Hitchens and skepticism

Back in April I reviewed Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, “Hitch 22”. In my remarks, I focussed on the literary style and the content of the work, without offering any opinions about the positions which Hitchens has endorsed. Regular readers of my blog will know that I generally agree with him on the topic of religion, and strongly disagree with him when it comes to the United States’ disastrous policies of regime change, nation building, and other military adventures. One thing that I did not do, however, was to discuss how Hitchens thinks. In a recent review in the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma does exactly that. The result is a powerful indictment of the way in which Hitchens abandoned skepticism and irony in favor of simplistic emotion.

Another typical word in Hitchens’s lexicon is “intoxication.” This can literally mean drunk. But that is not what Hitchens means. Writing about his early political awakening, when he shared with his fellow International Socialists a “consciousness of rectitude,” he claims:

If you have never yourself had the experience of feeling that you are yoked to the great steam engine of history, then allow me to inform you that the conviction is a very intoxicating one.

This must be true. When Hitchens became a journalist for the New Statesman, after graduating from Oxford, he adopted a pleasing kind of double life, part reporter, part revolutionary activist, imagining how he might help an IRA terrorist hide from the law. He found this double life “more than just figuratively intoxicating.” One can only assume that intoxication again played a part when he took the view that yoking himself to George W. Bush’s war was to hitch a ride on the great steam engine of history.
The trouble with intoxication, figurative or not, is that it stands in the way of reason. It simplifies things too much, as does seeing the world in terms of heroes and villains. Or, indeed, the dogmatic notion that all religion is bad, and secularism always on the right side of history.

(My emphasis.)
The biggest challenge for a soi-disant skeptic is to hold his or her own thinking – and that of one’s comrades – to the standard applied to others. And in this Hitchens has generally failed:

Again, the narcissism, the narrow scale of characters, and the parochial perspective are startling: “We were the only ones to see 1968 coming.” It is as if the central focus of the Iraq war was about scores to be settled between Hitchens and Noam Chomsky or Edward Said. It is odd that in all his lengthy accounts of the war, the name of Dick Cheney is mentioned only once (because he happened to share the same dentist with Hitchens). What is utterly missing is a sense of perspective, and of the two qualities Hitchens claims to prize above all: skepticism and irony. A skeptic would not answer the question whether he blamed his former leftist friends for criticizing the war with: “Yes, absolutely. I was right, and they were wrong, that’s pretty much it in a nutshell.” Asked about his literary influences, Hitchens mentioned Arthur Koestler. He was right on the mark. Koestler, too, lurched from cause to cause, always with the same unshakable conviction.

I love Hitchens’ writing, and his bravura performances of rhetoric. I do not believe that they would be diminished by a modicum of reflection and humility. I would love to read his thoughtful response to this insightful review by Buruma.