Neuron Culture

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Richard
    February 19, 2007

    It sounds like Hitchens shares many personal characteristics with fellow alcoholic, George W.

  2. #2 Mike
    February 19, 2007

    Wow, a whole article and barely an argument in sight. Well done sir!

    I’m glad you called Hitchens a “boorish drunk” up front, as I might otherwise have assumed this article contained some kind of objective reporting. Your reference to Hitchens’ alleged behavior at a dinner party reeks of far more patronizing chauvinism than the article you’ve chosen to lambast (by the way, what *does* that article have to do with the Iraq War? You seem to bring it up a lot).

    If you even believe that a tirade of well over 100 words was recalled so adroitly by Parker (was there a stenographer at the dinner party?), what does this have to do with his treatment of women? The anecdote relates Hitchens making a point over dinner – granted, rather crassly, if you believe it as told. What bearing does the gender of the listener have on his argument?

    Aside from this section all you have is a repeated bleating that Hitchens is wrong on this article, and on the war. Saying it won’t make it so.

  3. #3 kristi
    February 19, 2007

    Good article. That Hitchens article about women’s unfunniness irritated me too. I suspect that women don’t choose to share their best jokes with a boorish drunk who might unload a shotgun of crazy on them at any moment. I know I wouldn’t. He is too irritable and defensive to invite playful banter.

    He might have revealed a little too much when he mentioned that a man’s best hope to getting a woman to loosen up is to make her throw her head back and laugh. Then, later, he laments the fact that women don’t appreciate jokes at another’s expense the way men do. One could extrapolate from that and say that he’s bitter because he’s too mean to get any action. I’m just sayin.’

  4. #4 Tree
    February 20, 2007

    Filled with rage to be at the mercy of those bitches…just as he was at the mercy of that Giantess in the Nursery? Didn’t Freud have something to say about the development of neuroses in response to that particular narcissistic wound? What kind of infantile rage would need to fill a person until the only adequate coping mechanism is to completely deny the humanity of an entire sex, to become so delusional that one is unable to perceive ordinary qualities like humor and wit? It seems to me that if women were soulless baby machines, it would be easier to overlook the fact that one is unable to master and control them…for a while at least, and if the lack of control becomes too intolerable, one can vomit some bile upon the object of one’s scorn for a moment of relief.

    Speaking as a human female, I prefer the company of men with courage enough to embrace life, the joy and the horror of it, who have strength enough to face reality, who take responsibility for their decisions and aren’t merely reacting to the ghosts of Mommy and Daddy. Whiny babies are boring, but there’s real humor in a man who can humbly acknowledge his humanity.

    Rumi had a song for such men:

    Has anyone seen the boy who used to come here?
    Round-faced troublemaker, quick to find a joke, slow to be serious.
    Red shirt,
    perfect co-ordination, sly,
    strong muscles, with things always in his pocket: reed flute,
    ivory pick, polished and ready for his talent.
    You know that one.
    Have you heard stories about him?
    Pharoah and the whole Egyptian world
    collapsed for such a Joseph.
    I’d gladly spend years getting word
    of him, even third or fourth hand.

    So long as he holds fast to his rage, Hitchens will never be that kind of man. What a waste.

  5. #5 GS Chandy
    April 2, 2007

    Well, I’ve read a fair number of articles by Christopher Hitchens, and have failed to find anything funny (ha-ha) or even funny (smile) in any of them. I do find plenty that is funny (peculiar) in many of them. He appears to me to be full of rage against something or the other. I believe he needs to do some deep psycho-analysis on himself.

    GSC

  6. #6 Tim C.
    October 26, 2007

    When I started reading the piece I genuinely thought “Hitch has tried his hand at satire – let’s see how well he’s done”. I was even going to show it to my wife and watch her giggle. To eventually have to realize he’s actually serious was quite a disappointment. Not just in Hitch, but in Vanity Fair. What’s next, an article explaining Why Blacks Are Not Good At Math?

    Mike, some good points but:

    >>(If you even believe that a tirade of well over 100 words was recalled so adroitly by Parker,) ***what does this have to do with his treatment of women***?

    To you, a remark like this “Save it sweetie, for someone who cares. It will not be me. You love it, you suck on it” has nothing to do with how the speaker treats women. That’s as big a stretch as David’s trying to prove an article about women and sense of humor is somehow directly caused by the author’s stance on Iraq.

    >>all you have is a repeated bleating that Hitchens is wrong on this article, and on the war. Saying it won’t make it so.

    Hitchen’s IS wrong on this article (which should be obvious to you unless you never met a woman in your life). You agree with him on Iraq, so do I but that doesn’t make him right on THIS issue. David was right to call him on being sexist – even if in the process, he amply proved that if the article hadn’t come from Hitch (who SUPPORTS THE WAR!!), its claims wouldn’t have really bothered him.