Sunday, December 18, 2011
My Sunday Feeling
I heard Christopher Hitchens speak at the Arkansas Literary Festival a few years ago. In retrospect it would have been about the time that he was diagnosed with the esophageal cancer that eventually killed him last Thursday at the age of 62. "god [sic]is not great" had just been published and he was on a promotional tour in the Deep South. As I sat in my seat awaiting the lecture it occurred to me that there was a period of time in Little Rock's not too distant past where the very idea that an avowed atheist could give a public lecture at a literary festival would be unthinkable. Then again, the idea of a literary festival was pretty much unthinkable around here as well.
I didn't know what to expect. Hitchens was nothing if not disputatious as one of the many obituaries gently pointed out. Would he chain smoke at the lectern? (One of his friends has reported that he smoked @ 130 cigarettes a day.) Would he be entirely sober? (Hitch drank a staggering amount of Scotch. No man this side of Faulkner wrote better with a buzz on.)
The Christopher Hitchens that I saw that day was gentle and soft-spoken. He was courtly and deeply respectful of the audience, especially of the elderly members who had questions. If atheism needed a PR man, Hitch was a good one that Spring day in the River Market.
Hitchens believed that religion "destroys everything." There is a story in "god is not great" that I remember to this day. A man was set upon by a masked gunman on a country road in Northern Ireland.
"Are you Catholic or Protestant?" the gunman asked.
"Neither," the nervous hostage replied." "I'm an atheist."
"Well then, " came the response. " Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?"
Now I don't know whether this story is apocryphal or not. But it is a perfect example of the complete madness of sectarian strife. One doesn't have to be an atheist to admit that Hitchens had a point about the potential dangers of religion and power. Look at the examples. The child abuse scandals involving the Catholic church. Radical Islam or "Islamofascism" as Hitchens put it. Look at how the Republican Party in this country has been hijacked by Christian conservatives. Garry Will, as devout as Hitchens was not, has sounded much the same alarm.
One of the more moving tributes to Hitch that I read came from a British journalist who said," With the death of Christopher Hitchens it feels like our culture just lost a limb."
Perhaps this apropos of nothing. But I thought of what passes for culture nowadays when I consulted Facebook this morning. Someone had posted a picture of an American soldier in full combat gear kneeling in prayer. Below the picture was a caption that said that the young soldier was fighting to preserve our rights "including the right to say 'Merry Christmas.'"
Now this is profoundly stupid on any level you care to explore. Pick one. Factually, legally, what have you. The fact that otherwise sentient people actually believe such utter tripe is evidence of a very real strain of paranoia to go along with the dumbing down of the culture.
This was the sort of inanity that Christopher Hitchens loved to skewer. He was argumentative, occasionally inconsistent, self-destructive and despised by many of his peers. But his opinions were never opaque. And he was utterly fearless in presenting them.
The culture has indeed lost a limb.