Friday, October 15, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on the Ten Commandments

I do not always agree with Christopher Hitchens. In fact, I find much of what he says infuriating or maddening, like his misogynistic comments about female comedians. He has said that female comedians are "unattractive" and that women in general are not funny. For the record, I have encountered several women, both in the public sphere and in my social circle, who are quite funny, and some are even physically attractive. But, of course, both "funny" and "attractive" are subjective labels. His comments about female comedians sound odd now, considering his complaint in this video about the sexist connotations of the final commandment, which, he says, wrongly equates women with property. Hitchens has also made the astute observation that women are the most frequent victims of religious tyranny.
That said, despite my problems with many of Hitchens' public opinions, like his support of the war in Iraq (which I'm not entirely sure isn't based on a personal animosity toward Muslims), I enjoyed his critique and revision of the Ten Commandments. After all, Hitchens points out, there is more than one version of the Commandments in the Bible, leading Hitchens to say, "If [Moses] can be a revisionist, then so can I." While some of the Commandments, like "Thou shalt not kill," are reasonable enough, Hitchens makes the point that, after passing down the commandments, Moses ordered the slaughter of a rival group. There is even one commandment that Hitchens says he likes, "Thou shalt not bear false witness," which condemns false accusations, something that the devoutly religious have done to other religions for centuries, as seen in "blood libel" myths once propagated by Christians against Jews, Muslims against Jews, and, if memory of history class serves me right, was also leveled against Christians at some point. He then indicates the problem with the final commandment, prohibiting "coveting." Where other commandments prohibit actions, like killing, stealing or lying, this commandment prohibits thought. This recalls the "thought police" of George Orwell's classic totalitarian nightmare 1984. In modern societies, it is wrong or immoral actions, not the thoughts that inspire them, that are punished. For example, prejudice, the base human emotion, is not illegal, but discrimination or violence based on prejudice is punishable by law. After the critique of the established religious commandments, Hitchens offers his own version, which is anti-violence (in his book God is Not Great, after criticizing just about everything about religion, Hitchens emphatically opposes church-burning and other violent forms of protest), and urges opposition of religions and other institutions (and individuals) who use violence. Of course, Hitchens doesn't need to use violent means to upset people and get his point across. His words are all the weapons he needs. He is the embodiment of the saying, "The pen is mightier than the sword." As enraged as I often am with him, maybe we all need to become enraged once in a while. Anger, while toxic when unleashed in the wrong forms, can be a conduit for creativity and thought when correctly harnessed.
In recent months, Hitchens had to cancel his book tour, in support of his memoir (which I have yet to read, but it sounds fascinating), due to a diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus, which killed his father. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, his head bald from treatment, Hitchens spoke honestly about his fight with the disease. He said that even he had the "Why me?" thought, adding that it's natural to think that, but it's just a thought that needs to be pushed aside. Hitchens also said though he is "not fatalistic" about his hope for recovery, his is also, "realistic," knowing that "my odds are not good." Indeed, the survival rate for esophagus cancer is low. While he maintained a calm demeanor, and still has a way with words, in this interview I saw, for the first time (maybe it also comes up in his memoir) a human being, with the same fears and vulnerabilities as those of us he agitates, behind the poison tongue and pen. I hope for his recovery, but, if the worst is realized, Christopher Hitchens will have left behind a unique legacy of eloquence, insight and outrage that will not be matched.