Short Cuts

Daniel Soar

On Sunday, 30 September 2007, in the late afternoon, four men met in an airy, book-lined apartment in Washington DC and had a two-hour discussion around a marble table. The subject, it seemed, was the misguidedness, stupidity and sometimes dangerousness of religious belief. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens: over the previous few years each had published a bestselling book condemning religion, and they were all rather pleased with themselves. Dawkins’s The God Delusion alone, with its compelling argument that God is the Ultimate Boeing 747, was on its way towards selling three million copies and they had all made a great deal of money and had a great deal of fun on tours and at festivals getting abuse from pastors and priests and hurling it righteously back. (It’s not clear they always remembered that it wasn’t actually their antagonists who had started the fight.) A transcript of their conversation that day is now available in a slim book called – because they believed in the apocalypse? – The Four Horsemen (Bantam, £9.99). But I recommend throwing the book at a passing jumbo jet and watching the film of their meeting on YouTube instead. Because it’s mesmerising.

The apartment belonged to Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue, and it had regularly hosted movie stars and politicians – a notable after-party hangout following Vanity Fair dos and Washington Correspondents’ Dinners. But now it was just four men with urgent issues on their mind. This was the first time they had gathered together. Hitchens had provided everyone with a drink: what look to be quadruple whiskies for him and Harris, very dirty martinis for Dennett and Dawkins (Dennett likes his, Dawkins barely touches it). They talk about big things – evidence, faith, Bach, cathedrals, jihad, the Trinity, Fermat’s Last Theorem – but to me at least it seems that what they really have on their mind is the significance of the occasion. If you get a group of guys together, it’s usually the case that the one with the most charisma determines the course of the conversation. Here the charisma emanates entirely from Hitchens. All eyes turn to him, Harris mimics his gestures and body language, they all listen to his pauses and defer to him on matters of literature and politics (Larkin, Hamas, H.L. Mencken, Sarajevo). I hear him purr and watch him slowly smoking and think: Jeez, I want to be him too. He is the magnetic pole towards which everything turns. At one point, as Dennett and Dawkins launch into a discussion of n-dimensional space, Hitchens’s eyes go somewhat blank, and he starts to fiddle with his foot, then – his glass being empty – grabs a snack and I think: please someone get that man another drink.

Christopher Hitchens developed oesophageal cancer and died of pneumonia in 2011. (I hope that before you slung away your copy of The Four Horsemen as per instructions you had time to appreciate the meaningfulness of the dedication, ‘To Hitch’, addressed to him presumably in the afterlife.) But his career was extraordinary to watch. For years, he vituperated devastatingly against presidents, war criminals and Mother Teresa, in the muscliest, classiest prose, writing ‘at a speed at which most people read’, and was often spotted stepping away for a moment from the booze and the talk and the dinner and the friends to return to the table, finished Nation column in hand, before the topic of debate had even changed. That’s how Ian Parker put it in his great New Yorker profile of Hitchens, which includes a lovely anecdote about taking a taxi together in the soft evening light as Hitchens buttonholes the Pakistani-born driver on the ‘the virtues and vices of Benazir Bhutto, while surreptitiously using a bottle of Evian to put out a small but smoky fire that he had set in the ashtray’.

But the real point of the profile, which came out a year before the big religion-bashing meetup, was to try to answer the question keeping everyone up at night: how had the comrade who in the 1990s had taken such ruthless aim from the left at the triangulations of the Clinton-Blair era – ‘the sump of images and soft money and poll-meisters and consultants’ – become one of the leading apologists for the Iraq war, friend of Wolfowitz and populariser of the term ‘Islamic fascism’ (a term Bush gladly nicked for his own speeches)?[*] Watch him, again, at that marble table, as the light begins to fade. His now replenished glass glowing before him, fired up with fresh enthusiasm, he needs his new atheist friends to understand how he really feels about jihadists: ‘I want them to be extirpated.’ Harris tries to interrupt; Hitchens won’t be stopped. ‘That’s a purely primate response with me – recognising the need to destroy an enemy in order to assure my own survival … I have no interest at all in what jihadists think. I’m only interested in refining methods of destroying them.’ The others have a lot more questions after that but they can’t help nodding. As the evening eventually starts drawing to a close, Hitchens is still trying to drum it into their tiny skulls:

Because they have the belief that one part of the globe is holier than another – than which no belief could be more insane or irrational or indecent. And so just a few of them, holding that view and having the power to make it real, is enough to risk a civilisational conflict, which civilisation could lose. I think we’ll be very lucky if we get through this conflict without a nuclear exchange … I think they’re going to end up by destroying civilisation.

He does believe in the apocalypse.

At this point, you start to question everything. Has this argument, for Hitchens at least, actually been about religion at all? Or has it, rather, been about war – about picking your side, about enemies and friends, about winning the fight and never backing down? Behind the thought of civilisational conflict, of course, though unspoken in the conversation, is an image that was even more indelible in 2007 than it is now: the image of planes folding into towers, which slowly collapse, silently sometimes, but again and again as you rerun in your mind the footage you saw forever repeated. I was at work, in the LRB office, when I first watched the first plane fly into the first tower: like half the planet, we’d turned the television on as soon as we heard the news. And then, at some point as we watched, a thought suddenly hit me with a physical force: a kind of punch in the gut that made me shout out an involuntary ‘Jesus!’ One of my colleagues turned to me and asked the question so many people were asking: ‘Oh no, do you know someone who’s there?’ I didn’t, but I didn’t want to explain what it was that had made me yell, and I never did. The thought was this: if someone had done this to America, what will the mightiest warrior nation on earth do back? (An analogy that occurs to me now: a bee stings an elephant, the elephant lashes out and knocks down a tree.) Until that moment, as a recent ex-student of English Lit, I couldn’t have been said to have a politics, or at least couldn’t be said to consider politics as a way of ordering thought, but that day shook me into an awareness of how much is determined by relations of power. Over the following years – Afghanistan, Iraq, occupation then civil war – the world changed me more, and it seemed to me that I learned how to think.

The sense that one grew up in the shadow of that event is felt most strongly, I guess, by the generation around mine. But the day shook everyone, even veteran political bruisers. And it shook a few into the conviction that when civilisation came under attack from fanatical religion then civilisation should attack back, overwhelmingly, unleashing all the forces of reason (and all the B-52s). Parker’s profile reminds us that, despite appearances, Hitchens’s apostasy from the left and conversion to warrior-preacher of the secular priesthood didn’t coincide with, and wasn’t caused by, 9/11: he had argued fiercely about the evils of radical Islam at the time of the fatwa against his good friend Salman Rushdie, and he was pro-intervention in Bosnia. But 9/11 ‘exhilarated’ him and gave him a new sense of purpose. It also, I think, made him more than just the single most influential polemicist acting on behalf of the war-prosecutorial mission. Thanks to a fortuitous alignment in the constellation of his indomitable personality, his adversarial method and his rhetorical gifts, he became the very embodiment of that mission – Muscular Reason’s representative on earth. After all, his one true church was enduring freedom. In action, he would give no quarter in any encounter, with zero tolerance for those whose beliefs he found abhorrent. (It wasn’t just Islamism and fascism he was fiercely opposed to, since fierce opposition was constitutive of his very being. He once told a woman doctor who had doubted his verdict on the one-time presidential candidate Howard Dean: ‘Save it, sweetie, for someone who cares. It will not be me. You love it, you suck on it. I now know what your standards are, and now you know what mine are, and that’s all the difference – I hope – in the world.’ In his infinite wisdom, he saw no material distinction between a jihadist and a woman doctor: when humans erred, he treated them as flies.) When on form, he appeared omniscient and omnipotent. In his ability to maintain his faculty for reason even when very drunk, he was like a god.

I shouldn’t be irreverent. Because, for his disciples, Hitchens was indeed a teacher and a prophet. They revered him, and some of them adored him. He converted them to his creed, and they spread his news around the world. One such disciple was his other good friend Martin Amis (‘the only blond I have ever really loved’), who so completely assimilated the doctrine that a final battle was underway between civilisation and darkness that for years he could write about nothing else. A charge often levelled against Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris et al is that they seem so inordinately obsessed with the question of religion – a question of precisely no interest to almost any person I know – and prosecute their case with such fervent zeal, such flaming righteousness, that they end up seeming like fundamentalists themselves, followers of a faith. This is a charge they deny, arguing that they believe a thing only on the basis of proof, whereas religious faith by definition requires the absence of proof. I have some sympathy with this argument, but even so they seem deranged. I think what deranged them was the great realignment that took place early this century – its origin moment the planes and the towers – and the insistence that now more than ever you have to pick a side. If it wasn’t all his work, we could at least call it the Hitchens Principle: either you agree with me, or you’re an apologist for terror (Bush nicked that one too). And once you’ve picked a side – a tribe, a cell, a system of belief – there’s no escaping it: everything you speak is, by some, always and only interpreted as a message from the faithful. I feel a bit sorry for someone like poor Richard Dawkins, who was only trying to disprove the existence of God, and – though he may not know it – is now and for ever fighting the fight of the Hitch.

[*] Also of Clinton, in this paper: ‘a fatso in big jeans and a lonesome mainliner of Big Macs at least until he realised that power could also mean sex’ (LRB, 20 February 1997).