Email this article to a friend

Duly Noted

Tuesday, Dec 20, 2011, 4:02 pm

Four Antidotes to Hitchens Hagiography

By Lindsay Beyerstein

Whiskey, one of Christopher Hitchens' favorite vices.   smiling da vinci, Creative Commons.

If you're getting sick of effusive tributes to Christopher Hitchens, here are four antidotes.

1. Unlike a lot of writers who feel qualified to eulogize Christopher Hitchens because they once had a drink with him, Katha Pollitt worked with him for many years at The Nation. She saw many admirable qualities in him, but his storied high-functioning alcoholism was not one of them:

So many people have praised Christopher so effusively, I want to complicate the picture even at the risk of seeming churlish. His drinking was not something to admire, and it was not a charming foible. Maybe sometimes it made him warm and expansive, but I never saw that side of it. What I saw was that drinking made him angry and combative and bullying, often toward people who were way out of his league—elderly guests on the Nation cruise, interns (especially female interns). Drinking didn’t make him a better writer either—that’s another myth. Christopher was such a practiced hand, with a style that was so patented, so integrally an expression of his personality, he was so sure he was right about whatever the subject, he could meet his deadlines even when he was totally sozzled. But those passages of pointless linguistic pirouetting? The arguments that don’t track if you look beneath the bravura phrasing? Forgive the cliché: that was the booze talking. And so, I’m betting, were the cruder manifestations of his famously pugilistic nature: as F Scott Fitzgerald said of his own alcoholism: “When drunk I make them all pay and pay and pay.” It makes me sad to see young writers cherishing their drinking bouts with him, and even his alcohol-fuelled displays of contempt for them (see Dave Zirin’s fond reminiscence of having Christopher spit at him) as if drink is what makes a great writer, and what makes a great writer a real man.

I have to quibble with Pollitt about Dave Zirin's account of being spat upon by Hitchens. It's not a fanboy's attempt to romanticize Hitchens' drinking.

Zirin remembers the incident fondly because he literally reduced Hitchens, the legendary wit and debater, to spitting fury during an argument over the Iraq war. Zirin the war critic was right and Hitchens the warmonger was wrong, so Hitchens threw a drunken tantrum and berated a younger and less powerful writer in public. That's a perfect illustration of the kind of drunken bullying that Pollitt is objecting to.

2. Echidne of the Snakes on why Hitchens' misogyny casts a pall over his other achievements. She's alluding, amongst other things, to Hitchens' notorious writings on abortion and his musings that women are inherently unfunny.

Sure, Hitchens could dish out grandiose rhetoric about the plight of women under Islamofascism, but if you read his writings on abortion, it's clear that his views were not informed by any serious consideration of women's experience. Nowhere is this more clear than his pompous but intellectually vacuous pronouncements about abortion.

Hitchens first made a name for himself as a contrarian by being the liberal guy opposed to abortion. In one essay, excerpted by anti-abortion zealot Jill Stanek after his death, he implies that feminists are stupid because anyone who has glanced at an embryology textbook knows that a fetus has rights. That's just an embarrassingly bad argument, not to mention condescending. Silly women, if only they had my diletante's grasp of embryology!

In fact, most pregnancies are terminated in the embryonic stage, long before the products of conception would arouse sentimentality in Christopher Hitchens. Curiously, as Katha Pollitt pointed out, most OB-GYN's are pro-choice, despite having a far deeper knowledge of embryology than Hitchens.

To add insult to injury, Hitchens maintained both that abortion was wrong and that the choice should be left up to women. This was the height of hypocrisy for a man who admitted that he'd twice supported women he'd gotten pregnant in getting abortions. A morally serious person who believed that embryos had rights worth defending would favor criminalization, or at least swear off talking about abortion as a choice. If embryos aren't worth enough to protect by law, it's hard to argue that they're worth more than a woman's bodily autonomy, unless a woman's bodily autonomy counts for less than Hitchens' warm fuzzy feelings about sonograms.

In Hitchens' ideal world, abortion would remain legal. Men could enjoy the freedom and women could take the blame. For someone who cultivated an image as a great humanist thinker, this attitude is beneath contempt.

Why did Hitchens' essay about women being unfunny strike such a nerve? Why did this throwaway piece become a stand-in for everything that is warped about Hitchens' attitude towards women? Because Hitchens argued that women's essential biological and social role is to appreciate men's jokes, but not to create their own. That's a profoundly misogynist sentiment. Being funny is part of what makes us human. The self-absorption of Hitchens' thinking about abortion (if it makes me feel squeamish, it's obviously got rights) is evident in his writing about women and humor (if they don't make me laugh, they're obviously not funny).

Which brings me to Hitchens' weird attitudes about women and drinking. "It's much worse to see a woman drunk than a man: I don't know quite why this is true but it just is. Don't ever be responsible for it,” Hitchens wrote in Hitch-22. If anyone else wrote that, it could be written off as an eccentric little hangup. But given how central getting drunk with other writers was to Hitchens' idea of the good life, to his persona, and to his idea of the life of the mind, such a pronouncement stings in much the same way as his "women aren't funny" essay.

It also speaks to Hitchens' collossal lack of self-awareness. One of the best known mean, rowdy, sloppy drunks of his era felt entitled to lecture women on drinking decorum.

Hitchens always wanted it both ways. Sometimes, he wanted to be the contrarian who would say anything for the sheer joy of intellectual give and take. But more often, he cast himself as the Second Coming of Orwell, a crusader for moral integrity in the face of craven indifference. He wanted to be seen as someone who cared deeply about the truth because ideas have consequences. It's that pervasive sense of moral self-importance that makes it hard to dismiss Hitchens' degrading running commentary about women as mere teasing. There's such a thing as kidding in the square.

Some readers will reflexively divide Hitchens's work into "important" topics like the Iraq war and atheism and "unimportant" topics like his attitudes about women. That division is itself sexist. If you make a career out of the notion that Ideas Have Consequences, you can't casually degrade half the human race and expect to take a mulligan.

So, without further ado, take it away, Echidne:

And yet however hard I try, I cannot get over the fact that he was not writing to me, I cannot get to the point where I could feel comfortable and relaxed writing about his other points, agreeing with them or disagreeing with them.

Because I had learned that I was a baby factory to him, someone who could never be funny, someone whose job it was to fellate brilliant and eloquent men, whose whole existence was defined as the ancillary sexual and reproductive role he had decreed for women. He mythologized women and placed them where he felt they were of use to him in that mythology. And there is no escape from that.

This is something an aware female reader must face. So God Is Not Great? Well, you think women aren't great, either, except when sucking you. Get over that hump before you can join in the general repartee. Get over that point or you will be attacked for not getting the brilliance of the writer. It's like a one-winged bird trying to soar.

3. In case you're too busy to read all the fawning tributes to Hitch, Neal Pollack has helpfully condensed them all into one.

4. And last but not least, the Christopher Hitchens entry on Overrated White Dudes.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

View Comments