Sunday, May 27, 2007


On the Hitchy Book Tour - Debating value of religious faith grows contentious: "The tipoff came before the debate between authors Christopher Hitchens and Chris Hedges started: The emcee asked the Berkeley audience to restrain from heckling."

The tip-off, as the writer says, wasn’t actually when the moderator, if you can call her that, forbade heckling. The tip-off came when Hedges, who followed Hitchens’ introduction, tried to do a point-by-point rebuttal of Hitchens’ book as opposed to presenting his own. Look, Hitchens is under no illusions. He doesn’t allow the audience to be either. He is there to sell his books. Hedges was there to try to debate, but by starting with a rebuttal, instead of an introduction during the time with that title, he put himself on the immediate defensive, a stance from which he could not wiggle. Also completely unfair for the lackluster Hedges was a monotonous tone that proved that it was his father, not him, who was the Presbyterian minister. Hedges could not fill a room, much less a sanctuary full of people to listen to his boring drivel.

Here we all were, in a middle school auditorium, strangely absent the smell of most middle schools, to listen to one of the best living minds and, as it turned out, one of the most boring voices of our time. I am not sure what I should have expected, but I was right disappointed by the lack of attention to detail by the folks putting this together. Granted that an evening like this is not supposed to be a feast for the eyes, but I could see all of the clothespins holding the rather ugly quilt up behind the men that we were told was there to signify contradictions. Nope, just bad taste.

Because the two of you that read this need to go see Hitchens at one of these appearances, I will focus less on him than on Hedges, partially because Hedges gave me such good laugh-out-loud material. Take for example, his assertion that “God is better as a verb than a noun”. Where in the Holy Hell did they find this guy, and who was the person who thought that he could hold a candle to my Hitchy?? I believe, in an attempt to try to deflect some of Hitchens’ ire (but really only to make him gleefully more “inhumane”), Hedges said that “to argue whether or not God exists is futile”. Uhh, that is why you are here, right?

See, it was at moments like this that I found fault in my own pseudo-intellectual religious stance. Hedges and I had some things in common. One was that I thought that I could cherry-pick beliefs, that merely thinking about it and not taking it all at face value made me a thinking person. It’s hard to maintain that after reading Hitchens’ book, because he says that first, you aren’t really thinking that deeply about it and second, that it is the height of egoism to think that your take of “God’s Word” is the take. Well, there’s a point.

I wasn’t the only one who thought this way of Hedges. After his weak introduction, a man sitting behind me who would probably ordinarily want to agree with Hedges on some of his points said he was “full of bullshit”. I could toast to that.

Because this seems to be somewhat atypical (from the videos I have seen), I will describe Hitchens that evening. First, I love the many ways his confidence reveals itself. Though he wore a nice suit, he also had on worn tan shoes, complete with scuff marks. Those shoes were firmly planted on the edge of the coffee table, Hitchy trying to recline, as if to say “Bring it on”. That stance, in and of itself, told the story of the evening, and fully intimidated his opponent just as intended.

Hedges is merely a well-read and well-traveled man, but lacks any ability to put those experiences in proper context as was on full display when he dopily proclaimed that “biblical literalists do not exist”. Uh what??? He also fueled the flame heartily when he told the crowd, some of whom were actually there to see him (although just a couple), that “once religious stories are written, they decay into literature”. You would have thought he had just done a ghetto “Yo mama” line. Hitchens, with all of his energy and passion, reminded Hedges that to say anything “decays into literature” is to not fully understand the value and power of the written word. Hedges went on to prove his selective memory with this humorous sentence, “Jesus never talks about starting a church”, as if churches were just a random later-follower’s idea. Even I, who has one of the worst memories of anyone I know, remember the holy texts better than that.

The conversation did not get truly twisted until Hedges went on his anti-corporation, pro-Palestinian suicide bomber rant. He asserted that these idiotic suicide bombers who blow up civilians are “affirming themselves through death”. He said that they were woefully unemployed, to which Hitchy replied “God forbid a KKK’er (also a Christian organization) be unemployed”, for Hedges would think it okay to noose black folks. Hedges’ argument made me physically sick to my stomach. I found it hard to believe that anyone could feel comfortable putting out this kind of nonsense in front of other people. It is one thing to be a dope in the comfort and privacy of your own home, but quite another to take it to a stage in front of paying patrons.

At this point in the event, the crowd became right unruly. I couldn’t figure out where all of these Churchies had come from. This wasn’t Berkeley, Missouri, after all. This was Berkeley, California, home to Janice Joplin and a sanctuary city for the homeless. But it was during this and a couple of points on the war that I began to see that many anti-war folks had shown up to pump their fists in solidarity with anyone, clearly just anyone, willing to take on Hitchens. It wasn’t necessarily that they agreed with Hedges, just that they hated that Hitchens was a vocal war advocate.

Another point in the evening that I found shocking was when there was a collective gasp when Hitchens cursed. Have these people never seen him before? Did they really think that after they had heckled him that he would think them polite company, worthy of a watchful tongue? Part of Hitchens allure is his uncanny ability to curse at just the appropriate moment, in a way that makes him real and, quite frankly, downright sexy. Of course, he followed that “fuck off” with “the bird”. A little less sexy, I suppose, but they deserved it.

Oh, and the not-so-majestic use of euphemism…Hedges must have realized that he had used the word faith 4000 times that evening, so he started to find other terms, not the least of which was “accept mystery”. If that doesn’t make you laugh, you are dead!!!

Toward what was feeling like the end, Hitchy asked the “moderator” if we were nearing the end. She said yes, and he started fumbling around in his pockets. Out came a cigarette. Another collective gasp from an audience that must have really thought he would light up in a California public space. He is a rogue, but not an unlawful one. As soon as he heard the last word, he jumped out of his chair, as did I, to go puff ourselves into calm.

In signing for strangers, Hitchy gives a show. He is funny, as if to say, the least I can do is make you laugh since you just gave me your money. Hedges gave all of what seemed like two signatures. I waited in the middle of the line for about fifteen minutes for Hitchens. When I got up to him, I was shaking. Though confidence may be one of my favorite topics, this was another moment where I was reminded just how far I have to go. He signed my already-read copy. I asked if he would pose, and he replied, “what do you think I am doing?” He did pose, only after I lost my balance and elbowed him in the shoulder. (The picture is of a rather droopy-eyed Hitchy, but no complaints here.) I then remarked that he didn’t have to say “Mr. Ratzinger”, that he could call him “Popey Dict”. I am proud to say that generated a genuine smile. Lastly, as I was trying to get out of his way, as not to be a bother, I asked if he was still doing his Kepler’s bookstore appearance the next day. He said, and I am not kidding, “Be there or be square”, to which I responded with a ‘did you really just say that’ look. He went on that he would be more humane, that he had gotten angry during this appearance. I was kind of shocked, wondering what it was about me that would cause him to think I would need that kind of reassurance. Really, it probably had absolutely nothing to do with me at all. My narcissism did not stop there, however. I will get to that later. Anyway, I responded that I dug his passion or whatever. That is why I was there, to see him be him, in whatever form that took.

The next morning, I awoke like a four-year-old on Christmas morning with that first morning thought that this encounter with my hero was not yet over. I could still bathe in it for a little while. Kepler’s is a small bookstore, so the place was packed with forty or fifty people. There wasn’t enough floor space for all of the chairs, so several of us stood, even in my seriously uncomfortable shoes. I was, after all, there to see him. Watching a man think is one of the greatest joys in life. Listening just doesn’t do it for me. Though a little late, he started his appearance as he so joyfully has in the last weeks, “My fellow Americans”. This was a much kinder and giddy crowd than the one the evening before. These were fans. There was really only one obnoxious, unwashed anti-war fruitcake. After asking if Hitchens would take questions on the war, Hitchens said he would if the young man could produce a receipt for the book in the book-signing line. Somehow, I think the wild-haired fellow did not have any extra cash stashed in his cardboard box home.

This was a truly entertaining appearance. Because he so often uses the same lines from appearance to appearance, I won’t quote his zingers, but suffice it to say that there was real belly laughter. I did note that even though this stop was at noon on a weekday, he seemed well-rested and ridiculously sober. I think that was the only thing I didn’t get to see was the Penn and Teller’s Bullshit-like show, where he is slobbering drunk and still making better sense than about ninety percent of the planet’s people.
At the end of this appearance, after my smoke, of course, I got in line again for some of Hitchy’s ink. This time, however, I had brought some ink of my own. Admittedly, I wanted him to see my fawning over him and my amateur attempt at writing, maybe oven comment on it, since eventually I would like to get paid for it. I wrote him a note saying not only that he needn’t be humane to his debate adversaries on my account but also that he was the part of the reason I named my blog Cranky Bastard. I know, I know. Narcissism. Here’s the thing. I am still learning, and still trying very hard to gain confidence, trying heartily to avoid the stage that I know has to happen prior to real confidence, ego. I have never liked ego in others because I was clear that it is not real confidence and yet, I am avoiding, like the plague, a phase I know I have to enter.

Also, I shouldn’t be embarrassed that I have him as a hero, even after reading that he does not take on heroes. I am not him. I am not of that level. Also, heroes have often been the ones to inspire me to read and research things in ways that I wouldn’t without them. I promptly returned home last night only to get the computer fired up so that I could log into and to look up some of his references that I didn’t understand. I had some left from the book that I needed to know in order to go back and read the book again. I downloaded the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, a text he refers to often. I copied several entries on folks that he references, like Voltaire, Bertrand Russell, and Lucretius, among many others. There are few people on this planet, my father included, who inspire me to learn the way he does. I feel smarter and more confident for merely having such good tastes in heroes. That is truly a mark of a good teacher, something I have been blessed with over the course of my education. They are those that don’t speak down at your level to make you more comfortable. They are people that speak at their own level and inspire you to attempt to rise to theirs. I hope that when I teach I will have that kind of effect. In fact, as a teacher, that is what you are there to do. So, not being in New York, or a student at New School, I get more detached lessons from Hitchy, the kind from his books, his articles, and his TV show appearances that force me to reference material and self-reflection. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Glad to see someone enjoyed the night as much as I did, enough to write about it. (And someone who for the most part shared my take on it, at that.) I'd be interested to know if you agree or disagree with some of the characterizations of the night in my post, at

I'd also second what you said about Hitchens as an inspiring figure. The professor of my journalism class this past semester knows him and convinced him to come speak to (the 7) of us one morning. It was a great experience. He really is a model of learnedness to envy. As you mention, he also has a way of swearing at just the right time for emphasis.

By the way, do you know if KPFA will be releasing or posting the video they took of the night?
Cranky, you've been linked to by zombietime!

Hope this brings you some much-deserved attention. Great job.
Well done. Thanks. Confidence will come, in time.

Zombie says KFPA is supposedly releasing the video.
Mr. Hitches does well to be angry.

Just noticed that he has an American flag pin/button on his lapel.
Chris Hedges in his book talks a great deal about "biblical literalists" and the problems with their world-view. Furthermore, I was at the debate, and never once heard him say "there are no Biblical literalists". As such, this raised doubts for me as to the accuracy of your description of Hedges' assertions.
The unresolved issue between Hedges and Hitchens was whether Islam is a main cause or secondary post hoc cause for suicide bombing. Hedges took what is for all practical purposes a semi-Marxist view that there are in fact material motivations for suicide bombers that precede spiritual/religious reasons for their actions. To assert this does not entail "moral relativism" as Hitchens claims, and Hitchens never allowed Hedges to further focus his ideas because he kept interrupting him. Hitchens accused Hedges of being "simplistic" but allowed Hedges no oppurtunity to fine-tune any of his statements due to his repeated interruptions.
I thought Hitchens had the upper hand in debates with Dinesh D'Souza and Alister McGrath, but at the debate with Hedges in Berkeley he was an ignited equine rectum.
I took notes during the debate, so I do not question my quotes whatsoever. You may not like that he said it, but it was indeed uttered into his mic.
As for the "unresolved issue"...Hedges giving suicide bombers some sort of relevancy and excuse gave Hitchens a reason to interrupt and set that straight. As I said in the post, Hedges remarks made me physically ill, so I see nothing unresolved about it at all.
To respond to your suggestion that this was not an argument of "moral relativism"...what was it then? It seemed very clearly that to me. It was that simple. If you look at other's accounts of the evening, those who are fans of Hedges and of Hitchens, it seems clear that all had the same takeaway on the matter.
I do though, JonLynn, appreciate you keeping the conversation going. Although next time, I hope we can keep nether region body parts out of the discourse. Regards.
Hedges is somewhat more pessimistic than I so I don't want to defend him completely, but I will issue this qualified defense.
In his newer book (on the new atheism), Hedges observes (correctly) that all religious believers are highly selective as to which texts in their Scripture they take 'literally' as the actual Bible has too many layers of divergent meaning to really be taken literally as a coherent whole. Thus the belief systems of literalists are only partially accounted for by their sacred texts, and are also partly explained by social conditions and other material factors. Perhaps this is what he meant by "there are no Biblical literalists".
In the newer book, he is quite clear that "to understand is not to excuse" and is pretty clear is is not morally excusing suicide bombing.
The issue for Hedges is that religious belief is not a sole explanation of the actions of suicide bombers as Hitchens seems to strongly suggest. In Hedges' newer book, he makes a fairly good case for this citing solid sociological research.
The strongness of my language towards Hitchens is partly motivated by disappointment as I have genuinely enjoyed and admired Hitchens in other venues. There are several public figures that I univerally dislike anything that comes from their mouth. Hitchens isn't one of them. Thus I was all the more upset by his shotgun style of argumentation that evening at Berkeley.
The sociological research you suggest Hedges presents is, to me, silly. What I believe and what Hitchens was saying was that the suicide bombers and their families who support their deeds seem to be very, very clear that religion is their motive. What is also clear is that nothing but their religion could get them to that point. Example, folks in other parts of the world live in much worse conditions than do Palestinians and others who use this "tactic". I am thinking of locales in South America and Africa among others. The difference is not the condition in which they live or the second-class status that is thrust upon them. The difference is simply their religion. I say this not to suggest that all Muslims are capable of strapping on bombs, of course, but rather to say that religion, for those that choose to strap on explosives, is both the tie that binds them as well as the clear basis for which they think this behavior is acceptable.
And while you are right that the Bible and other religious texts are ripe with contradiction, this does not mean that folks don't take as literally as is possible the parts that make sense to them. I know this because that is what my Father and I waded through when we went through our religious phase. So, I know you think that Hedges has his points, but the reality is...I don't think what he has to say is very well thought out. I don't think he makes good sense. I say this partly because I don't feel highly intelligent myself. Most of the time, when I go to see really intelligent folks talk, I have to go off and digest what was said. The process of digestion allows me to find and dissect that with which I agree or disagree. I did not need time to digest Hedges remarks. It seemed I was writing notes furiously with very clear reactions that needed no 30 minute down time before I could jump in the pool. He was really obviously trying hard to be an intellectual, but he came off as the guy in grad school who is far behind everyone else and behaves like the turtle in the classroom as a result. Then upon graduation, he holds his head up high hoping that people mistake his posture for confidence. Sadly, for him, I do not think I am very far off.
As for Hitchens' style...that was really his norm. He got a little more heated than normal, but his shutting down of his opponent and even flipping the bird weren't completely out of his wheelhouse, given the opponent and tenor of the audience. As you likely noted, I like those things about him, but then again, I knew that about him as I used to often watch his appearances on YouTube. Plus, I am a fan, which sometimes means that I let him get away with more in my mind than I would others. For you though, since Hitchens fandom isn't a religion, you can just pick and choose what you want to explore of what he suggests. I think that is rather fun. Yeah, even Hitchens every so often says something that is dumb or misguided, but what I like about him is that he is indeed human, is open about his own humanity (in a way I liken to Ben Franklin), and is open further to correcting himself. For a man of his stature, these are indeed incredible qualities.
JonLynn, again, I like that you are keeping this nearly year old conversation going, and I also appreciate that you are willing to discuss what is very difficult for some to accept as malleable. I haven't "perfected" my position, so I can always read, listen and comment. I wish you very well.
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