Katha Pollitt on Hitchens


I’ve been hoping Katha would write something, because I knew she would have informed reservations. I remember her exchange with Hitchens when he left The Nation. I’ve been a fan of both of them for a long time, so their differences interest me.

Katha suggests that “he was possibly the least troubled with self-doubt of all the writers on earth” and that he didn’t wonder enough how he got from one position to another, radically different one. I think that’s a fair point, and yet…well I’m ambivalent, as I am about so many things, which is why, unlike Hitchens, I spend so much time staring blankly into space instead of being productive.

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).

That, on the other hand, gives me genuine pause. I don’t admire that quality, and I do know he had it. The CBC’s The National showed him doing it in its obit on Friday. He was talking to a reporter in Kensington Gardens, saying something disobliging about a memorial to Diana Spencer, and an off-camera male voice interrupted to protest, saying indignantly “you shouldn’t be in this garden.” Hitchens responded fast and ferociously, all but shouting, “Who the hell are you?” and then adding, “I’m sure you’re as stupid as you look.” That’s no good. Yes what the guy said was both silly and bossy (and servile underneath), but the response was overkill.

So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan…

It wasn’t just the position itself, it was his lordly condescending assumption that he could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in 1,000 words that probably took him twenty minutes to write.

Yes. That certainly was not one of my favorite things about him. I said so in December 2006 in two posts on the Vanity Fair “women aren’t funny” article, Depends who’s asking and On closer reading.

But, Katha sums up,

as a vivid presence Christopher will be long remembered. A lot of writers, especially political writers, are rather boring as people, and some of the best writers are the most boring of all—they’re saving themselves for the desk. Christopher was the opposite—an adventurer, a talker, a bon vivant, a tireless burner of both ends of the candle. He made a lot of enemies, but probably more friends. He made life more interesting for thousands and thousands of people and posed big questions for them—about justice, politics, religion, human folly. Of how many journalists can that be said?

Firm but fair, I think.

 

 

Comments

  1. clamboy says

    I suppose one could challenge the statement that Hitchens “had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspective” with Hitchens’ continued support and promotion of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But, of course, one example does not make a history. And, I also suppose, one could say that she was simply part of Hitchens’ work in confronting Islam.

    Golly gee, though, why couldn’t he have been one thing to all people all the time? How dare he be so unfailingly human?

  2. Josh Slocum says

    Good on Katha. That’s disturbing stuff about Hitchens. I knew he was sexist but I didn’t realize how badly.

  3. Alecthar says

    Golly gee, though, why couldn’t he have been one thing to all people all the time? How dare he be so unfailingly human?

    I think the issue here is that, saying someone is “human,” implying that they are fallible and thus made mistakes, doesn’t lessen the impact or severity of those errors. What we do is who we are, and what Hitchens did was often brilliant, but it was also often misogynistic and repugnant. Hitchen’s himself didn’t let death stand in the way of him taking someone apart (Mother Theresa or Jerry Falwell, for example) and while it seems reasonable to believe that both of those people were significantly worse, significantly more often, than Hitchens was in life, we still shouldn’t allow ourselves to lionize him in death.

  4. Brian says

    It’s good that we’re seeing people who knew him share the dark parts of his personality. He was a brilliant user of the English language, and could talk about anything it seems. But as Pollitt pointed out, there were things he didn’t care enough about or thought worthless, important things, and he should’ve kept mum about them or admitted ignorance (impossible for Hitchens?).
    Still, he was a bright star…

  5. R. Johnston says

    Hitchens on women, war, and muslims was severely and obviously anti-skeptical. It’s long surprised and disappointed me how many skeptics have chosen to ignore Hitchens’s public anti-skepticism, have unskeptically failed to consider whether his deeply rooted anti-skepticism was fully compartmentalized or whether it spilled over into his atheism advocacy, and have deemed him an appropriate representative of the skeptical movement.

    There’s very little evidence that Hitchens was ever a skeptic about anything. He was a bad representative of the atheist and skeptical movements because there really was no reason at all to trust his arguments. Sure, he could write well enough and he had several substantive positions that a skeptic could agree with, but he couldn’t convincingly argue that he arrived at those positions through a skeptical analysis given his overt anti-skepticism.

    Just because a position is compatible with skepticism doesn’t mean it requires skepticism, and far too many skeptics for far too long have overlooked this point in their acclamations of Hitchens. Enjoying Hitchens’s writing is a matter of taste, but seeing him as a representative of the skeptical movement is a matter of error.

  6. Tim Harris says

    I am very pleased to see this, after the near-beatification of the man. There was much that was admirable, and hugely admirable, about the man, and much that was not. In particular, his support for making war on Iraq was not admirable, nor was the vanity of his refusal to admit that he had been wrong, nor was his misogynistic abuse of the Dixie Chicks. The only person I have come across who has addressed CH’s support for Bush and Blair (two liars and incompetents) has been Glenn Greenwald, and I find this extraordinary. It was a disastrous mistake to have supported that war, and Hitch was less than ingenuous in his support for it.

    Perhaps, also, another reason I feel somewhat less sympathetic in CH’s case than others seem to be is that the closest friend I ever had, a writer called Alan Booth, who wrote a wonderful book, ‘The Roads to Sata’, about walking the length of Japan, was in some ways rather similar to Hitch – an extraordinary intelligence, an extraordinary fluency and wit in conversation, an extraordinary debater, and in addition to being a very good writer, he was a splendid actor and speaker of verse (I performed a lot with him). But Alan, like all of us, had his faults (he also drank a lot) and made his mistakes, and he would not have wanted them brushed over. He died of cancer at the age of 44. I edited his second book about Japan, ‘Looking for the Lost’, after his death. After that loss, all other losses have seemed small by comparison.

  7. says

    …which is why, unlike Hitchens, I spend so much time staring blankly into space instead of being productive…

    That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Obituarists have lauded Hitchens’ prolific style but, then, they’re journalists – it’s a feature they’re bound to admire. Still, if he’d spent more time pondering implications instead of leaping to conclusions he might have avoided some of the more woeful episodes of his intellectual life.

  8. julian says

    Obituarists have lauded Hitchens’ prolific style but, then, they’re journalists – it’s a feature they’re bound to admire.

    It’s such a hit or miss feature too.

    I sometimes wonder if the difference between a prolific writer and a nerd with SIWOTI syndrome is a solid English education.

  9. says

    In defence of Hitchens Iraq war stance

    I was an opponent of the Iraq war when it started, and I still think it was a bad idea, though ny reasons today are a little different to what they were then. But then and after, Hitchens always put what I found to be the most persuasive case for the other side – he was always the war hawk who gave me the most pause.

    Hitchens argument seemed to me to be as follows:
    (1) Sadaam Hussein is one of the top three worst tyrants ruling on Earth today.
    (2) He has demonstrated his willingness to massacre his own people – incuding with chemical and biological weapons.
    (3) He has demonstrated his willingness to attack and invade his neighbours – for example, Iran and Kuwait.
    (4) He has provided material support for terrorism in Israel and the West, including cash rewards to the families of suicide bombers and providing shelter to wanted terrorists within his borders.
    (5) Saddam and the horrible state of Iraq in general is in many ways the product of past bad foreign policies by the US. He was supported (including with weapoins) by the US as a catspaw against Iran in the 1980s. After encouraging his people (particularly the long oppressed Kurds and Marsh Arabs) to revolt during the 1991 Kuwait war, the West abondend them to Saddam’s mercy after the war was over. The economic sanctions and no-fly zone, wile containing Saddam’s territorial ambitions and severley [as it turned out, totally] curtailing his MWD programs, has also caused massive suffering to the innocent Iraqi people, including the deaths of countless children.
    (6) We know for a fact that he was developing nuclear, as well as chemical and biolgical weapons before his defeat in 1991.
    (7) As a result of the post-Kuwait no-fly zone, the long suffering Kurdish people have established a de facto indepenent homeland in northern Iraq and we owe it the the Kurds to protect that nascent homeland.
    (8) Western intelligence agencies seem to be unanimous in telling us that he has continued those programs, despite our attempt to stop him, to this day.
    (9) 9/11 has demonstrated the dangers of WMD getting into the hands of terrists (or being used in a terrrorist manner by rogue States).
    (10) In that context, it makes sense to elimiante a potential soruce of “loose nukes” and doing so will provide us with the opprotunites to right several past wrongs.

    Now when you look at this argument, most of it holds water. Points (1)-(6) are unarguably true. Point (7) is clearly arguable and probably sound. Point (8) has turned out to be totally wrong, but given what we were being told at the time, that was hardly Hitchens’ fault. And, if you beleived point (8), points (9) and (10) are more than reasonable.

    My answer to Hitch at the time would have been:
    (a) An invasion would be illegal in international law. The UN Charter prohibits member States from using force agaisnt each other except (i) as a proprotionate measure in self-defence against an immediate threat or (ii) pusuant to an Security Council authroisation made under Chapter IV of the UN Charter. Iraq is not an immediate threat to the US such that an invasion would be a proprotionate resposne. There is no Security Council resolution that explicitly authroises the use of force and any attempt to parse the language of earlier resolutions to infer one runs contrary to the clear statements of the releveat UN ambassadors who voted for thsoe resoultions at the time.
    (b) The problem arising out of 9/11 is Al Quaeda. Saddam has very little to do with Al Quaeda. Indeed, Saddam is on AQ’s “hitlist” as a corrupt “secular” regime. While Iraq has had some low-level, tentative contacts with AQ, its real connections are with Hammas and the old PLO-type terrorists. As such, while the danger of Iraq giving WMD to AQ would be grave if it occurred, it’s unlikely to occur. Thus Iraq is a side issue, the mission is Afganistan and AQ and Iraq could be a fatal distraction from that mission. Moreover, the struggle against [what we now call] Islamo-fascism is, like the Cold War, going to be as much about ideas and PR as it will be about bullets. Iraq could be a terrible mistake on that front.
    (c) Bush is a moron run by evil bastards. No matter how pure your motives in supporting the war, you cannot have any confidence that Bush & Co don’t have sinister motives and won’t use this as an opportunity to engage in the sort of evil crap that Kissinger & Co have been up to for decades.

    I only ever saw Hitch grapple with point (c) when he said, rather amusingly I thought, “You go to war with the President you have.”

    So, what’s my point? My point is that, along with other “liberal hawks” like Johann Hari and Nick Cohen, the Hitch had a good case. In the end, not a case I bought, but not a risable or contemptible one either.

    Now, unlike Hari and Cohen, Hitchens never recanted. That’s more problematic – though he is probably right that, in the *long* run, the Iraqi people may be better off – the Kurds (for who he had an abiding attachment) sure as hell are.

  10. Sophie Lagacé says

    I admired Hitchens greatly, but I agree with Pollitt’s comments. I feel perfectly at home with the concept that I can love some things in people and dislike other aspects. If anything, I feel… comfortable with exerting my critical faculties rather than trying to whitewash the flaws. Freethinkers don’t need saints or holy icons.

  11. Torquil Macneil says

    Hitchens’ alleged lack of interest in women intellectually (he wasn’t very interested in them sexually either) is neither here nor there, he was interested in what he was interested in. And I think the comments here about avoiding ‘mistakes’ in his thinking are hilarious. Just the sort of dogmatic, commissar-like mentality that he had so much fun dismantling.

  12. says

    Um, despite his gay dalliences at Oxford and his “uncosumated gay marriage” to Martin Amis, the Hitch was rather famously interested in the ladies – and, from all accounts, the were very interested in him…

  13. Torquil Macneil says

    I don’t think so. Ladies liked him but he never seemed very interested in them. Amis, for one mentions his apparent lack of enthusiasm. He preferred conversation, it seems, and who is to say he is wrong.

  14. Brian says

    He preferred conversation, it seems, and who is to say he is wrong.
    What does that even mean? Unpack please…

  15. Torquil Macneil says

    I meant that, as far as I can tell, Hitchens found the allure of a room full of people, a full glass, a smoke, and an argument about Kurdistani politics, more attractive than a tryst with a woman.

  16. says

    And I think the comments here about avoiding ‘mistakes’ in his thinking are hilarious. Just the sort of dogmatic, commissar-like mentality that he had so much fun dismantling.

    It’s “dogmatic” and “commissar-like” to say the guy fucked up? I take your second point, though – he was famously tolerant of other people’s errors of judgement. Yes, sir.

  17. dirigible says

    “An invasion would be illegal in international law”

    Although not in possession of WMDs at that time, Iraq did possess weapons forbidden under the UN resolution used to justify the war. They fired them (non-short-range missiles) at allied troops at the start of the conflict. A technicality? Now who wants to ignore international law… ;-)

    “Bush is a moron run by evil bastards.”

    True. But that’s the Intentional Fallacy. ;-)

    Hitchens’ misogyny is bad. Those drawing most attention to it are sometimes those who would do the most to excuse it if he had been religious, but that doesn’t make it any less bad.I don’t know what to do about it.

  18. julian says

    Hitchens’ alleged lack of interest in women intellectually (he wasn’t very interested in them sexually either) is neither here nor there, he was interested in what he was interested in. And I think the comments here about avoiding ‘mistakes’ in his thinking are hilarious. Just the sort of dogmatic, commissar-like mentality that he had so much fun dismantling.

    What utterly vapid dribble. ‘He was interested in what he was interested in.’ Yes and he was wrong whenever he was wrong. What’s your point?

  19. Svlad Cjelli says

    “Hitchens responded fast and ferociously, all but shouting, “Who the hell are you?” and then adding, “I’m sure you’re as stupid as you look.” That’s no good. Yes what the guy said was both silly and bossy (and servile underneath), but the response was overkill.”

    Overkill? It’s a dismissive slap on the wrist. An enlongated “Bah!”
    How to not overkill?

    Worse that his writings at least for me at times were difficult or impossible to parse, as if something was overlooked in editing. But I guess everyone writes like that.

  20. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    Golly gee, though, why couldn’t he have been one thing to all people all the time? How dare he be so unfailingly human?

    Hmmm. Is this meant to imply that misogyny (and unhinged racism for that matter) are not harmful and no big deal so why is anyone talking about it?

  21. Godless Heathen says

    Sophie (@14):

    Freethinkers don’t need saints or holy icons.

    Thank you! This is what has been driving me crazy about all the posts honoring Hitchens lately.

  22. Lyanna says

    Dirigible: Hussein’s violations of international law do not even arguably justify the Iraq invasion, either legally or morally. And there is no Intentional Fallacy in politics: if a politician is a moron run by evil bastards, you can’t simply trust him to do what he says he will do as competently as possible.

    Atticus: I disagree, the case for the Iraq war was risible and contemptible. All of the “good points” in favor of the was depended on two crucial assumptions: that the invasion (1) was intended to alleviate the problems you bring up, and (2) could reasonably be expected to actually alleviate those matters, without excessive bloodshed.

    The weight of the evidence was so strongly against those two assumptions that holding them was a parlous failure of both skepticism and humanitarianism. Failing to reject them after the fact, as Johann Hari and other liberal hawks did, was an even worse failure. It was an obvious and morally reprehensible indulgence in wishful thinking over skeptical analysis. That’s why, although Hitchens will remain one of my favorite essayists (how could he not? The man could turn a phrase), I will never consider him a skeptic or a favorite thinker.

    Because I feel the need to say something good about the dead, I will say that his exposé of Mother Theresa was phenomenal. It really opened my eyes to how Christianity could confound people into thinking that inflicting pain was “spiritual” and how Christian teachings of forgiveness can be used to guilt-trip the oppressed into accepting their oppression. Many have praised Hitchens for pointing out Mother Theresa’s lack of actual help for the sick. That was certainly worth exposing. But for me, the most valuable part of The Missionary Position was his description of how Mother Theresa was trotted out as damage control, to tell victims to “forgive” those who had wronged them, rather than first demanding restorative justice.

  23. carlie says

    Is this meant to imply that misogyny (and unhinged racism for that matter) are not harmful and no big deal so why is anyone talking about it?

    Total disregard for half of all of humanity and their possible contributions to science and culture and society? Why, that’s just normal, no indication of any type of faulty thinking whatsoever. Nothing to see here.

  24. Torquil Macneil says

    “What utterly vapid dribble. ‘He was interested in what he was interested in.’ Yes and he was wrong whenever he was wrong. What’s your point?”

    My point? You’ve made it for me: Hitchens was sometimes right, and sometimes wrong (unlike, um, who exactly?) and that is neither here nor there. Likewise, he wasn’t interested in every subject equally. He seems to have little interest in cake making,for example, or epidemiology or feminist theory, to name just a few things. And that is neither here nor there either, even if one of these things is your top fave and you really, really think everyone else should share your interest.

    As to those people who think that Hitchens was a ‘misogynist’, I advise you to buy a dictionary and put your mind to rest.

  25. Torquil Macneil says

    “Atticus: I disagree, the case for the Iraq war was risible and contemptible. ”

    I know that this argument will run and run and that this is the current orthodoxy, but Hitchens disagreed with you and so, it seems, do the majority of Iraqis.

  26. julian says

    Hitchens was sometimes right, and sometimes wrong (unlike, um, who exactly?)

    When you feel a public figure is wrong, it’s generally the custom to give voice to such a feeling. Likewise when you feel this reflects poorly on them or think it a failing on their part.

    And that is neither here nor there either, even if one of these things is your top fave and you really, really think everyone else should share your interest.

    Ha! If it was only a disinterest in certain topics.

    The man opined on everything no matter how little he knew about it or how much he cared to learn. One of those things that’s just going to rub some people the wrong way.

    As to those people who think that Hitchens was a ‘misogynist’, I advise you to buy a dictionary and put your mind to rest.

    Whatever, bro.

  27. Torquil Macneil says

    “The man opined on everything no matter how little he knew about it or how much he cared to learn.”

    He just didn’t. You might be furious that he was callous enough to entirely ignore the plight of show cats in Northumberland, or whatever hobby horse you are riding, but it is beside the point and there is no good reason why anyone else (least of all Hitchens) should care.

    And if you think Hitchens was wrong about something and feel the world needs to know, go for it, fill your boots. But snivelling that he was wrong about some stuff and therefore this proves some awful moral delinquency … blah, blah, blah, is just meaningless blather.

  28. says

    . He seems to have little interest in cake making,for example, or epidemiology or feminist theory, to name just a few things.

    Always good to know where the concerns of half the human population rank.
    But for a simple rule: If you have no idea what you’re talking about: STFU
    That’s what people also criticise: He was a brilliantly read person who spent much time learning about the things he spoke about, except when it came to women, that’s where his manly man brain was good enough.

  29. Torquil Macneil says

    “Always good to know where the concerns of half the human population rank.”

    The things that Hitchens was mainly interested in, politics, liberty, literature, religion, affect all parts of humanity equally. I don’t see why women are excluded from that. What he din’t occupy himself with was feminism. Why should he? It’s not like he had loads of time on his hands. I am sure that even you, Giliell neglect some important areas enquiry in your study of the human condition.

  30. says

    Torquil – it’s very generous of you to tell us all what is here and there and what is not, and to decide what is meaningless blather, and similar forms of sorting – but actually it’s not clear how you know which is which, so I think we’ll just go on deciding for ourselves. (What’s been discussed so far is certainly not off topic, whatever else it may be.)

  31. says

    I posted before reading 33. sigh.

    Why should he? That’s a ridiculous question. Because it was and is a huge part of the life of his times, and it was and is about equal rights for half of humanity. If he genuinely wasn’t at all interested, that’s a colossal blind spot and example of male smugness.

  32. Torquil Macneil says

    I don’t think I claimed anything was off topic Ophelia, I was just offering an opinion like all the rest and my comments weren’t directed to everyone equally. But it does strike me as absurd to complain as Pollitt does that Hitchens didn’t write enough about the things she would have preferred him to write about. It is just beside the point. We could say the same about Pollitt herself: a fine writer in many ways but her complete indifference to the situation of child workers in Peruvian emerald mines exhibits a darker and more unpleasant aspect of her personality that should not go unmentioned.

  33. julian says

    But snivelling that he was wrong about some stuff and therefore this proves some awful moral delinquency.

    You seem to be having a conversation all with yourself, Torquil Macneil. Perhaps you should remind yourself he was just another person.

    This is a thread about Christopher Hitchens. The OP is a link with commentary on a somewhat critical obit written by a former colleague of his. Nothing I’m doing is out of place.

  34. Torquil Macneil says

    “Why should he? That’s a ridiculous question. Because it was and is a huge part of the life of his times, and it was and is about equal rights for half of humanity.”

    Hitchens was interested in human rights, that includes women, rights and sometimes womens’ rights were dramatically to the fore where their human rights were most dramatically infringed, such as in his criticism of muslim theocracy. So if that was Pollitt’s point, she just hasn’t been paying attention. What he wasnt’ interested in (it seems) was feminism or feminist theory or writing, a minority interest even among women. And why should he be? He wasn’t interested in development economics either, a subject that affects substantially more than half the world’s population and is a matter of life and death for billions, but that wasn’t where his interests lay. Why should they?

  35. Torquil Macneil says

    “She is central to my argument that literature can depose religion as an ethical resource. It’s astonishing to me how she knew so much about the human soul in a way that I don’t think anyone else knew about motives and actions except Shakespeare.”

    Hitchens on George Eliot. Just a few of the many thousands of words he wrote about Eliot without ever managing to give Pollitt the ‘impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking’. Ho hum.

  36. Josh Slocum says

    Why does it bother you so much that people are voicing disagreement with Hitchens’ casual sexism? Why does that exercise you so that you declare we’re “commissar-like?” Why don’t you understand how appallingly rude that would strike people who think, justifiably, that women deserve to be thought about as people a little more carefully? You have a hell of a lot of nerve storming in here and spewing that kind of crap at us right after chastising us for considerably less bile-ridden commentary of our own.

  37. John the Drunkard says

    Well, everyone is clamoring to demonstrate their correctness over Iraq. Again and again and again.

    More important to the issue at hand: somone has finally mentioned the downside of Hitchen’s drinking. The belligerance and resentment that go along with perpetual self-impairment.

    WC Fields built most of his schtick around the same observation: when your boozing forms the unseen background of all your activities, the whole world seems to conspire against you.

  38. says

    Torquil – I don’t consider feminism some kind of peculiar narrow specialist interest, I consider it central. The fact that many people consider it narrow or trivial or both just underlines how central it is.

    And again, this is all the more true for someone like Hitchens, who certainly can’t be considered indifferent to the politics of his time.

    (I didn’t say you did say it was off topic, but you did say it was neither here nor there, which is fairly close.)

  39. carlie says

    But it does strike me as absurd to complain as Pollitt does that Hitchens didn’t write enough about the things she would have preferred him to write about. It is just beside the point.

    And if he had never written about women, then there probably wouldn’t be anything to talk about. The thing is, he did write about them, and the things he wrote were bad.

  40. Bruce Gorton says

    Atticus_of_Amber
    (c) I disagree with. GW Bush was a shit president, but a highly skilled politician. He was using those evil bastards to deflect blame from himself, he wasn’t being used by them.

  41. Bruce Gorton says

    Hitchens was thoroughly sexist. He was also a great writer though. I view him a bit as having been directly descended from HL Mencken, much as he wanted to be a modern Orwell. He had a lot to say that was worth listening to – but he also had his own bullshit you needed to be careful of.

  42. Torquil MacNeil says

    Ophelia, I realise that feminism is a central concern for you, and you make a good case for it’s centrality, but that does not make it a failing if another writer does not share your priorities. I might criticise you for failing to properly engage with Marxism in your writing, and marxists certainly consider that central, but I guess you would shrug and say, as I am saying here, that Marxism just is not one of your interests and that cannot be considered a personal failing (in fact certain leftists do criticise feminists like you Ophelia, feminists who criticise sexist practice in the middle eastern theocracies without properly considering the class structure of the imperialist world order in exactly that way, but you spot the dishonesty and excoriate it). Hitchens was concerned with universal rights and freedoms, economic, social and political for all, including women, and in that sense (your sense I think) he was of cousre a feminist. The fact that he did not do the kind of writing about women that Pollitt prefers , is neither here mor there.

  43. Godless Heathen says

    So, I haven’t read much of Hitchens’ work (except for his essay on why women aren’t funny *rolls eyes*). Does anyone have any recommendations for essays to read? Particularly those that pertain to his views on women?

    (I’m asking for essays because those are easy to access online, but I will gladly accept book recommendations, too.)

    Thanks!

  44. says

    Torquil, yes it does (make it a failing). Again, I’m not talking about a hobby or a taste, I’m talking about equality for half of humanity. It’s a failing when people ignore women. Lots of people do it, but that doesn’t make it not a failing.

  45. Lyanna says

    Torquil, human rights and liberty are not “for all” unless they are incorporated with feminism. They are only for men and do not affect women equally. And your comparison of feminism–the right of half the population to have the same “human rights” as men–to cake-making is insultingly stupid.

    Your reference to Marxism is wildly off-base as well. Marxism is a topic never discussed on this website. Hitchens is being criticized, not for merely failing to discuss feminism, but for being sexist. I don’t think Katha Pollitt, or any other feminist, would blame someone for simply talking about other subjects. But Hitchens’s “disinterest” was not of the silent variety; it was of the vocally contemptuous variety.

    And besides, I suspect that Ophelia Benson is not a Marxist. So she wouldn’t say she’s “not interested” in Marxism, but would instead say that it’s wrong. And Marxists would have every right to criticize her for that. Did Hitchens think feminism was wrong? If so, he was not in favor of universal human rights, by my reckoning.

    And what gives you the authority to speak for the Iraqi people about our occupation of them? Particularly the dead ones? Where is your evidence that they ever wanted us there? The arrogance of those who blithely assert that an occupied (tortured, massacred, starving) population really likes it that way is astonishing.

  46. Lyanna says

    Indeed, Pollitt’s discussion of Hitchens’s “disinterest” in women refers to him writing about women [i]without doing basic research[/i]. Writing about women with lordly authority, and in complete ignorance, because “the woman question” is such a fluffy topic that any man can come in and sort it out without much thinking. Writing about women the way a British imperialist writes about a subject race–all ignorant condescension, with no care to learn the facts, because the facts can’t be all that hard or all that interesting. It’s just women, after all.

    Silence about women would be far preferable. If Hitchens had emulated, with respect to feminism, this blog’s silence about Marxism, he would have annoyed me less.

  47. says

    What Lyanna said @ 50: quite.

    Being “concerned with universal rights” is unfortunately quite consistent with being unconcerned with women’s rights. It shouldn’t be, logically as well as morally, but it is. Women in the US for instance weren’t included in the protections of the 14th Amendment, and they still aren’t.

  48. carlie says

    Ophelia, I realise that feminism is a central concern for you, and you make a good case for it’s centrality, but that does not make it a failing if another writer does not share your priorities.

    It’s not “doesn’t share priorities” of feminism that is being criticized, it is being blatantly anti-feminist that is being criticized.

    Writing about women the way a British imperialist writes about a subject race–all ignorant condescension, with no care to learn the facts, because the facts can’t be all that hard or all that interesting. It’s just women, after all.

    Silence about women would be far preferable.

    Exactly. It wasn’t that he wasn’t a “good enough” feminist and didn’t give it enough attention, it’s that he DID give it attention, and the attention he gave it was odious. It’s ok to criticize him for that.

  49. julisn says

    Indeed, Pollitt’s discussion of Hitchens’s “disinterest” in women refers to him writing about women [i]without doing basic research[/i].

    And that’s plenty of a failing for someone who considers hirself an intellectual. In what other field can you dismiss everything that’s ever been written on a topic and not get called out for talking out of your ass?

  50. Caru says

    Wikipedia’d this:

    ‘He described his current drinking routine on working-days as follows: “At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No ‘after dinner drinks’ — ​most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. ‘Nightcaps’ depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before. No mixing: no messing around with a gin here and a vodka there.”‘

    “He drinks, he says, ‘because it makes other people less boring. I have a great terror of being bored. But I can work with or without it. It takes quite a lot to get me to slur.'”

    Is there any reason not to call him an alcoholic? His defence was that he was able to meet all his writing deadlines – naive stuff.

  51. Lyanna says

    Indeed, julian @ 54. It’s an intellectual failing, a failure of rigor, and one need not subscribe to any particular ideology to critique that failure.

    Ophelia @ 52: the 14th Amendment sort of protects women’s rights, according to the Supreme Court, even though it probably wasn’t originally intended to. Gender-based restrictions are subjected to “intermediate scrutiny” under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, while racial restrictions are subjected to the more rigorous “strict scrutiny.” Antonin Scalia (and probably Clarence Thomas, too) doesn’t think women should get even intermediate scrutiny, but that’s where the law is right now.

  52. says

    Always good to have Torquil MacNeil mansplain to us what it’s really all about.
    No, Torquil, even if only a minority of women are somewhat interested in and read in feminism, it doesn’t make it kind of a “specialized hobby”, just like the fact that only very few people are interested in international law, or civil rights as such, or even politics as such doesn’t mean they’re only “specialized hobbies”.
    Most western women might not be interested in feminism and have probably deeply held misconceptions about feminism, nevertheless they owe feminism. They take it for granted and “natural” that they can decide to take up or leave a job, not knowing, not remembering that in a lot of the western world even a generation ago wives needed their husbands’ permission.
    That’s not the result of miscalleneous “civil rights” or “human rights”, but of feminism. And I haven’t even started on reproductive rights.
    Also, as said before, the problem isn’t that he wasn’t interested, the problem was that he nevertheless thought he could write about it, like his more than naive pro-life stance, which would look OK for a 12 year old girl who has just started an interest in such matters but is yet lacking the ability to see the wider issue.

  53. Torquil Macneil says

    “And what gives you the authority to speak for the Iraqi people about our occupation of them? Particularly the dead ones? Where is your evidence that they ever wanted us there? 2

    Lyanna, there ave been a large number of opinion polls in Iraq, all of them, as far as I am aware, have found a majority in favour of the war. What gives you the right to ignore those voices? how dare you speak for the dead of Iraq (including, I assume, the thousands murdered by Hussein)?

    If you don’t like the analogy to Marxism, try economics. That is a subject that is of development pressing concern many, may more tan half of the world’s population, is it fair to condemn all essayist and bloggers who do not show sufficient interest, research or knowledge in that? Or is it only feminism that has this special status?

    And to recapitulate: Hitchens did fight for womens rights in a practical sense, opposing the theocracies that deprived them of their rights, for example, something even Pollitt must have noticed, and he referenced oppression of women as a substantial part of charge against such regimes. He engaged deeply and with deep sympathy with those women writers that he found interesting and he championed the causes of specific women who were vicitmised in largepart because of their ex, so the charge against him only really amounts to ‘he didn’t spend enough time writing about the sort of things that Pollitt thinks people should write about’.

  54. Torquil Macneil says

    “And that’s plenty of a failing for someone who considers hirself an intellectual. In what other field can you dismiss everything that’s ever been written on a topic and not get called out for talking out of your ass?”

    I wish someone would explain just where these thought crimes were committed. Is it al about that one silly essay about women’s sense of humour? If so, the charge amounts to ‘he wrote an article I didn’t agree with’, doesn’t it?

  55. Torquil Macneil says

    “Is there any reason not to call him an alcoholic? His defence was that he was able to meet all his writing deadlines – naive stuff.”

    I suppose the best reason is that he wasn’t an alcoholic. Where does this puritan desire to denounce the habits of others come from?

  56. dirigible says

    “If so, the charge amounts to ‘he wrote an article I didn’t agree with’, doesn’t it?”

    No, it amounts to him being wrong in that instance. Due to the article being demonstrably incorrect.

    It’s not a thought crime. It’s a failure of the values and virtues being claimed for him and that he demonstrated in most areas of intellectual life.

    You are quite determined to establish the factual accuracy of his other writings. Why are you making an exception here? “That one silly article about women’s X” simply confirms that you feel that the status of women in society is something that need not be taken seriously.

    Your defence isn’t.

  57. Torquil Macneil says

    “No, it amounts to him being wrong in that instance. Due to the article being demonstrably incorrect.”

    But he was wrong, or we can think he was wrong in countless instances. It isn’t much to build a thesis on, is it?

    As to “simply confirms that you feel that the status of women in society is something that need not be taken seriously.” the best answer is ‘pshaw’. I take the status of women in society very seriously even though (and I warn you this is going to seem like horribly difficult idea) I don’t care if Hitchens wrote a silly article about women not being funny.

  58. Carlie says

    . I take the status of women in society very seriously

    No, you don’t. Stop pretending like you’re an ally to women to get the kudos and cookies when everything you’re saying indicates that deep down you agree with Dr. Dre.

  59. Torquil Macneil says

    I’m not quite sure where Dr Dre stands on women (I am guessing it’s not good news though), but I am a passionate supporter of women’s rights and friend to ardent feminists all over. My daughter is going to be right fire-breather, I can assure you.

  60. Bruce Gorton says

    Lyanna, there ave been a large number of opinion polls in Iraq, all of them, as far as I am aware, have found a majority in favour of the war. What gives you the right to ignore those voices? how dare you speak for the dead of Iraq (including, I assume, the thousands murdered by Hussein)?

    And just who exactly conducted these polls?

    If you don’t like the analogy to Marxism, try economics. That is a subject that is of development pressing concern many, may more tan half of the world’s population, is it fair to condemn all essayist and bloggers who do not show sufficient interest, research or knowledge in that? Or is it only feminism that has this special status?

    Damn straight it is when the given essayist writes or blogs about it without doing adequate research, and their essay or blog only covers it just deeply enough to demonstrate their disinterest in the subject. It is exactly what we criticise a lot of anti-gnus for when they write long screeds about how bored they are of religious debate.

    If something doesn’t interest you, you don’t write about it. Boredom is not something that translates into riveting reading.

  61. julian says

    I don’t care if Hitchens wrote a silly article about women not being funny.

    You do care because you keep chastising anyone who cites it as an example of the man falling very short of his professed ideals.

    Where does this puritan desire to denounce the habits of others come from?

    When those habits are dangerous or harmful, yeah, some people refer to them negatively.

    My daughter is going to be right fire-breather, I can assure you.

    What’s that got to do with anything? Any future children I have will most certainly not be fire breathers if I can help it. Obnoxious jerks need to be kept to a minimum.

  62. Torquil Macneil says

    “What’s that got to do with anything? Any future children I have will most certainly not be fire breathers if I can help it. 2

    Well the world needs followers too, I guess.

  63. julian says

    Well the world needs followers too, I guess.

    Hahaha!

    Oh my god, dude. I can see why defending Christopher Hitchens against even legitimate criticism is so important to you.

  64. Carlie says

    but I am a passionate supporter of women’s rights and friend to ardent feminists all over.

    And yet, it is “silly” to complain about an article in which Hitch does a straight-face dismissal of women as a whole as if they were all one monolithic group? Or the article itself is “silly”? Talk about being dismissive.

  65. dirigible says

    “But he was wrong, or we can think he was wrong in countless instances. It isn’t much to build a thesis on, is it?”

    Therefore all men may or may not be Socrates.

    “I take the status of women in society very seriously even though (and I warn you this is going to seem like horribly difficult idea) I don’t care if Hitchens wrote a silly article about women not being funny.”

    The laddie doth protest too much…

    You have chosen this area as an area where what he said, why he said it, and his lending his intellectual authority to it wasn’t important. This is in stark contrast to your defence of him in other areas. That the article *can* be intended or received as “silly” speaks volumes.

    But let me guess: some of your best friends are women and you’ve asked them and they don’t find it offensive.

  66. Torquil Macneil says

    “And yet, it is “silly” to complain about an article in which Hitch does a straight-face dismissal of women as a whole as if they were all one monolithic group? Or the article itself is “silly”? Talk about being dismissive.”

    The article itself was silly but it is perfectly reasonable to complain about it. What is unreasonable is to attempt to build some argument about the intellectual or moral deficiencies of Hitchens on the back of it. Why focus on that one bum note when you have thousands of other pieces to choose from? Pollitt’s more substantial claim that she can find no evidence of Hitchens having engaged seriously with a woman writer’s work is also frivolous even if it were true (why should he be interested in writers that don’t interest him just because they are women? He is a journalist not a bureaucrat, curator, or legislator) but since she must know that he has written thousands of words on, say, George Eliot, it is hard not to think it is worse than silly an is, in fact, really a bit of aggro emanating from the personal antipathy she felt towards the deceased. I am not saying she should have liked him, and it may be valuable to point out he could be rude and aggressive for those who were labouring under the impression that he had the diffident manners of a village curate, but it all tells us more about the insecurities of Pollitt than it does about Hitchens.

  67. says

    It’s not a bit unreasonable. Try thinking about that article with “blacks” substituted for “women”; maybe then you’ll manage to understand why it’s not.

    That kind of sweeping, casual, from a great height, disdainful pronouncement on a whole (in this case, enormous) set of people just is illiberal; if it were about a race it would be racist, and obviously so.

    It’s always interesting, in a disgusting sort of way, how cheerfully a great many people will say things about “women” that they would never say about Other Races.

    It’s also interesting to see you (Torquil) be so easily indifferent to it. Yes it’s just one article, but so what? It’s one article that he chose to write and publish.

  68. julian says

    What is unreasonable is to attempt to build some argument about the intellectual or moral deficiencies of Hitchens on the back of it. Why focus on that one bum note when you have thousands of other pieces to choose from?

    Because that ‘one bum note’ is illustrative of his failings in that area.

    but it all tells us more about the insecurities of Pollitt than it does about Hitchens.

    But your hero worship is disgusting.

  69. Torquil Macneil says

    “It’s always interesting, in a disgusting sort of way, how cheerfully a great many people will say things about “women” that they would never say about Other Races.”

    That is, at least in part, because races and sexes are different things, one important difference being that one exists and the other doesn’t. The sexes do have pertinent characteristics that divide them and so it is not on the face of it absurd to speculate about what they are and where the divides lie, even if it often leads you into absurdities. Someone I know recently pondered aloud why it was that men were such hypochondriacs leading to a long and enthusiastic bout of theorising by all the women present. I managed to keep my offence to myself but I am planning to put the boot in if she ever gets cancer and is no longer able to defend herself!

    I can’t cite the Eliot discussions but could find them if pushed. One at least was a public lecture on Eliot and another was in the collection of essays where he takes on Said’s theory of orientalism (defining Eliot at length of the charge if I remember correctly). There’s bound to be something in his collections of lit crit too since he always cited Eliot as the finest writers in world literature.

  70. Torquil Macneil says

    “Because that ‘one bum note’ is illustrative of his failings in that area.”

    No, it’s not.

    And look up ‘hero worship’. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.

  71. Torquil Macneil says

    It seems Hitchens also wrote the chapter on Eliot for the Portable atheist and the chapter on Emma Goldman too, although perhaps producing chapter length essays would not be enough to qualify as ‘bother[ing]’ to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking’ for such a demanding critic as Pollitt.

    What’s the betting that Hitchens never got around to writing in depth about Rosa Luexmberg too? Anyone want to put money on it? Can we allow that he may have done at least the most basic research and reading in that quarter?

  72. says

    The sexes do have pertinent characteristics that divide them and so it is not on the face of it absurd to speculate about what they are and where the divides lie, even if it often leads you into absurdities.

    Biologistic “because it makes more sense to me” explenation from Torquil in 3-2-1…
    So it’s absolutely OK to make sweeping assumptions about them and treat all of them alike.

    I managed to keep my offence to myself but I am planning to put the boot in if she ever gets cancer and is no longer able to defend herself!

    You’re disgusting.

  73. julian says

    And look up ‘hero worship’. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.

    No, I’m pretty sure it means what I think it means. And you bending over backwards to blame the people Mr. Hitchens was boorish and bullying towards (because they were to thin skinned for your hero) supports my accusation.

  74. Torquil Macneil says

    Before I retire, this. Did I post it here before? Apologies if so, but it bears repeating:

    “Q: Who are the authors in your pack?

    Hitchens: The pack would be George Eliot – I don’t know why I say that first – Auden certainly, Kipling, I shouldn’t leave out Buchan. Before I read Fleming I’d read most of Buchan and I still find it pretty amazing. Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment in particular. Koestler. I’m afraid most of these are English or American. George Eliot was central to my argument that literature can depose religion as an ethical resource. Her books are not full of ethical considerations. You wonder how she knew so much about the human soul in a way that I don’t think anyone else knew about motives and actions except Shakespeare. It’s absolutely astonishing to me.”

  75. says

    Torquil, I know that Hitchens admired Eliot. I never disputed that. But you asserted that he wrote thousands of words about her. You haven’t backed up that assertion.

    I looked in Unacknowledged Legislation; it has all of two page references, so it doesn’t help you.

    The bit about race v sex – I disagree.

  76. johnr says

    You misquote Hitch in the CBC interview. He upbraids the fellow by saying, “I think you’re about as smart as you look.” And this after the man had accused, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  77. johnr says

    Me too. A tasty, piquant flinch, as usual. Christopher Hitchens was an oasis in the desert of decorum.

  78. says

    It isn’t just the “Women can’t be funny” dropping; my own quarrel with Hitchens goes back further than that, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Meredith Tax’s blog in May, 1989, summarizes it well, and I’ll quote here and dig up a Nation link later:

    A recent example is Christopher Hitchens’s column in the April 24 Nation, in which he criticizes feminists as proponents of “disposable fetuses” and, with sweet trust in the state, proposes that “we” address abortion in terms of social needs rather than individual rights. This is to be done via a National Health Service that will give free birth control and prenatal care. (Is it possible that he thinks he is the first person to propose this, and has done so little homework that he is ignorant of the work of the feminist health movement?)

    I don’t know what benign state Hitchens is talking about; it can’t be the one I live in. As for utopian fantasy, mine does not include handing over the rights to my body to any state. As a woman, I can no more afford to feel Hitchens’s contempt for what he calls “‘Me Decade’ possessive individualism” than can the millions of Soviet citizens who want glasnost. Hitchens is one more example of the striking fact that men who can eloquently defend the individual right to free speech, as he did in the case of Salman Rushdie, can be completely out to lunch when it comes to women’s individual rights—to the point where they can’t even see the intimate connection between the right to free speech and the right to birth control and abortion, intertwined in the history of this country.

    Here.

  79. dirigible says

    “I managed to keep my offence to myself but I am planning to put the boot in if she ever gets cancer and is no longer able to defend herself!”

    What a terribly clever and funny comparison that isn’t.

  80. Lyanna says

    Ron Sullivan: that was what bothered me most as well, much more so than the silly and self-contradictory “women aren’t funny” nonsense. (Seriously, in that article he lists all the funny women that disprove his statement…and then claims they don’t count, because they’re “masculine!” And why are they masculine? Uh…because they’re funny. And why is that masculine? Uh…because there’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza…)

    But the idea of someone caring so passionately for individual liberty against religious repression when it is the type of liberty that can affect men, yet being so dismissive of it when it affects women, really gets my goat.

    If you don’t like the analogy to Marxism, try economics. That is a subject that is of development pressing concern many, may more tan half of the world’s population, is it fair to condemn all essayist and bloggers who do not show sufficient interest, research or knowledge in that? Or is it only feminism that has this special status?

    Oh, it’s “special status” to expect someone to know a subject before they mouth off about it, is it? It’s “special status” to criticize someone for blathering cluelessly? Give me a break. If a famous essayist wrote stupid things about economics, you can be sure economists would be criticizing him for being a know-nothing gasbag. And rightly. If you want to lay down the law about any subject, you need to do some basic research about it first.

    Except, in your opinion, for feminism! Feminism has “special status,” all right–it’s the only subject on which pontificating ignorantly is okay. People will defend clueless drivel about women with nonsequiturs about their daughters and George Eliot. That’s the sort of special status I can do without, thanks.

    As for your race vs. gender distinction, Torquil, most assumed gender distinctions have also proved wholly imaginary. Some may be real (so are some “racial” differences, like a propensity to Tay-Sachs disease), but most aren’t. And even the real ones are matters of tendency, and often very weak tendency at that. They don’t justify blanket statements of “Women aren’t X” or “Men aren’t X”–statements that can be quite harmful, particularly to women (as the lower-status group) because they perpetuate stereotype threat. Women are no more monolithic than black people, whatever sex differences may exist, and women are just as likely to be harmed by categorical statements about their sex as minorities are about their race.

    All in all, Torquil, you’re proving julian’s point about hero worship. Especially your nasty crack about cancer because a woman made a silly battle-of-the-sexes joke about men being hypochondriacs. It seems that you’re following Hitchens’s occasional bullying and mean-spiritedness, but sadly you don’t have the wit to make up for it.

  81. says

    Thanks for the Meredith Tax item, Ron; very interesting. Small nitpick: it wasn’t a 1989 blog (surely blogs didn’t exist in 1989?) but an article in the Nation.

  82. julian says

    As for your race vs. gender distinction, Torquil, most assumed gender distinctions have also proved wholly imaginary.

    I don’t know about wholly imaginary but there certainly doesn’t seem to be anything to support such explanations or even milder less sweeping generalizations.

    At most you can say there are fewer visible women in comedy (regarding Mr. Hitchens jab at women). Honestly don’t understand why you would try to go further and say it’s the ‘maleness’ of the one’s who are funny that makes them funny.

    For starters, like you mention, it’s entirely circular. (Women are only funny because they are like men. Only men are funny as is evident by only women who are like men being funny.) I’m often tempted to ask about transgendered people. A mtf received more ‘maleness’ than did the woman who’s maleness you hold up as being responsible for her success. Why then is she a she as opposed to a he? (And why isn’t he funny?)

    In fact, why do tranwomen often report suddenly being taken less seriously, while transmen report suddenly becoming the go to guy?

    Where does this supposed maleness come from, exactly, and how can so much of it have no effect while tiny drops of it propel one to the front of an industry? Is maleness homeopathic?

  83. Saurs says

    I meant that, as far as I can tell, Hitchens found the allure of a room full of people, a full glass, a smoke, and an argument about Kurdistani politics, more attractive than a tryst with a woman.

    There’s an underlying assumption here that the hypothetical “room full of people” means a diverse group of men, and that women would be unwelcome in a purely intellectual sphere, being good for one or two things only. I think that about sums up Hitchens’ feelings nicely. Why an apologist for his particular brand of loathsome but garden variety misogyny should feel this absolves his hero of some dreadful “thought crime” (ye gods!) is a bit more mysterious. (I suspect it has something to do with unexamined biases. You know, women are meant for trysts, and men are meant to gab around with because they’re your equals.)

  84. Saurs says

    Yes. Women almost get the status of “people” (as in a room full of them) when they’re compliant audience members for important men to speak at, lecture, and demonstrate worldly wisdom. I think in Torquil’s mind it’s somehow a point in Hitchens favor that instead of fucking women, he’d rather exclude them from his important homosocial drinking parties.

  85. Kitteh says

    There’s a neat summation of Hitchens on the Overrated White Dudes site – “More lucid than the average mean-spirited drunk.”

  86. Siverly says

    Wow. I managed to read all 97 commments. I feel sick now.
    Should we burn Hitch’s books? Tear down the icons?

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