Maybe it sounded good at the editorial meeting: Have Christopher Hitchens, supposedly funny, clearly chauvinistic, write about Why Women Aren’t Funny. And so we gots, in a recent issue of Vanity Fair, Hitchens — who seems ever more a boorish drunk rather than a quick-witted friend of the vine; an intellectual bully who refuses to admit (regarding his support of the Iraq War) that he Got It Wrong; a one-time thoughtful leftist who finds himself stuck in the same dunce corner with the determinedly unthoughtful George W. Bush — trying to legitimize a mix of half-baked ‘conventional wisdom’ and overtired chauvinism by wrapping them up with a few threads of sketchy evo/devo research findings. The result is a piece about humor, sex, and science that is unfunny, off-putting, and — in instructive ways — far from scientific.
Why are women [Hitchens asks], who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.
He’s got me. I don’t know the answer, and I really do not know what Hitchens is talking about. It soon becomes clear that he doesn’t, either. Perhaps we’re supposed to surrender to Hitchens’ combination of wit, smarm, and smarts in much the way — so we’re to believe — unnumbered women have succumbed to those alleged charms in person:
The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh. Making them laugh has been one of the crucial preoccupations of my life. If you can stimulate her to laughter–I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth; the kind that is accompanied by a shocked surprise and a slight (no, make that a loud) peal of delight–well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further.
I might find this a little less nauseating if I hadn’t seen, in Ian Parker’s New Yorker profile of Hitchens, how Hitchens treats women when he’d rather dominate them (as he plainly sees charm and sex) via another route. The profile isn’t online, but Ezra Klein summarized this part of it nicely at his blog:
Parker relates a dinner party attended by Hitchens and his wife. Relaxed occasion, Hitchens and some women are shooting the shit over Gavin Newsome’s good looks and Iranian politics, when one of the attendees makes a “passing but sympathetic remark” about Howard Dean, saying he felt Dean was unfairly maligned by the media. Hitchen’s reply:
Dean was “a raving nut bag,” [Hitchens said]…then he corrected himself: “A raving, sinister, demagogic nutbag…I and a few other people saw that he should be destroyed.
Hitchens then recalls a time when Dean spoke against mandatory parental notification laws by telling of 12-year-old child who’d come to his office seeking an abortion. The baby was her father’s. But Dean hadn’t told the authorities of the incident, and it seemed that it may have happened to someone else, or been exaggerated, or something. Hitchens uses this to brand Dean a “pathological liar,” and when some at the table protest, Hitchens turns his shotgun full of crazy on the assembled:
“Fine, now that I know that, to you, medical ethics are nothing, you’ve told me all I need to know. I’m not trying to persuade you. Do you think I care whether you agree with me? No. I’m telling you why I disagree with you. That I do care about. I have no further interest in any of your opinions. There’s nothing you wouldn’t make an excuse for. You know what? I wouldn’t want you on my side. I was telling you why I knew that Howard Dean was a psycho and a fraud , and you say ‘That’s O.K.’ Fuck off. No, I mean it: fuck off. I’m telling you what I think are standards and you say, ‘What standards? It’s fine, he’s against the Iraq War.’ Fuck. Off. You’re MoveOn.org. Any liar will do. He’s anti-Bush. Fuck off…Save it sweetie, for someone who cares. It will not be me. You love it, you suck on it. I now know what your standards are, and now you know what mine are, and that’s all the difference — I hope — in the world.”
This was at, mind you, a dinner party.
Worth noting that this tirade was directed not at just the table (as Klein’s blog suggests) but at one woman in particular. Nothing would do but for Hitchens to utterly humiliate her, and if he couldn’t do it with reason then he was happy to simply shout her down. In service of “destroying” the one leading presidential candidate of 2004 who had the guts to call the Iraq War a mistake, Hitchens is glad to first grab a clumsy apocryphal anecdote and then, wielding it and his celebrity like a club, simply beat down, with a series of Fuck Off’s and insults. those who differ. Aparently he wasn’t feeling funny that night.Think carefully before you invite this man to a dinner party.
What does this have to do with Hitchens’ lame essay on the supposed lack of female humor? Hitchens’ ire at his dinner-party companion — like his uninformed and absurdly overblown hatred of Dean, his disdain for those who would question his support of the war, and (as Klein describes) his bizarre conviction that some people want the Iraq war to go badly just so he (Hitchens) will look bad — seems to rise from an anger at finding himself so profoundly wrong about Iraq.
Nobody likes being wrong; least of all a man of Hitchens’ intelligence, prominence, and vanity. In this case he compounds the problem, however, by sticking to his guns and failing to revisit the evidence. Hitchens, like many, was profoundly wrong about Iraq because — for reasons more personal and ideological than intellectual — he profoundly misread the evidence for war back before we got in this mess.
It’s troubling to see him now apply, in this gimpy essay about why women aren’t funny, the same prejudicial reasoning to issues of science. He employs any number of tired rhetorical tactics, starting by skipping over the essay’s most central and necessary assumption — that women aren’t as funny as men and don’t see humor as readily as men do — by simply saying “Don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about.” Having insisted on blind acceptance of his central primise, he throws out a bunch of prejudices and stereotypes we’re supposed to take as fact or insight.
Male humor prefers the laugh to be at someone’s expense, and understands that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with–and often a joke in extremely poor taste. Humor is part of the armor-plate with which to resist what is already farcical enough. (Perhaps not by coincidence, battered as they are by motherfucking nature, men tend to refer to life itself as a bitch.) Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is.
Men are savage, desperate hunters who must laugh to survive their trials; women are innocents — or maybe it’s saints, or maybe it’s vessels of purity — blessed, the tender dears, with the luxury of being serious.
I’m pained to say that he eventually attributes this “womanly seriousness” to women’s concern with bearing children. “For women,” Hitchens opines, “the question of funniness is essentially a secondary one. They are innately aware of a higher calling [child-bearing] that is no laughing matter.” (He works his way there via Nietzsche and Kipling. Such learning!) That, atop the sketchy findings from the humor-perception study he cites, is supposed to close the deal — and if it doesn’t, well, as Stanley Kowalski said, So what:
If I am correct about this, which I am, then the explanation for the superior funniness of men is much the same as for the inferior funniness of women. Men have to pretend, to themselves as well as to women, that they are not the servants and supplicants. Women, cunning minxes that they are, have to affect not to be the potentates. This is the unspoken compromise.
“If I am correct about this, which I am, then…”. Here’s the heart of Hitchens’ argument, and, sadly, the place from which this smart and talented man now seems content to write. We’re supposed to believe him because his prejudicial selection of facts seems to support his argument, and if we don’t buy it — if it turns out the facts don’t support the argument — then we’re supposed to believe him anyway, presumably because he’s charismatic, spins a good story, and will simply shout you down if need be.
This may be an invigorating place to write from. But in the realm of war, sex, or science, little good can come from it. It’s the same place, of course, from which Hitchens and others supported and launched the war, the place from which George W. Bush seeks to rule, and the place from which the very ideas of reason, evidence, and empiricism — the principles that are supposed to drive law, if not government, and which are supposed to define science — is daily assaulted.
I hate to see such a place given over to celebrity pontificators to write about science. Hitchens on Unfunny Women! Bolstered by science from top institutions! Maybe it sounded good at some poin. Alas, the results may reek of vanity, but they are hardly, in any sense of the word, fair.