Hitchens vs. Blair

In the middle of his debate with Tony Blair on the benevolence of religion, an event that took place in Toronto, November 2010—the transcript of which forms the basis of this book— Christopher Hitchens makes a curious remark: ‘If I was a member of a church that had preached that AIDS was not as bad as condoms, I’d be putting some conscience money into Africa, too’. Let’s rephrase that a little: ‘If I’d spent most of the noughties supporting a war that caused over a million civilian deaths, turned Iraq into an Iranian vassal state and eroded the US economy, I’d be putting some conscience money into “New Atheism” too.’

See, if you keep your ideas at a perfect 60:40 balance between neo-conservatism and fluffy liberalism, you can trick the chattering classes into calling you a ‘free thinker’. You don’t even need any original ideas, so long as you can mix old ones nimbly enough to ‘avoid categorisation’. Cheer when NATO kills Serbian civilians, but attack Clinton for adultery. Embrace atheism, but insist that a foetus is an unborn child.

This is a sign of depth to some people, who assume there’s a powerful, unique philosophy lurking behind all those disparate opinions. But in fact right-wing politics is full of supposed mavericks—libertarian hipsters (the so-called South Park Republicans) do it all the time. ‘I might support keeping our troops in Af-Pak, cutting health and education, slashing welfare, climate change denial and union busting but, hey, I’m all for gay marriage and legal weed, so you can’t just put me in a box, dude!’ Hitch, too, should only fool you if you give the same weight to every policy position: ‘+1 Left Point for being in favour of medical marijuana, +1 Right Point for supporting a trillion-dollar war—I guess that’s what a centrist looks like’.

Since he’s debating a fellow Bush sycophant, we have to wait for audience question time before someone points to the elephant in the room: how does Hitchens reconcile his Dubya-loving with Bush’s ‘very public evocation of faith in terms of his rhetoric around the invasion’? Hitch starts to sweat. ‘I don’t think you can point out any moment’, he says, ‘when George W. Bush said … he had any divine warrant for the intervention in Iraq.’ True, Bush mightn’t have used that exact wording, but he got over 60 per cent of the Southern Baptist vote in two elections and a key part of his support came from fundamentalist evangelicals. His party was (and still is) full of anti-abortionist snake-handlers. Bush was in bed with these people at every level.

It gets stranger. Hitchens spends most of the debate accusing Catholicism and Islam of being bloodthirsty. But then, in a huge backflip, he claims that ‘what’s surely striking’ about the Iraq War debate ‘is the unanimous opposition of every single Christian church to it, including the president’s own and without doubt the prime minister’s own’. Really? Is that the best he can produce? A few pages earlier, he was trashing the Irish for ‘killing each other’s children’ and Rwandan Catholics for ‘preach[ing] genocide from the pulpits’. Now his issue is with ‘sickly, Christian passivity’. One moment Catholicism is ‘a kind of divine North Korea’ then, apparently, it’s not fascist enough.

Hitchens also needs an excuse to let Judaism off the hook. He’s too cowardly to pick the same fights with Jews that he picks with Muslims. Hitchens insists, in a post-debate interview with Maclean’s magazine:

Judaism is much nearer to being philosophy than religion, or rather much nearer to that claim than Christianity or Islam are … Leo Strauss thought that the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides wasn’t a believer, but that he just dressed himself up in that way.

Like most great Sephardic theologians, Maimonides lived in Cordoba under Islamic rule and picked up Greek philosophy from the surrounding Muslims—the same Muslims who reintroduced Aristotle to Christian Europe. Hitch, please! If you’re trying to argue that Judaism is more philosophical—more capital ‘E’ Enlightened—than Islam, don’t use the twelfth century as your proof.

As for Blair: ‘it is undoubtedly true that people commit horrific acts of evil in the name of religion. It is also undoubtedly true that people do acts of extraordinary common good inspired by religion’. And later: ‘there are many situations where faith has caused harm. But there are many situations in which wrong has been done without religion playing any part in it at all’. Despite having sat in the House of Commons for nearly twenty-four years, Blair debates like a schoolie. He never goes on the offensive, and Hitchens promptly beats him.

Neither define what they mean by ‘religion’ or ‘good’ at any point in the debate, rendering the whole argument meaningless. ‘Good’ according to whom? The Pope? Karl Marx? Ayn Rand? The Marquis de Sade? And are we talking about ‘religion’ in the sense of blind faith (in which case, neo-liberals are probably religious since they worship a murky abstract deity called the market, to which earthly regulators are supposed to relinquish control)? Or ‘religion’ as a form of identity politics stemming from social background? And are these the only options? No one really addresses this issue. Hitchens is too busy with his revisionist take on the Bush era and Blair too busy washing his hands of the tragedy that was his Iraq.

Ramon Glazov is a Perth-based writer and the Special Australasia Correspondent for eXiled Online.

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