Editor’s note: This essay was first published Dec. 18, 2011.
My closet hero has died.
He called Bill Clinton a rapist. He wrote frequently of his distaste for George W. Bush. He was one of the few media elites to say openly and often that an “overrated” President Obama did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. He said women on the whole are not as funny as men because evolution required men to be funny to “get laid.” He questioned the faith and work of Mother Theresa, calling her a “fanatical fraud.” He had little regard for religion, noting more than once what he considered the “fakery of the story” about Jesus Christ.
British author Christopher Hitchens died Dec. 15 (2011), succumbing to a nasty esophageal cancer.
Please know it was not necessarily for any of the above reasons that Hitchens became my closet hero. He was a “closet” hero because I lacked the courage — the same courage Hitchens often displayed — to admit I firmly believed the greatest cultural thinker of our time is/was Christopher Hitchens. One must be careful, especially in the South, to praise the thinking of a writer who once noted the Bible is nothing more than “a sinister fairy tale.”
But one does not have to agree with the beliefs of Hitchens to appreciate the rare skill he so enjoyed thrusting upon the world: Critical Thinking.
The reading of Hitchens several decades ago exposed many holes in my narrow Johnson County, Arkansas, worldview. Within just a few chapters of Hitchens I became uncomfortably aware that most, if not all, of my views were formed with little to no critical thinking.
The only comfort found in the alarming revelation was that I was not the only person possessing a fragile moral and social foundation. The shallowness was and continues to be epidemic. Liberals and conservatives, professors and preachers, cops and criminals; only a minute few appear to have taken time to critically challenge inherited belief systems. (Although one might argue that criminals don’t pretend to lie about playing the part of an important socio-economic protagonist.)
If you do not have time to read the many writings of Hitchens, I would encourage you to at least consume “Letters to a Young Contrarian.” In this relatively short book, Hitchens attacks the status quo, religion, those disassociated from knowing the world around them and the belief of common arguments intended to sway the unthinking masses. Following are a few of Hitchens’ zingers from the book.
• “There is a saying from Roman antiquity: Fiat justitia — ruat caelum. ‘Do justice, and let the skies fall.’ In every epoch, there have been those to argue that ‘greater’ goods, such as tribal solidarity or social cohesion, take precedence over the demands of justice. It is supposed to be an axiom of ‘Western’ civilisation that the individual, or the truth, may not be sacrificed to hypothetical benefits such as ‘order.’ But in point of fact, such immolations have been very common.”
• “It is true that the odds in favor of stupidity or superstition or unchecked authority seem intimidating and that vast stretches of human time have seemingly elapsed with no successful challenge to these things.”
• “In an average day, you may well be confronted with some species of bullying or bigotry, or some ill-phrased appeal to the general will, or some petty abuse of authority. If you have a political loyalty, you may be offered a shady reason for agreeing to a lie or a half-truth that serves some short-term purpose. Everybody devises tactics for getting through such moments; try behaving ‘as if’ they need not be tolerated and are not inevitable.”
• “I am not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influences of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.”
Hitchens’ harangues against religion and religious leaders garnered the most negative feedback. When it was revealed he had cancer, some suggested it the result of taunting any and all Deities.
“The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former ‘lifestyle’ would suggest that I got,” Hitchens replied.
He also noted that the fatal disease has been the burden of the religious.
“Devout persons have died young and in pain. Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done. These visitations, then, seem awfully random.”
Visitations of humans with cutting and consistent critical thinking skills are rare and random. More so with the loss of Hitchens.
Memorization and testing skills often suffocate true and prolonged efforts to encourage critical thinking in our public schools and universities. After all, we have standards and measurements and legislative bodies seeking an accounting for the Holy Grail ratio of dollars spent/asses in seats/graduation rates.
The subtle and oppressive authoritarianism of politically correctness has placed what some would call civilizing effects on the honesty of humor and the humor of honesty. The more modern we become, the less we see in a world made dark from the shadow of ubiquitous conventional wisdom. Hitchens was one of the few willing to push back against the shadows. We must hope others now excel in the dirty task of questioning authority — a task that often serves to enrage and enlighten.
To be sure, most historical accounts of a society engineering or maintaining freedom indicate that such results derived from the motivation of a few who were equal parts enraged and enlightened.