The Heresies of Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens cannot be accused of being a name dropper. The names come positively flinging off the pages of his newly-released memoir, Hitch-22; but can he be blamed for befriending some of the most interesting and influential figures of his time, like Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, Ian McEwin, Martin Amis, and Susan Sontag? I’ve heard Hitchens meet the name-dropping criticism with a good retort. Yes, he deadpanned, he should have left all of the interesting people and stories out of the book. Only by locating himself in this glittering company, he said, would he have a justification to talk about himself.

Just as I was thinking that perhaps the gentlemen doth protest too much, it dawned on me just what kind of predicament is a ‘Hitch-22’: you find yourself in a Hitch-22 when, in order to surround yourself with people more interesting than you are, you have to be at least as interesting as they are. Christopher Hitchens has more than succeeded at that.

Hitch-22 is above all, a story about loyalty, both to friends and to causes, and about the testing and shifting of loyalties. We learn how a former Trotskyist pamphleteer planted coffee at a communist work camp in Cuba, got paddled on the bum by Margaret Thatcher, and ended up pals with Paul Wolfowitz. I read with particular attention to Hitchens’ new loyalties to atheism and secularism. As a committed atheist and secularist, I often worry that loyalty to the former cause does not always serve the latter.

The Deep Peace of Being in Opposition

In one of many vivid vignettes, Hitchens recounts a scene caused by Susan Sontag at a left-wing gathering in New York City in 1982. The purpose of the event was to stand in solidarity with the Solidarity movement, begun by dockworkers at the Lenin shipyards of Gdansk, Poland, calling for better wages, prices, and the legalization of trade unions independent of the Communist Party. Sontag shocked those assembled by denouncing all communism:

I repeat; not only is Fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies—especially when their populations are moved to revolt—but Communism is itself a variant, the most successful variant, of Fascism. Fascism with a human face.

Hitchens was impressed. He arranged for The Nation to publish her remarks along with invited reactions by others. He comments that in the symposium that ran,

a number of the Left intelligentsia made the abysmal mistake of saying, in effect, that while what Susan had said may be partly true or even plain true, she would still have been much better advised not to say it. I think she herself may have feared that she was somehow “objectively” helping Ronald Reagan. But whether her mind changed her, or she changed her mind, she manifested the older truth that all riveters of the mind-forged manacles most fear, and that I here repeat: One cannot be just a little bit heretical.

By breaking from the stance of complete opposition to American hegemony, Sontag had betrayed a loyalty that was foundational for her comrades. One of the more revealing sentences of Hitch-22 appears as Hitchens describes his growing alienation from the Left as a supporter of the US invasion of Iraq. He borrows a line from Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, in which West’s guide and lover Constantine reflects on his political loyalties: “For the sake of my country, and perhaps a little for the sake of my soul, I have given up the deep peace of being in opposition.”

Perhaps there is peace in opposition to power because one’s personal moral character is thereby preserved from the corruptions of power; because one is liberated from responsibility for the consequences of power, whether they be catastrophic failures or catastrophic successes.

Solidarity with Religious Secularists?

With the publication of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens declared a new opposition—to the “celestial dictator” and its theocratic viceroys on Earth—and a new loyalty to The New Atheists. Of them, he admires most the remarkable refugee from Somalia, Holland, and Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. On their second meeting, recounted in the memoir, Ayaan tells Hitchens she had become an atheist. He replies that he is pleased to hear it, “Yes,” she says, “I find that it obviates the necessity for any cognitive dissonance.” He writes: “Pure music.”

Hitchens finds solidarity with Ayaan as an enemy of God and an enemy of theocracy. But the cause of spreading atheism is not to be confused with the cause of ending Islamist ideology and theocracy. Many of those in most active service of the latter cause are not self-identifying atheists but dissident Muslims and members of other minority faiths. Take for example, the Baha’i and the Copts of Egypt, who are relegated to second-class status; the Ahmadiyya Community, a large Muslim minority victimized by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws; or revisionist legal scholars like Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, author of Islam and the Secular State.

Their advocacy for equal treatment of the heterodox, if it succeeds, will improve the lot of unbelievers in the Muslim-majority countries, yet its animating, organizing principle is not unbelief but freedom of belief. To them, the doctrine that God is a delusion is at best not helpful, and more likely alienating. (Not so, it must be said, with the young men and women of Iran, overwhelming numbers of whom in my experience are secular humanists who reject Islam.) Hitchens appreciates the importance of religious dissidents full well. When the New York Times and almost everyone else was still ignoring the Iranian opposition, he traveled to Qom to seek out liberal Shi’a opinion, writing about Hossein Khomenei (the grandson of the Ayatollah Khomenei) and the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri for Vanity Fair.

The Christian West, after all, did not migrate towards secular government by mass conversion to atheism. The leading public arguments and examples came from Christian minorities—Anabaptists like Balthazar Hubmaier; Puritans like Roger Williams, John Milton, and John Locke. Even Spinoza’s case for secularism was premised on his reading of the Bible.

Would atheists in the West be willing to give up the pure peace of opposition to God for the more complicated and cognitively dissonant state of solidarity with religious minorities in Islamic states? Could atheists’ loyalty to other atheists make them less effective in the struggle for the secular, open society? I had a chance to ask this of Hitchens recently at a public event at Washington’s beautiful Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. He responded that the non-religious would do better to stick up for themselves since these embattled minorities might well impose their own theocracies if given the chance. I was left wondering what a Baha’i tyranny would look like. Is this another Hitch-22, or is there room here for a little bit of heresy?