I was unable to go to sleep one recent night. My insomnia was only further abetted by what grew, over the course of those frustrated, sleepless hours, into a frenzied state of righteous disgust with Christopher Hitchens' model of intellectual pursuit, that is to say, cheeky provocation for the hell of it. Hitchens is a tremendously enjoyable orator to listen to and, I would imagine, a formidable opponent in debate, less for any flawlessness within his arguments than for the skill with which he is capable of caustically dismissing those of his adversaries. He is not a particularly profound thinker, but he is an excellent speaker. He has, of late, become most well-known as a member of the so-called New Atheists; this is an uncompromisingly offensive group; but it is not their glib denial of the virtues of religion or belief that is offensive – this is just irritating –, it is their glib approach to intellectual debate; it is this approach that leads to the wearying and tiresome myopia that defines their consideration of the topic.
Hitchens is fairly emblematic of this movement, and he has infused his criticisms of religion – he claims that he is against all religion, but his attacks are mostly mounted against the Judeo-Christian ones; he seems to assume that all others more or less follow suit, faith being their essence – with a moral lugubriousness that is not out of place. Certainly, some of his criticisms are nothing if not of great moral consequence and seriousness; but he couches these critiques in language so thoroughly sure of itself and its moral superiority that he degrades his place in the debate. Furthermore, the valid criticisms come wholesale with the baggage of his less nuanced, more deliberately provocative ones; this makes it difficult to value his contributions, as what he does have to offer – little of his valuable and valid criticism is novel, but it is always packaged in splendid and persuasive rhetoric – is overshadowed by a deliberately rigid unsubtlety of thought that, I would imagine, he believes to be in tune with Voltaire's attacks on religion but are rather more akin to, say, Ted Haggard's assaults on non-believers: neither is intellectually curious or liberal in thought, neither permits validity outside of the artificially imposed walls of its limited talking points and sets of belief. To say that Hitchens' atheism is as founded upon faith as is Haggard's evangelism seems so obvious as to be not worth noting anymore. Hitchens' attacks on religion are attacks on the institutionalization of religion, but he frequently collides the latter entirely with the former, placing the problem in the belief of God and not in the organizations that foment extremist and dangerous world views in the name of religion. But this take – even this unsubtle take – is too small for Hitchens; he wants to go after the whole thing.
That said, it can be thrilling to watch him in debate. Reading him – even while it often bears some of the wonderfully caustic phrases of his oral debates – is a miserable experience, one that feels unengaged and disinterested in anything except the promulgation of his beliefs, whatever they may be. In debate, the promotion of his belief, the expression of his outrage, also takes place before thoroughly coherent argumentation, although he is eminently capable of providing convincing arguments for unextended periods of time; but the theater of it allows it to be fun, it strips his arguments of their seriousness, as rarely would he appear in any truly serious place. In writing, Hitchens places himself front-and-center in the debate, and it's upsetting because he belongs nowhere near the center of any debate, so long as he refuses subtlety of thought so thoroughly; but, in the confines of inconsequential debates, it is fun to watch him make strongly- and cleverly worded arguments as if they were of any consequence. He may be the finest school debate captain that the world has ever seen; what's sad about this is that he refuses to leave the school debate style behind and try his hand at the real thing.
Hitchens' support for the war in Iraq was made out of his usual and ultimate desire to create little more than a provocation; indeed, his New Atheist provocations are his most sustained, and it's a great wonder that they've been maintained for so long without deepening in any way. One suspects it is merely the trendiness that has encouraged him to pursue it so limply for so long. A friend of mine acutely summarized what was so essentially and morally wrong about his Iraq War provocation: usually, Hitchens is a kind of intellectual jester for either the standard liberal side of the debate or an unusually passionate defender of the straw man side of the debate; both make him fun to watch: in the former, he offers an unnecessary but nonetheless fun reprieve from the seriousness from the whole endeavor, even as he cloaks his argument in utter seriousness; in the latter, he offers support for a position that no one who has deeply considered the discourse would even fathom taking, and he can't really gain anything from it. In supporting the war in Iraq, my friend noted, he was doing a variation on the latter, but, this time, what would have been the straw man argument – and what he likely viewed as the straw man argument, as those in whose he most frequently finds himself agreeing dismiss the argument out of hand – was in fact a real argument, one of deeply serious consequence; his provocation may have unnerved his dinner table companions, but everyone in a position of power would have been delighted – actually, in all likelihood, entirely unconcerned – with his position. And this is the essential problem of Hitchens: his provocations are designed to irk and confound his dinner table companions, but the arguments behind them pose no threat to anyone in power; they offer nothing to a truly consequential discourse. He is a dinner table provocateur; his sights end there.
Ultimately, Hitchens is a saddening figure; his harangues can be funny and entertaining, but he wouldn't pursue them were his chosen antagonist's ire not worthy – that is, funny, trendy, commercial – enough to be raised; it is as if he just scopes out the landscape, picks a fun target, and launches the kind of attack he needs to in order to be held just high enough in the intellectual hierarchy so that he still won't have to be taken particularly seriously. I was wrong when I said that he has nothing to gain from his approach to debate: he can gain the admiration of people who see and hear his flippant arguments and think, "Man, this guy is smart but he just doesn't give a shit"; this gives him a kind of in with college-age boys who see argumentation as little more than sport, who see cheeky sophistry as the highest of intellectual pursuits, because it does take some degree of thought to arrive at a sturdy provocation, but not so much that you might begin to worry that you're taking yourself too seriously. This is all he wants; he is not concerned with gaining anything more than the approval of those who value the art of argument over the import of discourse. It's a sure way to make a comfortable living: you can feel above those who argue against you precisely because you're not taking the whole matter as seriously as they are, and yet you're capable of irritating them more than just about anyone else is. It seems like he's drawn to these kinds of attacks because, while he's equipped with the canniness to pursue certain strands of thought to their extremes, he's not up to putting in the effort to pursue them to their depths, to develop a more sustained and worthwhile argument. He goes for extremes, not depths. And even if it's funny for a bit, it is ultimately just sad, because he's a person, and he has a life, and yet this is what he's doing with it. I believe that he is wasting his life by treating the nuanced discourses into which he enters himself with such unconcern. I am aware that this has pious implications; and I would hope that such piety – not necessarily from me; from anyone who values serious and sustained and curious thought – might prove provocative enough to Hitchens for actual consideration.