On Hitchens and #GodIsNotGreat

On Hitchens and #GodIsNotGreat

Sam already broke the news here and over the course of today you’ll see a hundred essays from those who knew Christopher Hitchens far better than I did, but I want to at least briefly throw in my own thoughts.

I met him for the first in Las Vegas at The Amazing Meeting 4 in 2005. I had never heard of him before but was so blown away by his speech that I offered to bear his love babies. Hitchens was apparently amused enough to invite me to hang out at the bar with him, but I declined in order to go to lunch with friends, in part because of how incredibly intimidated I was. Over the next few days he kept extending invitations to hang out, but apart from a few short conversations, I didn’t spend much time with him.

The following year at The Amazing Meeting 5, my fellow SGU podcasters wanted to get an interview with Hitchens following his talk. Because I’d interacted with him prior, it fell to me to get his attention. I re-introduced myself to him before he went on stage, and he gamely at least pretended to recognize me. We chatted for a bit and he said he’d love to do the podcast, and to grab him as soon as he finished his talk.

When he left the stage an hour later, he was mobbed with fans. As he and I slowly made our way out of the lecture hall, he answered every question put to him and signed every book and piece of paper thrust into his hands. The 100-foot walk must have taken at least 30 minutes.

We then sat down for one of the most fun interviews we’ve ever done on SGU, in which Hitchens told us stories and limericks so bawdy that several times we stopped to remind him that the microphones were still on. He didn’t care. We had to put the dirtiest ones on a special explicit podcast.

When the microphones were off, I invited him to a party I was throwing in a suite that night, and he immediately agreed to attend. I was sure he was only being polite, but sure enough that night, there he was at the door, extending one hand while holding a glass of Scotch and a cigarette in the other. He stayed for hours, never seeming to mind whether he was in intimate conversation with one guest or surrounded by a small crowd of admirers. He spent at least 20 minutes telling one incredibly long, drawn out joke without a punchline. “It went nowhere,” one of my friends told me. “It was terrible. It was amazing.”

Hitchens will be remembered as an eloquent and occasionally vicious polemicist. He’ll be remembered for his brilliant take-downs of politicians like Henry Kissinger and any religious fundamentalist who wandered into his line of sight. He may even be remembered for his early support of George W Bush, and speaking of grievous missteps, I hope he won’t be remembered for that terrible piece of evo-psych bullshit that was Why Women Aren’t Funny.

But I guess all that is why I want to put down for the record that in addition to all those things, Hitchens was incredibly kind and giving with his time. Every time I met him over the past seven years he greeted me like an old friend, and as far as I could see, every fan he met got his full attention. Even when he was dying, he had time to sit down with a little girl to figure out what books should be on her reading list.

There are religious folks who are currently threatening violence because the hashtag #GodIsNotGreat was trending on Twitter. Their protests got Twitter to remove the topic from their top trends. Ironically, these people will try to convince the world to remember Hitchens as a hateful man. Like Mother Theresa, they’ll hide their own hatred and bigotry and destructive behaviors behind the veil of Godly love in order to convince the world that they’re the saintly victims.

Let’s not let them win.

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

20 Comments

  1. Well said.

  2. Remembering Hitchens via Vanity Fair feed is great value. With John Stewart ..
    Mother Theresa..”thieving Albanian dwarf.”
    Ghandi..”naked Hindu fundamentalist”
    Still cracks me up .. Well done that man!

  3. FYI – typo, first paragraph “new”.

  4. “Their protests got Twitter to remove the topic from their top trends”

    A Twitter employee stated that they didn’t do it: https://twitter.com/#!/DanaDanger/status/147650417873006592

    Anyway, as familiar as I am with Hitchens’ essays and YouTube videos, I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his books! Time to remedy that…

  5. I was in attendance at one of his last public appearances, and witnessed firsthand the young girl asking Hitchens about a reading list:

    http://skepchick.org/2011/10/ai-christopher-hitchens/

    The question from the young girl actually seemed to pump energy into his frail body, and as Rebecca mentioned, he then spent a great deal of time with her afterward discussing the books he thought she would like.

  6. I’d like to know what was on that reading list.

  7. Where is the evidence that Twitter removed the trending topic due to pressure or threats? I’m not asking this confrontationally, but because I generally can’t find anything to back that up anywhere on the ‘net.

    Every time something someone thinks is important disappears from Twitter’s trending topics, people cry censorship. And every time Twitter has to once again explain their automated algorithm that explains the fact that the subject fell off. People apply their own biases and emotions to the subject and assume the worst without tracking how other topics they didn’t care about trend and fall.

    I’m not saying this DIDN’T happen, but articles like this one are being used as “evidence” that it happened when I ask for it, and it’s not, it’s echo chamber right now. Most seem to point back to that bastion of critical thought, the HuffPo, who also wrote the paragraph without a single source of their information. If it’s true, PLEASE give me a link to something that confirms it. I really want to see it.

  8. @Hume’s Bastard

    The suggested list is available here:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/mason-crumpacker-and-the-hitchens-reading-list/

  9. Hitchens seemed like an okay dude, but I still can’t forgive him for this: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/01/hitchens200701. Oh, and for his love of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions.

  10. Much thanks for this post; for the insight. He wasn’t perfect, but he was brave, quick witted and articulate. A scary combination to his foes.

  11. I normally don’t get too emotional about the loss of public figures. Johnny Cash was an exception and here too it is with Christopher Hitchens.

    Fortunately for us, Hitchens figured out the secret of life-after-death. That secret is, of course, to make such an indelible mark on the world that your intellectual legacy survives well beyond your physical death.

    While I am terribly sad that he is gone, I am comforted to know that at any time, I can cue up the audiobook version of “God is not Great”, which he read himself, and hear that sharp wit at work.

    RIP, Christopher.

    \BCT

  12. I always enjoyed listening to him and reading his stuff. I wonder how long it will be before some religious person/organization will claim Hitchens admitted belief in god just before he passed away.

  13. Rebecca, Hitchens’s essay “Why Women Aren’t Funny” is not evolutionary psychology, nor is Hitchens an evolutionary psychologist; he only briefly mentions a study by Azim, Reiss, et al. at Stanford, which is about sex differences in brain activity elicited by humor. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/102/45/16496 What’s more, his understanding of the study is flawed, as Mark Liberman has written about in Language Log’s “Flacks and Hacks and Hitchens.” http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003909.html

    To call Hitchens’s essay or even his treatment of the sex differences study by Azim et al. “evo psych bullshit” misreads his essay and presents a misleading picture of what constitutes evolutionary psychology.

    • No, Hitchens is not an evolutionary psychologist, which is part of why the essay is problematic, presumably someone who actually studies evolutionary psychology would be better at it (not that all academic evolutionary psychologists are much better at it than Hitchens was). He uses the common evo psych journalism trope of explaining things in terms of sexual appeal which is implicitly tied up with sexual selection. The article may well not be evolutionary psychology in the academic sense, but it is definitely in the tradition of evo psych tinged journalism that justifiably deserves the epithet.

      The one thing which makes this piece somewhat more bearable for me is that, according to his memoir, the topic was not one of his own choosing. His mucked up approach to gender as presented in the piece is still disappointing, but somehow the sting of reading such ridiculous material coming from an otherwise largely respected (by me at least) source is lessened by knowing that the theme was not one entirely of his own inclination.

  14. Even if you wanted to circumvent “Hitchens is not an evolutionary psychologist nor is his essay evolutionary psychology”, doing this by saying Hitchens is following a tradition of journalism about evolutionary psychology would still warrant a change of terms. You could get away with maybe “journalistic evolutionary psychology” or “popular evolutionary psychology”, but the blanket term “evolutionary psychology” refers foremost to the academic discipline and misleads readers who wouldn’t think Rebecca was using “evolutionary psychology” to mean something else.

    • I don’t actually think it’s particularly confusing to readers. Given that Hitchens is pretty well known as NOT an evolutionary psychologist I don’t think his writing on the topic could ever be mistaken for that of a scientist. I would actually argue that taken as a whole the term “evo-psych bullshit” refers to a particular type of pop-science journalism rather than any academic work (not that academics can’t produce items of the same lack of quality).

      • Hitchens’s essay utilizes a study about sex differences in brain activity elicited by humor. The misleading nature of Rebecca’s usage is not that Hitchens may be mistaken for an evolutionary psychologist but that his controversial essay may be viewed as evolutionary psychology in any form, journalistic or otherwise. Nothing would stop a non-psychologist from writing adequately about evolutionary psychology, as it is entirely possible to summarize and popularize evolutionary psychology legitimately; Steven Pinker has done as much.

        Even substituting “evo psych bullshit” for “fake evolutionary psychology” would provide adequate clarification.

        • You are the only one who seems to have read it that way. Take that as a hint to how legitimate your criticism might be.

        • “Even substituting “evo psych bullshit” for “fake evolutionary psychology” would provide adequate clarification.”

          Ummm, that’s exactly what Rebecca did, she used the phrase “evo-psych bullshit” to mean “fake evolutionary psychology”. Unless you mean to say that she aught to have used the phrase “fake evolutionary psychology” in place of “evo-psych bullshit”, in which case you said it wrong.

          In any case I’m somewhat curious as to why you are so determined to defend the field of evolutionary psychology. In my experience Hitchens’ evo-psych bullshit is pretty similar to the majority of other evo-psych material appearing in the popular press. The academic discipline may be redeemable, but from my perspective the popular reporting and use of the field is pretty well sunk as being determined to justify hilariously old fashioned gender norms.

  15. “Their protests got Twitter to remove the topic from their top trends.”

    It’s *extremely* ironic for you to repeat this Twitter rumour so unskeptically on a site called “skepchick”! Would you care to back this up with some actual evidence, like Hitchens would have demanded?

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