A friend of mine brought to my attention a recent commenting and light discussion, featured on the CBC’s radio show “Day 6,” on the passing of author and journalist Christopher Hitchens. The two guests were Paul Wolfowitz and Chris Hedges, the former praised with great sadness the life of the late polymath, and the latter strongly criticised him. This occasioned the first time I can recall consciously registering the name “Chris Hedges,” who had some rather alarming things to say about Hitch: that he was without a moral core, lacked an appreciation for nuance, was a bully, and even that he defended the extermination of native Americans.
I have transcribed the portions of Hedges interview that I found most concerning, and have tried to give enough context to be fair. (Click here to listen to Hedges say it all himself.)
Hitchens was always out for Hitchens. He had a great mind and he was an exceptionally talented writer, but I never found any moral core there. Even on the left he loved to sort of throw bombshells defending the European invasion of North America, and the extermination of native Americans, or suddenly deciding he was against abortion. He loved the publicity that comes with being a contrarian.
I’m unsure whether the formula “so-and-so was only ever out for his- or her-self” holds water in any context. (I’ve read persuasive arguments that claim the only way to be selfish in a positive way might be to help others.) In any case, Hitchens was outspoken for the rights of women and homosexuals and has countless other endeavours tied to his name that trash Hedges’ obscure pronouncement altogether.
Regarding his statement on Hitchens’ villainy, the sneaky Mr. Hedges charges us with a form of the “rotten-core cinnamon bun” problem. (It goes like this: presented to you is a cinnamon bun that is normal in every way except that it has had inserted into it, post-bake, a gooey centre of dog shit. You are then asked: do you partake of the fresh, unsoiled exterior? Even if you are unlike me and are fond of cinnamon buns, I probably know your answer.) Hedges is trying to perform some mental trickery by underlining Hitchens’ great mind and excellent writing ability and then besmirching both with an “immoral core.” It amounts to saying “there were great things about Hitchens, but they weren’t great, and in fact he was a bad person.”
I’ll come back to the accusation of support for genocide later. Here are some more words from Hedges’, this time on Hitchens’ worldview:
When you have that kind of regidity to any ideological system, whether it’s on the left or the right, you just replace a few words here and there and bifurcate the world into us and them, black and white, good and evil… and I think that is a sign of, finally, a kind of great intellectual failing and inability to deal with nuance – ambiguity – and I think that was part of his deficit.
I could not illustrate the irony of Hedges’ words better than has already been done by Sam Harris. (“Nuance is really what one hopes Hedges would discover once in his life—if for no other reason than it would leave him with nothing left to say.”) However I was able with my own limited perspective to see a hole in Hedges’ impression. It took one look at a single book title from each author on (roughly) the same subject, a) Hitchens’ “god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” and b) Hedges’ “I Don’t Believe in Atheists.” With only the titles, we see Hitchens targets a belief system, and Hedges targets an entire group of people as if it were homogeneous. (What else does that remind you of?) Tip of the iceberg, I know, but I wanted to point out, since I don’t think it should be underestimated, that whiffs of intellectual Swiss-cheese are available for a mere glance at Hedges’ work. Anyway, let’s get on with more of what Hedges’ had to say:
I found [Hitchens] when he was on the left to be a bully, I didn’t like the way he would frame debates, it always became personal, we saw this when he switched sides and he began to tear into figures that he had once revered; Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and others.
As I transcribed the above words, I asked myself if they really needed to be refuted. How then would Hedges have Hitchens frame debates? Would he like it better if we pretended that we weren’t accountable for the views we espouse? If someone expresses support for suicide-murderers blowing themselves up on packed city buses, I’m going to hold that view against the person in question and I hope everyone else in their right mind would, too! Not to belabour the point, but what ever could Hedges possibly mean by his complaint? And same goes for criticising people you might have once revered. If at any point you hold a deep respect for someone, does this mean of this person you forfeit your right to lay anything but positive judgement?
Later, Hedges moves himself into the territory of the totally nonsensical:
[Hitchens] used a secular vocabulary to bifurcate the world into these binary poles of black and white, us and them. So his political agenda didn’t stray very far from the Christian right: the Christian right wants to drop iron fragmentation bombs all over the Middle East because Islam is a satanic religion, he wants to do it because they’re barbarians… what he really promoted was a secular fundamentalism.
I have three issues with this tripe. 1) If by “us” Hedges is referring to our secular tradition with courts of law and rights for humankind and even other animals, and by “them” he is referring to the Taliban and their kind who throw acid in the eyes of “disobedient” women and mutilate the labia of young girls, then I get absolutely nauseous at the idea of anything other than an “us and them” dichotomy. I want “them” to be scrubbed from the face of the Earth. If they’d rather die than discontinue blowing up apostates, so be it. I am very suspicious of the moral integrity of anybody who suggests I should accommodate in any way psychopaths like the Taliban. No italics could stress my feeling on this point enough. 2) The next bit of bile coughed up by Hedges needs to be dealt with in its entirety: “the Christian right wants to drop iron fragmentation bombs all over the Middle East because Islam is a satanic religion, he wants to do it because they’re barbarians.” As Hitchens said himself (of another matter), to respond to this would be a bit like responding to the question “so when did you stop beating your wife?” It’s a trap, and in this case Hedges’ statement is so nonsensical it’s not even wrong. 3) Finally, if words are to mean anything at all, then “secular fundamentalism” is a term that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It is a popular argument bandied by those who are not well-versed in the debate about the falsity and negativity of religion, and by those who are so loose with their definitions that words become transparent. This issue has been expertly addressed elsewhere. In his essay “Can an Atheist Be a Fundamentalist?”, A.C. Grayling has this to say:
It is also time to put to rest the mistakes and assumptions that lie behind a phrase used by some religious people when talking of those who are plain-spoken about their disbelief in any religious claims: the phrase “fundamentalist atheist [Hedges' 'secular fundamentalist'].” What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe – perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or a buttock)? Or that gods exist only some of the time – say, Wednesdays and Saturdays? (That would not be so strange: for many unthinking quasi-theists, a god exists only on Sundays.) Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the Universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves – and still do?
At last, I want to come back to Hedges’ assertion that Hitchens supported the extermination of native American peoples. Hedges is referring to the contents of an article Hitchens wrote for The Nation’s “Minority Report” column, published on October 19th, 1992. (It can be obtained here.) To say the author’s words were taken out of context seems almost too obvious to mention. In my search for the original document I found an article (depressingly, on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website) by Michael Brull, who apparently shares Hedges’ questionable and unfavourable opinion of Hitchens. Presuming Hedges would agree with Brull’s selection of quotes (since there is nothing else in the article I can see that would easily lend itself to being taken out of context), I present to you his interpretation of Hitchens’ remarks:
In October 1992, Hitchens explained in The Nation that his “old comrade, David Dellinger” – one of the most extraordinary and inspiring men of the last century – had phoned to inform Hitchens of his impending protest on Colombus [sic] Day. Hitchens rejected this protest. Hitchens was not sure whether such a protest was “merely risible or faintly sinister”. Such a protest is sinister “because it is an ignorant celebration of stasis and backwardness, with an unpleasant tinge of self-hatred”.
“1492 was a very good year,” Hitchens impatiently explained, and “deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto.”
Those “who view the history of North America as a narrative of genocide and slavery” fail to understand that this is “the way that history is made, and to complain about it is as empty as complaint about climatic, geological or tectonic shift”. The annihilation of the Native Americans was an instance that left “humanity on a slightly higher plane than it knew before”, inaugurating an “early boundless epoch of opportunity and innovation”.
Confusing insertion of “impatience” into Hitchens’ cadence aside (where did he get that from?), I have bolded Brull’s lie. Nowhere in Hitchens’ article does he say “The annihilation of the Native Americans was an instance that left humanity on a slightly higher plane.” It simply is not there. Read it for yourself and you will see Hitchens makes mention of the pogroms various Nations had against each other before the arrival of the “palefaces.” He never denies the negative impact of the latest foreigners to arrive on what is now the American continent in 1492. Hitchens says:
…those who view the history of North America as narrative of genocide and slavery are, it seems to me, hopelessly stuck on this reactionary position. They can think of the Western expansion of the United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway.
One need not be an automatic positivist about this. But it does happen to be the way that history is made, and to complain about it is as empty as complaint about climatic, geological or tectonic shift.
…As Marx wrote about India, the impact of a more developed society upon a culture (or a series of warring cultures, since there was no such nation as India before the British Empire) can spread aspects of modernity and enlightenment that outlive and transcend the conqueror. This isn’t always true; the British probably left Africa worse off than they found it, and they certainly retarded the whole life of Ireland. But it is sometimes unambiguously the case that a certain coincidence of ideas, technologies, population movements and politico-military victories leaves humanity on a
slightly higher plane than it knew before. The transformation of part of the northern part of this continent into “America” inaugurated an early boundless epoch of opportunity and innovation, and thus deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto, with or without the participation of those who wish they had never been born.
If you read the entire article, which I highly recommend, you will find fully confirmed what you see above; no endorsement of genocide – nothing of the kind – and a nuanced, thoughtful analysis of history that amounts in its most distilled form to “overall, the migration of European people to the Americas was a good thing.” I find it terribly disappointing that such respectable institutions as the CBC and ABC would have the likes of Hedges or Brull on any of their programs; these men don’t just hold a different point of view, they maintain dishonest opinions. The most that this kind of dishonesty should help a public figure attain is standing on upturned milk crates at street corners, screaming at pigeons.