Monday, December 17, 2007

Hitchens, Chanukah and Imperialism

Christopher Hitchens recently produced a vulgar screed against Chanukah with his Slate article entitled "Bah, Hanukkah." The general impetus which stimulates, for Hitchens, attacks such as this, is the frightful imperialist dogmatism of secular tribalism. The aggressive imperialist attitude that the West should invade the near-East due to the perceived or real fact that the West is more secular, more advanced and simply better is, outside of being objectively ethnocentric and possibly racist, clearly dangerous; it is precisely what Stalin argued for.

This tribal attitude appears to be the underlying motivation for Hitchens’ scurrilous historical screed against Chanukah. Hitchens makes manifest the vulgar tribal tendency through the failure to make the fundamental distinction between historical religious content and the content of the religion’s adherent’s beliefs and practices. The vast majority of modern Jews, virtually all of them so far as I can tell, do not view Chanukah as a celebration of Jewish fundamentalism, as Hitchens erroneously claims in his screed, but rather, Jews view Chanukah – a holiday of far less religious significance than Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavu’ot, in fact, Chanukah is not even mentioned within Jewish scripture – as progressive Christians view Christmas; as a time to share with family and community, to give and receive gifts, share love and fraternity and celebrate life, which is why the rituals are family-based and communal.

Hitchens then castigates Michael Lerner for observing that “Hellenism was ‘imperialistic,’” which, in the case of the Seceucid Empire, it clearly and without controversy was. I know little about the relevant history, but, is it not the case that the Maccabean Revolt was, in fact, a revolt against the imperial invasion perpetrated by the Seceucid Empire? The answer seems clear enough to me. This being the case, clearly the Maccabees had the right to defend themselves against the invading forces, regardless of the alleged archaic, cruel and fundamentalist nature of the form of faith they practiced and believed in. A culture’s alleged general irrationality and backwardness is neither a justification for nor an argument in favor of its invasion and oppression.

This really is the heart of the matter. Hitchens is of the Stalinist opinion that secular betters not only have the right, but even further, the actual obligation to invade, convert or destroy the culture and society of those whose faith is found to be wanting. This is nothing more than the militant tribal atheism as preached by Stalin, finding direct parallel with the pronouncements of Mohammad as dictated in the Hadith, incidentally, the founder of the religion Hitchens could not see destroyed soon enough.

Norman Finkelstein has observed that Hitchens lacks principle and that this lack of principle accounts for the opportunist outbursts that Hitchens is well known for, his recent screed against Chanukah being only the most recent example, his opposition to abortion being another. Finkelstein pointed out that “two altogether opposed political stances can each draw an audience’s attention. One is to be politically consistent, but nonetheless original in one’s insights; the other, an inchoate form of apostasy, is to bank on the shock value of an occasional, wildly inconsistent outburst.” Finkelstein’s point being that Hitchens lacks principle and relies upon the shock value of wild outbursts in order to get the audience’s attention, for reasons which seem clear enough.

I believe that this is roughly accurate – as is evident in the debate about the Iraq war between Hitchens and George Galloway, wherein Hitchens mocks those in the crowed who oppose imperialism[1] - but, even more relevant still is Noam Chomsky’s observation that Bolshevism – which Trotskyism is a variant of, the tendency which Hitchens self-professed for some time – and bourgeois market-society, corporate state-capitalism, share many similarities, such as central management and a vanguard of revolutionary conscious, intellectual betters[2], the ranks of which Hitchens would clearly count himself among.

Chomsky observes that “similar considerations may explain in part the appeal of [Bolshevik] doctrines to certain segments of the Western intelligentsia, as well as the ease with which many of the same people switch to the more typical stance of the intelligentsia: service to their own state, either in a managerial or ideological capacity. The doctrine of state worship has not dramatically changed, though it is shaped by a different assessment of how one can gain privilege and a degree of power.”

I believe that this background sheds light on and helps better understand Hitchens’ apparent lack of principle and undeniable abandonment of the socialist left. It’s not so much that Hitchens lacked leftist principles, it’s that he shared the principles of the kitsch-left, of Bolshevism, and that these principles were and became ever more indistinguishable for him from the principles of the bourgeois intelligentsia emanating from within the corporate ruling class of market-society.

[1] Imperialism being, as it is, an integral and central concern of the left, this was one of the early and unambiguous pieces of evidence that Hitchens had become a political apostate. His scurrilous attack on Chomsky – the very same ad hominem attack the right has been churning out to fit the varying circumstances since the sixties, the one which can be read in its laughably crude and ignorant form in The End of Faith by Sam Harris – being yet another.
As Finkelstein correctly points out, attacking Chomsky is something a bit too much like a political coming of age ritual, every far-right hack and left-apostate has engaged in this orgy of propaganda, from Hitchens to Kaplan, Harris to Horowitz.

[2] Mikhail Bakunin critiqued this conception of a ruling intelligentsia as being "a new class, a new hierarchy of real and counterfeit scientists and scholars,” who will seek to create “the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant and elitist of all regimes.” Bakunin’s critique anticipated Antonio Gramsci’s exposition of the “organic intellectuals,” the “thinking and organizing element of a particular fundamental-social class. These organic intellectuals are distinguished less by their profession…than by their function in directing the ideas and aspirations of the class to which they organically belong.”


melloncollie said...

Hitchens' article "Bah, Hanukkah" is nothing more than a thinly veiled justication for American imperialism. Simply put, Hitchens hates Islam and wants it destroyed. He believes in invading countries and killing innocent people. He uses Hanukkah as a way of pointing out his supposed "fairness." It's his way of saying, "See, I don't just hate Islam and Muslims."

But his attack on the Jewish holiday is actually a perfect example of why his ongoing crusade against Islam is so wrongheaded. Hanukkah's origin as a commemoration of a military victory have--as you pointed out--very little to do with the holiday we celebrate every year. Most Jews are embarrassed by how far the Macabees went in defending their faith, and most Jews no longer share the primitive views of the Macabee brothers anyway. Our syanagogue has a library that values Einstein and Marx as much as Maimonides and Rashi. We have social justice programs, DVIS voluteer groups, and same-sex committment ceremonies. And I go to a Conservative synagogue.

My point is that religion evolves, and Islam and Judaism are much, much more than ancient texts or military events that took place thousands of years ago. Hitchens needs to grow up.

You, on the other hand, are one of the best ambassadors for secularism on the internet. Your blog entries are consistently well written, fair, and insightful.

Renegade Eye said...

Hitchens Trotskyism goes back to his support Max Schachtman. The last thing Trotsky did before he died, was disassociate himself from Max Schachtman's supporters.

I actually disagree with my blog team member Maryam Namazie, for centering her political activity against religious practices. Even though Islamism has much to be fought, still you have to incorporate class struggle into the mix.

Hitch's attacks on religion are related to: 1) Support for Bush's policies. 2) To get leftist speaking engagements. Follow the $$.

JDHURF said...


I agree with you that Hitchens’ screed against Chanukah is a petty and transparent attempt to appear equally against all religion. Although I get the impression that rather than employing secular extremism to justify imperialism, he supports imperialism, in part, because it meshes well with his desire to wage a literal war against Islam. Even further, it appears to me to be the case that Hitchens does deep down despise all religion, as his screed against Chanukah helps illustrate, as well as his contemptuous dismissal of liberation theology; which is a progressive social movement with many social goals which Hitchens in fact shares.

I further agree with you that religions evolve and that defining a religion and that particular religion’s adherent’s solely by the ancient texts revered within the religion and “events that took place thousands of years ago” - especially when in a modern context the events play only a minor role if any at all – is pure obfuscation, in this case, I would argue, due to Hitchens’ tendencies towards secular tribalism, and just not serious. My post entitled “A Distinction Within Religious Criticism” being here appropriate.

Thank you for the very kind words at the end of your response, I very much appreciate them.

renegade eye:

I didn’t know Hitchens supported Schachtman. I find it a bit odd that Hitchens self-professed Trotskyism while having at the same time supported the “third camp” Marxism of Schachtman. Although, it still isn’t as odd as having at one time self-professed Trotskyism and then later endorsing neoconservative foreign policy. Apparently, with Hitchens, anything is possible.

I would agree with your disagreement with your blog team member Namazie for centering her political activity against religious practices. It is absolutely crucial that political activity be centered around an affirmative proposition, rather than merely an oppositional one. People need to know clearly what the alternatives are, rather than simply what the alternative should not be.
Although it is, of course, very important to oppose authoritarian theocratic political movements and any breech of the separation between church and state, Islamism certainly included.

I do, however, think that Hitchens’ attacks on religion stem from his blind and crazed opposition to religion.

Thank you both for stopping by and commenting.

Renegade Eye said...

OT: A friend of mine wrote this. It is to use Bible references against rightists.

RNB said...

I am not always pro-Hitchens but he does not at all seem to be a general supporter of "American imperialism". However he supported the initial invasion for various reasons (like many of your Democrats) and since then his enormous ego has seemed to require constant self-justification of that decision. He was wrong there.

JDHURF, I think your writing is impassioned, erudite and eloquent, I agree with almost everything, but for what it's worth I think that you fundamentally mis-represent the "new atheists" on the secular tribalism issue - I'll try to explain briefly on that post.

JDHURF said...


I didn't argue that Hitchens was a “general supporter” of imperialism. I argued that he was an explicit supporter of the specific imperial invasion of Iraq, supporter of imperialism in the Muslim world generally and that he went so far as to mock those in attendance at the Galloway-Hitchens debate opposed to imperialism for being opposed to imperialism.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, I will keep an eye out for you response to my secular tribalism post.