Monday, December 19, 2011

Hitchens, courage and lessons

A couple quick updates regarding this blog. First, I plan on updating here on a weekly to semi-weekly basis. So make sure you subscribe, and keep checking back. I will also announce updates on my aliveness-ape twitter account.

This will mark a huge change from the last four years or so, where updates took anywhere from one to two years to complete. In those cases, it was, in part, my desire to have a fully formed essay on a topic, such as all things “New Age” (the last piece), that made for such huge, semi-book like posts.

There are a few reasons for my change on this. The first is my effort to finish a book I am currently writing on the topic of Martial Arts, Aliveness, philosophy, and my personal history with all of the above. Ironically, the more I simply sit and write on anything, the more I finish up writing for everything. I’ve also been given some excellent opportunities, as well as encouragement, from people I greatly admire to do complete that project; so I am on it.

The second major reason has been the death of Christopher Hitchens.

I don’t want to sound overly sentimental here, I did not know ‘the Hitch’ personally, and I would never want to compare my feelings on the matter to those of the many close friends and loved ones he obviously had. I will say though, that I was a bit startled at my emotions upon hearing of his death. It was only at that moment that I fully realized the depth of affection I had acquired for an author and speaker, solely on the basis of having spent so many times reading and listening to, his thoughts. Truthfully, it surprised me.

I will also say, with some sense of sorrow, that along with the outpouring of feelings from others who felt as much or much more than I did regarding this great loss to our culture, many on the political left managed to uphold to my growing sense of disdain for that branches occasional lack of taste, reason, temperament, and nature, by choosing the moments immediately following his death to criticize the one area of disagreement many had with him, the war. This was done, by some, with a semblance of class. Others, simply vomited up vitriol, and once again showed that being liberal has little if anything to do with being a decent human being. *

*(One thing I hope to do, is live and die without ever being accused of ‘passive aggressive’ behavior. There are few things I admire less in a man than that trait. Rest assured that if you are one of my friends, or someone I correspond with regularly, I am not referencing you. You would hear from me directly, but only always.)

I strongly disagree with the utility or even accuracy of terms like “liberal”, “conservative”, or otherwise. I measure my opinions based on the question being asked, not a firm dogma I remain attached to. There are some issues which would place me more in the camp of a conservative, and many more which would have me labeled leftist, especially by the not so bright Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck crowd. What this makes me on a political scale is at times, lonely. In a world where everyone seems to have latched onto some form of identifying mantra, my only stance remains simply, “what do we want, and what does the data say”.

With that aside, let me say that I was against the war in Iraq from its first mention. My reasons for that were many, not the least of which being the Bush administrations hapless, and glaringly obvious attempts at drumming up a threat where there likely wasn’t one. At least not to those of us on American soil; we don’t have to look much farther then FOX News running “news” clips involving the danger of chemical weapons dropped from model airplanes, or Chairman Powell’s anemic presentation at the UN, for evidence as to flimsy nature of the administration’s case for war. I remember sitting awestruck at these events ran live, wondering to myself how anyone could ever buy into this rubbish; and I also remember feeling quite depressed when I realized that so many actually had.

By way of radical contrast, all Iraqi’s and their neighbors lived in a constant state of threat so long as that the psychopath known as Hussein, or his wicked offspring, held power. We should remember that, and the Hitch, having many friends throughout the Kurdish and Iraqi population tried hard to never let us forget.

It also seemed clear, based on history, that once we entered the capitol, something which many of us knew would take only a matter of weeks, if not days, we would then be left with the thankless task of ‘running’ an entirely different nation. This isn’t something our Military is currently designed to do. We were not set up to do what people like Thomas Barnett and others had been urging us to prepare to do; as such, it would likely be a mess.

I am not happy to be in anyway, right. I am glad Hussein is dead and gone; anyone who isn’t is likely to be mentally ill. However, I take no pleasure in having anticipated what a quagmire the whole thing might end up becoming.

Secondly, and this too is important, do not mistake me for an antiwar reactionary. I do believe very strongly that one of the best solutions for certain kinds of problems, both foreign and domestic, is sometimes violence. It always has been, and it always will be; I don’t even consider that a controversial statement, rather, it is an obvious truism, and its case is very easy to make. If you disagree, then perhaps you will refrain from calling an armed police officer the next time you awake to find an intruder has broken into your home. Sometimes violence isn’t a problem, it’s a duty.

So here we are; I too disagreed with Hitch on ‘that’ war, though I would never have wanted to have been across the debate table from him on the issue. I admired and respected him for his other stands; consider his bravery in loudly standing up for his brilliant friend Salman Rushdie. This at a time when many of Rushdie’s more liberal “friends” were cowering in fear under the rancid pillow of political correctness anytime the threats from these mullahs were uttered.

Consider his ability to see clearly what so many of us, myself included, could not; the absolute immorality we all sink into the moment we afford these “faith fibbers” as Dennett rightly calls them, these repulsive men who make their living lying to children and pretending to know things all of deep down know they do not and cannot know, any semblance of undo ‘respect’. For thousands of years these peddlers of superstition have managed to cloak themselves in the disguise of respectability, even assumed grace, all the while spewing the most noxious of garbage out to the world; making the planet and its people worse for their existence, throughout our entire recorded history. And Hitchens saw this for exactly what it was, to quote:

“The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.”

Daniel Dennett in his recent piece on Hitchens,

Of all the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” Hitchens was clearly the least gentle, the angriest, the one most likely to insult his interlocutor. But in my experience, he only did it when rudeness was well deserved--which is actually quite often when religion is the topic. Most spokespeople for religion expect to be treated not just with respect but with a special deference that is supposedly their due because the cause they champion is so righteous. Then they often abuse that privilege by using their time on the stage to misrepresent both their own institutions and the criticisms of them being offered.

How should one respond to such impostures? There are actually two effective methods, and I recommend both of them, depending on the circumstances: you can follow Hitch and interrupt (“Liar, liar, pants on fire!” or its equivalent). Or you can try something a little bit more diplomatic: You can call the person a faith fibber, my mock-diplomatic term for those who are liars for God. If you are sure your interlocutor is just another religious bully, go Hitch’s route: Call him a liar, and don’t stop until he stops. If you think your interlocutor may have been lured a little over the line of truth by otherwise commendable zeal, you can ask them if they aren’t indulging in a little faith fibbing. That works on occasion too.

The main point is this: Don’t let anybody play the God card in these discussions as if it were a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that excuses misrepresentation. Hitch would not hesitate to call out the pope, or Mother Teresa, or anybody else. Honor his memory by following his example

That too is one of the great lessons I learned from watching Hitchens.

I can think of very few people who have made me want to sit up and start cheering the way he did, as when he would bluntly and correctly, let a Catholic bishop know that he should be “ashamed” for belonging to and supporting such a corrupt institution. Or when he, rightly, called out Rabbi Boteach for the obvious lies he was telling regards Darwin. Who out there can point a finger at those who offer these degenerate teachings better than Hitchens can? Watching him debate these men was like watching a “thing” called ‘justice’ play out before our eyes; it was cathartic.

Professor Dennett puts it this way:

Christopher didn’t wait his turn. “Shame! Shame!” he bellowed, interrupting Boteach in mid-sentence. It worked. Boteach backpedaled, insisting he was only quoting somebody who had thus opined at the time. Christopher had broken the spell, and a particularly noxious spell it was.

Why hadn’t I interrupted? Why had I let this disgusting tirade continue, politely waiting my turn? Because I was in diplomacy mode, polite and respectful, in a foreign country, following my host’s directions for how to conduct the debate. But what Christopher showed me--and I keep it in mind now wherever I speak--is that there is a time for politeness and there is a time when you are obliged to be rude, as rude as you have to be to stop such pollution of young minds in its tracks with a quick, unignorable shock.”

To me that sum up one of the greatest lessons we can all learn from Hitchens, when we are dealing with something so taboo ridden, something that is for all intents and purposes the literal incarnation of a sacred cow, religion, we need to remember this lesson even more.

Just as Daniel Dennett summed up one of the many great reasons I admired Hitchens, Sam Harris managed to sum up my emotions:

One of the joys of living in a world filled with stupidity and hypocrisy was to see Hitch respond. That pleasure is now denied us. The problems that drew his attention remain—and so does the record of his brilliance, courage, erudition, and good humor in the face of outrage. But his absence will leave an enormous void in the years to come.”

I am not afraid to admit being a bit emotional the night I heard of Hitchens death. I polished off a bottle of black label I’d been saving for some time, and watched some of his past lectures with my wife. The next morning I realized I was fortunate to have been made aware of his work, and to have been able to get all the joy from it that I most certainly have.

The most productive thing I can do to honor his memory is to remember the lessons he offered, his willingness to take a stand, his lack of hesitation in calling something wicked, ‘wicked’, his appreciation of irony, his mastery of the English language (I have trouble writing anything now, even a text message, without wondering whether my grammar would pass the scrutiny of such a language master like Hitch), and above all else, his obvious love for life. Something that is made self-evident, as Sam Harris mentions, when you read his memoirs (Hitch22).

So there it is my second major reason for updating this regularly now; in honor of a man whose work, and presence on this planet, I will miss very much.

One more, brief, update; as I’ve mentioned before, whenever I am engaged in ongoing debates on these topics, I start to get the subtle feeling that I may be living in ‘groundhog day’; in the classic Bill Murray version of that title. Time and again I am presented with the same stale arguments, with the only variation being the wrapping the fallacy comes packed in.

One of the latest I keep running into, often from those of a more liberal persuasion (read the 'moderate' religious community), goes something like this:

“In the wild" is it likely, or even possible, that faith can produce goods or sustainable good works that might benefit the greater interests of man, or a subset of mankind? Does faith necessarily have to be a negative? If it was so useful then, who is to say it isn’t so useful now?”

There are a multitude of variations that this form of the naturalistic fallacy falls into, but I assume you get the picture.

I’ve written at length on this, but to sum up this entry let me give you my single sentence reply:

Because someone managed something absent knowledge, does that mean we should therefore make a virtue of not knowing?

Have a great Holiday filled with joy.

-Matt Thornton