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June 07, 2008

Christopher Hitchens and Wounded Pumas

The US election has proved a fine opportunity for Christopher Hitchens to once again demonstrate his prescience. He was first off the mark in calling Obama on his sinister, sectarian (and now thankfully, former) church As for Clinton, a few months ago in the video below, amidst a flurry of staccato insults, he described her as a ‘wounded puma’, ready to fight to the end. It was, i thought, a rather resonant remark though still somewhat esoteric. But in the wake of defeat the Clintonoids have dusted themselves down and regrouped as, well, Pumas

Now claimed to stand for “People United Means Action”, the acronym actually derives from Party Unity, My Ass! Hitchens is fond of pointing out that many terms, such as ‘suffragette’, ‘intellectual’, ‘Tory’ and ‘impressionist’, originated as insults before being reclaimed by their targets as terms of pride and honour. It would seem that he can now add ‘puma’ to that list.

December 17, 2007

The Four Horsemen: Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett together at last

Writing about web page

Part 1

Part 2

In a June diary piece for his old parish the New Statesman, Christopher Hitchens explored possible monikers for the recent raft of atheist writers. He noted that as a quartet (Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris) they would inevitably attract such hackneyed shorthands as the Gang of Four or the Four Musketeers. Thus, he offered an alternative, the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse, now refined into the more succinct Four Horsemen. Shorn of its playful end the title may only further the religious association between atheism and evil, but i’m just relieved that Hitchens and Harris haven’t been conscripted into the sickly sweet Brights favoured by Dawkins and Dennett.

It now emerges that the Four Horsemen were recently gathered at Hitchens’s Washington apartment, with the two-hour discussion on religion that ensued filmed for our enjoyment. Released on DVD on January 2nd, you can view it all now courtesy of Dawkins’s site.

Watching the discussion i was reminded of those collaborative Marvel comic books that crop up occasionally, Spiderman and Superman: United at last!, X-Men and the Fantastic Four join forces! Far more interesting than what the four agree on is what they don’t. The differences, between Hitchens and Dawkins on the Iraq war as a secular project, and betwen Harris and the others on the relationship of atheism to Eastern spiritualism, do much to prove that the ‘new atheists’ are far from a homogeneous block.

The most compelling discussion occurs when Hitchens argues that he’d miss religion in a hypothetical atheist world since then the debate would end; he’d have no one to refine his arguments against, no one to hone his wit in opposition to, no one to face down in swathes of smoke long after the bulk of audience have retired. It proves once more that an admiration for the dialect is one feature that remains from his Trotskyist days. An incredulous Dawkins is baffled by this stance and at a later stage Hitchens, maintaining he’d like to see all the churches empty, concedes its essentially contradictory nature. Which all goes to prove that a meeting of two atheists is still likely to produce three opinions.

July 25, 2007

Johann Hari takes on Nick Cohen

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Johann Hari turns out out a stinging review of Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? here for Dissent magazine and settles some scores with the wider pro-war left. (Hari recanted on his own support for the Iraq war last year)

Hari usefully breaks Cohen’s analysis down into four components: Islamism, Ba’athism, the left and neoconservatism. It is the last of these that comprises the core of the review and finds Hari at his most polemical. He makes an argument similar to that i put forward in my Boar article on Paul Wolfowitz; the logic of those on the left who supported the Iraq war such as Cohen and Christopher Hitchens leads to the old rationale that the end justifies the means.

The Bush administration, they argued, was far from the ideal force with which to remove the Saddam regime but there was no viable alternative. As David Aaronovitch wrote one month before the war began, “it would be preferable if an invasion could be undertaken, not by the Americans, but by, say, the Nelson Mandela International Peace Force, spearheaded by the Rowan Williams British Brigade. That’s not on offer. It has to be the Yanks.” Such analyses, i have argued, fail to recognise that the means also change the end. It was entirely forseeable that an administration dominated by figures who support the barbaric death penalty would not take due care to minimise civilian losses, as the experience of Fallujah bore out. It was equally forseeable that a neoliberal administration for whom patient, egalitarian and well-regulated state building is anathema, would not be able to successfully usher in a new stable and democratic Iraqi republic. As one of anti-war playwright David Hare’s characters acidly remarks “When you knew what sort of butcher was the surgeon then there was no doubt about the outcome of the operation.”

Yet one most always twin such a critique with Cohen’s most significant insight. The imperishable point which he returns to more than any other, is that once the war had began the onus was on those leftists who had opposed it (often with good reason as he curiously notes) to at least offer their solidarity to those Iraqis (including many opposed to the war) struggling for liberal democracy in the most difficult conditions. The circumstances were appalling but who could deny Iraqi men and women their shot at the freedoms we enjoy? Cohen rightly castigates those on the left who instead backed the murderous Iraqi ‘resistance’ but also attacks those who while not supporting ‘the resistance’ didn’t exactly oppose it either and continued to source all problems back to the coalition. It was the conspicuous failure of the left to rally around the cause of a democratic Iraq, in spite of the failures of the coalition, that inspired What’s Left?

Hari quite rightly continues to support Cohen on these key points as well as thankfully on the bulk of his analysis of Islamism. Yet he is also right to home in on Cohen’s central weakness, which is not so much what he does write but what he doesn’t. Unlike Christopher Hitchens who happily continues to reaffirm his unconditional support for the war, Cohen remains at best cagey and at worst silent regarding his precise position on the war. Beyond fleshing out his argument on the left’s betrayal of solidarity he has written astonishingly little on Iraq itself. And a man who uses the case of Iraq as the departure point for his entire thesis cannot afford to be coy on this point.

In What’s Left? Cohen notes that “You have to judge people by the bulk of the evidence they present: the burden of proof they offer by way of explanation. If they say, ‘Of course I oppose burning women/the “enormities” of communism/Saddam Hussein/ Guantanamo Bay’, and then spend the rest of their time in passionate polemics against feminists, democracy, the American invasion of Iraq or the gullibility of critics of the US administration, you can reasonably doubt the strength of their opposition and convinct them of rhetorical throat clearing.” Yet it is precisely this ‘rhetorical throat clearing’ that Cohen lapses into when he offers token opposition to the coalition who ‘sold the invasion to their publics with a false bill of goods…its aftermath was a bloody catastrophe’, without bothering to examine the implications of these failings for his own support for the war. Moreover, he neglects to reflect on the consequences for his broad analysis which as Hari argues, mostly implicitly, and only rarely explicitly, posits a mutuality of interest between Iraqi democrats, as well as the ideals of the left, and US neoconservatives.

In the most damning passage of the review Hari brandishes the blood-stained sheets of the war, “A policy of systematic torture? The immediate imposition of mass privatisations, causing mass unemployment and sectarian unrest? The barricading of civilian men aged between 18 and 60 in Fallujah, a city the size of Baltimore, before attacking it with chemical weapons? Cohen does not say how these neoconservative tactics have been “fighting the Left’s battles for them”.”

Cohen recently debated his book with The Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and it should be said came off much the better, Alibhai-Brown admitting she had neglected to read beyond the contents page. Nevertheless, he was confronted with the spectre of Fallujah by her, and responded by asserting that what he saw there was simply the “Ba’ath Party and Al Qaeda against the American army” thereby recycling the official propaganda of the US military. Cohen, while rightly excoriating those who fail to look such enemies in the face has nevertheless fallen into the reductionist fallacy of implicitly justifying, or simply ignoring, criminal abuses because besides the civilian deaths they also kill jihadists.

It remains to be said that Cohen’s book is both a brave and compelling work which should not be casually dismissed. Yet it appears to me that he may be trying to have his cake and eat it. By situating solidarity with Iraqis as the all-encompassing issue, regardless of one’s original position on the war, Cohen manages to evade the need for a retrospective analysis of his own position of support. He doesn’t write in favour of the war itself now but nor does he write against the original decision. Thus, one must allow for the fact that such a position, be it intended or unintended, has allowed Cohen to avoid reviewing his original position in the way Aaronovitch, Hari and Norman Geras (all have now said they wouldn’t have supported the war) have or as Christopher Hitchens on the pro-war left has. It may be in the hope of flushing out something more explicit and concrete from Cohen that Hari has written this extensive review almost six months after the original publication of What’s Left? In any case, it is now a necessity that we hear from Cohen on this point as we have from others- and soon.

Postscript: It has now been confirmed that the forthcoming autumn edition of Dissent magazine will feature Nick’s response.

June 28, 2007

Don't Keep The Faith

The Sea of Faith, once at the full, and round earth’s shore is now retreating, lamented Matthew Arnold’s melancholic poem Dover Beach, and while religion remains a durable force today, it is now being met with growing resistance. Future historians will mark this period as the time when the religious resurgence of the past three decades was matched by a sea change in atheism.

The last two years have seen a raft of atheist literature, with the works of Sam Harris and Professors Dawkins and Dennett now complemented by Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. Watching the Washington-based polemicist in conversation with Ian McEwan last week, I heard him speak of a crucial shift in the zeitgeist. More and more are realising that mere indifference will not do.

They cannot be silent in the face of death-threats to those who ‘offend’ Islam, be they cartoonists or novelists. Nor in the wake of attempts to teach children the pseudo-science of ‘intelligent design’. Nor as the messianic Israeli settlers and the Islamists of Hamas retard the chances of peace in the Middle East. As if to confirm this shift in miniature, the day after meeting Hitchens I sat on the committee which confirmed the creation of a Warwick Atheist society.

But a rearguard action has begun aimed at discrediting this new movement. Atheism is just as much a belief, a leap of faith, as religion snap back believers. Yes, we atheists can’t disprove God, just as monotheists can’t disprove Zeus or Brahma. Without overriding evidence for any God it is prudent not to take any leap.

The siren call of agnosticism normally interjects at this point but it should be rejected first-hand. Agnosticism rests on the false premise that the existence of God is as likely as the non-existence. In fact, the discoveries of science from the true nature of the Earth-Sun relationship, to the theory of evolution, by highlighting the ignorance of ‘divine’ revelation, have shifted the balance heavily in favour of non-existence.

The religious tacitly concede this by claiming to produce various ‘proofs’ of God’s existence. They could rely on faith, belief without evidence, alone. But alas they have to try and squeeze obese religion into the tight, pencil skirt of science. In a torturous process, scripture is forced to accommodate itself to every new discovery, and running to stand still, it collapses into absurdities like ‘intelligent’ design.

Moving from metaphysical claims, the debate then centres on religious practice. Few now doubt the violence and destruction religion can produce but this judgement is often heavily qualified. For some the problem is not religion tout court but religious fundamentalism. Just as Karl Marx cannot be blamed for the gulags so ‘true Islam’ holds no blame for suicide-bombers. Yet at root the problem is the shared belief that scripture or appeals to a supernatural authority can be used as a guide for moral action.

Scripture can be invoked for any number of contradictory purposes, on what grounds are we to arbitrate between the fundamentalist and the ‘moderate’, both of whom can apparently produce evidence for their claims? We utilise our own independent reason and morality, and in doing so bypass religion all together. In practice, believers do the same when they cherry-pick from scripture, and humanists rightly contend that an ethical system based fully on reason is the logical alternative to such contortions.

While religion persists so too will religious fundamentalism and violence. The process acts as the Chernobyl disaster in reverse. Instead of an explosion which causes radioactive fallout, faith is like a virus which seeps in and distorts reason, and which will later cause explosions.

It was recently confirmed that Gordon Brown plans to grant the Church of England ‘operational independence’ by handing it the right to select its own bishops. But he should exploit this window of opportunity to go much further and bring home Thomas Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation’ between the Church and State. A secular state protects all of us from religion claiming undue privileges, but also protects minority religions, as well as minorities within religions, from their bigger brothers.

We should end the absurdity of Bishops sitting as of right in the upper house, the alternative of allowing all faith groups automatic representation, bandied around by some including the insufferable Hazel Blears, would be the worst of all possible outcomes. The expansion of faith schools has been one of Labour’s biggest domestic blunders. As experience in Northern Ireland has demonstrated they entrench segregation and mutual suspicion. But amid these woes, the resurgence flows anew. Last week saw the launch of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.

The new atheist movement is a necessary adrenaline-shot in the arm of secular complacency. Atheism can now be reasserted as not merely a negation of faith but an affirmation of the scientific, the rational and free inquiry itself.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 26/06/07

March 29, 2007

Audio Delights

Not much time to blog owing to the essay grind but following my day at the Oxford Literary Festival here’s a link to some podcasts of the week including Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen: via Times Online

For interviews with Nick, Johann Hari, David Aaronovitch and others check out the rather wonderful Little Atoms a radio show exploring science, rationalism, humanism and the left.

February 26, 2007

Oxford Literary Festival

Writing about web page

This looks well worth checking out, the tenth anniversary of the festival it is held at Christ College, Oxford, sponsered by the Sunday Times. I’ve got a ticket for Nick Cohen’s and Christopher Hitchens’
discussion of the left on the Sunday.

Another highly anticipated event during the week is Will Hutton discussing his new book on China, ‘The Writing on The Wall’ linktext Quite a startling work it argues that China’s economic ascent will run up against insurmountable obstacles (fast rising inequalities, unsustainable personal debt, intensifying rural riots, monumental economic and environmental inefficiencies and state corruption) without substantial political reform and the creation of ‘Enlightenment institutions’ such as an independent judiciary, representative democracy, free trade unions, publicly accountable companies and a free press, upon which a fair and sustainable capitalism is predicated. He cites Sen to show how ‘Enlightenment’ values do not begin and end with the West but rather, have their own functional equivalents in Asia.

China is hamstrung by ‘Leninist Corporatism’, in which the Communist Party continues to hold the monopoly of power and all private companies are forced to accomodate themselves to the state’s arbitrary interests. This explains China’s weak enterprise system, with goods made in China but all too rarely made by China, and no company close to breaking into the global 100.

It is in the world’s interests to ensure this change is peacefully achieved but the shift away from multilateralism and human rights that the Iraq war and Guantanamo Bay marked have wounded
the capacity to promote such reform. China now consistently points to western double standards, deflecting attention away from its own abuses. Arguing against protectionist sentiment, Hutton urges us to embrace our Enlightenment legacy and to engage with China to ensure that the deadly consequences of a collapse are avoided.

Richard Dawkins will head to the festival on Friday discussing ‘The God Delusion’ with writer and broadcaster Rod Liddle who recently presented, ‘The Trouble with Atheism’, linktext a critique of Dawkins on Channel 4. The fierce debate between atheism and religion is rising once more with the publication of ‘The Dawkins Delusion’ last week by Alister McGrath and will rise further still with an even fiercer iconoclast and anti-theist than Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, unleashing his ‘God Is Not Great: The Case against Relgion’ in May.

Other guests include Juan Chang, Niall Ferguson, Rageh Omaar and Will Self.

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