Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it. – Christopher Hitchens
That’s the quote I was thinking about when I started this blog. I almost named it “Human Decency,” but thought that may have been needlessly optimistic. Not that I’m not an optimist, but rather that my blog would contribute in a way that anybody can’t simply do for themselves. While I admit that the final catalyst to impel me to write here, after already exhausting my friends with invective and ire, was JT Eberhard seeking me out on Twitter after enjoying a comment I made on one of his blog posts, but thoughts of Hitch animated many of my ideas and always impel me to try just to be a touch wittier.
While I could contribute to the growing and unsurprisingly mixed things being said about Chris Hitchens, there seems little point in adding to a pile that I am, despite enjoying his work, woefully unqualified to add to. This is not false modesty, as I believe myself to be quite allergic to the stuff, but rather a recognition that when I attempt to discuss who the man was from nothing but reading his books and watching lectures, I can do little more than summarize his work, which seems like a lousy way to commemorate anybody.
Rather, this being my blog and I being a remarkably self-indulgent individual, I will discuss why this caustic, angry, tactless man has left an impression on me.
To begin with, as much as I would cringe inwardly when he would say something insulting that could just as easily be said in a way I felt to be more constructive, I could never fault him his point. Even when I disagreed, I could at least say that I respected the process by which he reached his conclusions. One such insulting conversation comes to mind. I agree with his point, but damned if it doesn’t make me uncomfortable the way he put it.
“…I’m perfectly happy for people to have these toys and to play with them at home and hug them to themselves and share them with other people who come around to play with their toys. So that’s absolutely fine. They are not to make me play with these toys. I will not play with the toys. Don’t bring the toys to my house, don’t say my children must play with these toys, don’t say my toys…are not allowed by their toys.”
That’s my current opinion on religion, said in possibly one of the best and worst ways possible. Perhaps it’s that he was unafraid to put things that way that I wish I could do so, not because I would, but rather because I want the ability.
I also cannot help but admire some of the things he said about life in general, my favorite being…
“Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”
Hitch was a fierce advocate for LGBT rights, often more on behalf of his friend, Stephen Fry, than on his own behalf. He didn’t talk often about his bisexuality, and I admit it surprised me and possibly engendered a disproportionate affection as I saw myself in him in that respect. This is not to say that his sexuality was a vital part of his life or that that’s a reason to like somebody’s work which was more than sufficient on its own. It’s rather like finding that a brand new friend has also read your favorite obscure book. The friendship doesn’t hinge on it, but isn’t it so cool that this novel that you thought nobody had even heard of had somehow made it to both of you? I thought of myself in a future old age considering his words, “My looks by then had in any case declined to the point where only women would go to bed with me.” A distinct possibility.
However, when he spoke on issues of sexuality, it never seemed to be about him, such as this quote from a dinner honoring Stephen Fry with at least one Cardinal in the audience.
“He’s not being condemned for what he does, he’s being condemned for what he is…This is disgraceful! It’s inhuman, it’s obscene. It comes from a clutch of hysterical, sinister virgins who have already betrayed their charge in the children of their own church.”
Let it never be said that he didn’t stand up for his friends.
Nor that he didn’t stand up to his enemies, the nature of whom he made quite clear.
“There’s another immoral injunction. Go love your own enemies, don’t go loving mine. My enemies are the theocratic fascists. I don’t love them, I want to destroy them.”
I can think of nobody I know who wouldn’t consider “theocratic fascists” to be bad people, but Hitchens took it one step further. He was open about his disdain, free and pointed in his ridicule, and made no compromises regarding what he considered to be abject evil. Again, I am unable to disagree. I do hate theocratic fascists. I hate people who arbitrarily choose what makes them comfortable out of their holy books and then tell me I have to live by their capricious whims. I hate those who use God as a universal excuse for the most retched, abhorrent, vile behavior and the masses of uneducated vipers that lick the scent from the trail of those leaders, hissing at and biting everybody they pass. I have no room or time to love those people who love no others, and my tolerance isn’t inexhaustible either. I have no need to ever be in a room with the Liar Tony Perkins, Maggie Gallagher, Pat Robertson, Glenn Beck, Tom Coburn, or any number of despicable human beings who try to enslave people to their idiot philosophies and very specific yet entirely self-configured ideas of what their religion says. I have no reason to love these people, or forgive them while they continue to lie to people for the sake of their own comfort, or to ignore their often inhuman behavior, so I choose not to. It was by reading Hitchens that I learned how to do that and not feel guilty about it.
There are plenty of other reasons to respect Hitchens. I stress again, he was not a perfect man. He was deeply flawed, unwilling to engage in social politeness, and refused to soften his rhetoric regardless of circumstance. We can debate whether these are positive or negative qualities all, but I can’t say that I could engage in the indiscriminate way in which he applied them. That being said, it takes courage to live in such a manner, and I am sure beyond doubt that that is a positive quality.
As many others have noted, saying “rest in peace” is not quite appropriate. He is not resting and peace is a meaningless thing to the inert molecules that compose what was once an active and brilliant brain. Rather, I should leave this off with words that will remain with me now that he is no longer able to utter or write them.
“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
“You’re expelled from your mother’s uterus as if shot from a canon toward a barn door studded with old nail files and rusty hooks. It’s a matter of how you use up the intervening time in an intelligent and ironic way. And try not to do anything as ghastly as your fellow creatures.”
“We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and — since there is no other metaphor — also the soul.”
“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”
And finally, since I can think of no songs that discuss death without also talking about an afterlife that Hitchens didn’t believe in, and “rest in peace” is so inappropriate, I will instead leave it with the words of another critic of religion, done in song form.