This is a guest post by Armin Rosen
A couple years ago, I witnessed Christopher Hitchens deliver a vintage intellectual beatdown during a debate (ostensibly—but only rarely—on the existence of God) at New York’s 92nd St. Y. How orthodox rabbi and former “Shalom in the Home” host Shuly Boteach had the chutzpah to show his face at the book signing afterwards is beyond me, because Hitchens totally wasted him. The baritone Home Counties growl (Hitchens has, no doubt, one of the great voices in punditry) shredded Boteach with buzzsaw efficiency, and the rabbi’s two central and, in reterospect, most idiotic points—that evolution proves the existence of God and that Hitchens was an unrepentant anti-Semite—were dispatched without mercy. “Some of my best friends are atheists” said Boteach in a late face-saving effort. “And some of my worst enemies are Jews,” replied Hitchens to an auditorium’s worth of guffaws. It was that kind of an evening.
It was also an evening in which Hitchens’s absolute worst traits were on display. They’re traits that anyone even moderately acquainted with Hitchens’ work will recognize, since he’s is probably more convinced of his own rightness than any other member of the commentariat. On religion, Hitchens holds the fanatical conviction that the social, political and theological consequences of even the most abstract belief in God are, without exception, dangerous medievalisms. It’s a belief that leads him to embarrass his intellectual opponents in public, but also to write books with sub-titles like “How Religion Poisons Everthing,” and to argue the fundamentally antheist character of modern society on the basis of our “no longer believing we need to tear the beating heart out of a virgin to make the sun rise.”
Hichens is a sophisticated rhetorician who espouses some profoundly unsophisticated ideas, which makes him one of the most refreshing, and, at times, aggravating commentators working today. But according to Ian Buruma, it also makes him an intellectual legatee of Japanese fascism:
But if modern Japanese history must serve as a guide to our own times, Hitchens might have mentioned a different category of misguided figures: the often Marxist or formerly Marxist intellectuals who sincerely believed that Japan was duty-bound to go to war to liberate Asia from wicked Western capitalism and imperialism. They saw 1941 as their finest hour, the moment when men were separated from boys, when principle had to be defended, when those who didn’t share their militancy were disloyal weaklings. These journalists, academics, politicians, and writers were not all emperor-worshipers or Shintoists, but they were believers nonetheless. The man who emerges from this memoir is a bit like them: clearly intelligent, often principled, and often deeply wrongheaded, but above all, a man of faith.
To be sure, Buruma isn’t saying that Hitchens is a fascist or even equivalent to one, only that he shares certain traits with certain enablers of a particularly destructive strain of fascism. Fine. Hitchens is only “a bit like them,” after all. Far worse than this historically dubious attempt at guilt by association (and if I can go back to that for a second—either Buruma believes that the Hitchensian mindset has the potential to justify pure evil, or he’s not sufficiently horrified by Japan’s actions in World War II to be beyond the flippant assignment of Japano-fascist tendencies to his ideological opponents, this in the context of a relatively insignificant review of a relatively insignificant book. Neither possibility reflects very well on him) is Buruma’s implicit point. For him, those who combine intelligence, principle and an occasional penchant for wrong-headedness share kinship with these pseudo-fascist “men of faith”—which means that for Buruma, brave, self-actualized cultural and political commentary runs the risk of leading humanity to a dangerous cliff’s edge.
Discomfort with intelligence, principle and occasional wrongheadedness isn’t fascism, but it’s a lot more worrisome than, for instance, support for the removal of a dictator on purely humanitarian grounds. Buruma’s comparison is obnoxious on its own moral and historical merits.
But the fact that he has to look to fascist Japan to articulate his own opposition to intense, Hitchens-style moral urgency in political commentary is deeply telling and even embarrassing.
Alan A adds:
Buruma’s wife, Eri Hotta – who is coincidentally a Japanese intellectual herself – wrote a very odd piece in the Guardian a couple of years ago, which we covered here. In that article, Hotta urged us to “understand the attack on Pearl Harbor”. In a nutshell, she said the Pacific War was the fault of the United States, because they had humiliated Japan and the Japanese.
There are a whole host of intellectuals who seek to justify totalitarianism and ‘understand’ terrorism.
Hitchens is most certainly not one of them, either.