Christopher Hitchens and the Intimidating British Accent

Posted on November 26th, 2007 in Books,Culture,Politics by Robert Miller

I came to appreciate writer Christopher Hitchens when he wrote his book on Henry Kissinger,“The Trial of Henry Kissinger” (2002), accusing him of being a war criminal for his actions in the Vietnam war, South America (Chile), East Timor and East Pakistan; it is something with which I am wholeheartedly in agreement and I would like nothing better than to see Kissinger in the dock at the Hague someday. Perhaps then, for the first time, Americans might begin to learn something about their own history (Hitchens’ book on Kissinger was made into an excellent documentary film “The Trials of Henry Kissinger; it is well worth seeing). An Englishman by birth, Hitchens has become a U.S. citizen, stimulated by the events of 9/11. That day also converted him from a progressive liberal to a hawk, at least as far as the war in Iraq is concerned and the war on terrorism. He has subsequently been a shill for Bush’s invasion and seems to have sprung a trap on himself in that he seems more comfortable dodging the issue rather than confronting it. Categorically, he is a liberal hawk. He must be squirming as he wears the unaccustomed shoes of an apologist and embraces the cape of his neocon friends, like Paul Wolfowitz. His rapid conversion from dove to hawk alienated him from people like Chomsky and others at The Nation, with whom he got a divorce, claiming that liberals were cowards (they seemed to be more afraid of John Aschcroft than Osama bin Laden). His conflicts with Chomsky led to several interchanges and Chomsky more or less gave him a scolding and dismissed his complaints. One of the issues that Chomsky addressed related to Hitchens’ complaint that it was silly to describe what we are doing in Iraq and the rest of the world as terrorism. Chomsky specifically remarked at one point how Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan pharmaceutical plant was an act of terrorism. Chomsky also argued that if you were to assess the full impact of that single act of bombing (some say this bombing was designed to deflect our national attention away from Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and his impending impeachment, but Chomsky steadfastly avoids that point), you had to understand that the bombed facility produced much of the pharmaceutical needs for that country and the lack of proper medicine caused many more deaths through untreated malaria and arguably helped to destabilize the entire region. So if you are into death tallying, as Chomsky argues, you need to assess the full impact of your actions, just as we do when we assess the atrocities of Stalin, Hitler and Mao, where we don’t just count those they might have shot in the presidential palace, but we make the broadest possible tally. Chomsky also pointed out that our coup against a democratically elected head of state in Guatemala in 1954, gave rise to 40 years of atrocities in that country. If you want to read an article in which a petulant writer is dismissed like a little boy having a temper tantrum, then read Chomsky’s response to Hitchens’ ravings.

I wondered how Hitchens might escape “Hitchens Folly.” As it turns out, he did it in a very clever way, by writing a new book, this one, “God is not Great” moved him far afield of the war he continues to support and the denial about torture and Abu Grab he continues to foster. His new book, for which he received a National Book Award, placed him dead center in the argument about religion, atheism, creationism and other isms that are unavoidable and indigenous to this terrain. He has expertise on the subject (as most of us have to one degree or another), as he was raised in a religious setting, though apparently revolted early on. I have not read the book, but I have read some reviews and I have it on my shelf, in line for consumption along with many others. Quite honestly, the issue of God and religion is very far down the list of my priority reads, although I am deeply concerned about the dumbing down of America through Christian influence. I am also interested in how countries get more religious in times of war and I wonder if our present state of hyper-Christianity and revisionism of America as a “Christian Nation” relates to the presence of our 60 + year old war footing. But the transition from war to God seems to have worked for Hitchens: his appearances now are mostly on the topic of religion, though he is not afraid to engage in the war if forced to, but it is obviously not his favorite topic. On many or most other matters, he continues to spew blue blood. Yet, in his support for the invasion of Iraq, he seems not to have been tempered by his knowledge of the British experience with Iraq in the early part of the 20th century. Today, C-Span replayed an interview with him that was taped in October 2007. In that interview we learned that he seems to be a serious alcoholic by behavioral criteria, though he does not admit to it (his wife apparently does however and Hitchens himself has stated “in 2003 he wrote that his daily intake of alcohol was enough “to kill or stun the average mule.””; taken from the Wikipedia site on Christopher Hitchens). Two years ago, Foreign Policy named him as one of the top 100 public intellectuals. I think this was very generous, or we are seriously lacking talent in the field. I look at Hitchens as an intellectual gadfly, someone very bright and very articulate, but impulsive and badly in need of a little leadership; he seems to have abandoned mentorship too early for his own good. Come back to your origins Christopher and we will forgive you (but one doubts that many Iraqi families will).

Whenever I listen to Hitchens, I think of my first experience in presenting my own research at an International Conference, held in Pisa Italy. It was 1970 and I had just published a paper which gave me a little fame in my field, because my work showed, for the first time, that glial cells of the retina, the non-neuronal cells found throughout the nervous system, generated electrical currents and that these currents contributed to clinically relevant electrical signals that were measured routinely from patients. The meeting was dominated by English scientists and it seemed that everyone I encountered was far more articulate and fluid with the language than I was and initially it was a very intimidating experience. Indeed a couple of giants in my field at the time were speaking at this meeting and about the only thing I knew that would save me from looking like a second tier scientist among a group of elite investigators was that I had good data. I told myself that as long as I emphasized the data and didn’t try to get into hyperbolic speculation, everything would be fine. But one of the British luminaries was scheduled to talk immediately before me on the symposium schedule and I worried that speaking after him might remove some of the luster of my presentation. As it turns out, the British scientist speaking before me was presenting a new theory on how photoreptors capture light and convert it into an electrical signal, something well-known today but completely unknown in those days. Furthermore, he was speaking on an area with which I had some expertise, as I had been working on a similar set of issues related to my own research. During his talk, it occurred to me that the idea he was trying to promote was completely “full of shit” and couldn’t possibly work in the manner that he described. But, it’s hard to focus on the talk that occurs just before yours, so I couldn’t be sure that I really understood what he was saying. So, I finished my talk, which I thought went well; it evoked lots of discussion and overall, I was pleased and reassured that I was not speaking from the bottom of the well. That evening, we were invited to dine at one of the professor’s homes in Pisa (University of Pisa). I found myself seated next to the famous British scientist who had spoken before me. After learning that I was in a house that had been in the professor’s family since the 15th century, and was sitting on a chair handed down from the same era, I paused and made sure I never tilted back in my chair or wiggled too vigorously. But, on to the story: during the course of the dinner, I was talking with the British scientist about his theory on phototransduction as we call it. As the evening and conversation wore on, I realized that I was right about his theory, it couldn’t work at all, because his model of ion distribution and currents generated by them would actually give an electrical current opposite to that which he had proposed. I finally uttered the words that completely changed my attitude about the intimidating British language skills. I told him flat out that his model wouldn’t work, that it would generate a current opposite to that he had proposed and then proceeded to illustrate with a drawing how it would actually work, opposite to what he had told his audience earlier that day (in essence I said “you are full of shit” without really mentioning the words). When thusly challenged, I saw this articulate, intimidating Brit descend into a fumbling, erratic personage, completely and suddenly lacking the urbane, free flowing, seamless cacophony of sophisticated words that had characterized his language just before my challenge. That single episode completely changed my attitude about the Brits and I was never again intimidated by their language skills, though I still admire them. Indeed, I have found this to be a characteristic of bright British people: great with their language apparatus until a challenge to their ideas brings them down with the rest of us who fumble a bit more in our expressive mode of communication. I suppose with William Shakespeare as part of your historical record, British people can lay claim to a certain English language hegemony, which they practice on the rest of the world. But, when challenged, they have to wrestle in the mud like the rest of us. So now, does Christopher Hitchens.

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