Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Little God, Big Hitchens
I can get two reviews in here for the price of one. I'll start with Hitchens' latest, 'God Is Not Great'. Some people, in the wake of an atrocity by religious fanatics that has already been matched several times over in this young century, have taken to taking up atheism as if it were a militant creed. The range of people willing to reduce most of the world's problems to religion include the admirable Richard Dawkins, and the despicable Sam Harris. Hitchens, who has at different times been both admirable and despicable, is not saying much that he hasn't said before. If you look at his writings in the 1980s, he was often explaining the futility of belief, stressing its role as a false comfort for the poor and a source of morality for power. He contemptuously dismissed 'Liberation Theology' as a pathetic oxymoron, reminded readers of what Freud had to say in The Future of an Illusion (that religions are a form of wish-fulfillment), refers to "the mystical element in modern tyranny", specifically Stalinism and Nazism, insists that it is impossible for the religious and irreligious to be at peace, and - in his writings on El Salvador and Nicaragua, generally finds religion either to be a poor ally of socialism or its devout enemy. His latest therefore summarises the arguments of a lifetime, or the life that he has had since he was nine years old and decided firmly that God did not exist, a fact he is given to bragging about. But then, as someone remarked to me, perhaps this only means he still thinks like a nine year old.
God Is Not Great is sometimes witty, or at least half-witty, which is better than average. And it displays some of the author's ostentatiously wide learning with some of the old lapidary skill. It repeats many of his catechisms of old, the Freudian reference, the one-liners and the blunt insistence that not only can there be no peace between the religious and the atheist, but such peace would be undesirable. It is also superficial, error-strewn, and riddled with inconsistency and disavowal. On the error front, one could mention that Victor Serge didn't in fact invent the term 'totalitarianism' (it was Giovanni Amendola, a parliamentary opponent of fascism, who invented the phrase 'totalitaria', and Mussolini who took it up proudly, boasting of his 'totalitarianismo'). Or, his claim that Islam is in need of a Reformation, which suggests that his reading didn't take him as far as the revivalist movements of the 19th Century and that he doesn't recognise the self-evident analogue between salafism and Lutheranism. Equally, it may be that he doesn't really understand what the Reformation in its various manifestations was really about. On inconsistency, one marvels about his references to the Parties of God destroying Iraq without really dallying on the fact that the biggest Parties of God and the most aggressive ones are actually allies of the occupation. He doesn't seem to have noticed, either, that God's soldiers were fighting alongside him in Bosnia. On disavowal, the whole work can be seen as a careful expiation of the sins of imperialism and indeed of capitalism. Religion is blamed not only for the bad deeds of the religious, but also for modern 'totalitarianism', the threat of nuclear war, conflict in Palestine, gender repression (somehow the idea of Hitchens as a feminist doesn't really convince), the destruction of Iraq, the Lebanese civil war and so on. He states, falsely, that Iran is about the bring the world closer to the brink of nuclear war because it is acquiring nuclear weapons - this is the sort of assertion that is made without evidence, so perhaps we should follow Hitchens' motto and dismiss it without evidence. He finds that it is the religious fanatics on 'both sides' of the Israel-Palestine divide that have frustrated the attempts to reach a two-state settlement, an obvious falsehood about which it is safe to say he knows better.
The least useful thing that could be said about the book is that it is not constructive: it is not supposed to be constructive. It has some interesting, if rather old, things to say about different religions (oh, the common patriarchal norms, the sexual repression, the insistence that - as he puts it - "the birth canal is a one-way street", the textual bases for genocide and sectarianism and so on), garnished with the mantra: "religion poisons everything". It brags, repeatedly, that the attitude of non-believers like him is not one of faith, not dogmatic, but relies on free discussion and evidence. For a man who spent a great deal of February and March 2003 explaining that Wolfowitz would definitely bring peace and prosperity to Iraq, that the weapons of mass destruction would definitely be found, that evidence of Saddam's connections to the global jihad would be located, this doesn't sit well. Alright, perhaps it was unreasonable of him to make a claim to 'Twenty-Twenty Foresight' as he put it, but the fact that he persists in believing these things in hindsight despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary doesn't leave one with the impression that he is an avatar of Enlightenment. You can still find him on the Charlie Rose show repeating the gags about Saddam's alleged connections to the Abu Sayyaf movement and the 'hospitality' given Abdul Rahman Yasin, one of the alleged WTC bombers in 1993 - and thus, hint hint, the Baathist regime might have been behind it. The former is without substantial evidence (despite allegations rehashed in the neocon Weekly Standard in 2006), and the latter is a discredited thesis advanced by Laurie Mylroie who, before changing her - well, I won't say mind, but before changing her opinion on Saddam, was arguing for a deepening of the relationship between the Reagan regime and the Baath one. In fact, Yasin was an Iraqi who was released by the US government to return to his country of birth. When he arrived in Iraq, he was allegedly imprisoned and the Iraqi government repeatedly offered to hand him over in exchange for sanctions relief. But the US authorities that permitted his release were evidently not interested in prosecuting him - an interesting story in itself.
There are other reasons for doubting that Hitchens has overcome faith. To insist on the superiority of the scientific method against, say, 'intelligent design' is in principle a sensible step, but to serve it up with a blustering scientific realism and a curious combination of sociobiology and genetic reductionism arguably blunts the force of the argument. Similarly, it is one thing to assert religion's role in many of the worst forms of human behaviour, but it is another to reduce religion to that. Here he gets himself into an appropriate muddle: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's resistance to the Nazis is explained away as a victory for humanism, not religion. Okay, but then this - and countless other examples could be adduced - is a tacit acknowledgment that at least religion can coexist with humanism, rationalism, and so on, which mocks his own claim that there can be no peace between religion and atheism. The history of the development of science by the religious doesn't permit any facile opposition between the two (Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, Boyle, Newton etc). Nor is there even a complete opposition available between science and the Counter Reformation, in which the Church sought both to crush its enemies and restore its earthly power precisely by learning and spreading the new methods being developed. All of this has become so obvious that it is common wisdom among philosophers of science that its relationship to religion has often been productive, and that the instances of repression (of Galileo, for instance) are the exception rather than the rule.
It is simple enough to cite statements in the holy texts, but he is every bit as literalist as the fundamentalists and salafists. Such a gesture is completely incompatible with Hitchens' noisily avowed materialism, as well. If one only thinks of the millenia during which religions were developed and elaborated and argued over and censored and repressed and rearticulated, it is clear that a religion is not, or is not only, the content of its texts. It is a work of labour, a performance by people working in different contexts, deriving meanings that are apt for their circumstances. How else could there be such disagreement among people of the same faith about when and whom it is permissible to kill, or love, or rule? It may be an alibi of repression, but it is also an alibi of revolt (which raises the earlier prospect, that Hitchens doesn't understand the Reformation, or that part of it that was manifested in 1525). Although Hitchens claims to operate on the basis of Marx's critique of religion, he neglects to note that Marx was also a critic of the critique of religion: that he insisted that social change would come first and then people would abandon their "religious narrowness". He fundamentally misrepresents Marx, therefore, to make a case more befitting Bruno Bauer.
[Update: it has been drawn to my attention that I forgot to mention that - from a contrarian of Hitchens' stature - the title 'God is Not Great' is embarrassingly obvious. As in - "God is Great: Not!"]
God Is Not Great is principally a polemic about current affairs. Secularism and democratic republicanism are metaphors for American imperialism. In his hands they are alibis for repression and not, as one might have hoped, for revolt. Hitchens' long-standing anti-theism has become a means by which he commutes his remaining liberal commitments into support for aggressive American expansionism, nationalism, and accomodation to the claims of Zionism. If it wasn't for this, the book would probably not have been written, for there is not much in the book that was worth saying that hasn't already been said better, without the howlers, the arrogance and the insistence on using provisional scientific research as brickbats.
Defending Reason From Its Defenders
Dan Hind's new book, The Threat To Reason, is a very different kind of book. It too sees reason and Enlightenment values as being under threat, but the author doesn't accept that the main threat comes from New Agers and the religious. The Enlightenment is conscripted for various projects - not only American warfare, but also the corporate assault on environmentalism (or the attempt to coopt it), the capitalist attempt to curb labour protections, and the effort to override consumer and worker concerns about genetically modified foods. Bush cites Locke, The Economist cites Adam Smith, agribusiness cites progress against the forces of unreason, Blair contrasts globalising optimism with parochial pessimism and despair, and so on. A "bowdlerised and historically disembodied Enlightenment" is being used as a form of blackmail: if you are against us, you are with the forces of unreason. It has become a source of immense self-confidence for political and capitalist elites and the American empire, who all claim to be safeguarding that heritage. What Hind refers to as 'Folk Enlightenment' - because we all know the tune, even if the lyrics change sometimes - is reflected in the facility with which neoliberals appropriated the Scottish Enlightenment for their global crusade, matched by the neoconservative affirmation of the need for 'Enlightened' administration of Third World countries. Its use in this fashion has also helped people who described themselves as being on the Left, reconcile themselves to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The current clash-of-civilisations theme of imperialist apologetics often casts America's contemporary Islamist opponents as pre-Enlightenment and mythological (in contrast to America's self-image as confident and progressive). Similarly, the defense of capitalist enterprise against "eco-fundamentalists" who tend to be depicted as preferring to subsist in mud-huts on diets of greens and grains, is a familiar one.
Partially, the roots of this appropriation of the Enlightenment are located in anticommunism, in which a number of thinkers saw the tradition of 18th Century liberalism as the only viable alternative to - well, you probably could have guessed it - serfdom. (For in this outlook, the only alternative to liberal capitalism is something essentially premodern). Hind is very adept at drawing out the ways in which this has been perpetuated institutionally (he is a Lobster contributor after all), and in which it became the handmaiden of tyranny as well as exploitation. There are also some excellent put-downs - of Hitchens, and Wheen and that whole school of unthought. The unaccountability - ethically and otherwise - of corporations, and their private efforts to use Enlightenment methods to bolster their own power is described in some detail, as is that of the state: this, Hind calls 'Occult Enlightenment'. Additionally, the recklessness, moral irresponsibility and irrationality of the 'war on terror' is outlined brilliantly. There is a good discussion of the Enlightenment and various interpretations of it, and Hind also takes on some of the myths about the postmodernist assault on enlightened thought: pomo is thus summarised as not so much a coherent body of thought but as in many respects "a response to the accumulated disasters of Western modernity from the nineteenth century through to the 1960s: imperialism, world war and genocide". I don't think it could be put better than that. It concludes with a way out of the current binds, a gesture toward a truly Enlightened method. For one thing, we need to recognise the state-corporate nexus as the essential source of contemporary irrationalism. The vague, ahistorical histories in which people's ideas are given enormous social weight need to be eschewed in favour of an understanding of the institutional forms that produce knowledge. Hind reminds the indefatigable contrarians and defenders of reason that, far from being fearless conveyors of unblemished truths, they are themselves employees for information industries, some of them private and some of them state-owned. The forms of knowledge that they produce are conditioned by these institutions, and they delude themselves when they imagine otherwise. We need to abandon the illusions of 'disinterested' inquiry and try to overcome the property forms that currently repress common creativity and thought.
A few quibbles. I don't quite understand how Theodor Adorno is cast as a 'postmodernist', much less how Adorno and Horkheimer become the central examples of postmodern thought. Adorno's immanent critique of the Enlightenment doesn't entail a radical scepticism about the possibility of knowledge, and he was nothing if not a rationalist. Derrida and Foucault would surely have been better examples, especially since they are the most hated 'postmodernists', the clercs whose trahison has been most heinous for people like Wheen and Hari. Take, for example, Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, which characterises Derrida's philosophy in the words of Barbara Ehrenreich, as maintaining that the "world is just a socially constructed ‘text’ about which you can say just about anything". Similarly, take Hari's claim that the bad man wants to attack reason and language. Now, neither of these claims is true. Derrida was astonished to hear that his critique of logocentrism had been misinterpreted in this fashion: "I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language; it is, in fact, saying the exact opposite. The critique of logocentrism is above all else the search for the 'other' and the 'other of language...'". So far from abandoning truth, Derrida insists: "the value of truth (and all those values associated with it) is never contested or destroyed in my writing, but only reinscribed in more powerful, larger, more stratified contexts". He was not, as so often depicted, a textualist: "not that I consider laws, constitutions, the declaration of the rights of man, grammar, or the penal code to be the same as novels. I only want to recall that they are not ‘natural realities’, and that they depend on the same structural power that allows novelesque fictions or mendacious inventions and the like to take place. I have never ‘put such concepts as truth, reference, and the stability of interpretive context radically into question’ if ‘putting radically into question’ means contesting that there are and that there should be truth, reference, and stable contexts of interpretation". It is, in other words, the kind of reasoned and responsible critique of existing forms of institutionalised power/knowledge that is the most characteristic of the radical Enlightenment. Nor is the hatred for Derrida accidental. His Of Grammatology is explicit in connecting the deconstruction of Western philosophy to anti-imperialism. He explained: "the science of writing – grammatology – shows signs of liberation all over the world". By attacking the tropes through which white, European supremacy has been propagated, he has undermined the self-confidence of would-be imperialist intellectuals. Similarly, Hind could have been a bit more unkind to Peter Gay, who is actually partially responsible for the simplistic dichotomy between religious thought and Enlightened thought. Although Gay acknowledges the religious commitments of some of the chief Enlightenment thinkers (Locke, Rousseau, Newton, Ferney), his attempt to recreate the "mind of the Enlightenment" as a pagan throwback, a sort of Francocentric sensuous humanism, reinforces that binary. Similarly, in handling the resonance of the experience of French philosophes for contemporary usurpers, it would have been worth commenting on the inegalitarianism of its leading lights. While, for example, the later utilitarians like John Stuart Mill have sometimes been rightly criticised for their support for colonialism (the view that Bentham himself supported the British colonies has been undermined by Jennifer Pitts' recent work), a lot more could be said about the contempt of people like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot and others for the multitude, whom they energetically sought to distance themselves from. While hostile to certain forms of religious superstition, they articulated a fanatical resentment of 'le peuple' as mindless and malleable, that is surely analogous to the current warnings against 'populism'. The discussion of the 'Occult Enlightenment' might have been enriched by a discussion of its relationship to Renaissance and early-modern magical practise, since magical forms of thinking persist in elite doctrines. Those are merely quibbles, however. The author has done something that Dawkins et al have not done, which is to take both the Enlightenment and religion seriously, and to locate the social forces responsible for squandering and diverting its immense resources. He also handles wit, sarcasm and scepticism better than the current militant anti-theists do. And be prepared for the unexpected, too, because he isn't as content with the obvious as the God-botherer-botherers are.