What is it With Hitchens?

Over at Discover‘s blog, Melissa Lafsky has an interesting account of a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Lorenzo Albecete, on the subject of — what else? — God. Lafsky writes:

Are you there God, and if so, will you please provide an emissary that can go head-to-head with Christopher Hitchens without getting spectacularly flayed?

That was the pertinent issue during yesterday’s “Big Questions conversation” at the Pierre Hotel, hosted by On Faith and the John Templeton Foundation. The luncheon pitted Hitchens, the anti-theist poster child, against Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a physicist, theologian, and author of God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity.

Given the pro-God squad’s spectacular failure the last time it staged a debate like this, the buzz among the predominantly male and heavily tweeded crowd was, “Will Albacete bring his A game against a man known for his periodic disembowling of religious delegates?”

The answer, unfortunately, was a resounding no. While the monsignor presented a charismatic and sympathetic figure–his Isaac Hayes-esque vocal resonance was worth the trip alone–his arguments, if one could call them that, didn’t make it past a freshmen theology class.

Having seen Hitchens debate this topic a number of times, I find it easy to believe Lafsky’s account. He is a formidable debater at all times, and on this subject he has the added advantage of being on the side of sunlight and puppies.

Why, then, is his political commentary so relentlessly awful? Consider his latest expectoration for Slate.

Last week really ought to have been the end of the McCain campaign. With the whole country feeling (and its financial class acting) as if we lived in a sweltering, bankrupt banana republic, and with this misery added to the generally Belarusian atmosphere that surrounds any American trying to board a train, catch a plane, fill a prescription, or get a public servant or private practitioner on the phone, it was surely the moment for the supposedly reform candidate to assume a commanding position. And the Republican nominee virtually volunteered to assist that outcome by making an idiot of himself several times over, moving from bovine and Panglossian serenity about the state of the many, many crippled markets to sudden bursts of pointless hyperactivity such as the irrelevant demand to sack the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

And yet, and unless I am about to miss some delayed “groundswell” or mood shift, none of this has translated into any measurable advantage for the Democrat. (Emphasis added)

Hitchens apparently missed the nearly ten point shift in the national polls since the start of the financial crisis last week. Last Monday the polls were consistently showing McCain with a roughly five point lead. Those same polls are now showing Obama with a five point lead. And as Slate also reports, those gains are showing up in the state-by-state numbers as well.

To analyze this is to be obliged to balance some of the qualities of Obama’s own personality with some of the characteristics of his party. Here’s a swift test. Be honest. What sentence can you quote from his convention speech in Denver? I thought so. All right, what about his big rally speech in Berlin? Just as I guessed. OK, help me out: Surely you can manage to cite a line or two from his imperishable address on race (compared by some liberal academics to Gettysburg itself) in Philadelphia? No, not the line about his white grandmother. Some other line. Oh, dear. Now do you see what I mean?

Right. Obama’s big problem is his uninspiring oratory. Looks like Hitchens really nailed that one.

We are told by outraged Democrats that many voters still believe, thanks to some smear job, that Sen. Obama is a Muslim. Yet who is the most famous source of this supposedly appalling libel (as if an American candidate cannot be of any religion or none)? Absent any anonymous whispering campaign, the person who did most to insinuate the idea in public–“There is nothing to base that on. As far as I know”–was Obama’s fellow Democrat and the junior senator from New York. (Emphasis in original).

Yeah, it was Hillary Clinton who kept the meme going by saying she didn’t know of anything to suggest that Obama was a Muslim. The relentless discussions of this on the chat shows, especially on Fox News (terrorist fist jab?) had little to do with it, I suppose.

On and on it goes, sentence after divorced from reality sentence. So I return to the question posed in the title of this post. What is it with Hitchens? Why is he so sensible and sharp when discussing religion, but almost perfectly brain-dead on every other issue?

Comments

  1. #1 Pierce R. Butler
    September 23, 2008

    Why is he so sensible and sharp when discussing religion, but almost perfectly brain-dead on every other issue?

    And yet, some people still don’t believe in miracles!

  2. #2 SLC
    September 23, 2008

    1. This merely reflects Mr. Hitchens’ long-standing dislike of the Clintons. Nothing at all mysterious about it.

    2. Hitchens is right. Given the demonstrated incompetence of the Bush administration, and the current economic mess, the Democratic candidate should be at least 10 points ahead and headed for an electoral landslide. I would be willing to bet that if the ticket was Warner/Biden or Warner/Obama, that’s exactly what we would be looking at. And I don’t think that Prof. Rosenhouses’ hero, Senator Clinton, would be doing any better. The fact is that the country is not ready for a black president (or for a woman president either).

  3. #3 gzuckier
    September 23, 2008

    but you gotta admit “the generally Belarusian atmosphere that surrounds any American trying to board a train, catch a plane, fill a prescription, or get a public servant or private practitioner on the phone” is perfect.

  4. #4 Damien
    September 24, 2008

    Actually, SLC, I think what you meant to say was “stupid and old Americans” aren’t ready for a black or woman president. Every single young person that I have met in the last eight months has not only been in love with Obama, but most of them have even gone on to volunteer for his campaign. And this is not just in LA, where I live, but in Colorado, Nevada, Ohio and Florida.

    The funny thing they don’t have landlines. Hard to get in the poll if you aren’t part of the sample, eh?

  5. #5 Badger3k
    September 24, 2008

    The only problem is that the young and reasonable crowd have to actually vote, something that didn’t happen in the last election. Hopefully they will vote, while the old, elitist racists will decide to stay at home.

    Hitchens has some good points on religion, but his politics reflect his 180 from extreme leftist to extreme righty (or close to it). His unflinching support for unjust wars and the like just go to show that one can be rational and a critical thinker in one area, and be a complete flop in another. Bill Maher and his anti-vax lunacy (and more, maybe – isn’t he either a 9-11 truther or moon hoax follower? I forget to keep score of whackjobs these days) is another good example of this.

    Of course, to be fair, I consider Hitchens to be a pompous a$$, so I am biased.

  6. #6 Pseudonym
    September 24, 2008

    Why is he so sensible and sharp when discussing religion, but almost perfectly brain-dead on every other issue?

    He isn’t.

    When it comes to religion, Hitchens speaks almost entirely in slogans. That’s why he wins debates: a slogan is hard to refute in a short time. Scientists eventually woke up to the fact that “debating” Duane Gish is counter-productive, and theists will eventually work out that the same is true of Hitchens.

    OTOH, this kind of slogan-based non-reasoning makes for a very poor book, as anyone who has applied their rational thinking skills to God is not Great can attest.

    Hitchens is at his best when he’s being a journalist. His biographies and his literary annotations are superb (or, at least, the ones I’ve read are).

    But honestly, GING is just rubbish. Go read Breaking the Spell instead.

  7. #7 Scott Hatfield, OM
    September 24, 2008

    Why is he so sensible and sharp when discussing religion, but almost perfectly brain-dead on every other issue?

    Because Hitchens is first and foremost a poseur whose reputation is derived not so much from the substance of what he says, but the style with which he says it. He is an eminence in the same sense that Alexander Woolcott or H.L. Mencken were widely read and freely quoted in their time. We remember these worthies not so much for what they believed, but for their gifts at puncturing the pretensions of their targets.

    This category of intellectual is always at their best when they contemplate a sitting duck, such as religion or an entrenched political or social organization. Hitchens has had a lifetime of unbelief to rehearse his arguments and to adorn them with bon mots and memorable turns of phrase. Present him with a moving target, such as the ‘war criminal’ Kissinger or the question of WMD’s in Iraq, and he becomes considerably less persuasive. In fact, he’s been spectacularly unhelpful as a political analyst since Dubya was first elected, and does not seem to realize it. This puzzles those who are charmed by his obvious education and intelligence, but they have made an understandable error: they see this man’s obvious cultivation, and they assume that he is civilized. But they are mistaken.

  8. #8 Flaky
    September 24, 2008

    I can’t agree more with Pseudonym and Scott. Hitchens comes off as quite intelligent and a good debater solely on the account of his admirable eloquence. There is very little substance to what he says, it’s mostly just cheap rhetoric tricks and catch phrases that don’t penetrate the surface of the issue, repeated ad nauseum, e.g. the Heaven as a celestial North Korea.

  9. #9 Oldfart
    September 24, 2008

    Damien has a good point about the cell phones – worth investigating given the poor ability of the polls to predict the voting during the primaries. However, as an OLDFART who is NOT RACIST and WHO PLANS TO VOTE FOR OBAMA, I respectfully resent the suggestion that the elderly are any more racist than their young brethren.

    Young middle to lower class workers in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and Michigan are every bit as racist as their parents. These young people, who would have voted for Clinton, are the ones Obama needs to connect with if he can and he needs to assure them that he is nothing to be afraid of. To these kids, affirmative action is considered a direct and personal threat. And, please, don’t come back to me and say these young people deserve every thing they get because they are so “wrong”. These young people’s VOTES are, one for one, equal to your votes even if they are not elite.

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    September 24, 2008

    Pseudonym: “Hitchens is at his best when he’s being a journalist. His biographies and his literary annotations are superb (or, at least, the ones I’ve read are).”

    Judging from what Ed Brayton had to say, Hitchens’ biography of Thomas Jefferson is somewhat truth-challenged.

  11. #11 Sabrina
    September 24, 2008

    IMO, Hitchens is passionate about religion/theology. I liked God Is Not Great, although I will say the first half was better. Don’t know why. Hitchens doesn’t seem to have quite the same passion for politics.

    Perhaps Hitchens is trying to provoke some political thinking by his readers?

  12. #12 Greg Esres
    September 24, 2008

    I don’t perceive Hitchens to be a good debater. A big problem of his is that he allows himself to be drawn off into theological arguments, which gives his opponent the home field advantage. How can you “win” when you remove the criteria of reason and evidence?

    Second, his manner is all wrong. He’s not warm and friendly, which often shows his opponent to be a nicer guy, making him more convincing to the audience.

  13. #13 Virginia
    September 24, 2008

    Did you notice how Newsweek headlined Harris’s piece?:
    “When Atheists Attack” Since Harris hates the term “atheist,” I doubt he had anything to do with that headline.

    In any case, I agree that “God is Not Great,” despite some amusing moments, is mostly incoherant tripe. The book to read is “God’s Problem” by Bart Ehrman.

  14. #14 Pseudonym
    September 24, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey:

    Judging from what Ed Brayton had to say, Hitchens’ biography of Thomas Jefferson is somewhat truth-challenged.

    I haven’t read it, but reading Ed’s comments, I can’t say I’m surprised that Hitchens’ biography falls down when it comes to talking about religion. For some reason, Hitchens delights in claiming as many atheists from history as possible, often waiting until after they die so they can’t defend themselves (e.g. Mother Theresa).

    It kind of reminds me how at one point during the 80s, not a month went by without some homosexual activist declaring that yet another fictional character was really gay. My favourite example was Noddy and Big Ears. I guess I missed the homoerotic subtext when I read Enid Blyton back in the day.

    As an adult, I’m all for civil rights for everyone regardless of whatever, but I still occasionally recall that time and cringe a little inside.

  15. #15 windy
    September 24, 2008

    For some reason, Hitchens delights in claiming as many atheists from history as possible, often waiting until after they die so they can’t defend themselves (e.g. Mother Theresa).

    This is a weird accusation, the book with Teresa’s letters detailing her loss of faith was not out until last year, it was not some sort of invention by Hitchens.

    Are you by any chance confusing the atheism claims with Hitchens’ criticism of Teresa’s methods? His book ‘The Missionary Position’ came out when Teresa was still alive.

  16. #16 John Farrell
    September 25, 2008

    It gets even more interesting. Mike Potemra at NRO was at the debate, and he says this of Hitchens:

    “In the course of the discussion, Hitchens claimed not to be a reductionist; he said mankind cannot do without the “numinous” and (I think this was his other phrase) the “transcendent.””

    Now, bearing in mind Mike’s writing from his recollection, there may be a hint here as to what bugs Jason. While he may be an atheist, Hitchens is not necessarily a materialist. Which may explain his…um…inconsistent positions on things?

    For what it’s worth.

  17. #17 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 25, 2008

    John Farrell -

    Well, maybe! But I think Potemra’s interpretation of Hitchens’ remarks is rather strained, to put it kindly.

  18. #18 John Farrell
    September 25, 2008

    Yeah. I’m waiting for the video.
    (Strained interpretations is what conservative commentary is all about these days…)
    :)

  19. #19 Pseudonym
    September 25, 2008

    windy:

    Are you by any chance confusing the atheism claims with Hitchens’ criticism of Teresa’s methods? His book ‘The Missionary Position’ came out when Teresa was still alive.

    Very possibly. I try to limit my Hitchens intake as much as possible, because it’s very damaging to your brain.

  20. #20 Modusoperandi
    September 28, 2008

    The thing about debate is that it’s all rhetoric. “Prove X in ten minutes”, “Rebut X in six minutes”, “Rebut debunking of X in two minutes”. It’s not a rational dialogue, it’s live verbal combat (with points mostly thought up well before the debate).
    Hitchens in debates is witty and empty. This is because debates are, for lack of a better word, debates. If they were conversations (dialogues not limited by format or time) then maybe there’d be more flesh on the bones. Hitchens has a biting, acidic debate style. By contrast, someone like McGrath is vague and mushy, while D’souza’s motto is “Obfuscate!”. Each debater’s style works for their intended audience. Neither really solve anything.
    Debate isn’t about resolution. It’s about winning.

  21. #21 JimCH
    September 28, 2008

    Modusoperandi…
    Well said!

  22. #22 Modusoperandi
    September 28, 2008

    JimCH: Really? I don’t mean to be rude, and if you are offended by the following I apologize, but you need to get some higher standards.

  23. #23 JimCH
    September 28, 2008

    Not offended & you’re right; after a second closer look, it’s crap.

  24. #24 Modusoperandi
    September 28, 2008

    I’m glad that you’ve come to your senses. Personally, the only sense that I’ve managed to come to is smell. It’s pretty gross. But I digress…

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