To Criticize, To Clarify – The Simultaneity of Hitchens’ Death and the War’s End


Last Thursday night, as I was studying at my desk for a few final midterms, my dad cracked open my bedroom door and told me to check the news: Christopher Hitchens had died.

When I woke up on Sunday morning, still groggy and half-asleep, I grabbed my BlackBerry from my nightstand. I had one new e-mail, from the Obama campaign. “Friend – “ it read, as most of the notes from the DNC begin. “Early this morning, the last of our troops left Iraq.”

There are occasions on which it seems that the universe has a biting wit. This weekend was one of them.

In one fell swoop, we lost the world’s preeminent heretic and brought an end to an almost decade-long war that began primarily as a result of a marked lack of outspoken heretics.

Hitchens would have called it nonsense; I call it a cosmic hint.

Pundits still argue that had the war not been the primary campaign issue in 2008, Barack Obama may have secured neither the Democratic nomination, nor the presidency. A Pew poll conducted just three days before the election illustrated that half of American voters considered an Iraq invasion to have been the “wrong decision,” while the remaining voters split between varying other responses.

Obama used his early criticism of the Iraq decision as one of his strongest campaign talking points. His push for more regulation and more debate over the justifications of war toppled Hillary Clinton’s default vote in favor of the war, and John McCain’s fervent support of its prolongation.

In early May of 2003, President Bush conveyed a message similar to the DNC’s e-mail. “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” he said. Eight years, eight-hundred billion dollars, and nearly five thousand American lives later, it seems that a little Hitchens-esque heresy from within the political arena couldn’t have hurt.

One religious leader – someone who debated Christopher Hitchens – wrote last week that in losing Hitchens, we also lost a watchdog to “scour our less-careful pronouncements.” God is Not Great forced us to debate whether, in fact, God was great. His incessant declarations that “religion is man-made” compelled even the most confident believer to clarify or justify his or her own faith.

A sink that has been checked has fewer leaks, a book that has been proofread has fewer typos, and a war whose truths have been exposed – whose devastating economic implications and more devastating death toll have come to light – can end. There were leaks and there were holes. Few checked the war, few proofread its precipitating argument. More than three quarters of the senate voted to approve a resolution built on faulty evidence and unsound extrapolation.

Iconoclasm has its faults. Critique does not make way invariably for improvement; the type of criticism that pervades today’s vitriolic political scene certainly does not. An attack for the sake of attack leaves us with little more than hostility. Sweeping generalizations about movements or groups (the subtitle of Hitchens’ most recent book was “how religion poisons everything”) evade the necessity of nuance. Thunderous radical pronouncements often put their pronouncers on the defensive and trap them in categorical boxes which they would rarely find themselves in otherwise. Heresy is an imperfect art.

But I think back to my elementary school years: in each class, on each day, the same bushy-haired kid would raise his hand and ask “what’s the point of all this?” or “when am I ever going to use long division?” That raw dissidence – the roots of which can be found no further than a fourth grade math classroom – is a driving force of enlightenment. To ask questions is to clarify intent; to be a heretic is to seek the truth – or another truth. Irony lies in the reality: Hitchens himself was an early supporter of the war. But the Hitchens approach – the notion of criticism for the sake of betterment – remains sound.

The cosmic hint that I take from the simultaneity of these two events is simple: had we a Congress full of lawmakers with a Hitchens mentality, not only would our country have been the beneficiary of eloquent prose and a finer taste in whiskey; without doubt, the war in Iraq would have ended as briskly as it began.

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