Friday, 6 January 2012

On Christopher Hitchens & HL Menken

Christopher Hitchens died of cancer this December after a long and public battle. There have been the expected praiseful obituaries some of which I happily endorse, his reaction to cancer was lacking in the sort of maudlin self pity that passes for empathy these days.

And yet I have a caveat. First of all I have read some (but by no means all) of his essays and while I found some interesting and well written I have never been impressed with his biggest claim to fame, at least in the Excited States of America, his radical atheism. Let's be honest, religion is a laughably easy target. From crazed homophobic Christians to radical Zionists to violently hate filled Islamists to celebrity chasing Scientologists, God knows there are no shortage of targets. The smug self congratulatory pose atheists always adopt is too annoying to be really funny. Seriously; you aren't risking anything here being as how we aren't living during the Inquisition.

Besides, while I am by no means religious I can not deny that for some people religion has been a good thing. Martin Luther King was a pretty religious guy. A preacher in fact. And so were J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas, Norman Thomas, Desmond Tutu and the Berigan Bros. If religion gave them the strength to do great things that improved thousands of life who am I to belittle that. And yes that even goes for one of Hitchens' bete noires, Mother Theresa. Yes I know the Catholic Church hierarchy has been deeply implicated in pedophilia, homophobia, antisemitism, and it's opposition to birth control is inexcusable. But there is no denying that her mission saved thousands of lives. Are their lives less important than her nineteenth century beliefs? A true humanist shouldn't have to even ask that question.

Which brings up something I noticed whenever Hitchens was on some sort of panel show like Bill Maher's. Whenever anyone seriously questioned, or worse made fun of him, Hitchens seemed truly offended, even outraged that anyone could possibly disagree and not be held in contempt. I always found him smug and overly self satisfied with absolutely no sense of humour at all. Many obits mentioned his wit and humour, but I think they are mistaking a talent for invective, which he certainly had (he famously, and repeatedly called Mother Theresa a "Poisonous Dwarf" which was also a name Josef Goebbles was often called, something Hitchens probably knew) with real wit, let alone humour.

Invective might be witty, especially if it turns out to actually be funny, but sometimes it's just an insult. That's a judgment call and it depends on the target. And as an Irish saying goes; "Wit is the ability to laugh at others, humour is the ability to laugh at ones self". This is a quality Hitchens clearly lacked. He simply took himself far too seriously and held himself in too high regard. A humanist should have some humility and humour. While not exactly funny himself, Martin Luther King had this quality, as did Mandella, Desmond Tutu and Tommy Douglas, Hitchens however did not.

In the various obits about Hitchens comparisons were made with past writers like Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and (his personal hero) George Orwell. But I always thought that his obvious successor was the early twentieth century American writer H.L. Menken. Both did not write non-fiction but instead wrote opinion pieces, reviews and essays. Both despised religion, superstition, cynical politicians, quackery, censorship, prohibition, professional killjoys and the dumbing down of popular culture. No argument there. Both gloried in literature, science and "serious culture". Both reveled in their large vocabulary and had a talent for incendiary invective. Both were best known for their contemptuous attacks on the main religious figures of the age. Both were lionized by liberals for doing so. Both then lost some of that praise when they then attacked liberal figures with only slightly less venom.

Menken savaged conservatives, but then he later turned his scorn on FDR and socialists for appealing to the great unwashed. Hitchens disdained Republicans but he despised Bill Clinton and JFK for their sex scandals (for a famed libertine Hitchens was something of a prig) and would famously support the Iraq war and would be full of praise for Tony Blair.

Both Hitchens and Menken were in fact true elitists. Elitism has become a hopelessly diluted term by now. These days the term "elitist" is used to define anyone who is not a right wing blowhard, especially when it's being used by right wing blowhards. However there used to be a real definition for the term. A true elitist believes that there is a class of people who are inherently better suited to rule over the masses, either due to race and breeding or because of their superior education and culture. True elitists are actually rather rare but Menken and Hitchens belonged to this last group. They were suspicious of the great unwashed masses who were too stupid and credulous to be trusted.

Those liberals who idealize Menken should read one his essays, "The calamity of Appomattox" in which he states his belief that the loss of the slave owning Confederacy in the American Civil War was a tragedy. Not because Menken in any way supported slavery or segregation of course, but because it dethroned the Planter Aristocracy of Jefferson Davis and Robert E Lee, cultured southern gentlemen, and replaced them with southern populist demagogues and Klansmen. He argued that they would never have been able to take power in the CSA, especially since most poor southern whites couldn't vote as the CSA had property qualifications that prevented them from doing so. He did have half a point there but I doubt condemning millions of blacks to lives of slavery and oppression and millions of poor whites to poverty and effective disenfranchisement is a fair price to pay to keep an "enlightened elite" in power.

Likewise Hitchens was perfectly prepared to toss aside a lifetime of belief in civil liberties and hatred of demagoguery, censorship, and hyper patriotism in order to support a war against the hated Islamicists. The end justified the means.

Another writer who comes to mind is Zora Neale Hurston. Again she is rightly noted for her high ideals, great writing and commitment to individualism. However those liberals who idealize her might pause to take a lok at some of her later writing in which she opposed desegregation in favour of protecting an imagined black elite. Menken, Hurston and Hitchens had a number of interesting things to say, but before granting them the sort of hero worship that the media encourages one should take a step back. You would think we would have learned a few things from the deification of Thomas Jefferson in an earlier age.

Someone once said about H.G. Wells that he "Loved mankind but hated people". I never got the feeling that Hitchens (or Menken or Hurston) much cared for mankind as a whole. At least not as much as they cared about their own ideas. In a writer this can be harmless, even admirable, in a political polemicist it is not.

H.L. Menken speaks (part of the only known surviving interview);

A podcast about Menken from "The Ludwig von Mises Institute presents The Libertarian Tradition, a weekly podcast with Jeff Riggenbach"

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