But, that steamrolling is my second point, and that point is that Hitchens was a part of a dying breed, the public intellectual. Once, people clamored to see Albert Einstein think. Thomas Paine inspired a nation. Voltaire chilled with the political and social elite of his time. Compare that to today, where the government defunds NASA, shrugs at scientific innovation, and proudly claims ignorance on the Internet while seeking to pass specific regulation of it. People support the defunding of universities that promote humanities, social science, and other "unpractical" studies as Rick Scott would call them. The words of academics and great minds are assailed as words from on high, from the ivory tower. Yet we build this ivory tower, not as a lordship but as a prison.

We're in a wilderness of anti-intellectualism, and it's not just about proper respect given to those of intellectual stature. Rather, American society is rapidly devaluing critical insight and discourse. The Internet has made it simpler for us to gain information, yet we don't think critically about this information. The economy, further, is pushing fields of discourse and criticism out in favor of "practical" studies and "hard sciences." This promotes the incestuous nature of academia, as no one there has no desire to break out and into the mainstream as people once did.

That's why we chortle when we see a person's title as "sociologist" or "cultural linguist" or "philosopher" in a Washington Post article. The climate is tough on thought, these days. We don't want to hear it, and the intellectuals don't want to talk about it. Hitchens, although a big of a gloryhound, was motivated by that impulse to spread his thoughts and insight as far as he could. I may have disagreed with him, but I was comforted to know that he was taking himself public rather than shielding himself in jargon and journals.

We need more Hitchens', to the extent that we need more people taking the intellectual and making it accessible and, frankly, cool. We need more Gloria Steinems, and Neil DeGrasse Tysons. We need more (sigh, yes) Richard Dawkins' and Cornel Wests. We need younger people, too. We need to make it cool to be smart again, a gift that Hitchens had in spades.

*Just saying.

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