book review

Essays by Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens
Twelve, 2011, 788 pages
Reviewed By

The Rage Against God:
How Atheism Led Me To Faith
Peter Hitchens
Zondervan, 2010, 224 pages Reviewed By

The Abolition of Britain:
From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana
Peter Hitchens
Encounter, 2000, 332 pages
Reviewed By

book review

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

L iterary and social criticism are created by two kinds of people: those who care mainly about the ideas, and those who care mainly about the people. You might call them 'idea persons' and 'people persons.' Being a people person doesn't necessarily mean going to parties every day, drinking lots of liquor, and giving people free donuts. It can also mean riling them up with words. Which brings us to Christopher Hitchens' final book, Arguably.

Christopher Hitchens was one of those rarities: a people person who was capable of original thoughts, and of expressing those thoughts well. I admit having had doubts. Hitchens, always flamboyant, also had an intemperate side. His question "Is religion child abuse?" in God is Not Great, the title of which he spells with a self-consciously lower-case g, marked such an obvious low point in Western culture that even the notoriously left-wing Publishers Weekly gave his book only lukewarm praise.

Why did this professed atheist spend so much time discussing religion? If you think Nietzsche was right about God pining for the fjords, what's the point of beating a dead deity? Did he really believe what he wrote, or was it all showmanship? We may never know.

His latest and last book*, a collection of 107 essays and book reviews dating back to 1999, isn't about religion, or politics, or Iraq or America or even his native England. It's about Christopher Hitchens. It's an invitation to watch the arguments of a very clever man who has not quite reached the stage of enlightenment where one realizes that nearly everything in the papers has been distorted in order to trick the reader into doing what the writer wants. Their tactic is simple: bypass reasoned debate by whipping up indignation. Sometimes Hitchens falls for it. In the articles on current events, he sometimes seems reluctant to look beneath the surface or question what he reads.

When he does, he excels. In the article on waterboarding, he submits to being waterboarded to see what it's like before deciding whether it's really torture. True, having never experienced torture by cattle prods, electric shock, or bamboo strips under the fingernails, he probably lacked an adequate basis for comparison. A true seeker of knowledge would have sampled them all, just to be thorough. The fact that he was willing to try waterboarding but not the other techniques means he never really believed it to be torture, despite his conclusion.

But at least, unlike so many other writers, Hitchens understands the need of an empirical approach. And despite his occasional reluctance to question his own beliefs—as opposed to the beliefs of others—he still manages to stay one step ahead of those who would pin him down on the issues. He reviews Rebecca West's writings about Yugoslavia, for example, not the way a onetime Marxist would chastise an apostate, but the way Jeremy Clarkson reviews fast racecars, admiring their power and sleekness but ripping apart bad sentences and spotting scratches and dents that most people would miss. Christopher Hitchens, I believe, was not concerned with being right, only with keeping the reader awake, either by saying something unexpected and clever or by raising their blood pressure. In this book he succeeds, many times, at both.

* Update (July 11, 2012): okay, second-last book.

Dec 23, 2011

book review

The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith

A s a young man, Peter Hitchens rejected religion for all the wrong reasons: to rebel against authority and middle-class values, to be fashionable, and because, like all young people, he craved social status more than anything. Perhaps he also wanted to be like his older brother Christopher, who is known for his radically atheist views. It was the act of a young person who refused to grow up, who felt that his generation was better than his parents' generation. Now an adult, Hitchens finds that he needs religion to lend stability to his uncertain and confused view of the world.

The self-portrait Hitchens paints is of a person who, though grown up, is still as hopelessly confused as his brother, and who like his brother is still unable to separate politics from religion. A former self-described Trotskyite, his political views are now an inconsistent mixture of liberalism and conservatism. His thinking about theology and philosophy is still like that of a teenager struggling to figure out his purpose in life. For example, he says (p. 151) “I prefer to believe that I live in an ordered universe with a purpose that I can at least partly discover.” But how can religion help with that? A central tenet of Christianity is that God's will is unknowable. Assuming there is a God who has a purpose, there's not much chance of us discovering that purpose, let alone understanding it. And what bearing does one's desire to believe one thing or another have on what is really true? Wouldn't it be better to live in the real universe and find out, factually, whether or not it has order, and deal with it accordingly?

Hitchens never confronts the fundamental problem of religious belief: the question of "How do you know?". Western civilization since the Enlightenment is founded on the presumption that, unless this question can be answered, there can be no actual knowledge, only guesswork. Religion is foundering, not because atheists have a collective Oedipus complex, but because religion cannot find a convincing answer to this basic question. In this sense, religious belief and modern post-Enlightenment values are irreconcilable, and it is modernism that is gradually pulling ahead.

Later in life, as I said, Hitchens returned to Christianity. But was his return as much for the wrong reasons as his departure? Indeed, what was his reason? Hitchens says his conversion happened because of his fear induced by viewing the painting The Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden. Realizing that this will make no sense to most readers, Hitchens then proceeds to rationalize his conversion, making the usual arguments such as that ethical behavior requires a supernatural authority, that atheists put Man over God, that atheist states commit mass murder, and so forth, and making pop psych analyses of why atheists are afraid of religion.

If religious faith has any intrinsic validity, it is independent of politics. If a person changes their religious beliefs because of politics, that person is denying that religion has any intrinsic worth beyond its political value. It is indisputable that Marxism and Communism are both evil and atheistic. The main reason for this was that Karl Marx inserted his atheistic beliefs into the totalitarian system he created. But this is not a valid reason to adopt a religious faith; the reasons Hitchens gives merely serve to underline that it is Hitchens himself who simply does not understand why he converted back. In fact, The Rage Against God is not really about religion per se. It is an attempt by a confused but perceptive man, whose political and moral values are in a state of turbulent flux, who is trying to find answers and a sense of belonging and stability in an England and a world that, he senses, is on the verge of plunging into unfathomable chaos.

may 24, 2010

book review

The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana

T his book is a beautifully written elegy for England, full of sadness over the decline of one of the greatest and proudest countries that ever stood upon the Earth. Peter Hitchens is a perceptive and insightful writer. His prose is graceful and intelligent. But this book is an act of surrender.

To Peter Hitchens, what made England great was its traditions. He contrasts the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965 with that of Lady Diana in 1997, and uses it to lament the decline of his nation, once powerful, dignified and respectable, and now cowering, he says, in self-loathing, defeat and cultural rubbish. He wants to explain why, but ends up getting bogged down in nostalgia.

The British Tories, with whom Hitchens sympathizes, are often compared to American conservatives, but they're quite different. The Tories love the old-style regalia and the discarded social mores. Many of them seem to want to turn back the clock, and so they reminisce, as Hitchens does, about headmasters, caning, elm trees, the loss of their history and culture, and above all else the loss of their Empire. Across the pond they sometimes sound like the old British guy Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars talking about how his light saber was an elegant weapon for a more civilized time.

And indeed, England as he describes it must have been a very civilized place. This book is enough to make even a Merkin like myself feel homesick for pre-war England. But the 21st century will someday be called the Century of Change. If Peter Hitchens dislikes the change we have had so far (as any thinking person probably should), he will probably loathe the change that is to come. Civilization cannot be preserved by holding on to what was valuable in the past. It must be constantly regenerated in new and creative ways. If he and his compatriots cannot find this ability in themselves, they must prepare for the death of everything they value. If those who value civilization don't fight its destruction, the words of future historians will not be as measured as those of Peter Hitchens.

To be fair, Hitchens was writing in 2000, when the UKIP was still in its infancy. They're still a minority, and it remains to be seen whether they can build a compelling case for British revival. If Britain is to survive, someone, whether the UKIP, the Tories, or someone else, will have to find the courage to make major changes.

The inhabitants of Airstrip One are a brilliant people. Sooner or later they'll realize it's time to stop mourning over the things that are broken and start doing whatever it takes to fix them.

jan 12, 2014