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To Error and Back Again, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Christopher Hitchens, Part 3

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During the early 1960s, strategically-minded white supremacists were probably pleased that Malcolm X and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King were divided, as strategic-minded war mongers probably take heart from the fault lines emerging between atheism and liberalism today (which add to the already deep fault lines between theism and liberalism). All these divides to squabble across leave little room for solidarity among peace makers and justice-seekers, and that is good news for those in the business of oppression, war and carnage.

The best laid plans of warmongers and white supremacists, however, often go awry. It did not take long for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to express interest in meeting with each other, and we do not know what might have resulted from their preliminary encounters as Malcolm was assassinated very soon afterwards and King three years later.  Yet among believers in racial equality, Malcolm and King are often mentioned in the same breath, and their differences (including religious differences that today are assigned tremendous significance) are forgotten for the common stand they took on behalf of human rights, dignity and self-determination.  Divide and conquer is often hailed as a shrewd strategy, but divides can lead to constructive and enlightening dialogue as easily as they can lead to intragroup conflict and political cannibalism.  An honest divide can sometimes lay the groundwork for a deeper and more lasting unity.

Perhaps, then, the culture war that now distracts so many Americans from the reality of their gradually disappearing republic could nevertheless ultimately contribute to waking them up in time to save it.  The negative side of the culture war is relatively obvious: both parties to it suffer from the delusion that their ideological disagreements are more meaningful than the terrible courses of action that their squabbling political elites generally agree to (the Patriot Act, the War on Terror, extraordinary renditions to torturing client states, erosion of individual privacy, an ever expanding military-industrial complex, a steadily more entrenched corporate state, etc [7] ).  When two parties that usually pose as mortal enemies agree on something, we naturally assume that what they have agreed to must be undeniably rational and necessary otherwise it would not attract bipartisan support.   With current political elites in the U.S., however, every instance of bipartisan agreement typically moves the country a step closer towards imperial overreaching and corporate fascism.

Harris and Hitchens also contribute to this "bipartisan" agreement on the supposed danger of Islam and the necessity of combating it with the War on Terror.  Their popularity could even reflect a niche marketing approach by which Hannity-Coulter rhetoric is peddled to extinguish rights-respecting peace-loving tolerance in religious conservative communities and Harris-Hitchens rhetoric is peddled to extinguish it in irreligious liberal communities.  And yet this sophisticated cultivation of toxic bipartisanship may yet have some unexpected consequences.  This strategy may ironically lead to more cohesion among those who are tolerant, peace-loving respecters of rights, whether they identify as religious conservatives or as irreligious liberals.  Held together, perhaps, by the glue of the two-spirited religious liberals [8] , these more humane transcenders of the left-right divide could become a powerful bottom-up cultural force [9] , potentially more powerful than the top-down collusion between New Atheist sophisticates and religious fundamentalists, perhaps even more powerful than the top-down collusion between Democrats and Republicans.

It may be overly optimistic to imagine that the heterogenous collection of moralistic cranks who support peace, human rights, accountability, transparency and social equality could ever make their religio-ideological differences complementary and resource-maximizing rather than just a source of strife.  If they can, though, their unity might push the U.S. towards its original (though never actually realized) self image as a place of war-hating torture-free brotherhood, equality and social justice.

If good things like this come to pass, perhaps I should finally buy my own copy of God is Not Great. Insha'Allah, the book may do considerably more work for peace than Christopher Hitchens intends it to do.  And, for all we know, this may be precisely his intention.

Rest in peace, C.H. We'll see to it that your legacy does more good than harm.



[1] Obama's landmark inclusion of "and non-believers" in his diverse list of legitimate American types during his 2008 inaugural address might have been unthinkable without the earlier rise of the New Atheists.  Interestingly enough, both Hitchens and Harris essentially endorsed Obama even before this.   These endorsements are either (a) evidence that they are not, in fact, neoconservatives, (b) evidence that they are very peculiar neoconservatives, or (c) evidence that they are remarkably prescient neoconservatives (as Obama has not strayed far from Bush policy, and in some ways has entrenched it).   Harris and Hitchens too expressed disappointment with Obama after he took office, but this disappointment has taken different forms from that of the anti-war, civil liberties and anti-plutocracy voters who also supported "Hope and Change" in 2008.   Harris, for instance, criticized Obama's support for the 1st Amendment rights of those building the Park 51 community center and his appointment of a scientifically stellar but theistic director of the National Institutes of Health.  

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[3] Philosopher Slavoj Zizek provides a sardonic illustration of the non-essence of theism and atheism in another (non-ethical) domain:

Recently, in the UK, an atheist group displayed posters with the message: "There is no God, so don't worry and enjoy life!" In response, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church started a counter-campaign with posters saying: "There is a God, so don't worry and enjoy life!"  The interesting feature is how both propositions seem to be in some way convincing: if there is no God, we are free to do what we want, so let us enjoy life; if there is a God, he will take care of things in his benevolent omnipotence, so we don't have to worry and can enjoy life.... [W]e can easily imagine the following (no less convincing) alternative propositions: "There is no God, so everything depends on us and we should worry all the time!" and "There is a God who watches what we're doing all the time, so we should be anxious and worry continuously!" (Living in the End Times, pp. 97-98)
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[4] In recent years (see footnote in Part 1 ), Dawkins would also be included. N.B. I wrote the original version of this piece in 2007.   Discussions relevant to years after 2007 are in footnotes.

[5] First during his 2007 debates with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and then more extensively in his 2009 book When Atheism Becomes Religion.

[6] Yet even this kind of ideological crossover is pregnant with ironic possibility.  White supremacists have grown steadily more opposed to the powers-that-be as the de facto forces of white supremacy in business and government have grown more subtle and public relations conscious (and thus less pure).   Many "purist" white supremacists have thus found themselves in the curious position of taking similar policy stances not only with the Nation of Islam, but with human rights and anti-war activists--and, on the issue of the War on Drugs, with activists like Michelle Alexander who consider this policy to be the "New Jim Crow."   Again, the name of Ron Paul rings an eerie-sounding bell.   To avoid making a Sam Harris-like blunder, however, I will refrain from saying something preposterous like, "the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that unconstrained corporate-government power poses to liberty are actually fascists."   This is obviously not true anyway--the fascists generally say confused and contradictory things, in fact. Their occasional support for sensible policies is largely an accident of their toxic ideology going wildly awry as left and right fold in on each other in bizarre and frightening-promising ways.   The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that unconstrained corporate-government power poses to liberty are the anti-fascist protestors of the Occupy movement.   Hopefully this movement can convert the kind of people who sometimes get sucked into fascism, but avoid at all costs aligning with them in their current haze of unreasoning violence-prone hatred.

[7] The most recent example of this kind of bipartisanship was the 2012 National Defense Appropriations Act, passed by a supermajority in the Senate, and signed by Obama in celebration of the New Year.   The bill is a wet dream for lovers of indefinite military detention without trial--extending its reach all around the world and even into the U.S. itself.   The NDAA was also the last nail in the coffin of Obama's promise to close Guantanamo and the CIA black sites.   It is even a poignant reminder of what a tragic loss Hitchens' death is, as his anti-torture anti-Guantanamo stance might have moved him to summon his persuasive powers-cum-media exposure and render this bill before the public as the vile betrayal that it is.   At least we still have Chris Hedges.

[8] And, at the stage of struggle, probably a lot of non-religious "conservatives" too (meaning those who are psychologically conservative--i.e. rigid, doctrinaire, obedient to ingroup authority).  Though the latter are somewhat more prone to intolerance, intolerance can fuel revolutionary energy when properly contoured and harnessed.  Since intolerance can also fuel tyranny and/or mass murder after revolutions are over (the Jacobin-Bolshevik problem), keeping the tolerant at least two or three steps ahead of the intolerant is usually a good idea, e.g. by committing a movement to Gene Sharp-style nonviolent methods and strategies, as the Arab Spring and Occupy movements have done.

[9] The emergence of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements fit this model somewhat.   The Egyptian revolution grew from an alliance between the religious conservative Muslim Brotherhood, moderate Coptic Christians, and left-leaning labor unions among others.   The Occupy movements incorporate regular interfaith services and alliances with various houses of worship, as well as extensive cooperation between those with conservative and liberal styles of comportment and even political identification.   Generally, mass movements inevitably have to overcome the cultural and ideological divisions that the political classes exploit to stay in power, though, as noted in footnote 6, some divisions need to remain divisive.

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Ian Hansen is a social psychology professor specializing in cultural and political psychology and a part time activist on behalf of the good things in life.

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