Hitch is not great

Lying not far beneath the surface of neo-atheist books, writes Dalrymple,

is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules. It can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens’s drumbeat in God Is Not Great: ‘Religion spoils everything.’ What? The St Matthew Passion? The cathedral of Chartres?

The emblematic religious person in the neo-atheist books

seems to be a Glasgow Airport bomber—a type unrepresentative of Muslims, let alone communicants of the poor old Church of England.

It is

surely not news, except to someone so ignorant that he probably wouldn’t be interested in these books in the first place, that religious conflict has often been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities.

So have secularists and atheists, and

though they have had less time to prove their mettle in this area, they have proved it amply. If religious belief is not synonymous with good behaviour, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.

In fact, says Dalrymple,

one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and I.G. Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide.

Hitchens, Dalrymple notes, fell prey to the illusion that the striking of trivial attitudes was generosity enough for a lifetime. He

commodified his dissent, albeit in a niche market (though niches in America are larger than entire markets elsewhere).

While his brother has thoroughly repented, Hitchens retained

an emotional sympathy for his former views. In others, he would no doubt espy in this intellectual dishonesty and historical distortion; in himself, he sees truth to his own generous principles.

Hitchens’s review of a reissue of Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky, for example,

presents Trotsky principally as a gifted journalist and sage — a little like Hitchens himself, in fact — the force of whose ideas, or phrases, made the unjustly powerful tremble everywhere.

Why Hitchens’s unusual delicacy over this moral monster? Because, says Dalrymple, he

was himself once a follower of Trotsky and does not want to admit that he was, by implication, a supporter of mass murder, the ruthless suppression of opponents and the kind of tyranny that made all previous tyrannies appear bumbling and amateurish.

It was not that Hitchens wanted

to bring about such a tyranny, let alone live under one (anyone who did would hardly decamp to the US). Rather, he fell prey to the adolescent illusion that the striking of attitudes is generosity enough.

Gifted journalist and sage

Other people had only

walk-on parts

when Hitchens was striking attitudes, which was most of the time, and his hatred of religion

strikes me as adolescent. We most of us know by now that religious bigotry is a bad thing — though the record of hardline secularists in the 20th century is not exactly spotless — but only an adolescent sees in the religious history of mankind nothing but intolerance. Compulsory attendance at school chapel must have been a traumatic experience for Hitchens.

Gifted journalist and sage

Fashionable Leftism of the kind espoused by Hitchens is not, says Dalrymple, a case of Lenin’s ‘infantile disorder’ or like a childhood illness such as mumps, but rather

a chronic condition with lingering after-effects and flare-ups. Those who suffer it only very rarely get over it, Hitchens being a good example of one who did not. He could never bring himself to admit that he had for all his life admired and extolled a man who was at least as bad as Stalin, namely Trotsky; and his failure to renounce his choice of maître à penser became in time not just a youthful peccadillo of a clever adolescent who wanted to shock the adults but a symptom of a deep character flaw, a fundamental indifference to important truth.

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