Christopher Hitchens: An Ode to False Idols

A typical criticism levelled at politically charged music is that it accomplishes little by preaching to the already converted. Yet if a subversive idea were to escape and enter the mind like some proverbial babble fish, well, it can challenge our beliefs, or worse, affirm what we’ve ignored. It was thanks to a Propagandhi song that I went vegan fourteen years ago. The song nawed at me until I was not able to look at meat the same. It spoke to a truth I knew, but did not want to admit to myself.

With the release of Propagandhi’s latest album, a similar thread has unraveled in my head. This time, it concerns the valourization of heroes, especially when our heroes hold views we may consider troubling.

Circa 1992, Hitchens faxed his copy through as regards Columbus Day. And if you’ll permit me the conceit of a posthumous critique, I’ll paraphrase: “My colourful, exotic friend; respectable, well spoken — unlike the rest of them — as you know I’m colour-blind and you’re a credit to your kind…” – Propagandhi

I have always admired Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens’ books are the most read, most dog-eared, and returned to in my library. While the new-Atheists and I have parted ways (not due to any miraculous epiphanies or hierophanies, mind you), Hitchens holds a special place in my heart. Truthfully, Hitchens was a hard headed, opinionated and arrogant asshole. While I hope I do not reflect these qualities, I have probably been accused of all three a few times in my life. Perhaps this is why I feel a connection to Hitchens’ writing?

There is a lot to admire about Christopher Hitchens. As a journalist he covered war, met with world leaders, and challenged our sacred cows. Hitchens was courageous in his writing, honest in his opinion, and brutal in his wit. It is hard to not admire his intelligence; his mind was sharp and his recall was beyond reproach. Hitchens motivated me to read more and to question authority, especially any challenge to a free mind and opinion (oh how rooted in enlightenment thought he was. Can anyone imagine the Foucault-Hitchens debate?). Faced with a sure death from years of smoking and drinking (Leonard Cohen may be the only other man who could make those vices seem so cool), Hitchens never left his typewriter, delivering one of the greatest still-living eulogies one could read.

Hitchens was far from perfect however. First, he hawkishly supported the invasion of Iraq. And while he softened his views later in the decade, he never really could admit fault. Second, his letter regarding Columbus Day reeks so much of the white man’s burden that it is hard to read:

“I can never quite decide whether the anti-Columbus movement is merely risible or faintly sinister… It is sinister, though, because it is an ignorant celebration of stasis and backwardness, with an unpleasant tinge of self-hatred.” – Hitchens (1992)

While his writing on God can be understood as a response to a strain of anti-intellectualism in the United States, the patina of enlightenment thought in Hitchens’ letter is obvious. How ironic that the fervent atheist would muster around some sense of manifest destiny and American imperialism. One could read in his letter that to hold colonial powers to today’s standard would be wrong. But this assumes that colonial practices are only a problem of history, something to be analyzed and understood from an enlightened position. Although even at that, Hitchens seems to suggest that colonialism was a blessing and an event that brought light to darkness. This I might add, explains his position on Afghanistan and Iraq. The ‘backwardness’ of the other justifies enlightened intervention.

I would not argue that my struggle compares to say, sympathizers of Heidegger, who must struggle to defend his sympathies. My question is however, can we comfortably valorize those who hold troubling views? Can they be held in tension, an equilibrium between two worlds? Hitchens’ himself said that to “never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.” I must either be comfortable in cherry-picking the ideas I like, and disregarding the rest, or choose to not be a spectator at all. I’m not sure I have the answer to this question. I will fervently argue against such unreflective, imperialistic thought, but dog-ear the ideas that resonate with me.

There is always value in tearing down your heroes, a lesson that ironically would most likely agree with Hitchens.

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