Monday, May 9, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is full of shit (but beloved of influential writers)

In this weird, weaselly attempt at a takedown of Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens describes 9/11 Truthers as "impatient with innuendo." Here, I must confess, is something the Truthers and I share. I too am impatient with innuendo, which is why I find this latest execrable column so exhausting. The crux of the thing is that Hitchens wants to accuse Chomsky of being a) a Truther and b) an apologist for 9/11, so he dances and feints and hints and suggests, without actually accusing-- in short, he does exactly what he accuses Chomsky of doing.

He doesn't actually accuse Chomsky of these outright for the sensible reason that Chomsky is neither a Truther nor an apologist for 9/11. The problem is that he does not then do the responsible thing and refrain from intimating that Chomsky is one but rather undertakes one of the more cowardly and evasive performances of writing in recent memory. Hitchens is guilty of a whole panoply of sins, none more tragic than the utter absence of a self-critical process and none more glaring than being wrong about just about everything, but rarely before have I known him to be so guilty of cowardice. Say what you mean.

The public record, in which Chomsky has recorded his opinions on every political question imaginable-- because he is asked-- would quickly yield the perspectives Hitchens is looking for. Here is Chomsky refuting 9/11 conspiracy theories in about the least vague terms imaginable. You might consider the entire book that Chomsky published about 9/11 for repeated and consistent denials of the morality of killing innocent civilians on 9/11. This stuff isn't hard to find. Hitchens writes, "It's no criticism of Chomsky to say that his analysis is inconsistent with that of other individuals and factions who essentially think that 9/11 was a hoax." If this is his admission that Chomsky is not a Truther, it's as weird and awkwardly constructed as I can imagine, which I guess is the point. He then says "However, it is remarkable that he should write as if the mass of evidence against Bin Laden has never been presented or could not have been brought before a court." It's remarkable? I find it demonstrably unremarkable, considering that, well, the mass of evidence against bin Laden has never been formally presented in a legal setting-- the way we answer questions of crime and legality, or we did, when we were the society of our ideals.

Hitch continues, "This form of 9/11 denial doesn't trouble to conceal an unstated but self-evident premise, which is that the United States richly deserved the assault on its citizens and its civil society." Again, Noam Chomsky has repeatedly and adamantly denied that the United States or any victim of terrorism deserved the assault. If he felt the opposite way, Hitchens would provide a quote. Instead, he presents this weird non-sequitur:

After all, as Chomsky phrases it so tellingly, our habit of "naming our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Tomahawk … [is] as if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes 'Jew' and 'Gypsy.' " Perhaps this is not so true in the case of Tomahawk, which actually is the name of a weapon, but the point is at least as good as any other he makes. 
If you can explain how this sentence has anything whatsoever to do with the ones that preceded it, or how it proves anything at all about Chomsky's views on 9/11, you're a better man than I. If Hitchens doubts that the United States engineered the slaughter of the Apaches or the Algonquins who used the tomahawk, he should consult a history book. In any event, it's got nothing whatsoever to do with the argument he's presenting. This is elementarily ineffective political writing, which wouldn't survive a fisking in any high-profile blog. But Hitchens being Hitchens, I'm sure he'll largely get a pass.

Of course, bullshit serves its purpose-- it creates space for other people to parrot it without public accountability. So if you took to Twitter or Facebook or low-profile blogs you'd be sure to find people sharing the link and praising it, which creates another layer of unaccountability for what is a post that actively shirks standing for anything.

Hitchens is, to me, a tragic figure; his talents as a rhetorician are real and considerable, but he has lived on the razors edge of self-obsession and myopia for so long that he seems to lack any meaningful ability to interrogate his own opinions at all. This has been confounded always by the personal feelings of other influential writers, and now especially by the fact that he is ill. Now, it is perfectly common to encounter glowing hagiography written about Hitchens that is almost totally uninterested in the question of whether he is actually correct in his opinions or not. Martin Amis's recent love note (and if you ever thought writing was not a game of insiderism and influence trading, let that essay put the thought to bed), which appears to have disappeared from the Guardian's website, is a glowing example. Nobody seems much to care that Hitchens was profoundly, wildly, incredibly, disqualifyingly wrong about Iraq, or about pretty much everything post-9/11. They just care that he's funny and gives good quotes and is an "iconoclast" and labors endlessly to craft his image. That's what counts, not unspeakably wrong opinions.

Hitchens is beyond the ken of mere mortals such as myself, but to those who think that, with his time apparently short, the way to honor Hitchens is to write nice things about him that conveniently ignore his disastrously wrong recent opinions: don't. That's not honoring. In fact, it's one of the worst insults to a critical intellect I can imagine.

24 comments:

paul said...

Wow, that is indeed a spectacularly bad column ... I've been convinced for years that Hitchens is only taken seriously because his friends are so prominent in UK/US literary circles

paul h. said...

(Also why do you keep reading Slate?! Masochism isn't all it's cracked up to be)

davidly said...

I've often thought he was overrated as an intellectual in the same way as Buckley was, or George Will. I do like, however, that his best work could be said to make a much better case against Kissinger than bin Laden or Hussein. Isn't the US harboring Dr. Hank?

Freddie said...

True, and yes.

Aidan said...

I can't figure out why Chomsky would compare Bin Laden's public, uncoerced confession to a statement that would be provably false (Chomsky winning the Boston Marathon). Perhaps it was just an inarticulate point, but it struck me as a fairly stupid and weaselly thing to write.

Freddie said...

It's a poor choice on his part, definitely.

Aidan said...

I guess neither you nor I could really answer definitively why Chomsky chose that analogy.

John-Paul said...

This is elementarily ineffective political writing, which wouldn't survive a fisking in any high-profile blog.

Well, that's certainly enough for thinking people to disregard it. [emphasis mine]

Freddie said...

If only I had articulated arguments against the piece itself.

Phil K. said...

It's a poor choice on his part, definitely.

Talk about failure to interrogate one's opinions.

Freddie said...

Who is this "one's" you're referring to? Troll harder, Phil. You're better than that.

sheenyglass said...

I actually think the Boston Marathon comparison works. Am I a weirdo?

The term confession implies an admission of moral failing, or at least a statement against one's interest. By contrast, responsibility for 9/11 was a virtue to Bin Laden - something he would have an incentive to untruthfully claim. So a self-serving confession should be treated as such when its credibility is evaluated by a jur...whoops!

elbrucce said...

here is the amis-hitchens love note:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/apr/24/amis-hitchens-world

davidly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
davidly said...

What sheenyglass said:
The point he is making is that it was not a confession, but bragging.

Karl Franz Ochstradt said...

That Hitchens is a drunken angry lout is simple and obvious.

That Chomsky's bizarre opinion is as vague in cause-identification as his bizarre opinion on anything of heft... well... I guess putting that on the other side of a scale, weighed against Drunken Loutishness... I suppose it helps confirm Chomsky's supposed greatness, or whatever.

I'm still left wondering what the hell is Chomsky's view on anything, whenever he talks. Being a great equivocator apparently is mighty impressive to many... but to me it's just Fancy Parchment-backed sales of snake oil.

I think both writers lose in the comparison, but fanboys of either are apt to see a WIN!

Anonymous said...

"I find it demonstrably unremarkable, considering that, well, the mass of evidence against bin Laden has never been formally presented in a legal setting-- the way we answer questions of crime and legality, or we did, when we were the society of our ideals."

This sentence is the type of weaselly writing you're complaining about. If you think Bin Laden wasn't responsible for organizing the 9/11 attack then say so and provide your evidence. Do you have any reasonable basis to question his admission of responsibility? By that I mean not some theoretical possibility but actual evidence that either he couldn't have done it or somebody else did. I've never seen such evidence. Instead there is a lot of information, from the 9/11 Commission to books and articles, that corroborates Bin Laden's statement. In his article, Chomsky pretends none of that exists and points to one quote by Mueller. Whatever he may have written in other venues, Chomsky chose to highlight his official "response" to Bin Laden's death with the provacative suggestion that Bin Laden may not have been responsible for 9/11. That's irresponsible bullshit.

There is another point to make about the demand that Bin Laden be captured alive and put on trial. He could not get a fair trial. Anywhere. Especially not in the US. It would be a sham. This is so obviously the case that I wonder what higher principle could possibly be served by it. The patent phoniness of that option suggests to me that those arguing in favor of it are being either disingenuous or naive.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone imagine a point where Hitchens would have admitted invading Iraq was a mistake? I honestly cannot, and I wish someone would ask him. How many dead civilians, soldiers, injuries, refugees, and what financial cost would have been too high for him? When someone is either too proud to admit bad judgement, or is so attached to a principle that consequences are irrelevant no matter how devastating, that person ceases to have any right to opine about others' morality. Hitchens is a good writer and is fun to read at times, but he's a total fucking ideologue.

Eamon said...

Totally right said. Lies like Hitchens', and also Dershowitz's, are a big part of the reason a thinker of Chomsky's rank is so marginalized. And at 82 he just can't really be bothered to defend himself as vigorously as he used to. The obvious fact is that intellectually vain people like Hitchens cannot accept that Chomsky is playing the game at a much higher level than the rest of us. But he just is! A smart person ought to be able to recognize a superior intellect; that should itself be a mark of intelligence.

jcapan said...

"I'm still left wondering what the hell is Chomsky's view on anything, whenever he talks. Being a great equivocator apparently is mighty impressive to many... but to me it's just Fancy Parchment-backed sales of snake oil."

I believe this is testament to your own limitations, not Chomsky's.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous wrote: "This sentence is the type of weaselly writing you're complaining about. If you think Bin Laden wasn't responsible for organizing the 9/11 attack then say so and provide your evidence. Do you have any reasonable basis to question his admission of responsibility? By that I mean not some theoretical possibility but actual evidence that either he couldn't have done it or somebody else did. I've never seen such evidence. Instead there is a lot of information, from the 9/11 Commission to books and articles, that corroborates Bin Laden's statement. In his article, Chomsky pretends none of that exists and points to one quote by Mueller. Whatever he may have written in other venues, Chomsky chose to highlight his official "response" to Bin Laden's death with the provacative suggestion that Bin Laden may not have been responsible for 9/11. That's irresponsible bullshit.

There is another point to make about the demand that Bin Laden be captured alive and put on trial. He could not get a fair trial. Anywhere. Especially not in the US. It would be a sham. This is so obviously the case that I wonder what higher principle could possibly be served by it. The patent phoniness of that option suggests to me that those arguing in favor of it are being either disingenuous or naive."

Then why did we have the Nuremberg Trials? Should we have just lined them up and shot them? Why bother producing evidence?

Are you really unable to grasp the simple point that convictions require trials which require evidence? Do you really think anyone who believes OBL should have been tried in a court with evidence and sentenced must also believe that he was innocent?

Anonymous said...

Nice piece. I think the Hitchen's vs Chomsky nonsense can be traced back to just after 9/11 when Chomsky was making his usual factually accurate observations at a time when many may have still been reeling from the shock. Hitchen was interestingly enough one of these this time, and as such he was unable to appreciate what Chomsky had actually said, misinterpreted it, which is usually only the habit of anti-Chomsky droolers, and responded as if he, too, were one. Chomsky responded in a way which sort of made Hitchens look like an inept grade school boy, and even tried to make an excuse FOR Hitchens having made such obviously imbecilic remark. Hitchens then, perhaps realizing that he had stuck his foot in his mouth decided to try and stand by his initial remarks and just dug the hole deeper instead of doing the more noble thing and admitting having inserted his foot in his mouth. Now, this much later, he's still trying to cover his tracks. THIS, along with the aspect of Hitchens style which I'd much prefer he'd just drop, and that's making TOO much of an effort NOT to be able to be put into a category of "lefty" or "righty". It's one thing for a person to try and avoid falling into one side of a false dialectic, and it's not unreasonable to think if both sides don't agree with you you must be doing something right, but he seems to try a little too hard and ends up doing idiotic things like this attack on Chomsky. Anyway, that's my take.

bymaplestorymesos said...
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Laurel Huang said...

I guess neither you nor I could really answer definitively why Chomsky chose that analogy.