I have long been annoyed by the abuse of power that media organizations – even noble and high-minded ones – are prone to engage in. Newspapers, for example, often run obituaries of people who work for them in support roles, such as their administrative and printing staff. However virtuous or locally-influential such lives may have been, these people were not public figures, and it strikes me as a mis-use of media power for them to be given prominent public obituaries merely because they happened to have worked for an organization that prints such obituaries. Until it introduced a section of its obits page for readers’ own accounts of the lives of recently-departed ordinary people, The Guardian, for example, was a key offender in this, with all manner of obscure back-office staff being given national obituaries. Is this newspaper just an in-house magazine for its employees?
The death of Christopher Hitchens has allowed The Grauniad to fall back on its old ways, with pages and pages devoted to Hitchens and all his works – a seeming HitchFest – as if his death were a major world event. Vaclav Havel, who died shortly afterwards, received fewer column inches, yet demonstrably had a greater impact on the world. I expect that The Guardian has given so many pages to Hitch because he seems to have been known to and had great influence on other journalists, and because it can. That latter reason, it seems to me, is a mis-use of their power; it is also something Hitchens himself would have objected to.
Bloggers have also devoted much attention to his passing on. I have no problem with this, as blogging does not pretend to be a public service activity. Although I have tried over the years to read most everything Hitchens ever published, usually with great enjoyment, I have hesitated at his passing on to write about my reactions to his work and life. I never knew him (although I know people who did) so I will not comment on his personality or his personal life. As a writer, he was an extremely elegant and well-turned stylist, and always provocative to thinking. His invective, even when I disagreed with it or its targets, was always finely-honed and often very amusing. I will miss reading him immensely.
I had several major disagreements with his views (at least as far I knew them from his writings). Firstly, someone who could join a Trotskyist political groupoid had to have very poor political judgement. (The same could be said for that other early-Trotskyist, late-onset neocon, Norman Geras.). The people in these groups in the 1960s and 1970s were in general in my experience not pleasant, not rational, not open to reason, and not realistic about what works in the world. And each group was not unlike a cult. They were often very elitist, believing they could see the future which the rest of us dummies could not; and few of the Trotskyists I have encountered in my life had any empathy for working people. I can only see membership of such a groupoid as evidence of gross mis-understanding about the world, of how it is, and of what it may become. Of course, we all lack understanding of the world when we are young, and some of us gain our wisdom faster than others.
Secondly, for all his internationalism, Hitch never “got” Barack Obama. I read his writings in the US Presidential campaign of 2007-2008, and subsequently, and mis-understanding and mis-construals were evident throughout. Sometimes I thought his mis-readings were deliberate and wilful (as in his accusation that Obama was not a sincere religious believer), while at other times he was simply mistaken. From the very first time I heard Obama speak (in 2004), I knew him immediately. He reminded me of scores of dedicated foreign aid workers I know from Africa and Asia: “We are the ones we have been waiting for“, “Yes, we can“, etc. This is the language of community empowerment, of working-with not working-through people, of helping the poor and downtrodden through empathy from a position at their level, not condescending to them from a position at some level above or outside them. Tim Geithner, with his superb social-parsing skills, is, it seems, another person in the same mould.
Hitchens apparently thought such statements by Obama vacuous. Why would Hitchens – an internationalist – not also understand this about Obama, I wondered? Hitchens had traveled a great deal, and often to nasty places, but as far as I know he never lived in any such place for any time. He had not ever had to negotiate a foreign culture over the long term, except that of the USA, which is certainly different to Britain, but not so different as Indonesia, say, or Kenya. And perhaps Marxism, with its impersonal theory of history across all time, and Trotskyism, with its belief in global revolution across all space, together make it hard to see the impacts of specific cultures, histories and societies – in the here and in the now – on the lives of people, and on their political possibilities, and on what actions are needed to change these lives and possibilities. And, for the same reason, perhaps a person focused on dialectical analysis of grand theories of global history simply cannot easily understand someone seeking to improve the lot of a single group of people in one housing estate in Chicago, a community organizer say. This far from the Bolshevik Revolution, it is easy to forget that many on the left (and particularly Trotskyists) disparaged acting locally, to the point where small-scale actions even received their own term of socialist invective: ameliorism.
And, finally, Hitchens seemed to not fully understand religion. I was with him all the way in his criticism of the evils and sins committed by organized religion, and in its name. I was also with him in his refusal to bow down: Any God that required our worship is not worthy of it. Certainly no believer in the universal rights of man would countenance such feudal fealty. Too, I was with him in his courageous refusal to run scared, to adopt religion as a crutch or consolation, as a candle for the dark nights of life. But, even after all these aspects are considered, there remain other reasons for human religious or spiritual impulses, reasons which are good and valid and true. Despite what Norm thinks, one may be drawn to sights unseen without any prior beliefs and without any desire to worship deities, but merely with a desire – often unexpressed or even unexpressable – to experience contact with elements of the non-material. Such a desire motivates many mathematicians and musicians and artists, in addition to explaining the mystic strain evident in most religions. Is there a non-material realm, outside the world of our five senses? An entire branch of contemporary physics – String theory and M-theory – is posited on there being such a realm, comprising further dimensions of space-time inaccessible to us, despite the absence yet of any inter-subjective and replicable scientific evidence for it. Do non-material or spiritual entities exist? To me, that question is the same as: Do mathematical objects exist? On this aspect of religion, Hitchens (from his writings) seemed completely tone-deaf, just as if he lacked the sense of hearing, or sight.
But, as I said, I will miss reading him immensely.
POSTSCRIPT (2012-01-14): The Times Literary Supplement of 6 January 2012 publishes a letter by Mary Kenny which criticizes Hitchen’s simple-minded, black-and-white approach to religion, in regard in particular to his reporting on the Irish divorce referendum of 1995. As she says, “Yet a good journalist, let alone a great journalist – as Michael Dirda (also December 23 & 30, 2011) claims Hitchens to have been – would not have scribbled off such a slapdash and superficial polemic: a journalist in the tradition of Geroge Orwell would have examined such a social juncture in all its many nuances.” The polemic by Hitchens that Kenny refers to is in his book, God is Not Great.