In defense of Hitch

Along with the encomiums accompanying the death of Christopher Hitchens—many of them appearing on this site—comes the predictable dollop of dissenters.  Some of these, I think, are really motivated by an animus toward the man or his ideas, while some seem to be motivated by sheer jealousy.  Others, I think, reflect a peculiar strain in the skeptical movement: if we’re to be skeptical about things, then by all means let us evince some skepticism toward Hitchens, too. Let us temper the shouts of praise with notes of scorn.

My own view is that Hitchens was on the whole a hugely admirable person who is to be extolled for the strength of his character, for his courage in facing death, for his absolute willingness to defend and live out his beliefs, for his eloquence in all venues—but above all for his writing and talks.

He was, of course, a prime rallying point for New Atheism, but he was so much more than that.  He was the Orwell of our time: polymathic, eloquent, able to say something interesting about nearly everything, and deeply opposed to all forms of totalitarianism.  He loved literature and was able to write interesting things about it.  It is a real feat, for instance, to be able to write so enthusiastically about Anthony Powell’s novel A Dance to the Music of Time that a scientist like me would procure it and read every volume of this multi-book treatment of English life.

He had something interesting to say about everything, and even if you disagreed with him he nevertheless satisfied the prime requirement of every writer and journalist: what he wrote always lived, always entertained, always made us think.

Like all humans, he was imperfect.  He could be boorish, especially with a reservoir of amber restorative under his belt.  He was occasionally (but not usually) too pugnacious. He could be paternalistic in some of his remarks about women.  And I wasn’t too keen on his jihad against Bill Clinton or his support of the Iraq war.  The latter has occupied most of his detractors, but remember that it was one political position among many.  I opposed his stance on that largely because he seemed to be giving us license to go into any country whose regime we didn’t like and forcibly remove it—and casualties be damned.  But if he approved going into Iraq, why not North Korea, a far worse regime? Or any of the other dozens of oppressive dictatorships throughout the world?  I wasn’t too hard on Hitch about this, though, because I knew that he was motivated largely by compassion for his friends in Iraq and his hatred of totalitarianism. But yes, in my view his stand was wrong.

And yes, he drank a lot, and smoked. I find nothing to criticize in that. He knew it could injure his health, and didn’t regret it when it did.  So many atheists seem to fall into the category of what I call “leisure fascists”: those people who fulminate when someone engages in any activity that could shorten their lives.  They come out of the woodwork, for example, when I put up a post about barbecue. Tough, I say: life is to be enjoyed, and I’d rather have my tenure on Earth be shortened by a few years if I can sometimes eat barbecue instead of only raw vegetables.  Hitch liked his Johnnie Walker and ciggies; he said they helped him think and enjoy his life.

One of the more invidious attempts to create a “balanced” view of Hitchens is by Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking, and I give it in its entirety:

As you all know, Christopher Hitchens has recently passed away after a valiant (and very public) struggle against cancer. Most of the commentaries and obituaries were positive, and many of my fellow atheists and freethinkers seem to genuinely admire the man. I have always been puzzled by why, exactly, this is so.

Yes, he was an atheist. Yes, he wrote eloquently. But that’s about it. He was also personally abusive (particularly, it appears, toward fellow writers), misogynist, obnoxiously in your face about his beliefs (or lack thereof), and spectacularly inconsistent (and incredibly often wrong) about his political positions.

So here is my admittedly contrarian collection of commentaries on Hitch, in the hope that we can come up with a more balanced view of the man and begin a thoughtful discussion about just how much good or bad he has done to atheism, freethought, and political discourse.

Pigliucci then links to six articles about Hitchens that contain some criticism, one of them from 2004 which basically imputes all of Hitchens’s unpalatable political views to the fact that he was “a drunk.”

I respond briefly: Pigliucci is full of what comes out of the south end of a bull facing north. Let’s take this dropping first:

Yes, he was an atheist. Yes, he wrote eloquently. But that’s about it.

Give me a fricking break, Dr.3 Pigliucci!  That’s about it? Really? Let me dispel your ignorance of his accomplishments by listing the books he wrote, edited, or co-wrote (from Wikipedia):

Sole author

Sole editor

Co-author or co-editor

Look at the range of topics: literature, politics, Mother Teresa (right on the money, he was), Henry Kissinger (on the money again), Thomas Jefferson, the Elgin Marbles (right again), and tons of essays on diverse topics.  I needn’t say more to dispel Pigliucci’s willful ignorance.

And this:

He was also personally abusive (particularly, it appears, toward fellow writers), misogynist, obnoxiously in your face about his beliefs (or lack thereof), and spectacularly inconsistent (and incredibly often wrong) about his political positions.

I met Hitch only once, and found him charming, as most people did.  He was strong minded in his arguments, and though I’ve watched hours of his debate on YouTube, I’ve never seen an instance of what I’d call “abuse”.  Far more often people were abusive to him, as in the article above that calls him a drunk and urges him to contact Alcoholics Anonymous.  He was opinionated and expressive, but rarely lost his temper unless, as he often was on television, baited by commenters.

Misogynyist? Does Pigluicci know what that means?  Let us check the Oxford English Dictionary. “Misogyny: Hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women.”  I don’t think Hitch hated, disliked, or was prejudiced against women. Sometimes he was mildly paternalistic, as when he claimed that his wife didn’t have to work, and sometimes he made boorish remarks verging on sexism, as in his famous critique of the Dixie Chicks. But remember that he used equal invective against men: people like Jerry Falwell, whom he called an “ugly little charlatan” and a “little toad” with “chubby little flanks,” and was not accused of being a misandrist.  And he wrote that famous article on women’s sense of humor in Vanity Fair.  Before you call that misogyny, go read it.

Balanced against those remarks is his persistent defense of women’s rights, his criticisms about how religion treated women, and his constant refrain that societies could improve only if they empowered women and gave them reproductive rights. (This despite his personal dislike of abortion—in that case he admirably separated his personal views from political necessities).  So often these days, especially on atheist websites, a touch of sexism or boorishness, or even a criticism of a woman, is instantly condemned as “misogyny.”

Inconsistent in his political views?  Well, he couldn’t be conveniently tucked into a box labeled “left” or “right,” but did that make him inconsistent?  It’s the result of his being an independent thinker.

Obnoxiously in your face about his beliefs?  So often the “obnoxiousness” was simply strong argument or, in the case of religion, any argument. (I presume that by “lack thereof”, Pigliucci is referring to Hitchens’s atheism).  Give me someone who argues strongly for his beliefs, and has evidence to back them up, than a milquetoast who avers that we have to speak softly to make our case and win minds.  And Hitchens’s “obnoxiousness” was part of what made him both entertaining and persuasive.

“Often wrong about his political positions”? Maybe about Iraq and Clinton, but that’s not “often.”  And I find Massimo “often wrong” in his philosophical positions, including those about scientism, free will, and the way we atheists are supposed to behave.  And don’t get me started on Massimo’s biology!

Hitch was no saint, but if he were we wouldn’t have loved him so much.  He was a figure larger than life—larger than literature, too—and we’re better for his having lived among us. Pigliucci is simply wrong in implying that Hitchens’s effect on the world was, on balance, negative.

All I know is that if I had a choice of having a drink and a conversation with Hitchens or Pigliucci, or having to choose to read an essay written by either Hitchens or Pigliucci, I know exactly what I’d do.

137 Comments

  1. Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Quite so, without any doubt. Dr Dr Dr Pigliucci is not speaking with any knowledge. He is picking up vibes from people who disliked Hitchens. He clearly hasn’t read some of Hitchens extrememly sensitive essays. Sure, there was something pugnacious about him. Why not? There’s lots to be pugnacious about. There are some things about Hitchens, a residue from his religious past, I think, that I found problematic, but Hitchens was, regardless of what history will say about him, an eloquent commentator upon his times, and we will miss the mordant wit, the astonishing breadth of thought, the complex mind that tackled things that interested him with such vigour and commitment. Thanks for the fine tribute.

  2. Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    I’ll let Ian McEwan elucidate further…

  3. Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Very charitable of Pigliucci to piss on Hitch’s grave.

    • the innominate one
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      As charitable as it was of Hitchens to piss on Mother Teresa’s grave, or Ted Rall to piss on Reagan’s grave. The recent death of a public figure is not a reason to not criticize, it’s exactly the time to remember both the good and the bad. Hitchens set the example with Mother Teresa, and he was right to do so. If Pigliucci wants to criticize Hitchens, he’s free to do so as he sees fit, and others can criticize his criticisms as they see fit.

      One problem with Pigliucci (at least in my mind) has been that he dismisses Coyne’s arguments on free will instead of engaging them and explaining why he thinks Coyne is wrong. Essentially, he engages in ad hominem tactics by dismissing Coyne’s position as ignorant and unsophisticated.

      Similarly, Hitchens engaged in ad hominem by name-calling the Dixie Chicks and specifically engaging in sexist pejoratives. For that and his support of the Iraq War, he rightly deserves denouncement.

      I’m most interested in hearing (or reading) Dr. Coyne’s disagreements with Dr. Pigliucci’s biology.

      • Thanny
        Posted December 28, 2011 at 12:31 am | Permalink

        The Missionary Position was published when Mother Teresa was still alive.

        Hitchens was not the type to wait until someone was dead before going on the offensive.

        • the innominate one
          Posted December 28, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

          And Hitchens criticized her immediately after her death, for which he was criticized for speaking ill of the newly dead, which is basically what’s going on here with regard to Pigliucci on Hitchens.

          If your issue is that you don’t think Pigliucci criticized Hitchens while he was alive, here’s Pigliucci on 20 August 2010: “Now for my take. In this case [the building of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque"], I pretty much completely agree with Hitchens’ view (which is not always the case, I still think he was nuts endorsing the Bush-II administration invasion of Iraq, and that he is smart enough to have known better than to so easily buy into neocon after-9/11 propaganda).”

          There you go, Pigliucci disagreed with Hitchens publicly on an issue and criticized him for it.

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Hitchens wouldn’t have worried about that; he’d have wanted the pissing to be done well. The trouble with so many of the dissenting obituaries is that they haven’t.

      • mordacious1
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        Yes, if you’re going to piss on someone’s grave you should do it well (and Hitch did that), but also you should not have been afraid to piss on them when they were alive. If you wait until they’re dead, you’re just a coward. Hitch never hesitated if his subject was dead or alive. He let the piss fly when someone needed a good hosing. Some people are now pissing who wouldn’t have taken on a live Hitch…knowing that they would have been eloquently demolished.

        As an aside, I said something negative about a relative who died a year or two ago while at a family gathering. His supporters got upset and in my face. I merely replied that it was okay, since I said the same to his face while he was alive. A death does not diminish truth.

  4. Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    The real problem with Christopher Hitchens’ stance on both Iraq and the Clintons was that they caused him to make alliances with people whom in other respects and contexts he would utterly have despised. There is no point in condemning the Falwells of this world for their combination of malice and stupidity if you promptly form a political alliance with their political beneficiaries.

    All too often, positions he took up out of contrarianism became fixed – his anti-abortion stance for example. And that was part of a complex of ideas that he never really considered critically. It is not woman-hating alone that is misogyny; there is a set of ideas to which he was prone which also count – the claim, for example, that one of the reasons why women are not funny is that they can create life and this is a better thing to be able to do. I know he also often said that the freedom of women was the freedom of everybody else and clearly he believed that – but his view that, in some sense, women had better things to do is one he shared with some very unpleasant people indeed. And the reflexes that led to his being abusive of women who disagreed with him are the down side of that pernicious kind of idealization.

    As to his standing as a literary critic, he tended to be far more interested in the lives of writers than in their works – and they tended to be canon writers, male and ones he had read before he was 25.

    He was a goodish writer, but no Orwell and no Tom Paine

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      “it is not woman-hating alone that is misogyny”

      Yes, it kinda is. The fact that other people call other things misogyny doesn’t change the fact that it ain’t so.

      “that one of the reasons why women are not funny is that they can create life and this is a better thing to be able to do”

      That is a very strange take on what he actually said. His article was an exploration on why very often people do not laugh as readily at jokes or comedic acts by women. You could disagree with his line of argument – although a number of women comedians didn’t – but that is beside the point. At most you could claim that his style of delivery could come over as paternalistic.

      He could certainly be incredibly rude to people he disagreed with. I personally found some (although certainly not all) of those put-downs and insults to be on the verge of poor taste. But the fact that on occasion the target was a woman instead of a Christian televangelist doesn’t suddenly magically transform him into an abuser of women.

      • Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        The whole evolutionary psychology position he takes in the humour article is a good example of the madonna side of the standard madonna-whore dichotomy which most feminist writing for the last 50 years has pointed to as a significant aspect of misogyny. When you claim that only overt woman-hating is misogyny. you are arrogating to yourself the right to decide what misogyny is, which is, may I say, a somewhat arrogant position.

        One of the things that went wrong with Hitchens at an early stage in his career was his refusal to engage intellectually with feminist critiques, something he originally justified in Marxist terms, regarding it as ‘a diversion from proper politics’. As he moved away from the Left, and got more and more involved with a sort of literary blokedom, this tendency grew ever more acute. Just look at ARGUABLY in which he writes about precisely three women writers…

        • Persto
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          So, you’re angry about the definition of misogyny?

          Wait, I know you wanted Hitch to debate more women? No, you wanted him to write about more women?

          What’s your point? Hitch could fight for the empowerment of women, but at the same time be a misogynist.
          If Hitch is a misogynist then we need more misogynists like him.

          • Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

            If Hitch is a misogynist then we need more misogynists like him.

            Yes indeed.

            • Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

              No, we need intelligent men like Hitchens to engage in the odd bit of self-criticism once in a while and not go thinking that they were good friends to women because they weren’t throwing bombs at them. Obviously he wasn’t a misogynist in the way that the Ayatolla Khomeini or Pope Benedict were – but both of them would also deny misogyny and say that women have an important role in the world which they want to help them fulfil.

              Just look at the libellous nonsense he wrote in his memoirs about some of the women he knew at Oxford, for example.

              • Diane G.
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:13 am | Permalink

                rozkaveney, I agree with your analysis, and I thank you for expressing it so clearly and dispassionately.

              • Posted December 29, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

                Yeah, what Diane said. I really respected a lot of what Hitchens did, but there were definitely a few issues on which he missed the mark. I hadn’t read the “why women aren’t funny” essay before, and having read it now, I find that it reveals a disappointing lapse in his usual incisiveness. It’s just a bunch of dumb, unsubstantiated, anecdotal evolutionary psychology, not much better than those long-past-their-sell-by-date syndicated newspaper cartoons which endlessly reiterate the same old tired stereotypes about how men are Martians and women are Venusians.

                For those who are trying to defend him by saying he’s just talking about why people don’t *think* women are funny, I’d ask why he doesn’t ever actually say that if that’s what he meant? And why does he spend so much time explaining the supposed reasons why women might actually not *want* to be funny, if this is only about perceptions? For a writer as dexterous as Hitchens, he sure did muddle his message to a surprising degree in this case, if your interpretation of his intentions is correct.

                I much prefer to praise Hitchens rather than bury him, but I’m not going to blind myself to his flaws either, and he really missed the boat on this one.

              • Posted December 29, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

                Every columnist has his phone-it-in days, and that was one of Hitchens’. His essay on how to make a decent cup of tea was another – the only good bits are copied (with attribution and a link, thankfully) from the Orwell essay on the subject. In the case of the “why women aren’t funny” essay, the idea was as murkily bad as the execution, which is something one can be prone to when phoning it in.

              • Diane G.
                Posted December 30, 2011 at 2:53 am | Permalink

                David, that’s what I felt about the piece (and many of his reviews that appeared in Harper’s, as well). Still annoying, tho, esp. in that we seem to have a small faction who are eager to defend all his works equally, simply because they’re his.

                Anna, I thank you for adding your (in my opinion, spot-on) views here and in another comment thread as well. I guess we’re the feet-o’-clay faction . . .

    • Persto
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      I love it when people embrace nuance.

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      “The real problem with Christopher Hitchens’ stance on both Iraq and the Clintons was that they caused him to make alliances with people whom in other respects and contexts he would utterly have despised. There is no point in condemning the Falwells of this world for their combination of malice and stupidity if you promptly form a political alliance with their political beneficiaries.”

      This is a stupid point to make. You do not automatically ally yourself with the “enemy” simply because you happen to agree with them on a single (or even multiple points). Many atheists actually have a lot in common with Christian fundamentalists when it comes to how we view Islam, for example. Does that mean we have formed some kind of alliance with Christians? Or share their other views? Or have suddenly stopped criticizing them for their own types of delusions and malice?

      • Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        I can’t find it right now, but Hitchens did write that he’d spoken to people in the State Department in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, giving them his detailed reasons for considering Saddam Hussein much worse and much more dangerous than your typical tinpot dictator. That is, he actually worked with them, he didn’t just agree with them.

        • Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

          But so what? Telling them his opinion isn’t an endorsement of anything else they believe or do.

          • Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

            No, I didn’t say it was. He was quite critical of the Bush administration in almost every other respect and thought the execution of the Iraq war was hamfisted and incompetent. (He still thought Iraq was better for it having happened.)

            • Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

              He did his best to ensure a Republican victory in 2000 knowing full well that he was lining up with the Falwells by doing so. He said in UK newspapers that people had little to fear from a Bush victory – which was only true if they were straight, male and white. He would have been the first to judge people harshly for making devil’s bargains and it is only fair to hold him to the same standard.

    • IA
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      “As to his standing as a literary critic, he tended to be far more interested in the lives of writers than in their works”

      I don’t think that’s accurate. Hitchens was interested in writers’ lives to the extent that they informed appreciation of the writer’s work, politics, and ideas–just as Edmund Wilson was, and Hitchens’ work at its best calls Wilson to mind. Additionally, many of his literary pieces were occasioned by the publication of a writer’s biography, so details of the writer’s life were bound to be discussed.

      “and they tended to be canon writers, male and ones he had read before he was 25.”

      Hitchens admitted that his literary tastes were male-oriented. He didn’t discover many new writers, but what he had to say about well-known ones was almost always incisive. The before 25 assertion can hardly be proved. In any case, his literary criticism ranks as his best work, and other literary critics have tended to rank it rightfully highly. His Atlantic pieces (http://www.theatlantic.com/christopher-hitchens/page/1/) certainly will speak for themselves, and will continue doing so after his political posturings have been forgotten.

      • Posted December 29, 2011 at 2:44 am | Permalink

        Just saying that he admitted that his canon was almost – admittedly not entirely – male does not let him off the hook for that fact. It is not a trivial critique.

        The comparison with Wilson is apposite, but not one that works in Hitchens’ favour. Wilson – whom I worship this side idolatry – had a serious interest in literary theory and endlessly illuminates the work of the writers he discusses, even when he is reviewing a biography. Yes, the Hitchens essays are good, but they have a limited range of interest – except when, as he occasionally does, he applies himself to actual literary criticism for polemical purposes. His attack on Updike’s terrorism novel demonstrates how incisive he could have been if he tried. My criticism is not that he couldn’t write proper literary criticism – it is that he could and did not.

        My remark about writers he had read by the age of 25 is based largely on the supposition that, as an exact contemporary, we read the same books at more or less the same time. In a number of cases – Fraser, for example – this is clearly the case; indeed since we were both using the Oxford Union library, we probably read the same copy.

        • IA
          Posted December 29, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

          Admitting that his canon was almost entirely male is an admission that his range of coverage was narrow; it does not mean his criticism can be treated trivially. Narrowness of range does not imply narrowness of quality. Wilson’s interest in literary theory extended primarily toward Marxian and Freudian issues; Hitchens often employed the former outlook, and perhaps thankfully did not rely too much on the latter. In any case, good literary criticism need hardly be heavily theoretical–that of Hitchens’ friend Clive James is a case in point. I still do not understand your age-25 proposition or its defense, but the idea that Hitchens could write “proper” literary criticism but chose not to doesn’t square with reality–I submit that a majority of the Atlantic pieces I linked to fall under the quality of fine literary criticism, as do the essays in books such as “Unacknowledged Legislation.” And I think it is telling that while most of Hitchens’ critics rightfully questioned many of his political decisions, and his bullishness in upholding them, they have given his literary efforts a rightful share of acclaim.

  5. Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    This is really no surprise. Now is the perfect time for people to come out and criticize Hitchens for whatever reason, because it will be more headline-grabbing than yet another eulogy (and how convenient that Hitchens can no longer respond).

    At least when Falwell died, for example, Hitchens said nothing that he hadn’t already said when Falwell was alive. Where was Pigliucci saying all this before Hitchens died?

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Some of us did criticize him, as well as occasionally defend or praise him, while he was alive…

      • Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t know your name was Pigliucci. Nor did I say he was never criticized while still alive.

  6. Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    JAC: “leisure fascists”
    +1 perfect

    Nov. 18th 2010: Short video of Hitch speaking on the subject of empowering women at Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, Texas [in debate with the buffoon & self-liar Dembski]

  7. jose
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    That Vanity Fair article is laughable. You would tear it apart if it hadn’t been written by Christopher Hitchens, because it’s the same unfounded evopsych nonsense you often dissect in this website.

    Particularly stupid is the argument (I’m sure he thought it was exquisitely logical) that men must be funny because women wouldn’t be attracted to them otherwise so there is an evolutionary advantage there. That’s right folks, women don’t have sexual impulses! They don’t find men’s bodies attractive, according to Hitchens. Since sexual appeal is unknown to women, we must give them SOME reason to like us. Hence humor. Oh my God. Really, Hitch?

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:15 am | Permalink

      + 1

    • Posted December 28, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      If Hitchens was as big a racist as he was a misogynist he wouldn’t have nearly this many eager-to-forgive fans.

    • Posted December 29, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      Yes, this!

  8. Michieux
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Personally, I don’t think Hitch needs defending. His courage speaks for him. He dared to stand up publicly for issues that many vilified him for. He lived his life the way he wanted, for the most part. I think there was much more to the man than we were privileged to know.

    I believe his best years were ahead of him, but fate curtailed that for us, who live in his draft.

    There have been and are few who would speak as candidly as he, revealing the proverbial ‘warts and all’. I treasure having known of him just for that alone.

    To the nay-sayers I say this: when you can appear as nakedly to the world as Christopher Hitchens did, then your bleating will carry some weight. At present, your words are worthless in the only currency that really matters.

  9. The Informant!
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    tl;dr: Hitchens may be a fucking fat slag, but he’s OUR fucking fat slag!

    • vHF
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Right on the money.

    • NMcC
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      Yes, indeed. Or as George Orwell put it:

      “Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.”

      • Steersman
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that is certainly a very problematic dimension of humanity. While I certainly sympathize with Dawkins for not debating Craig because of his support for the ancient Hebrews’ using Jehovah as justification for genocide, it is obvious from even a brief perusal of history – ancient and modern – that similar atrocities have been perpetrated by many – whether for “Manifest Destiny” or Lebensraum or saving the world for democracy or stopping the “Red Menace”.

        However it seems there is an extra level of difficulty added when religion becomes a major factor. As Blaise Pascal put it:

        Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

        And as Hitchens put it:

        The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.

        Seems to me that as long as we’re in the realm of the real there is at least some scope for reason to have some influence in our councils. But in the face of a claim to a “divine warrant” that last hope or connection to reality is abandoned or forfeited. Very bad karma.

        Hitchens may have had, most certainly had, his flaws, his clay feet – but who here doesn’t? What matters and is commendable, what should matter and should be commendable, are his efforts to draw our attention to our common flaws, one of the more notable and problematic ones being religion.

  10. Ron
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    His desire to be the next orwell is what led him to cheerlead for the bush administrations immoral and ruinous war with iraq. He desperately wanted to be like orwell by recognizing a threat everyone else in his circle dismissed as no real danger and thus appear smarter and ahead of history. I highly doubt his “hatred of totalitarianism” was the main motivation.

    So he was easily duped by the weakest of lies and put himself in league with war criminals that destroyed countless innocent’s lives. That is when i lost respect for hitchens. Sorry, that blood is not so easily washed away by myself as it seems to be by others.

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Now that actually is unfair. He had a long-standing commitment to Kurdish rights and was prepared to make a devil’s bargain in their interest, as on the whole were they. He also hated the Saddam regime and was prepared to sign up with the neo-cons to overthrow it – even though he must have known at some level that they would prosecute the war incompetently, and with criminal lack of forethought.

      The most worrying aspect of his later years was his tendency to regard Islam as monolithic and as a threat equivalent to Nazism or Stalinism. His preparedness to support an armed struggle against fundamentalist Islam showed a worrying preparedness to sacrifice innocents for the greater good that one might expect from a former Trot. He used to quote Paine on Burke about pitying the plumage but not the dying bird, but sometimes it appeared that he was unlike either man and forgot to feel pity at all.

    • atheist ct
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      But don’t you realise that Hitch only supported the war out of compassion for his friends in Iraq.

      His love for imperial conquests and subjugation of colored people in foreign lands had nothing to do with his war support.

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    But if he approved going into Iraq, why not North Korea, a far worse regime?

    I think he laid out his reasoning on that pretty well in the Axis of Evil video that you embedded a few days ago.

  12. Simon
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I wasn’t too hard on Hitch about this, though, because I knew that he was motivated largely by compassion for his friends in Iraq and his hatred of totalitarianism.

    You knew this based on meeting him once and/or his public statements? Might well be the case, but there are certainly many other reasons that might have motivated him to take this public position.

    • Marella
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      I knew this based on his public statements so they are certainly sufficient for the task.

      • Simon
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        So now we have two people who knew for a fact Hitchens’ motivations.

        And you’ve presumably ruled out any other motivations based on same public statements (which on Iraq where indistinguishable from those of most neoconservatives)?

        • Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, are you saying that Hitchens was publicly about his motivations? Granted, he wasn’t all knowing, but I think he’s fairly adept at knowing what he actually thinks, right , wrong or otherwise.

          I think he was wrong about Iraq. I do not think he was lying about his reasoning for he thought it necessary.

  13. christopher
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    his take on Iraq was clearly tied to his love and close contact with the Kurds. he valued freedom, not just for himself, but for others who were oppressed. i could nt condone the war or they way it happened (we should have empowered and aided the revolt at the end of the first war, like we have with Libya) but Hitch was correct in calling the lazy left on the issue of Saddam. Leaving him in power meant protecting the dictator and condeming the Kurds and marsh arabs to torture and persicution. Hitch slapped us all, left, right and center with this issue which had no easy answers and causualties either way.

    • atheist ct
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Freedom for Kurds, huh? So when are we invading Turkey?

      • Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        If you’d read up, you’d know Hitchens did in fact go to some specifica effort to get the Americans to protect the Kurds from the Turks.

    • jose
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      “There are at least three well-established reasons to favor what is euphemistically termed “regime change” in Iraq. The first is the flouting by Saddam Hussein of every known law on genocide and human rights … The second is the persistent effort by Saddam’s dictatorship to acquire the weapons of genocide … The third is the continuous involvement by the Iraqi secret police in the international underworld of terror and destabilization.”

      No Kurds loving there.

      btw,
      “I shall add that any “peace movement” that even pretends to care for human rights will be very shaken by what will be uncovered when the Saddam Hussein regime falls. Prisons, mass graves, weapon sites… just you wait.”

      Obviously the way you get rid of mass graves is to prevent the dictator from killing his people by going there and killing that hundred thousand civilians yourself.

      Wanna see damn big weapon sites? Look in the United States.

      Some more:

      “Have you, or your friends, recently employed the slogan “No War for Oil”? If so, did you listen to what you were saying? Do you mean that oil isn’t worth fighting for, or that oil resources aren’t worth protecting? … OF COURSE it’s about oil, stupid.”

      Yeah. Love.

      • sasqwatch
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

        The first is the flouting by Saddam Hussein of every known law on genocide and human rights …

        That FIRST point, BTW, is an oblique reference to Saddam’s subjects, including the Kurds. He wrote about his 1991 trip to northern Iraq many places, including here.

        Not that I think prosecuting an illegal invasion is a solution. I do guess that Hitch’s 1991 trip (and others where he describes the opening of mass graves and being covered head to toe in rot and filth of dead bodies) effected a profound change in his psyche and interventionist opinions.

  14. Marta
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    “And yes, he drank a lot, and smoked. I find nothing to criticize in that. He knew it could injure his health.

    It didn’t “injure” his health. It killed him.

    He had every right to make the choices he made, and he accepted that there would be consequences. Alas, the people who loved him (and by this, I mean his family, not us) suffered the consequences, too, not least because “ciggie” smokers frequently and commonly impose their wretched habit on others.

    In your hat with that “leisure fascist” stuff.

    • Harbo
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      Why are you here?
      Shouldn’t you be on a street corner, berating people for not wearing hats!
      We need fun police, for the fun police!

      • Marta
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, you can stick it in your hat, too.

        • Harbo
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

          See

  15. ForCarl
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I am a fan of much of Hitchens’ writings, but not all of it, just as I enjoyed his personality many times on the media, but not always. People need to remember that he was obviously an alcoholic, and anyone who has lived with an alcoholic relative can tell you it’s quite a roller coaster ride. Plus, alcoholics are often just plain nasty. I figured that Hitch was one of those people whose brains just go 100 mph all the time, and alcohol was the only thing that slowed his circuits down sufficiently to allow him to write coherently. Many of our great artists are/were alcoholics due to the need to self medicate ADD tendencies.

    So while I think that the lauding of Hitch’s contributions to our society are appropriate, so is the criticism (except for the nasty crap that came out of Al Mohler’s twitters), and I don’t think that Hitch would have it any other way.

    • Marella
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      You need to read up on the symptoms of ADHD if you think Hitch might have had this condition, he is nothing like. Oy vey.

      • ForCarl
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        I am well aware of ADD and ADHD symptoms and people can be either visibly hyperactive and or have trouble with concentration, or not visibly show symptoms and still have the conditions. Hitch burned the candle at both ends as witnessed by many who wrote about him and were close to his life. This could or could not mean he had either of these conditions. But as I said, it is prevalent in people who are brilliant and tend to move at the speed of light.

        As far as “oy veh”, what was the point of that comment?

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:28 am | Permalink

      Satisfyingly thought-provoking. We frequently react as if there’s no intrinsic human variation; whereas all our observations suggest just the opposite.

  16. Srikar
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Dr Dr Dr Pigliucci is an open hater of New Atheists and that’s not amusing. Well, sometimes I’m forced to consider the hypothesis that he is just greedy of them. I’m amused that while Pigliucci has called New Atheists philosophically naive, I wondered how he would react when someone like Coyne calls him scientifically naive, as he can’t write down an equation for genetic drift principles or explain us how we would know speed of rotation of stars based on spectroscopy . Pigliucci misses the point that Hitch, Dawkins or Harris are not philosopher’s and people don’t expect them to be philosophically sophisticated. Dawkins n Harris are scientifically more literate than Pigliucci and people connect to science more than philosophy. It’s time Pigliucci stops behaving like an arrogant prick, comes of his philosophical high pedastral because you don’t win people over to Atheism because of philosophy, but you can with Science. If I had to hear Pigliucci instead of Dawkins or Harris or even Hitch, consider me as a Hindu, inspite of Pigliucci philosophical sophistication. That goodness I never knew Pigliucci when I was a Hindu.

    • vHF
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Ok, so you know that Pigliucci has three Ph.D.s (this quip can apparently be reused here over and over) but you still deny him credentials in science? This is rather amusing. Perhaps you think all three are in philosophy? And how many have you got, I wonder?

      More seriously, although I didn’t read any of Pigliucci’s original research, I did read several of his review papers, which I found very knowledgeable and competent. He is at least as ‘scientifically literate’ as Dawkins. To think he does not understand genetic drift is ludicrous (look, one of the Ph.D.s in in genetics, maybe they are good for something after all, these Ph.D.s?) Face it, Pigliucci has credentials in science and in philosophy, Coyne only in the former. I wish Massimo wouldn’t tease Jerry so badly about it and took his arguments on their own merits, but there you go.

      And Hitchens was a great stylist and an effective taboo-breaker. He was also a drunk and a sexist and generally full of himself. Gee, look, not a saint. How sad that even atheists find it hard to accommodate such mildly contradictory characteristics. I have to say this community ranks among the worst on this subject.

      Rant over.

  17. Posted December 27, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I always found Hitch to be entertaining and educational. While my views on religion differ from his, I always appreciated his point of view and he clearly had a grasp on what he was talking about as he studied it extensively and then chose his own path.

    I will miss Hitch although we still have a comical version of him with Bill Maher to help balance reason with dogma.

    – Nelson

    http://quest4light.net

  18. NewEnglandBob
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    I stopped reading Piglucci a while back because I always saw his positions as either wrong or laughable. He seems to have become irrational. I suspect he will join some religious cult soon, since he hates atheists.

  19. Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    In defense of Hitch

    I don’t think Hitch actually needs any defending.

    Pigliucci is full of what comes out of the south end of a bull facing north.

    That’s a nice way of putting it. Yes, I did think that post was over the top. I took it as saying more about Pigliucci than about Hitch.

  20. HP
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Unsubscribe.

  21. Bruce Gorton
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Hitchens – was not the Orwell of our times. For one thing he was stylistically closer to HL Mencken, for another great writers aren’t generally described as “Previous greater writer of our time” – and Hitchens was a great writer.

    The greatest example of this is when it came down to the Iraq war. In those arguments he turned into a propagandist, consistently ignoring counter arguments and consistently trying to push rhetoric hostile to critical thought.

    I said this while he was alive, and frankly it was something he had well earned as part of his legacy. That said, his willingness to change tac on torture was admirable, if entirely too late.

    And he was sexist, with attitudes towards gender that went out of style on the 1960’s, and yes that article of his was the precise Madonna-whore complex that defines so much of misogyny.

    At the same time though – the same stubborn strain that kept his most objectionable views in the forefront also made him unwavering in his unwillingness to let bad things stand.

    His writing was his own. In the religious debates he could muster strong points, and not only that but muster points that stood outside the debating hall.

    Unlike a lot of debaters, he may have made errors but he seldom lied to try and win a point.

    He understood that the votes at the end of the debate are seldom remembered, but the arguments during it are often dissected afterwords.

    His grasp of language was a thing to behold, and he could be at once casual and precise while discussing it. Honest readers often disagreed with him, but seldom misunderstood him.

    We as atheists are not the religious. We do not require nor want saints. We want solid arguments and Hitchens provided several before he died.

    He was one of the great writers of the past era – and he should be remembered as such.

    • Brujo Feo
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      Bruce:

      Thank you for this.

  22. Heber Gurrola
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I cannot even begin to express how necessary this defense was. It is exactly what I’ve been trying to say for a long time and you just did it for me in a most assertive and eloquent way . Thank you very much.

  23. John Böttcher
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    The best (negative) article I’ve read about Christopher Hitchens is linked below. I can understand the writer’s opinion regarding Iraq and Hitchens’ death-dance with Bush’s regime.

    It’s strong language-wise; there is strong animosity towards Hitchens, or rather, his behaviour.

    http://flyingrodent.blogspot.com/2011/12/not-on-their-own-merits-but-according.html

  24. Andy Dufresne
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I don’t mind people “pissing” on CH’s grave. He was a controversial commentator, and he certainly didn’t believe that someone’s death excused that person from criticism. If people want to leaven the eulogies with reminders of his personal and intellectual flaws, go nuts. In life, he sometimes seemed to relish the scorn he attracted, anyway.

    This game people play is so predictable, though. Say you admire someone, and you’re then asked to answer for every questionable, offensive, or wrongheaded thing your admired person has done. As if admiring someone in a general, overall way somehow forgives or ignores their blemishes.

    And JAC is right, I think, in that lots of people are jealous of Hitch’s career/talent/perspicacity. He cranked out finer prose drunk off his ass than his critics ever could hope to on their best day. Your damn right that irks them.

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      Arse. He was English, you know.

      • Andy Dufresne
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        Noted. He seemed to enjoy calling himself an American too, after he got his citizenship.

    • Astro Nj
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      I bet he will cool off once his book sells some more.

      http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2011/07/massimos-picks.html

      Okay people, Nonsense on Stilts has now passed the 9,500 copies sold. Let’s make an effort and go over 10,000, yes?

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      As if admiring someone in a general, overall way somehow forgives or ignores their blemishes

      QFT

  25. Robert Bray
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I must reiterate what I wrote in an earlier comment: Christopher Hitchens was the Tom Paine of our epoch, and as sorely needed. What the character-assasins are doing today, their ilk did to Paine during the last years (post-The Age of Reason) and after his death. The libel that Hitchens was just ‘a drunk’ is precisely that used to destroy Paine’s reputation (which, blessedly, Hitchens recovered for a new generation of readers.

    • Dan
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      Tom Paine destroyed his own reputation in a lot of ways. I love his writing, but in Paine’s last years he conducted some very dishonest attacks on political figures secretly paid for by their opposition. One thing that really destroyed Paine’s reputation was when it came to light that he had accused George Washington of treason because of payments from Washington’s opponents.

      There are people trying to unfairly attack Hitchens, but I wouldn’t compare that to Paine’s own loss of reputation, which was deserved to a large degree.

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:35 am | Permalink

        Thank you, Dan; I was totally unaware of the backstory you describe. I definitely need to do my own research.

  26. MAUCH
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    All us sometimes wonder if we think or parrot our ideologies that we all pick up early in life. Many could have accued me of being the predictable liberal falling in line with my comrades but Christopher Hitchins was a whole different matter. You have to admire him for having the brains to think for himself.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:36 am | Permalink

      Unless you at least entertain the possibility that some people are obligate contrarians…

      • Steersman
        Posted December 28, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        I resemble that! :-) As did Hitchens.

        Somewhat anyway as I think there is always some justification for thinking – as Hitchens certainly appeared to do – that the “conventional wisdom”, the current orthodoxy, is imperfect and may have some flaws. Although the trick is, of course, getting from the intuition to the proof or at least a credible argument. But, somewhat curiously, it seems that even one of the patron saints of scientism, oops, sorry, science, Richard Feynman offered some justification for that perspective:

        Our patron saint, Richard Feynman, in the essay, “What Is Science?” admonished the student: “Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. …. Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” And later: “Each generation that discovers something from its experience must pass that on, but it must pass that on with a delicate balance of respect and disrespect, so that the race … does not inflict its errors too rigidly on its youth, but it does pass on the accumulated wisdom that it may not be wisdom.” [The God Particle; Leon Lederman; pgs 192-193]

        Far too easy for current orthodoxy to turn into dogma, into the thinking implied by the title of a talk by Hawking – “Is the End in Sight for Theoretical Physics?” – and by the assertion of a Britsh physicist, William Thompson (Lord Kelvin), in 1900 that “physics was over” – except for two clouds on the horizon which turned out to be the tips of the “icebergs” subsequently known as quantum physics and relativity – just “trivial” additions to the physics of Thompson’s time. Nothing seems constant about humans except for our penchant for hubris – probably goes with the territory.

        But as protections, as important and necessary prophylactics, against that tendency to transmogrify orthodoxy into dogma there is, in addition to the one above from Feynman, one from J.B.S. Haldane quoted with some enthusiasm and support by Richard Dawkins in his The God Delusion which he, with all due respect, may have lost sight of to some extent:

        At the end of a famous essay on ‘Possible Worlds’, the great biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, “Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose …. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.” [pg 408]

        Keeping that possibility in mind would seem to guard against the other possibility of thinking that any orthodoxy is the last word on anything.

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 29, 2011 at 2:29 am | Permalink

          Steersma, once again your penchant for replying to blog-post comments with fully formed and cited mini-essays simultaneously awes and intimidates me. :D

          Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

          Love it!

          Regarding contrarianism, I chuckle everytime I think of this anecdote in Hitch-22, regarding “motherly-looking ladies . . . when they . . . later come to have their books inscribed”:

          One of them, asking me to sign her copy of my Letters to a Young Contrarian, said to me wistfully: “I bought a copy of this to give my son, hoping he’d become a contrarian, but he refused.”

          (–Diane, possibly an obligate contrarian)

          • Diane G.
            Posted December 29, 2011 at 2:31 am | Permalink

            *Steersman*

          • Steersman
            Posted December 30, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

            Thank you; thank you ver’ much. :-) Seriously though, most appreciated Diane.

            But I don’t think you should feel “intimidated”. For one thing it’s not something that comes easy for me and takes some effort and time. Although it is certainly something I enjoy and find an engaging challenge – even if the results frequently turn out looking like something that Jerry might term “lucubrations”. Reminds me of a commercial about automotive repair shops in which a comparison was made with other companies which did fast but shoddy work which was then summarized with, “First you get good (like us) and then you get fast”; I’m definitely still working on the first part. :-)

            Although I still sort of know what you mean. Even Eric MacDonald, who is no slouch in cranking out the posts which tend to be of intimidating depth, was somewhat similarly intimidated by the volume or the rapidity of the posts coming from Jerry, and someone else subsequently argued, somewhat questionably maybe, that that from PZ was even greater. Reminds me of a cartoon in a book on logic, one of the “For Dummies” series which are frequently illustrated by Rich Tennant, which showed “Sherlock Holmes Taking His Logic Final”. Holmes is furiously writing away and muttering under his breath, “Hmm, Elementary! Ah, yes, umm, AHA! Elementary!”, while the guy at the next desk is looking at him and thinking “Gimme a break”. Exactly! :-)

            Liked that anecdote from Hitch-22, although it was maybe somewhat apocryphal. But obviously the kid was way ahead of the mom, maybe having heard of W.C. Field’s aphorism about not wanting to join any club willing to have him as a member. Curious facet of humanity that some people are naturally joiners, frequently at the drop of a hat, while others tend to be quite a bit more circumspect or critical, maybe even sometimes to a fault.

            (–Diane, possibly an obligate contrarian)

            Maybe we can register the movement as a 401 charity and start proselytizing hither and yon, possibly creating our own rallying song in the process. Maybe along the line of something from Arlo Guthrie’s anthem to the anti-(Vietnam)-war movement: “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant. [‘cepting Alice]” :-)

            • Posted December 30, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

              Who was it who said something to the effect that he would have written something shorter, had he more time?

              • Steersman
                Posted December 30, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

                I like it.

                Seem to recollect reading something about Balzac to the effect that he sometimes spent a whole day agonizing over the choice for a single word. Another favorite, which I console or encourage myself with at times, is an interview with Ernest Hemingway:

                Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
                Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.
                Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
                Hemingway: Getting the words right.

  27. KG
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    “Maybe about Iraq and Clinton, but that’s not “often.” And I find Massimo “often wrong” in his philosophical positions, including those about scientism, free will, and the way we atheists are supposed to behave. And don’t get me started on Massimo’s biology!”

    There’s something of a difference there: Hitchens’ support for the invasion of Iraq was direct backing for an act that cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives – people just as real as us. To equate a difference over the rightness of the Iraq war with philosophical or scientific differences over issues that whaterer their intellectual importance do not have anything like such immediate nad lethal consequences for human beings is, frankly, contemptible.

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      A lot of people were snookered into supporting that war. I wish Hitch had had the insight to see the propaganda for what it was but it’s not like he tipped the scales toward the pro-war camp and personally caused all those deaths.

      • Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        That is not an excuse he would have allowed to anyone else. Complicity is complicity.

      • Simon
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

        A lot of people also admitted they were wrong about it-unlike Hitchens who supported it to the end.

        Furthermore, he was quite influential so while he wasn’t on the physical battlefield, he certainly influenced opinions on the matter, which is no small thing these days.

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

      And this has what to do with the quoted section which, after all, dealt with frequency of offense, not severity of a bad choice. The charge is that Hitchens was often wrong. Coyne notes that he was wrong on a few things, which doesn’t, alas, qualify as ‘often’. And yes, the issue are huge ones of great importance, as were so many others on which he wasn’t wrong (and was quite frequently actually correct).

  28. Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Bravo Jerry. Hitch wasn’t always right – who is? – but he was a giant, and irreplaceable. As for Pigliucci, who would even bother to replace him?

    Richard

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      Let’s be fair: Pigliucci is a brilliant man who does fantastically good work. He’s just not entirely right a lot of the time. But then, that happens.

      • jim p houston
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

        Pigliucci: “Ouch. Not exactly a gentlemanly remark, particularly from a Brit of supposedly high class as Richard Dawkins. (And this, of course, is his second faux pas this year…”

        Dr Pigliucci does think his list has managed to completely “completely unhinge” Richard Dawkins, and says the latter’s comments ‘pretty much’ close the book on him as far as he is concerned.

        Given that the man has just lost a friend and colleague to a horrific disease one might expect Dr Piglucci to cut Professor Dawkins some slack rather than write a blog post that claims in the title that Dawkins ‘loses his style’ by commenting in such a fashion.

        Dr Piglucci may well be entitled to write a post that claims that Hitchens was abusive, misogynist, obnoxious, inconsistent and says of the man that he was atheist who wrote eloquently “But that’s about it”. But it seems somewhat unfair to make an issue of how one of the man’s friends responds to it, whether he is perfectly ‘gentlemanly’ or not.

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      Someone with a big red nose and over-sized shoes I suspect.

    • vHF
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 2:28 am | Permalink

      This is way over the top. Pigliucci has done some excellent work, in philosophy, in biology and in public outreach. It’s very disappointing that you should make such a petty and thoughtless comment. People have come to expect more from you.

      • Posted December 28, 2011 at 3:24 am | Permalink

        I thought almost the same thing when I read Pigliucci’s post about Hitchens.

        Gnu critics are like petty arsonists, they enjoy putting a match to great public monuments but don’t enjoy the cinders in their own hair when they hover around the crime scene.

        Maybe if they’re going to complain about the dangers of fire-raising, they should stop carrying around those petrol cans. Or admit that, sometimes, great public monuments need to be raised to the ground, and a lit match is the appropriate spark.

        (That’s enough of that analogy – Ed)

      • Occam
        Posted December 28, 2011 at 3:57 am | Permalink

        “Pigliucci has done some excellent work, in philosophy, in biology and in public outreach.”

        “Public outreach” is indeed the operative term. Not quite the way you probably intended it, but still: the good doctor has truly outreached himself. In public.

        • vHF
          Posted December 28, 2011 at 5:01 am | Permalink

          Are you genuinely disagreeing with something I wrote, or is your comment just an example of the endemic “rapier wit”?

          • Occam
            Posted December 28, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

            Yes.

            • Xuuths
              Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

              +1

      • Steersman
        Posted December 28, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        “But Muuuhm! Sammy hit me fiiirst!”

        Not our finest hour methinks. Regrettable when emotion gets the better of us, particularly when it happens to those, on both sides the current fracas, supposedly on the same team.

        Someone once said that in any war the first casuality is the truth. While there are certainly things worth fighting for it seems reasonable to ensure that the responses are not disproportionate – an assessment that emotion tends to preclude.

    • Posted December 29, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      I still Jerry was entirely correct in his defence of Christopher Hitchens against a misguided and unwarranted attack. Nevertheless, I now regret what I said, in the heat of the moment, about Massimo Pigliucci personally, withdraw it, and apologise.

      Richard

      • Steersman
        Posted December 29, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        Now, that is classy. And it will, no doubt, remove or reduce frictions between you and Massimo that might impede the important work that both of you are doing with the Secular Coalition of America in serving on their Advisory Board.

        And, speaking of which, and if I may be so bold as to ask and to change the general topic somewhat, I wonder if you are aware of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – which neither the US nor Somalia have yet ratified, a status that they alone share among all the countries in the world, a situation that Obama called “embarrassing” (contender for the understatement of the year award) – which would guarantee children the right, among others, to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. Seems to me that such a right would have immeasurably positive effects in reducing the depredations of the religious in their indoctrination efforts, which Nicholas Humphrey termed, as you know from your The God Delusion, “addling children’s minds with nonsense” – one very odious and egregious travesty of education.

        In addition, I would ask, in part because as a Canadian it would be of some use to me, whether the SCA has any plans for or intentions of weighing-in on that issue and whether Britain has incorporated that Convention into any of its legislation.

        Thank you.

  29. Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I have no doubt but that Hitch would not only welcome but encourage scathing critiques of any and all of his positions — provided that said critiques were articulate, well-evidenced, and well-reasoned. Indeed, I, personally, cannot imagine a better memorial to the man.

    Sadly, Dr. Dr. Dr.’s critique falls short on all three counts.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      Hear, hear! But then again, Pigliucci has always been somewhat shallowly antagonistic toward the gnus, so it’s not like we should have expected better from him following the death of one of the Four Horsemen.

  30. Occam
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, you clearly put your heart’s blood into this spirited defense of Hitch.
    If a man is to be judged by his friends, Hitch has little to fear, posthumously.
    Even less if he is to be judged by his enemies.

    One thing that strikes me every time I read Christopher Hitchens, and of which I found little mention in the remembrances and obituaries: his essential Englishness. It strikes me in exactly the same way as the Englishness of George Orwell or Charles Dickens. Even when Hitch was at his most infuriating — and I often found him infuriating, mostly when he was most infuriatingly wrong — there was this peculiar backhanded gentleness that could touch me almost to tears.

  31. Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    He was complex, and some people can’t handle complexity. As with all the people we meet in life, both IRL and virtually through their writing or public appearances, we all can take what is the best or most useful for us and leave the rest, or we can focus on the negative and essentialize the person. It’s not like he was a Hitler, of whom the best you could say would be “but he liked dogs and children.” Hitch had a wealth of good qualities tempered by some “yes but” qualities. We all have a few of those, but few of us have the kahones to put them on display as he did.

  32. David Galiel
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Pugnacious Pigliucci’s critique says far more about him, and his lack of class, than about the subject of his critique.

    Pigliucci used to present original arguments and defend them intellectually, based on evidence and logic.

    These days, he seems to think that attacking dissenters, or any original thinkers, really, is equivalent to thinking for oneself.

  33. tdraicer
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    I certainly admired Hitchens courage in his final days, but though I share his atheism, that isn’t enough to make me a fan of Hitchens the writer/thinker. His political mistakes were not minor errors, and extended well beyond his jihad against the Clintons (a true and telling phrase) or support for W’s wars, and I’m not at all sure that as a pundit he didn’t do more harm than good. So as neither a fan or a friend, I can’t join in defending him, though I perfectly understand those in either category who feel otherwise.

  34. Claimthehighground
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Jerry for this.
    I have been embarrassed, elated, dismayed and moved by the comments posted on this and many other sites/blogs since Christopher’s death.
    Despite his faults (and they are many) and because of his virtues (and to me there are many more), I can truly say that no other contemporary individual – not even Dawkins or Harris – has had a greater impact on my life journey than did Christopher Hitchens. Even at his depths, he did not fail to entertain and to give something of substance to think upon.
    For many it seems, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”. For me I shall leave this earth a richer person having read and seen him in action, warts and all. Others can take him or leave him. It’s their right. I’ll take a path less traveled by, and that will make all the difference, at least for me.

  35. Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t he advance naturalism- rationalismm? What about his anti-theistic views?

  36. Mettyx
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    I too stopped following Pigliucci’s podast due to his increased irrationality, accommodationism and other laughable opinions.

  37. Filippo
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    I had the good fortune to hear Hitchens in Raleigh, NC during his “not Great” independent book store tour. I’ve exhaustively and repeatedly taken in his lectures and debates online, and won’t let up any time soon, all to the purpose of applying critical thinking to his reasoning, and most importantly to my own quite modest intellectual pretensions.

    His were certainly legitimate questions, most uncomfortable for unctuous religiosos.(re: “For 94,000 years, Heaven waited with folded arms.”) I thoroughly enjoyed his rhetorical gifts, including those he brought to bear sending Faux News Philistines tumbling in the dust.

    My subjective impression was that his gift for civility not a little outweighed any occasionally opposing inclination.

    Was Hitchens ever inclined to acknowledge being wrong about anything? My impression was that he would have been quite “gashed”(to use his word) to have to so admit. I think of Professor Dawkins’s story about the senior professor who, held in high esteem by other attendees, at the end of a lecture congratulated the speaker (“my dear fellow”)on having proved the senior academic wrong regarding a position he had vigorously advocated for many years.

    Dr. Coyne seems confident that Hitchens was off the mark about Bill Clinton. I look forward to informing myself about that from Hitchens’s and others books.

    When Steve Croft interviewed Hitchens on “60 Minutes,” Croft pressed Hitchens on his characterization of Mother Teresa – whatever other less than complimentary nouns and adjectives he used – as an “Albanian dwarf.” (Was “hunchbacked” employed? I can’t remember.) Hitchens’s response was to the effect that it was an attempt to see how much he could “get away with.” What is one to make of that sentiment as a guiding principle of the greater arc of ones life? Would most readers here reasonably consider “dwarf” merely and solely an objective physical description? Or would they consider the option of not giving voice to this particular thought, and perhaps rather be grateful for their own lack of physical encumbrance? Of what possible relevance was her height and country of birth to her objectionable world view? No doubt she would have preferred to have been of a greater vertical stature. Those of a certain supernatural persuasion would have had a fatuous and impertinent compulsion to pray for her to be delivered from her truncated station. One not so inclined perhaps necessarily makes do with the consolation of giving thanks to Ceiling Cat (or to the statistical luck of the draw)for the avoidance such an infirmity, eh?

    • Filippo
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

      For the record, that’s “Kroft,” not “Croft.”

  38. Nemo
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    Would anyone have wanted their daughter around Clinton?

  39. joe piecuch
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    “if I had a choice of having a drink and a conversation with Hitchens or Pigliucci”…the same specious basis for making a choice that gave us george w bush as president!

  40. Dan
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Pigliucci has a really juvenile response posted on Rationally Speaking, which I suggest everyone read for a laugh. He criticizes Coyne for a couple typos, but originally called Jerry’s book ‘Why Evolution Is Not True.’ He also complains about Jerry ‘gratuitously’ criticizing him in science journals. So much for peer-review! He even seems to think that since he gave a good review to Jerry’s book then that means Jerry shouldn’t criticize him on evolution in Nature and Science (quid pro quo, I guess? How un-academic). Pigliucci also seems to have no problem basically calling Hitchens’ life work inconsequential and attacking his character (when he cant respond), but just finds it beyond the pale that Coyne and Dawkins would be much, much less harsh with him than he was to Hitchens.

    Pigliucci is so tone deaf: I really laughed the whole way through his response. I like a lot of his work too. I read his blog every week, listen to the podcast, and bought Nonsense on Stilts, but his behavior here is so caddy and pretentious.

  41. Aidan Karley
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Inconsistent in his political views? Well, he couldn’t be conveniently tucked into a box labeled “left” or “right,” but did that make him inconsistent? It’s the result of his being an independent thinker.

    A lot of people are somewhat disillusioned with the inadequacy of the “left-right” axis as a way of thinking about politics.
    A while ago I encountered a site that tackles this inadequacy head-on : the “Political Compass”, which adds a dimension (literally) of Authoritanian-Libertarian to the traditional Left-Right axis.
    Clearly one could go around picking apparent psychological axes until one gets bored. And probably no two “political scientists” (another oxymoron if ever there was one) would agree on which axes are important. But I think the site may be of interest to some people here at least. An analysis that manages to differentiate between Hitler, Stalin and Thatcher from one point of view, while leaving Gandhi and Friedman (the economist) barely distinguishable seen form a different point of view … does at least give food for thought.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 29, 2011 at 2:02 am | Permalink

      Entertaining. Me:

      Economic Left/Right: -6.88
      Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.38

      • Occam
        Posted December 29, 2011 at 4:59 am | Permalink

        Diane, according to the test, I ought to be a Libertarian Socialist (-6.88 / −7.03).
        Of course, I’m neither. The point is, the ratings on such coordinates make poor predictors.
        As exemplified by Hitchens in his apparent zig-zag. Such scores are faux-objective, they convey the impression of rigorous measure where they rely, in fact, on arbitrary marks. Descriptive labels, with all their vagueness and fluidity, would be just as informative.

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 30, 2011 at 2:43 am | Permalink

          I agree with you about this ‘test,’ tho could never have spelt out its shortcomings as well as you do. :D

          Meanwhile, call me “Nelson.”

    • Occam
      Posted December 29, 2011 at 4:56 am | Permalink

      To paraphrase Moses Hadas: I have taken the test and much like it.
      While entertaining, the Political Compass Test (like many others before) does not really solve the issue of locating political stances more accurately than traditional Left-Right dichotomies. True, the economic axis (Communist-Capitalist) is complemented by an authority axis (Authoritarian-Libertarian). But the issues remain.
      1. The plot is doubly misleading: the axes are not of necessity orthogonal, because the variables are not necessarily independent. Superficially, the plot resembles, suggests even, a Correspondence Analysis bi-plot. Far from it.
      2. Scaling is apparently linear, and continuous. Both the economic and the authority scale refer to domains where some major positions are incommensurable, some differences unbridgeable: the range is not a continuum, the distances anything but linear.
      3. If any such metric is to be useful, it must be multidimensional.
      4. The degree of interaction and (inter-)dependence of the variables at play has to be established a priori.
      5. A potentially healthy side-effect of such a multi-dimensional study would be the realisation that the variables are not necessarily the ones we traditionally think of. And so da capo in the search of better estimators.

  42. Posted December 28, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    “And he wrote that famous article on women’s sense of humor in Vanity Fair. Before you call that misogyny, go read it.”

    Read it when it came out. It’s a compliment to say he based his argument on evolutionary psychology, because actually the article is a mess and he doesn’t even make a coherent effort to use the standard ev-psych reasons for female inferiority.

    He wrote it off the top of his head, as Katha Pollitt observed:

    “So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan. It all came off the top of his head, or the depths of his id. Women aren’t funny. Women shouldn’t need to/want to/get to have a job. The Dixie Chicks were “fucking fat slags” (not “sluts,” as he misremembered later). 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.”

    http://www.thenation.com/blog/165222/regarding-christopher

    Pollitt, who is a vocal atheist, knew Hitchens for 20 years, not just for a hand-shake and a charming moment.

    But apparently as far as all the “New Atheists” are concerned, misogyny only counts if it’s displayed by Muslims.

    Which, BTW – you have been paying attention to this, right?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/28/world/middleeast/israeli-girl-at-center-of-tension-over-religious-extremism.html

    Apparently Jewish extremists are just as nutty and misogynist as Muslim extremists. Who would have thought?

    • Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      But apparently as far as all the “New Atheists” are concerned, misogyny only counts if it’s displayed by Muslims.

      Of course, that is just wrong and way off the mark. What holy gnu book was Hitch reading commandments out of on how to treat women? How has Gnu Atheism influenced Hitchens’ bouts of misogyny? You know as well as any of us that misogyny is commanded by the gods in the holy texts and commanded by the religious hierarchies and that atheism aims to expose these things that are kept hush-hush out of false civility and accommodationism.

      • Posted December 29, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

        As I understand it, the point here was not that Hitchens was misogynist *because* he was an atheist, but that his misogyny is being ignored because he’s “one of us”. I respected him a lot for his other work, and I haven’t really read enough of his writing on women’s issues to assess it, but the “why women aren’t funny” essay is definitely a disappointment.

        • Marlene Zuk
          Posted December 29, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

          Precisely.

        • Dawn Oz
          Posted December 31, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

          Yes, his ‘toods towards women were disappointing, and he certainly had feet of clay. However, in looking at my own cognitive dissonance reduction, I’ve decided that he was ‘Hitch’, allowed to be imperfect, and damn pleased that he was such fine warrior for clear secular thinking. His attitudes towards women were stuck in the 50s, however given that most oppressors of women are sectarian (and often stuck in the Middle Ages); his fight for the position of women was real. He supported Ayaan Hirsi Ali, however, for him in this regard, the personal wasn’t political.

    • Xuuths
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Ah, let’s revive all the drama of Elevatorgate with the new, improved Hitchgate: examples of misogny.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 29, 2011 at 2:39 am | Permalink

      But apparently as far as all the “New Atheists” are concerned, misogyny only counts if it’s displayed by Muslims.

      Count me as a gnu who begs to differ with that assessment. And I agree with your post.

  43. Posted December 29, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Had Christopher Hitchens been completely perfect, who would have felt able to step into his shoes and carry on? We each need to find at least one thing to argue against him on, because with him as our opponent, we must certainly sharpen the skills of debate, and thereby develop the confidence to debate others, standing just as courageously strong for our values as Hitch did for his. Had he been perfect, we as his students migth have felt intimidated, unworthy to step into his shoes and carry on, and our causes might have truly lost out. In this way, his passing leaves us wide open to step in like some force multiplied, to keep pushing the envelope in every direction.

  44. Posted December 30, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    “Pigliucci is full of what comes out of the south end of a bull facing north.”

    Ah, I can crack that one: … – er – …

    Seminal stuff!?

  45. Posted December 31, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Coyne, thank you for making mince meat of Pigliucci’s nonsense. Do you really think Hitchens waged a jihad on Clinton? I’ve not read “No One Left To Lie To.” Surely Hitchens didn’t employ the same kind of dishonesty as the likes of Chris Hedges, who I heard for the first time on the CBC the other day. He was commenting on the passing of Hitchens. After looking into the veracity of the things he said I felt disappointed my country’s national broadcaster would invite such a man on their programs. I picked apart what Hedges said here: http://www.blairkelly.ca/2011/12/30/first-impressions-chris-hedges/
    and I’ve linked to the original interview there…

  46. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    He could be boorish, especially with a reservoir of amber restorative under his belt. … He could be paternalistic in some of his remarks about women.

    Certainly much more nuanced than my response of “seeing the other side of the bully” (IIRC) to an (anecdotal) description of those two traits.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] First, Massimo posted a negative obituary for Christopher Hitchens.  Then Jerry Coyne posted a reaction to this.  So now Massimo has posted a reaction to that reaction.  To top it off, PZ is now reacting to [...]

  2. [...] Coyne replies to critics of Christopher Hitchens’ vices (the physical ones, that is)… So many atheists [...]

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