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To Error and Back Again, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Christopher Hitchens, Part 2

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Below is part 2 of a three part essay on Hitchens and the New Atheists. Part 1 can be viewed here.

Because Hitchens still writes [1] with an active sense of conscience that runs against the grain of his neoconservative alliances, he continues to have dogged admirers among those who otherwise consider the current Iraq war a crime against humanity and its architects and propagandists (all the other ones) to be war criminals. A good friend of mine, in a heated exchange of many e-mails and many more thousands of words, wrote that "most of what Hitchens writes is a fire that burns fascism." My friend is vehemently against the Iraq war, but I understand why he will not hold Hitchens' pro-war position against him.

My friend is Chilean and a self-proclaimed communist, and he is understandably grateful to Hitchens for successfully taking the truth about U.S. atrocities in Chile to the world.  In the book and documentary The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Hitchens tells the story of the mass murder and torture that the U.S. government unleashed on the people of Chile when the Nixon administration helped to engineer Augusto Pinochet's bloody coup against the democratically-elected Marxist president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. Many others have told the story of Pinochet's U.S.-assisted coup, but they were much less successful at penetrating public consciousness. In this, and in many other matters of informing an uninformed public, Christopher Hitchens has done the U.S. and the world a great service.  Unfortunately for Hitchens and for all of us, however, The Trials of Henry Kissinger is no longer the first thing that comes to mind when we think of his name.

My friend is probably right that Hitchens deftly wields his pen against everything that stinks to him of fascism, even if his olfactory senses have blunted a little of late. The targets of his righteous rage include ordinary stereotypical fascism as well as the kinds of fascism that pose as anti-fascism yet resemble uncannily what they oppose.  Hitchens does not target his own fascism, of course, or the fascism of the political forces he supports, but this is a blind spot that afflicts most anti-fascists, and almost everyone these days is an anti-fascist with a fascist blindspot or a fascist with an anti-fascist blindspot [2] .  Fascism has psychological roots in relatively universal human qualities like self-justification, ingroup favoritism, and the inclination to morally dissociate while obeying powerful-seeming ingroup authorities.  Given our human susceptibility to fascism, even the most devoted anti-fascists will have some lingering inclinations to embody its vices.  It would be hypocritical to condemn Hitchens for having moral blind spots that almost everyone has.

Seeing Hitchens as a kind of irony-haunted anti-fascist is essential to understanding his muse, in fact.  This perspective can even shed some light on why he is, in some ways, a prickly comrade to the New Atheists.  Usually people beholden to a certain ideology are reluctant to criticize others who claim to share that ideology, even when these others advocate things that outright contradict the spirit of that ideology or otherwise shock the conscience.  Ideologists generally consider it too important to form a common bond against enemy ideologies and thus strategically unsound to criticize the excesses of one's own flock.  But Hitchens' contrarianism (generally an anti-fascist trait) will not allow him to be a fully sycophantic joiner.  He does not unconditionally defend his ideological brethren--whether neoconservative or New Atheist--and the repulsiveness of their advocacy or behavior can occasionally get factored into his judgment of that advocacy and behavior. 

For instance, in God is Not Great Hitchens distances himself from an atheist he otherwise admires and in many ways resembles--H.L. Mencken--by admitting Mencken was a believer in social Darwinism and had some fondness for Hitler and Mein Kampf.  This is no small rhetorical concession.  Hitchens also condemns the atrocities and mass murders of totalitarian communism, speaks frankly of the Trotskyist ideology that once guided him, and admits moreover that many of the worst communist atrocities targeted religious people and institutions. Hitchens refuses to "explain or excuse the killing of priests and nuns and the desecration of churches [under totalitarian communism]--any more than one should excuse the burning of churches and the murder of clergy in Spain during the struggle of the Spanish republic against Catholic fascism." (p. 244).  He does not try to perform rhetorical acrobatics to imply that Lenin and Trotsky were just pretend atheists who were secretly devoted and prayerful believers in God.  He freely admits that they "were certainly convinced atheists who believed that illusions in religion could be destroyed by acts of policy." (p. 244).

These concessions, admittedly, are consistent with Hitchens' neoconservative allegiances.  Before exaggerating the threat from Saddam and "Islamist terror", neoconservatives used to make a living exaggerating the Soviet threat and the supposed worldwide network of Soviet-controlled Godless communist terror cells.  In other writings, however, Hitchens has had the camaraderie-risking courage to criticize even his fellow New Atheist and de facto neoconservative Sam Harris.  Hitchens scolded Harris for writing in the Los Angeles Times that "the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists."  Hitchens deserves credit for being appalled by this remark and calling it irresponsible.  And yet Hitchens himself, even if he shies away from the prospect of making open alliance with European fascists against Islam, is nevertheless a rather expert purveyor of the Islamophobia that appeals so strongly to those fascists in the current era.  In fact, Hitchens has defensively declared that "Islamophobia" is a stupid term--for much the same reason, presumably, that people who run reeducation camps to "cure" homosexuality might consider something like "homophobia" to be a stupid term.  No one likes having their hysterical prejudices exposed as such.

Still, Hitchens' Islamophobia is constrained by a gentility and generosity that is less evident in the writing of Sam Harris.  Harris's anti-Islam advocacy can frequently reach a fever pitch crescendo and Hitchens generally avoids fever pitch crescendos.  Also Hitchens, unlike Harris, is a firm opponent of using torture in the War on Terror or under any other circumstances.  Hitchens even underwent waterboarding to demonstrate his controversial conviction that drowning people is torture.  Harris has been considerably more sanguine about torture, and considers the ticking time bomb thought experiment to be a kind of airtight proof that it is wrong to enact a prohibition against cruel and unusual treatment under all circumstances (as the U.S. Constitution and current international law are wont to do).  Generally, if keeping in mind the passages [3] I quoted earlier from Hitchens' God Is Not Great, certain passages from Harris's own atheism-promoting bestseller stand in stark contrast:

The very ideal of religious tolerance--born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God--is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss. (Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 15)

The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. (The End of Faith, pp. 52-53)

What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime -- as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day -- but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. (The End of Faith, p. 129)

I suspect that Muslim prosperity might even make matters worse, because the only thing that seems likely to persuade most Muslims that their worldview is problematic is the demonstrable failure of their societies. (The End of Faith, p. 133)

Is Islam compatible with a civil society? Is it possible to believe what you must believe to be a good Muslim, to have military and economic power, and to not pose an unconscionable threat to the civil societies of others? I believe that the answer to this question is no. (The End of Faith, pp. 151-152)

Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible, but necessary. (The End of Faith, p. 199)

"when your enemy has no scruples, your own scruples become another weapon in his hand. (The End of Faith, p. 202)

I quote these passages from Harris (originally gathered by an anonymous web commenter pseudonymed Tentaculata) with some trepidation.  To those familiar with contemporary norms of political discourse these passages may not even register as horrifying.  While the sanguine endorsement of torture, defense of killing people for their beliefs and contemplation of preemptive nuclear strikes may come across as somewhat extreme, the passages specifically mentioning Muslims and Islam may not seem nearly as objectionable since they sound so similar to the views commonly heard among the more hawkish Western literati, politicians, and media figures.

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Ian Hansen is an Associate Professor of psychology and the 2017 president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

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