This stylish man: on Christopher Hitchens

“I once had the easiest job in journalism: editing Christopher Hitchens,” tweeted his Slate editor June Thomas, shortly after his death. A short tribute, but a touching balance of the personal and the professional; and also, an accidental summary of the thing I hate about his work. Christopher Hitchens wrote with such an assured and powerful voice – exactly the same voice he spoke with – it’s easy to believe that editing would require only the lightest touch. All the words are correct, and in their right places. Nothing needs changing, except for the fact that whole pieces could benefit from being run through with a red pen.

Hitchens wrote a lot of nonsense. He wrote a fair proportion of good stuff too – he wrote a lot, full stop – but the published body of work shows a terrible weakness for logical slackness and underwhelming research when you pull apart the rumbustious style. Remember, this is the genius who proclaimed that women weren’t funny “unless hefty or dykey or Jewish or some combination of the three”, because Tina Fey’s existence somehow hadn’t penetrated his capacious skull; and then, satisfied with the soundness of his findings, went on to devise an evolutionary psychology backstory in which women don’t need to be funny because they have the incredible power to grow a baby in their abdomens.

Amazingly, Hitchens fails to make a play on hysteria, an oversight that I am sure the shameless punster of “no child’s behind left” would have regretted much more than he regretted swatting aside the creative ability of half the population. The ersatz anthropology and heavy reliance on one study of 20 subjects to support his argument is the sort of thing that Hitchens could easily have pulled to pieces, if he’d happened to be wearing his King Atheist crown that day. He wasn’t, though: he was wearing his Hilarious Misogynist hat. And I think it’s typical of Hitchens that the evidence doesn’t build up the argument; rather, the argument draws in the evidence that seems to fit.

Once the rhetorical momentum is in place, everything else has to bend to those cascading sentences. It can be enjoyable, like standing on sea wall and being battered by unstoppable waves is enjoyable, but it’s more of a physical experience than an intellectual one.  And, once established, his ideas could be as resistant to redirection as tidal patterns – as noted by Katha Pollitt in The Nation:

“And then of course there was his 1989 column in which he attacked legal abortion and his cartoon version of feminism as “possessive individualism.” I don’t suppose I ever really forgave Christopher for that.

It wasn’t just the position itself, it was his lordly condescending assumption that he could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in 1,000 words that probably took him twenty minutes to write. “Anyone who has ever seen a sonogram or has spent even an hour with a textbook on embryology knows” that pro-life women are on to something when they recoil at the idea of the “disposable fetus.” Hmmmm… that must be why most OB-GYNs are pro-choice and why most women who have abortions are mothers. Those doctors just need to spend an hour with a medical textbook; those mothers must never have seen a sonogram. Interestingly, although he promised to address the counterarguments made by the many women who wrote in to the magazine, including those on the staff, he never did. For a man with a reputation for courage, it certainly failed him then. (Years later, when he took up the question of abortion again in Vanity Fair, he said basically the exact same things, using the same straw-women arguments. Time taught him nothing, because he didn’t want to learn.)”

The Nation, We Need To Talk About Christopher

And why would he want to learn? Engaging with opposing arguments or awkward facts could only interrupt the glorious spray of his words. He returns to the abortion issue again in God Is Not Great, making the same arguments he did in the pieces for The Nation and Vanity Fair, complaining this time that “the whole case for extending protection to the unborn child […] has been wrecked by those who use unborn children […] as mere manipulable objects of their doctrine” (p.223).

Blundering pro-life moments aside, God Is Not Great is singularly badly argued for a book that’s supposed to be a call to rationalism. Just the opening pages are a catalogue of fallacy – most of all, arguing from authority, that authority being Hitchens’ own. As a child, he knew God was an impossibility, therefore the impossibility of God is the most obvious thing in the world, therefore it must be true that there is no God.

The other side of this severe intellectual solipsism is that he imagines his opponents in the least sympathetic terms possible:

“If the intended reader of this book wants to go beyond disagreement with the author and try to identify the sins and deformities that animated him to write it (and I have certainly noticed that those who publicly affirm charity and compassion and forgiveness are often inclined to take this course) then he or she will not just be quarrelling with the unknowable and ineffable creator who – presumably – opted to make me this way. They will be defiling the memory of a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith, named Mrs Jean Watts.”

God Is Not Great, p.1

Hitchens has already plotted the role of his critics, before they even get a chance to debate him: whoever these defenders of religion might be, Hitchens is sure that they’re the kind of people who make ad-hom attacks. How does he know that? Because that’s what religious people do (which is, of course, an ad-hom attack in itself). Straw believers, straw women. Hitchens doesn’t take the time to explore or sympathise with what his opponents say, he just interpolates them to his own advantage.

For all the glamour and all the rhetorical skill – for all the power he wielded – Hitchens operated with the deep intellectual poverty of someone who couldn’t imagine his way into someone else’s circumstances. You could call him a great writer, but only if you don’t object to the way in which the writing seems to direct the thinking, and only if you don’t notice (or don’t mind) that the thinking was frequently sketchy. Perhaps it’s harsh to publish a piece like this within a week of the man dying, but the last few days have been full of praise for a kind of writing that I would be very happy to see buried along with its author.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2011; photo by Crystl, used under Creative Commons

9 thoughts on “This stylish man: on Christopher Hitchens

  1. Ah, that’s far more what’s needed. Air was getting a bit … fuggy. Oh dear me: hard to believe the CH who did lovely, sharp & moving piece on Dorothy Parker also made with that (winces) “hefty…” stuff; I fear it’s partly the curse of Column-ism, which reduces once spry writers to idle controversialists. (And what is M Theresa book if not a Column played long?) The whole atheism thing bores and repels me in equal measure and you nail it well – I hadn’t thought before about the febrile itch of ‘logic’ in some of the dodgier geo-pol arguments. Hadn’t realised either how much of the recent stuff I haven’t read. My Hitchens is very much the LRB Hitchens rather than the VF Hitchens. (VF columns are precisely where the CH style starts to nudge orotund self-parody.) It’s probably true there’s a certain kind of Grub Street Kid (i.e., me) who secretly worships CH as Super Hack, in same way so many would-be boy novelists worshiped the boy Amis (whose work I should say I find mystifying, cloying, old fashioned. Far prefer his Da). Still maintain that earlier CH was far better writer qua writer than lot of his critics will ever be. Try one of the early Verso collections.

  2. Well done for writing such a good article. I am glad you’ve written this amid all the eulogies and hagiographies of “my best friend in the world Hitch”. He was great if you were a middle-aged white male who worked in the media, but I doubt he persuaded a single person with this writing, that his way was the right way. Preaching to the converted is what he did best. Nice to have some perspective.

  3. I think Ms Ditum preaches to the converted quite often too. I know she doesn’t welcome critique (I was blocked from commenting here for example and maybe I still am which rather proves my point).

    I was no great fan of Hitchens but I think he had some originality and spark. Something that is lacking in the current generation of journalists I believe.

  4. “Preaching to the converted is what he did best. Nice to have some perspective.”

    Hitchens went out of his way to debate religious apologists, wherever he could find them – even when his health was deteriorating, he was turning up in backwater town halls in the States to debate two-bit pastors.

    So sorry to ruin your insult, it sounds like you were waiting for a good chance to use it.

  5. It is good – and it has the advantage of being mostly about her. (I have a lifelong writercrush on Parker.) Hard, though, to read Hitchens astutely remarking on Parker’s self-ruinous “bohemian” lifestyle, given what ultimately did for him.

  6. I’m not sure that “turning up in backwater towns to debate two-bit pastors” is a complete riposte to the charge of preaching to the converted. It shows dedication, sure – but Hitchens’ determination to stomp on every representative of belief, however small or fringe, struck me as wildly disproportionate. With his rhetorical abilities, it was a bit like firebombing ants, and just as likely to win new friends.

    The opening of GING is a perfect exemplar of the Hitch style on religion. It’s not designed to sway opponents, but to galvanise supporters: the first paragraph forces you to pick sides, and team unbelief is identified wholly with Hitchens’ version of atheism. Even when he was in a church hall, the broader audience was always the Atheist-with-a-big-A community, to whom these exploits would seem heroic.

  7. This article pongs of bitterness but after all the glowing references I’m glad I’ve finally found something lambasting the dead man.

  8. Is returning criticism for someone’s manifest bigotry really bitterness? I’d argue that it’s just decent debate, but hey, he was only shooting down the literary ability and reproductive freedom of half all humans. Petty stuff, I’m sure.

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