Writing exercise #1: Deconstruction

Just for fun writing exercise, this time about a religious Ph.D. candidate in philosophy and what he had to say about Christopher Hitchens. His article can be found in crisis magazine. Please be candid with your comments and lay out to me where grammar and rhetoric are still lacking

I would like to exercise and exorcise the vacuity in a pompous text that I found on the Internet, attacking the Dear Leader of my cult, the late Christopher Hitchens. The author of this text is Sean Haylock, a philosopher who ‘found home’ to Christ, writing in the only publication crisis magazine. He opens his piece with an apology for the fact that he had been ‘taken-in’ by the ‘bravura bombast’ of the Hitch. The superfluous alliteration warned me from the very first sentence that the piece would be tough to digest because this author had been too eager to produce resounding phrases, rejoicing as it were in beautifying his grammar rather than submitting it to critical analysis.

He purchased God is Not Great to the visible dismay of the cashier of his local bookstore? What kind of self-hating bookstore is that, where an employee shows dismay when a customer purchases a product that is sold there? When he reportedly ‘devoured it in a fit of scandalized glee’, as if the book was on the Index and he sought the excitement of doing something forbidden, lacking access to pussy – I got the picture.

The PhD-candidate continues with an admittedly well-chosen adjective, debonair, but he overdoes it. Of course Hitchens could ‘pitch you into elated laughter’ with ‘bawdy asides’, but he uses this description to obfuscate the untruth that follows: “if you were on his side, of course”. What nonsense! There have been many believers who laughed out loud and visibly enjoyed the man’s great taste and eloquence in debate. An example might be Tony Blair. Now our author has ‘shifted against him on most matters that he cared about’. There is only one matter here: the existence of a supernatural being. Or are you saying that you shifted against him on matters such as genital mutilation, climate change, honor killings, homosexuality? All ‘matters’ were Christopher quite simply held the right view, and I would defend these views against everybody who things otherwise.

The next paragraph opens with the baffling claim that Hitchens was above all an entertainer, supported not with arguments but with a supposedly witty comparison. Hitchens has a larger than life character and effortless erudition (another irritating alliteration). A man who consistently fought against the delusion of religion and held contrarian views informed by his own rational considerations alone, not by an authority, wants to convince, not to entertain. It is a gross and quite unforgivable insult and, of course, a counterproductive way of neutralizing the force of Hitchens’s arguments.

Next we must ‘acquaint ourselves with the private being that dwelt in the shadow of that vivid façade’ because that private being, ‘in its frailty and nakedness and immutable beauty is wat matters most about each person’. I used to call this the moralistic rape of your audience. Add in a tear-jerking sentence and another blatant and for religions authoritarians very convenient lie, namely that only the person matters. God damn it, what matters is what the man said.

Once the sluices to the ad hominem are opened wide, the mud starts flowing. About the claim that Hitchens would be a narcissist our author writes “there is some truth in that”. How can he know? For all I know the man was eloquent, don’t conflate the two because it might haunt you one day, when you gain an ‘undaunted style’ or even or the ability to think for yourself, the latter faculty conveniently dismissed as ideological idiosyncracies. Next, our author uses the anecdotal evidence that he doesn’t feel trusted as a reader, that there is the ‘distance of lacquered artifice’. He missed the ‘intimate contact of souls’ that he yearns for as a religious person and because he didn’t feel good about the packaging, he disposes of rational argument altogether. But what our zealot dismisses as ‘arrogance parceled out in witticisms’ is the heart-felt indignation over the horrors committed in the name of religion. The next untruth this self-righteous scribbler feels the need to proclaim is again an ad hominem, saying that simply because Hitchens is capable of the art of polemics, he couldn’t do justice to matters of moral consciousness? Our benighted Christian forgets that the allegedly objective moral truths his tribal faith claims to know must be independent of our own morality, in fact Christianity depends for a large part on the idea that crooked men have the ability to see the light and be reborn in Christ. The atheist, of course, is not only crooked but should be confined to hell and eternal damnation. Apparently, it is only by denying truth and humanity in everybody else that Christians can uphold the consistency of their narrative. The all-encompassing inclusion of the loving father-god is predicated on the exclusion, and if (indeed historically whenever) they get away with it, extermination of infidels. But enough. In the same paragraph, our writer dares to doubt Hitchens’s personal integrity, as if eloquent rebuttals are in any way comparable to the indoctrination of faith and the mutilation of genitals. Another vile smear, and he isn’t done yet.

It gets worse. This bloke calls Hitchens a demagogue and a charlatan because he deployed rhetoric with passion and vehemence. This is a non sequitur if there ever was one. He accuses him of using ‘flashy rhetorical gambits’ without any real argument. That gambit goes “that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. It is ‘redolent of verificationism’ and would lead to obscurantism, while Hitchens would be not aware of the ‘developments in the twentieth century’ of the philosophy of science. These ‘developments’ are of no importance to the argument at hand, but just serve, again, to obfuscate that our author has just attempted to perform a sleight of hand. Of course the right to assert something without evidence is no greater than to dismiss it. This is precisely what guards us against obscurantism. Besides, Hitchens was well aware of Karl Popper, thank you very much.

Our bigot continues, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse. After saying that Hitchens is worshiped or even idolized, he calls his agonizing struggle with cancer and his death ‘humiliating’. Humiliating to whom? To your heavenly father, whose sordid morals you see so proudly vindicated? How dare you! Yes, he was an iconoclast made icon, and imitated (not emulated) by the young. So what? You didn’t present one single argument in your confused and stilted rant.

Lo and behold, the next paragraph presents the accusation, again phrased in meanspirited suggestiveness, that Hitchens’s ‘inability to offer more than the most perfunctory denunciation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is significant’. No it isn’t. Since when do deranged philosophies like Ayn Rand’s deserve more than perfunctory denunciation and derision? There is a reason why Hitch didn’t rebut such repugnant sophistry and it is not because of a lack in his thought or ‘wild imbalance in his priorities’. It is because Ayn Rand’s reasoning does not exculpate, motivate and perpetuate suffering the way the ‘reasoning’ of religion does.

It gets more preposterous. He claims, again without even a shred of evidence, that Hitchens wasn’t able to see the ‘penetrating and insightful exploration of the mystery of transubstantiation by [Christian philosopher] Elizabeth Anscombe. It is allegedly beyond Hitchens’s intellectual powers, which is, given Christopher’s resume, an adventurous claim. And frankly, why in the hell would Hitchens, or anyone, occupy themselves with the turning of a loaf of bread into the symbolical (pardon, real) body of Christ? Anscombe’s beautiful and ‘penetrating’ analysis doesn’t make this bronze age buncombe any more true, just like Hitchens’s rhetorical tour de force doesn’t alter the meaning of his arguments.

In yet another bewildering paragraph, the PhD-candidate continues to say that Hitchens’s sense of dignity is perverse because he refuses to pick truth over consoling lies. It’s more of the same smooth pulpit talking, really, and as vacuous as everything we’ve read before. The idea of a god figure as necessary condition for ethical behavior (compassion) is briefly invoked but of course not supported with any arguments because there exist none.

In his closing phrase, this light-weight verbal pugilist delivers yet another underhand blow by saying that for Christopher the world was a debating hall, an arena, an editorial page, a stage, while for Christians it is a gift that is ‘bewildering in its excess and perplexing in its simplicity yet undeniably precious’. Perhaps the author, who refuses to come down from his moral high horse, has never heard Hitchens saying very similar things about the bewildering beauty of the universe, the mind-boggling idea that we can see billions of years in the past or that our bodies are host to billions of fellow organisms. This vengeful Christian denies Hitchens the full extent of his own emotions by saying his world view was ‘only black and white’, and he has to do this because he himself logically depends (in fact: believes that his life depends) on a world view that is strongly authoritarian and must deny others soul and sanity. I cannot personally feel anything but disgust about such a lazy and cowardly assessment that, as I’ve sufficiently shown, is devoid of arguments.

This is empty language, comrades. I fear that such a PhD-candidate will eventually receive his doctorate and continue to fabricate the sophisms he needs in order to support his ‘faith’. We need to call this bluff and we need to make it very clear that the purported rationality of such people’s arguments is in fact a dangerous quagmire that, unlike Socrates, deceives the youth into renouncing the capacity to think for themselves.

Writing exercise #1: Deconstruction was originally published on Meandering home

On people who live on in our dreams

I dreamt that the late British American public intellectual Christopher Hitchens was walking next to me. He was bald, like in the last months of his life when he underwent chemotherapy, but appeared in excellent health and was obviously not aware of his impending death. The image was so vivid that I could see the pores of the man’s skin and the gentle swaying of his untrimmed nasal fur. In my dream, I had recreated him in my image, that is my interpretation of the fragments I have read and listened to. But there he was, as real as any other human primate, as sharp and witty as ever, bounded only by the limitations of my own brain, that staged this exclusive (I am not saying solipsist) show. It was awe-inspiring.

“You know dear Christopher”, I told him. “When I speak in English there is some compelling force within me that makes me mimic your rhythm, your accent and your choice of words.”
“That’s the power of rhetoric” he smiled. “It is in the ardor – I should not say fanatiticism – with which we rationally defend our innermost ethical convictions that we are at our best – that we are most alive. And I think we wouldn’t be too far off when I say that where we feel most alive, we leave the most lasting impression on our fellow man.”
“You are spot-on” I replied. At that point I felt deep empathy for my imaginary friend, being painfully aware that his quest, his life’s work had been about freeing humanity from the the shackles that had hold it back for so long, namely religion, yet here he stood next to me, arguably the greatest master of eloquence of our time, and I was his puppet master. Full disclosure was out of the question, because it could have hurt him too much. I was overcome by a numbing feeling of embarrassment and so we continued walking in silence, me thinking how I would brag about our brief exchange of words to all of my friends and some of my enemies.

We were crossing a street. I remembered that what brought me into the reality of this dream had been several hours of televised debate in which Christopher demonstrated his brilliancy in polite yet devastating rebuttals. I wondered, walking there, in that very moment, next to the man who ironically had become a demigod to many, what would his reaction be when I would break the news that I made his acquaintance vicariously, through his written words and the video recordings of his addresses and debates – that I read after he died?

Perhaps he would not feel offended but look curiously at the man from the future, and muster his verbal strength to tell me that Cassandra should never have access to a time travel machine. I would nod, hoping he wouldn’t notice the tears flowing down my cheek. I decide there and then that I will not tell Christopher about cancer of the esophagus, the horrible death sentence that will kill him in December 2011. I will not tell him about the brilliant final tribute to life and language entitled ‘Mortality’ that he would write ‘from the country of the ill’. Silently we continued walking; he was going back to his hotel to prepare for yet another round of defense of humanism, freedom and rationality against the dangers of dogmatism. Soon, his contours were swallowed by the thick shadows cast by the tall buildings.

I woke up bathing in sweat and intrigued by what my brain had just done. The Seneca of our century had been so alive, so present. Living on in other people’s minds, my friends, is more than a commonplace consolation in the face of the horror that is death. It is a very real thing if you will accept the idea that these arguments, these endlessly expressive phrases are not a bulwark protecting an innermost ‘you’ against infidel invaders, but constitutes itself your innermost being. To these specific – not to all – intents and purposes, Christopher is alive and will remain so for years to come.

On people who live on in our dreams was originally published on Meandering home