20A015 A Selective Iconoclast by Jim Davies, 4/14/2020


Christopher Hitchens was a towering intellectual. He died sadly young in 2011 of throat cancer, but was a real "Renaissance Man" who read voraciously and widely and who could debate the sharpest minds in the world and eviscerate them; as his friend Richard Dawkins said, "if you're invited to debate Christopher Hitchens, decline." You can enjoy watching by calling up YouTube and searching there on his name. He was a master debater and a brilliant wit.

His special focus was on atheism versus all forms of religion, which he denounced as "poison." He was merciless in exposing all hypocrisy, for example that of Bill Clinton - even though he had, when younger, been a member of the far Left and knew him at Oxford. He seems not to have spent time thinking about anarchism; more on that below.

First, I'm interested, as you may be, in his reasons for rejecting all religion; he called himself a "militant atheist" for he saw its promoters as positively harmful, rather than just sincerely mistaken, as I do. That's quite an accusation, but he was very ready to provide abundant evidence - as in his book God is Not Great. He coined the "Hitchen's Razor" principle, to accompany William of Occam's: "What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence."

Scathing as Hitchens was about religious hypocrisy, I think he overdid it. For an example, he was asked "What of the minister who comforts the dying and the bereaved; is that not a virtue of religion?" His reply: "No, for the minister is providing false comfort, he is lying." I disagree; the comforter is mistaken, but he's not lying, for he genuinely believes what he says, eg that the deceased is in Heaven. In order to lie, one would have deliberately to say something one knows is false.

On the other hand, when interviewed by the BBC shortly before he died, he was asked whether he'd considered the well-known Pascal's Wager. This says that it's a good idea to believe in God because you gain eternal life if you're right but lose nothing at all if you're wrong; it's a no-brainer. Hitchens replied by contradicting Pascal! He pointed out that if after death one were to present God (or Peter, etc) with the claim that he was a believer, God's omniscience would see right through the claim and it would be denied as hollow, hypocritical and bogus. Typical Hitchens; witty as well as incisive.

Merely to show that some practitioners fail to live up to their professed beliefs doesn't prove those beliefs are wrong. A more rational way to demolish religion is to take its claimed beliefs and show them to be mistaken, absurd or ill-founded. My e-book Which Church (if any)? has more.

More important is what Hitchens seems not to say, or even to have understood, about the nature of government and freedom, or about market economics. That may be partly because he read PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) at Oxford, where it's impolite to mention names such as Friedman and von Mises. In one of his presentations he belittles Ayn Rand as an "ultralibertarian" (not apparently being aware, even, that she explicitly repudiated such a label!) and yet his Letters to Young Contrarians (written without apology to C S Lewis) ends with the following: "Shun the 'transcendent' and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don't be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. 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." Who wrote that; Ayn Rand, or Christopher Hitchens?

This is quite a puzzle, to me. Without doubt Hitchens was superbly intelligent and very widely read, yet he seems in his thinking to have skipped over the big question of the core nature of government. He has blood-curdling scorn for all fascism (but also Stalinism) yet in what I've seen of him he never noticed that all government is fascist, since all government is about ruling and all ruling wields authority and authoritarian rule is what fascism is most about. How authority is gained (a violent coup, or a non-violent election) doesn't matter, yet he showed no sign of recognizing that. Given that he was so smart, one must wonder if this "blind spot" was deliberate; perhaps he recognized that he could gain praise and support only if he didn't mention those inconvenient truths.

A similar blind spot appears about free capitalism. He was invited by the Roman Church to be advocatus diaboli regarding Mother Teresa (and was so effective that they shortly afterwards stopped having one!) but among his critiques of her work came an accusation that she loved poverty rather than the poor (so that it would provide her with a missionary job) and that the only way to end poverty was to "empower women." Nonsense, as partly shown in the ZGBlog Votes for Women? recently; and only capitalism has ever seriously cut poverty.

Conclusion: rational skepticism is necessary, to become an anarchist; but it's not sufficient. That quality of mind - which Hitchens had in spades - needs to be focused expressly on the nature of humans and of government; optionally on Church, but certainly on State.

I launched a temporary supplement called Jim's Wuhan Bug Blog, here which offers a frequent commentary on the progress of the Corona virus outbreak. It is hopefully informative and stimulating and, of course, heterodox. Last weekend I stopped writing in it every day, as the story of this Bogus Plague emerged fairly clearly over the past two weeks and there may not be much more to add. Check back though every few days.

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