Sunday, January 29, 2012

Hitchens and Religion--In Case You Haven't Read Enough About This Particular Topic Already

I was reading over the girlfriend's shoulder on the subway yesterday when I came across this sentence (or rather sentence fragment) on page 173 of Christopher Hitchens's god is Not Great. They're the opening words of a chapter entitled "Does Religion Make People Behave Better?" and they're as succinct and as damning an indictment of the late polemicist and literary critic as anything I can think of:
A little more than a century after Joseph Smith fell victim to the violence and mania he had helped to unleash...
Hitchens goes on to contrast the dishonest and mercenary founder of Mormonism with MLK, whose use of religious language and themes to combat the evils of racism and oppression has, at times, been capable of producing "profound emotion of the sort that can sometimes bring genuine tears." I assume Hitchens, ever the unwavering opponent of bigotry and injustice, is talking about himself here. But I have to call bullshit--I question whether it's even possible for someone so heartless to weep "genuine tears," or to even understand what it means to do so.

My knowledge of this is Wikipedian at best, but at least according to Mormons, Joseph Smith was a victim of religious persecution, martyred in the process of affecting God's will on earth. Now in this case--and again, I'm really just working off of Wikipedia here--"God's will on earth" included things like suppressing a burgeoning dissenting element within his movement, which in turn included things like closing down the offices of a newspaper accusing Smith of harboring bigamist and theocratic ambitions. Polygamy, theocracy, suppression of the press--we moderns can agree that these are terrible things. Maybe we can even agree that historical hindsight entitles us to view the Mormons of 1844 as the brainwashed self-righteous outsiders that they most likely were; as people whose belief in a religious fraudster pushed them further and further into the American periphery. It is unsurprising that Christopher Hitchens would fail to sympathize with the leader of the less progressive wing of a religious movement so wholly untethered from and so totally unconcerned with modernity, tolerance, empirical truth, etc. When you put it that way, I'm not sure I even sympathize with them.

But--and again, I'm no expert on this--it appears that Joseph and Hyrum Smith were in fact lynched and mutilated by an angry mob after being accused of "treason" against the state of Illinois (this after the pair went to the provocative lengths of declaring martial law in the Mormon hamlet of Nauvoo after shutting down the aforementioned anti-Smith newspaper). The mob consisted partly and maybe even largely of local anti-Mormonists who, in addition to being your run-of-the-mill religious bigots, saw Smith's imprisonment as an opportunity to expunge a group of local rabble-rousers--kill the suddenly-imprisoned and soon-to-be-executed Smith, they must have reasoned, and this whole polygamist vs. anti-polygamist, theocrat vs. anti-theocrat nonsense could be foisted on strangers living deeper in the frontier. Regardless of his illiberalism, it is not accurate to say that Smith "fell victim to the violence and mania he had helped unleash." Instead, he was a victim of religious persecution. It was persecution that attained a certain, inevitably murderous legitimacy as a result of Smith's own failings as a leader (all five of the people charged with Smith's killing, including the editor of a local anti-Mormon newspaper, were eventually acquitted). But so what? We don't agree with most of what the Rebbe of New Skvare believes, but if he were imprisoned on trumped-up charges of treason and then lynched by non-Jewish Rockland County locals on the basis of his religious leadership alone, I'm guessing even the most progressive among us would be so appalled as to start questioning the very nature of the country and society we're living in.

This half-sentence, throwaway dismissal of an individual's religious liberty--which is, by extension, a throwaway denial of basic human dignity, up to and including the right not to be lynched by an angry mob--contains just about everything that makes me uneasy about Hitchens's work. And it's not just that Hitchens could speak and write passionately about one group's persecution while callously shrugging off another's (my friend Benjamin Kerstein once noted that Hitchens was so appalled by Nazi symbolism on the streets of Beirut that he put his life in danger to vandalize a Syrian Social Nationalist Party monument--but he still believed that Antiochus's failure to eradicate Judaism was one of history's great tragedies). Rather, it's his criteria for who does and doesn't deserve some rudimentary human dignity: Hitchens isn't bothered by the facts of Smith's death, because Smith spread ignorant, poisonous piffle that is simply below all contempt. Never mind that it's piffle that millions of people believe. And never mind that religious association might have to do with things over than mere belief; that even in 1844, Mormonism provided its followers with an outsize, even Utopian sense of purpose that my modernity and Judaism don't prevent me from admiring on some level. Never mind all that--if a belief structure doesn't pass Hitchens's ontological sniff test, then those who promulgate it don't deserve his sympathy or even that most basic of freedoms, i.e. the freedom not to be killed as result of one's deepest convictions.

I think that fifty years from now, Hitchens' lack of intellectual curiosity, and lack of even basic empathy in terms of understanding what religion means to people--joined with his abundant willingness to drone on about religion for literally hundreds of pages at a time--will go down as his greatest critical failing. I'm guessing his work on religion will be politely ignored; chalked up to the sort of unfortunate eccentricities that the most brilliant minds are often prone to. After all, Hitchens was an eloquent defender of western liberalism, someone whose refreshingly shameless (and antiquated) fervency for the philosophy and rhetoric of the Enlightenment powered his writings on topics as diffuse as Cyprus, radical Islam and Bill Clinton. Who wants to remember that he flippantly suspended his own principles as far as religion was concerned?

His admirers can hope that future generations forget about this. Hitchens used to insist that "religion poisons everything." He did so with total sincerity, a sincerity that seemed slightly delusional when I saw him debate Rabbi David Wolpe a few years ago. It was Wolpe who came off as decent and genuinely open and tolerant; Hitchens who came off as petty and unctuous. Religion apparently doesn't poison-everything after all! It is, however, hard to read this half-a-sentence and not wonder whether Hitchensian anti-religion, and the hostile, anti-intellectual and even morally degrading stance towards one's fellow man that it entails, isn't a little poisonous itself...

...Elsewhere in silliness, it's Nick Kristof! Meles Zenawi has been dictator of Ethiopia for two decades now. He's presided over famines, stolen elections, and pointless and needlessly destructive wars with Eritrea. His county is somewhere in the 170s of the Human Devleopment Index, which surely has something to do with his government's long-standing hostility towards NGOs, civil society groups, democracy--you know, the things that allow people to question why their country is such a fucked up and woefully mismanaged place. He's a bad dude! He's been a bad dude for a really, really long time!

But Meles has really crossed the line this time.

DAVOS, Switzerland

IN a filthy Ethiopian prison that is overridden with lice, fleas and huge rats, two Swedes are serving an 11-year prison sentence for committing journalism.

Martin Schibbye, 31, and Johan Persson, 29, share a narrow bed, one man’s head beside the other’s feet. Schibbye once woke up to find a rat mussing his hair.

The prison is a violent, disease-ridden place, with inmates fighting and coughing blood, according to Schibbye’s wife, Linnea Schibbye Steiner, who last met with her husband in December. It is hot in the daytime and freezing cold at night, and the two Swedes are allowed no mail or phone calls, she said. Fortunately, she added, the 250 or so Ethiopian prisoners jammed in the cell protect the two journalists, pray for them and jokingly call their bed “the Swedish embassy.”

What was the two men’s crime? Their offense was courage. They sneaked into the Ogaden region to investigate reports of human rights abuses.

That's right, readers. He's imprisoned Swedish people.

Now I agree that Zenawi's imprisonment of two Swedish journalists is alarming. But at this late stage in the game, I can't help but think back to Jeffrey Sachs' risible claim that Zenawi was a member of "Africa's new generation of democratic leaders who are pointing the way" in The End of Poverty. Zenawi was considered a trailblazer and a democrat back when he parroted Jeffrey Sachs' beliefs about the Western obligation to sustainably develop Africa. Zenawi's true colors have been obvious for decades now, but it's only when he turns on western journalists that he earns himself the dubious honor of a Nick Kristof column.I gather that Zenawi has fallen in and out of popular favor based solely on the perception of sustainable developers and soap-boxing New York Times columnists--self-appointed apostles of progress and change whose individual agendas apparently have little to do with the millions of Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalis who have suffered under 20 years of Zenawi's rule.

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