Monday, March 28, 2005

Hitch Strikes Again

I caught a glimpse of the Christopher Hitchens who made me want to be a writer in the first place in the opening graf of his Slate piece on Terri Schiavo:
The immediate crisis has apparently passed. But all through Easter Sunday, one had to be alert to the possibility that, at any moment, the late and long-dead Terri Schiavo would receive the stigmata on both palms and both feet and be wafted across the Florida strait, borne up by wonder-working dolphins, to be united in eternal bliss with the man-child Elián González.
Damn straight. And his concluding call to arms is memorable:
Not content with telling us that we once used to share the earth with dinosaurs and that we should grimly instruct our children in this falsehood, religious fanatics now present their cult of death as if it were a joyous celebration of the only life we have. They have gone too far, and they should be made to regret it most bitterly.
You might even say that he's treading on the same conceptual ground I and especially Jeremy have dwelt in during our exchanges on the meaning of "culture of life."

Hitch even makes a subtle enough philosophical point:
The end of the brain, or the replacement of the brain by a liquefied and shrunken void, is (to return to my earlier point) if not the absolute end of "life," the unarguable conclusion of human life. It disqualifies the victim from any further say in human affairs. Tragic, perhaps, unless you believe in a better life to come (as, oddly enough, the parents of this now non-human entity claim that they do).
Or to draw this out more formally: Though there still exists a physical (and maybe psychophysical) mass that we conventionally refer to as "Terri Schiavo," Terri Schiavo herself ceased to exist 15 years ago. That's because, what's important in determining identity is something like contiguity of consciousness and memory. "Terri Schiavo" and Terri Schiavo are inequivalent, by Leibniz's Law.

So fair enough. If you expected the other shoe to drop, here it is: First of all, Hitchens doesn't seem to be hip to the rather glaring inconsistency in his own conceptual scheme. Before pronouncing "Terri Schiavo" a "non-human entity" (I think that may be inaccurate, but fine, she's in any case a non-Terri Schiavo entity), Hitchens explicates his own idiosyncratic anti-abortion rights position:
I used to have horrible and exhausting arguments with supposedly "pro-choice" militants who only reluctantly conceded that the fetus was alive but who then demanded to know if this truly was a human life. I know casuistry when I see it, and I would respond by asking what other kind of life it could conceivably be.
Is it just me or does he answer this rhetorical question in the excerpt above? It's an analytic truth that a potential life is not a life; to be a potential life is to be not yet a life, therefore not a life at all. And to have a human identity, the consciousness that, say, a zygote lacks, seems like a reasonably agreeable necessary condition.

The unspoken dialectic in Hitchens' piece is more problematic. Hitchens was among the faction that preferred and supported a Republican victory in the last election, on the grounds that the Democrats and John Kerry in particular were too weak-kneed when it came to facing down terrorism and jihadism. Well as someone who shared a lot of Hitchens' (and others') concerns about the Democrats' impotence and evident unseriousness on foreign policy, I have to say I continue to be baffled by the willful overlooking on the part of the national-security-only Bush voters of the nature and power of the extreme right. There are a plethora of things wrong with the Democratic party, and I support them only for the complete lack of a suitable alternative, yet the Democrats are the only institution in the entire country that is capable of acting as a check against religious right outrages.

What bugs me about Hitchens in particular is the way he flippantly brushed aside criticism of the Republicans. Michael Moore, A.N.S.W.E.R., Ramsey Clark, et al., couldn't force an emergency Congressional hearing on dog-collaring, and that would still be true if Nancy Pelosi were Speaker of the House. The equivalent institutions on the right extend to perhaps three-quarters of the elected Republican caucus. There just is no congruity between the extremist fringes of the left and right. The far right controls at least two branches of government; it is angry, it is fanatical, it respects no precedent or Constitutional principle, it respects no concept of personal freedom or privacy, and it is empowered. No nuanced separation from former comrades (or, dare I say it, empty casuistry) can negate the fact that this precise outcome---the unleashing of religious fanatics into all relevant chambers of power---is what Hitchens spent much of 2004 editorializing for. Ignorance of the nature of religious right's agenda is no excuse, both because he certainly was not ignorant of it, nor should he have been if in some possible world he was.

To think, prior to the 2004 election, that the right's assault on civil rights and dignity could be confined only to gays, was a dangerous lunacy now demonstrated beyond any recourse to semantic and semiotic blinders to have been utterly vacuous---and that is to say nothing of the profound cynicism and moral abdication entailed by passively allowing the right to sacrifice our gay fellow citizens on the altar of their "values," just so long as a bellicose foreign policy rhetoric could be retained (there being no reason to have expected any significant shift in foreign policy by a Democratic administration). What I mean to say, briefly, is that there are a lot of people who cast a vote this past November who should have, and did, know much better.

The cynics and fanatics of the Republican caucus (those categories having silently but clearly uprooted the old fiscal vs. social conservative divide) deserve, as Hitchens said, to be made to regret their actions "most bitterly." The state of our society would look a bit less depressing if Hitchens and those who voted as he did and for the same reasons felt some of that same bitter regret.


At 9:04 PM, Anonymous Everyone said...

You wrote: -- You might even say that he's treading on the same conceptual ground I and especially Jeremy have dwelt in during our exchanges on the meaning of "culture of life." --

It's this type of douchebaggery that will be your downfall.

At 11:16 PM, Blogger Finnegan said...

Ah, the ever courageous anonymous heckler. I think you'll find that statement was, in fact, accurate.

At 8:29 PM, Anonymous everyone else said...

Douchebaggery needn't be inaccurate.


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