In the few days since Christopher Hitchens died of cancer I've been puzzled by the unqualified tributes by certain 'radicals', for "my enemy's enemy is, only perhaps, my friend"
I'm unmoved by Hitchens' death. I'm neither happy nor sad, why would I be?
I'd read quite a lot of his articles, and seen a lot of interviews and debates of his, but I didn't feel compelled to comment either way on his passing until a I'd seen a slurry of facebook statuses by supposed 'radicals' paying tribute in various ways, usually one of his tirades against religion.
As radicals, Richard Lewontin says that, despite the problems of science and reason, we have a 'prior commitment to materialism' and that commitment is 'absolute' - that means an unwithering opposition to religion and the supernatural, for, "cannot allow a divine foot in the door".
But we should qualify this - as sociologist Hilary Rose warned in the midst of the 'science wars'; "my enemy's enemy is, only perhaps, my friend". This I take to mean that while, as radicals, we do indeed have a prior commitment to materialism and rationalism, that should not lead us to de-contextualised, reductive, bourgeois rationalist critiques of certain aspects of human life. In Rose's example the case in point was postmodernism - she often found herself at odds with both sides. While a critique of strands of postmodernism was timely, Rose had always warned against cheerleading forms of scientism, and wouldn't abandon what worth the postmodern project had, namely modernism looking at itself in the mirror. But she didn't necessarily find herself singing from the same hymn sheet as the various feminists, relativists and other postmodernists she'd sometimes been slumped in with. With that in mind she'd a cautious approach to forming allegiances.
This considered approach to the criticism of postmodernism can be equally applied to the criticism of religion.
Yes, Hitchens was a strident public atheist. Yes he was happy to engage religious bigots of all persuasions, very publicly where others might not. Yes he was a supposed 'defender of reason'.
He shared our 'prior committment to reason'.
But he was not an ally.
It's not the noting of Hitchens' death, or sharing of some of his works that bothers me, it's the unqualified nature of it. He undoubtedly was an intelligent man, a good writer, and certainly was ballsy. He came across as very sober in his time with cancer, and maintained a public profile while speaking candidly about what little time he had left.
He never seemed to give much of a shit about rubbing people the wrong way. But his contrarianism came to a head with his cheerleading interventionist politicies in light of September 11th attacks and his later support for the Iraq war.
He had himself waterboarded for Vanity Fair, to show how waterboarding was definitely torture. No shit Sherlock. It was also a vital tool in the sorts of foreign policy that he hadcheerleaded, and that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead.
Compatible with his cheerleading of the invasion of Iraq, was his status as a figurehead for the 'new atheism' and its associated attacks on Islam by what Terry Eagleton calls the liberal literati, or the "academic wing of the 'war on terror'"
In Reason, Faith & Revolution: reflections on the god debate, Eagleton comments on how he and Hitchens used to attend pickets and leaflet factory workers when they were both Trots at Oxford. But Hitchens 'grew up' and I dare say he'd never have attended a picket in support of striking workers since his 'maturation'. Eagleton, however, says that he has clung to his left politics 'like a toddler to his blanket' . I have to say, as frustrating as Eagleton's theological inclinations are (I doubt what validity theology has, I'd prefer literary criticism) I'll take him any day over an Iraq-war cheerleader.