Christopher Hitchens used to tell a story. A good natured but stupid ‘nature’ class teacher, Mrs Jean Watts, had one day ventured to explain that grass and leaves were green as god’s gift to mankind. He paraphrased her: ‘This is an excellent thing and proof of the glory of god, because he could have made vegetation orange or red, something that would clash with our eyes, whereas green is the most restful colour for our eyes!’ Nine-year-old Hitchens concluded: ‘That’s bullshit!’ Bang. Done. The Eureka moment from which he extrapolated all the other idiocies that flow from humans presuming to speak for god.
For me the matter was less certain and more complex, but no less fundamental. And it applies much more widely than just to matters of religious authority proper. The purview is all human reasoning.
Let’s take a detour via Jean Paul Sartre’s 1946 lecture, ‘Existentialism and Humanism’, which some have argued should have been translated as ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’. The distinction is not as inconsequential as it may seem. The translation of this lecture from the French by Philip Mairet contains the sentence: ‘Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse.’ A sentence that, when considered carefully, is not just profound, but one of the most elegant literary renditions of any idea in the modern era. In fact, it was such a perfect phrasing that I wondered whether there had been a mistranslation of ‘numinous’ for ‘luminous’. I had to check various sources, but in those I can lay my hands on it is at least a universal mistake, if it is a mistake at all.
‘It’s bloody obvious,’ is my frequent, exasperated response to my long-time interlocutor, critic, sometime editor, second harshest critic, and good friend, Dorothy Uckling. Her counsel? ‘You should explain what you mean when you say… because people won’t understand you.’
The critique about not explaining myself more clearly happens less frequently than it did, but with a still somewhat predictable regularity that tells me I need to pause, sometimes, and consider whether I have assumed the wrong audience, and whether I need to do something about that.
This is likely a problem for any writer. You have to think yourself into your subject, but when you then write about it, you may leave behind more casual observers who did not come along for that immersion, and who may not agree with your conclusions. One of the obstacles working against that apparently simple writerly task is an orthodox tradition in the academy, and the public province of readership, of frowning on self-referential pointers about such journeys, and the unwritten prohibition on any self-assertiveness. ‘Who do you think you are to say such a thing?’ Continue reading “Theology of technical rationality”
Knowing better, but actually being struck across the forehead with evidence of astonishing stupidity in academic and business practices is probably more painful than that initial moment of clarity when the futility of determinist reductionism first comes into sharp focus.
The latter occurred for me decades ago, and echoes the late Christopher Hitchens’ ruminations on people who have power:
… I began to discern one of the elements of an education: get as near to the supposed masters and commanders as you can and see what stuff they are really made of. As I watched famous scholars and professors flounder here and there, I also, in my career as a speaker at the Oxford Union, had a chance to meet senior ministers and parliamentarians “up close” and dine with them before as well as drink with them afterward, and be amazed once again at how ignorant and sometimes plain stupid were the people who claimed to run the country.
— Christopher Hitchens (2010). Hitch 22: A Memoir. New York: Twelve/Hachette Book Group, p 98.
Hitchens, Christopher (2001). The Trial of Henry Kissinger. New York: Verso.
Hitchens casts himself as a political opponent of Kissinger in the preface to the book, which is as good and time-honoured a reason to write a scalding denunciation of the man.
Coming to the book as an interested reader of Hitchens’s columns and books, and compelled by Hitchens’s untimely but not entirely unexpected death (least of all by him), I was in two minds. All men with their hands on the levers of power are, to an extent, indictable for atrocious crimes, but how do you indict leaders of the past without ensuring collusion by the present bunch to prevent exactly that happening to themselves?
More importantly, why would the public now support prosecuting a man they didn’t push to have indicted at the time? Leaving aside the convincing arguments made by Hitchens about the crude culpability of Kissinger in not only war crimes, but directly in single murders, what would make the American public, around 40 years on, accept that it had made a mistake to remain silent on Kissinger for so long, and that he should now be held accountable for his crimes?
I don’t see an answer to this question in the book itself.
It seems that Hitchens, who never mentioned it directly, saw the feasibility of launching a prosecution against Kissinger as arising from the public immolation of the Nixon presidency in the 1970s, but mostly from the appalling profiteering of the consultancy Kissinger Associates, which has profited enormously from Kissinger’s former foreign policy interventions around the globe.