You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens passed away on December 15, 2011, leaving behind a large set of writings. He published books such as God is Not Great and Why Orwell Matters. He wrote for Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and Slate. His journalism took him to dozens of countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Cyprus, and Lebanon. In 2008 he went so far as to allow himself to be waterboarded so he could write an article about it in Vanity Fair, titled "Believe Me, It's Torture." He raises a spirited critique of the practice, which has been prosecuted by the U.S. when done against our citizens.

I've always known Hitchens as an outspoken atheist. But I think atheism was just one one facet of his philosophy. He was mainly against totalitarianism in any form. In his view, religion was one more attack on a human's mind, which yearns to be free. He especially hated Islam and saw it as a form of fascism. I think he was guilty of holding Islamic extremists as typical examples of the faith, for there are many peaceful Muslims, but he was largely correct about the fanatics that want to establish an Islamic empire. In "Stand Up for Denmark!", he writes passionately in favor of freedom of speech, specifically speech to criticize a religion, and against those who would use violence to silence any opposition. The essay commences with a striking analogy:

Put the case that we knew of a highly paranoid religious cult organization witha secretive leader. Now put the case that this cult, if criticized in the press, would take immediate revenge by kidnapping a child. Put the case that, if the secretive leader were also to be lampooned, two further children would be killed at random. Would the press be guilty of "self-censorhip" if it declined to publish anything that would inflame the said cult? Well, yes it would be guilty, but very few people would insist on the full exertion of the First Amendment right. However, the consequences for the cult and its leader would be severe as well. All civilized people would regard it as hateful and dangerous, and steps would be taken to circumscribe its influence, and to ensure that no precedent was set.

The incredible thing about the ongoing Kristallnacht against Denmark (and in some places, against the embassies and citizens of any Scandinavian or even European Union nation) is that it has resulted in, not opprobrium for the religion that perpetrates and excuses it, but increased respectability! ...And nobody in authority can be found to state the obvious and the necessary: That we stand with the Danes against this defamation and blackmail and sabotage. Instead, all compassion and concern is apparently to be expended upon those who lit the powder trail, and who yell and scream for joy as the embassies of democracies are put to the torch in the capital cities of miserable, fly-blown dictatorships. Let's be sure we haven't hurt the vandals' feelings.

In an essay in Slate he argues for the French ban on veils, insisting the the law is actually trying to lift a ban on seeing the face of fellow citizens. He actually managed to change my mind, concluding:

My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine. Next but not least comes the right of women to show their faces, which easily trumps the right of their male relatives or their male imams to decide otherwise. The law must be decisively on the side of transparency. The French are striking a blow not just for liberty and equality and fraternity, but for sorority too.

In addition to being well-traveled, Hitchens was well-read. He was friends with writers such as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. He always has a literary or historical reference to introduce an essay or book review. He was a big fan of George Owell. In the piece "On Animal Farm" he analyzes the book and compares the characters and plot to the actual events of the Russian Revolution. He has essays on Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. He reviews a book on John Brown with a keen insight into the politics of slavery in the mid-Nineteenth century. In "America the Banana Republic", he critizes the philosphy that has allowed the privatization of gains and the socialization of losses.

Hitchens had a anti-imperialist point of view as an Englishman who saw the fallout of the English empire fading over the course of the Twentieth century. He discusses the situation in Palestine as the end result of decisions made decades ago by English aristocrats. In "The Perils of Partition", he looks at the division of Pakistan from India and the religious bloodshed that has resulted. He compares that situation with the creation of Iraq with different ethnicities like the Kurds, and the partitioning of Ireland into Catholic and Protestant sections.

There are also lighter essays, such as "So Many Men's Rooms, So Little Time", about Senator Larry Craig. One essay is about blowjobs, titled "As American as Apple Pie". I was please to discover that he had a similar take as I did on the works of Stieg Larsson and J. K. Rowling, that they are overrated.

There is a wide range of essays in the book, from literary critiques to historical commentaries to short and sharp pieces on modern issues. I confess I skipped some of the reviews of more obscure authors, but the ones I read were good, and I learned about several new authors. I sometimes consider myself well-read, but certainly not compared to a giant like Hitchens. His writing is the most eloquent combination of historical depth, elegant craftsmanship, and fierce rhetoric I have ever read. A

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