— by BEV QUESTAD —
Christopher Hitchens used to be the sexiest man alive. His rhetoric on issues of justice and accountability has been heart-spinning.
In 2001, he wrote “The Trial of Henry Kissinger,” a landmark book on Kissinger’s complicity in sustaining the Vietnam War from which a documentary film of the same title was distributed (read a review of the documentary here). In that revealing work, Hitchens showcased his intellect and compulsive research documentation.
So, as the lights dimmed on the guest this month of the Portland Arts and Lecture Series in Oregon, the audience had high expectations for a provocative evening with Hitchens, a noted contrarian, radical intellectual and iconoclast.
The man and his subject matter have never been without controversy and his focus for this night’s lecture matched his reputation. He joked early on that a friend of his says the title of his latest book, “God is Not Great,” is one word too long.
Hitchens recited the evils of Charlie Manson and Catholic priests. He spoke about religious complicity in The Holocaust, 911 and terrorism. He condemned these incidents as manifestations of religious commitment. He then postulated the perversion of the church and the integrity of atheism – all in the first 10 minutes.
So it was early on that some members of the audience stridently marched out of the auditorium.
It was a one-sided diatribe. In Hitchens’ world there are no religious non-profit organizations feeding the hungry and clothing the poor. There are no focus groups helping people strengthen their commitment to sobriety through faith in a higher power. No one is saved, comforted or supported through religious affiliation from his perspective.
Hitchens defined himself as an atheist with a developed ethical sense. He defined the religious as misguided, brainwashed, foolish and ignorant.
What is disconcerting is that a rhetorician of such talent as Hitchens tackles such an elusive subject in such a Swiss cheese manner. Why blame all the bad in the world that people do on God and religion?
Hitchens’ earlier work on both Orwell and Kissinger was painstakingly researched and indulgently cross-referenced with several sources. In 1995, came his attack on Mother Theresa. Next was his support of the pre-emptive strike on Iraq. Neither of these endeared him to his cadre of supporters. Now he’s on a soapbox vilifying God and religion.
Why bother? Why tackle a subject that can’t be proved? Why work to become less popular?
And, as an atheist, isn’t his attack a little odd? Since he doesn’t believe in God, why blame Him? Shouldn’t murders, terrorism and sexual perversions be blamed on the human perpetrators?
Hitchens naively and mistakenly identifies his target. He maligns God and religion and its history of cruelty and hypocrisy. However, perhaps, as an atheist, it is not religion that Hitchens should enthusiastically condemn but human choice, error and perpetual, inescapable, tragic imperfection.
In reality, Hitchens may be talking about the essential and unfortunate duality of human nature, and, in ironic reflection,his own split inner psyche. Perhaps, subliminally, he is just disappointed with the unfortunate history of humankind and his own participation in it.
The bottom line is that in segueing from politics and ideology to religious ontology Hitchens is no longer provocative, interesting or impressive. He has lost his impressive documentation ethic and his considerable romantic charisma.
Even so, most in the audience were disappointed that Hitchens’ presentation lasted only an hour. We still wanted to hear more – but maybe on more flashy political topics that are conducive to documentation. Whether we agree with him or not on the existence (or not) and merits of God, we miss the debonair polemic who earlier had the courage of his convictions to reveal political intrigue important for the public record.
Lecture: Jan. 5, 2010, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, Ore.
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