Wednesday, December 21, 2011

PZ Myers On Christopher Hitchens

I haven't felt like writing about Christopher Hitchens' passing. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I think his credulous and arrogant support for the war in Iraq was probably the biggest reason. Whatever else he's done, and he has done a lot, that's a stain that deserves to be on his memory. No one with a properly skeptical mind would have believed the case for war. It wasn't there. Yet Hitchens trumpeted it as though he was a high priest delivering the word of his god.

Meanwhile, in his second article about Hitchens, biology Professor P.Z. Myers gets it pretty close to right, I think:
Hitchens was a complicated fellow: talented and intelligent, and on some subjects he was warm and humane and a true child of the Enlightenment. And on others, a bloodthirsty barbarian and a club-carrying primitive. At least in his final months it was the civilized and thoughtful humanist who emerged most.

The dark side of Hitchens
Besides his support for that disastrous war, my other lasting impression of Hitchens is his voluntarily subjecting himself to waterboarding. As he wrote before the experiment, he didn't believe it was torture. After experiencing it for himself, he courageously wrote that it was, indeed, torture. That was Hitchens in one bad afternoon - the arrogance to think that what other people who had experienced it said about it wasn't true, the curiosity to try it for himself, and the honesty to write about what he experienced and what he felt afterward.

Oh, and by the way, in that article he finally got around to mentioning Malcolm Nance, a counter-insurgency and SERE expert whom I'd quoted almost a year previously. He wasn't hard to find.

It was interesting to see that Prof. Myers was somewhat in awe of Hitchens. I can't see PZ being fooled by some con job like the "case" for the Iraq War, nor would he have ever been fool enough to believe that waterboarding wasn't torture. For my money, Myers is a hell of a lot smarter. I suspect that's because, as a scientist, Myers is uncomfortably aware that even really smart people can be really, really wrong. All they have to do is forget that it's possible.

Hitchens was a complicated man. Whether he will be missed probably depends on how those complexities worked out for you. I'm sad to say that I won't miss him all that much, except as an example of how arrogance can make you stupid.


Paul Sunstone said...

Interesting post! And also interesting -- as you pointed out on my blog -- that we wrote on similar subjects today.

I've been interested in stupidity for a while now. Not as something to condemn, but as something to understand. And I think you are basically correct -- the more you believe yourself immune to it, the more likely you are to fall victim to it.

Cujo359 said...

It's certainly true. I'm sure it's not the only cause of foolishness, but it's the one that seems to get public officials and other prominent people in trouble most often.

Cujo359 said...

I should add, I suppose, that one of the reasons I think Hitchens' arrogance was the cause of his support for the war was watching him on Bill Maher's show once. Someone mentioned some foreign policy think tank or another that didn't think much of the war, and he just dismissed them as idiots. Trouble is, the idiots were right, which is something Hitchens only realized much later, if at all.