God dammit, Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a puzzle to me. On the one hand, I really like and appreciate his outspoken activism on atheist causes. He’s even written a book called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which along with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, is one of the great atheist advocacy books of the past few years. But he can be such a crank on other issues, like his steadfast support of the Iraq War (although to be fair, he is British, so most of the troops dying in Iraq aren’t his country’s).

But in a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal he said something even more inexcusable. How am I to reconcile this stupidity with some of his other views which I do support? From the column:

What are we trying to “get over” here? We are trying to get over the hideous legacy of slavery and segregation. But Mr. Obama is not a part of this legacy. His father was a citizen of Kenya, an independent African country, and his mother was a “white” American. He is as distant from the real “plantation” as I am. How — unless one thinks obsessively about color while affecting not to do so — does this make him “black”?

Yes, he actually said that. Apparently being “black” is nothing more than being descended from slaves on the American plantations; if you are merely from, say, Africa, you don’t count as black. And the Wall Street Journal published it. I’m kind of in disbelief here. So are the folks over at Daily Kos. Later in the column he goes on to say that he’s just as black as Barack Obama is, because both of their ancestors ultimately trace back from Africa. That’s a really stupid claim, because he’s glossing over a huge difference in degree. For someone who’s purportedly scientific-minded, he should know better. By his logic, we’re equally as much a bacteria as E. coli is, because after all, we are both ultimately descended from a common ancestor bacteria many hundreds of millions of years ago, right? So why doesn’t he admit that whether your ancestors emigrated from Africa tens of thousands of years ago or within the past few decades makes a huge difference, not only in how you look but how you are treated by a frequently racist society?

So I think I’ll stick with idolizing (heh) Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers as my exemplary atheists. I’m in much more agreement with their general views on a wide variety of topics. I really have to pick nits to find a point that I philosophically disagree with them on. They are progressive in all areas, not just religion. But with Christopher Hitchens it sometimes seems like the only view we have in common is atheism, and that is not nearly enough to make me like him.

4 Responses to “God dammit, Christopher Hitchens”

  1. arensb Says:

    (although to be fair, he is British, so most of the troops dying in Iraq aren’t his country’s).

    He became a US citizen last year. I’m not sure to what extent that changes your argument.

  2. Lee Kinkade Says:

    Well, to be fair, this topic has been debated by others. Mr. Obama said when asked about it that cab drivers don’t seem to have any difficulty telling that he is black. So, while he is not descended from slaves, he does experience the pervasive racism that those who were face every day.

    I have read accounts of African blacks in New York City not being subjected to the same racism as American blacks were, and some American black, with full disapproval of their peers, dressing in African robes to escape some restrictions. Doing so was at best risky, but it shows that in some ways African were perceived as separate than Blacks and received different treatment in some ways.

  3. Cyde Weys Says:

    arensb: Hrmm, I didn’t know that. Yup, I guess it does change my argument somewhat. Now he doesn’t even have the excuse that “someone else” is doing all of the fighting, dying, and spending.

  4. drinian Says:

    Just because he’s atheist doesn’t mean that he’ll have the same values as you; he sounds more Nietzscheian than anything else. In fact, I’d say it’s less likely for two self-identifying atheists to agree on morals than two Christians. The more amicable atheists, like Dawkins, or secular humanists, like Stephen Pinker (The Blank Slate, highly recommended), are willing to assign a dual-value system to human emotions and animus whereby they are recognized as biological phenomena but should still have meaning and value. This is by no means a foregone conclusion.

    As for the Obama business, he’s right that there is a class divide in this country between successful blacks and blacks living in poverty, and that, demographically, more poor blacks tend to be descendants of slaves, who came to this country involuntarily. However, he’s mistaken in failing to recognize the difference that skin color can make, even discounting normal modes of dress. I would wholeheartedly agree that wearing hip-hop or street clothes can cause extra discrimination, but wearing a conservative suit certainly doesn’t eliminate it.