Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim Jong Il and Christopher Hitchens

“The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy — the one that's absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head . . . . And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. . . . that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquize the divine and tell us what to do.”        

      - Christopher Hitchens, final interview (with Richard Dawkins, New Statesman, Dec. 2011)

Odd that the space of a scant few December days has seen the passing of two notoriously godless men, Kim Jong Il of North Korea, and Christopher Hitchens of the United States by way of Oxford University and London. Hitchens was the atheist who famously trashed Mother Teresa as "a lying, thieving Albanian dwarf." Kim was the world leader who threatened reprisals against his neighbor should it persist with plans to decorate the 38th Parallel for the holidays.

Beloved Leader's autodeification, like all such attempts to storm heaven, has inevitably been subverted by the death of the subject and chief witness, unless of course it was merely a standard transfiguration and shuffling off of this mortal coil for a better and more comely form. Kim was a contradictory fellow, an orthodox Marxist atheist and a theocrat at once, his political and personal instincts (so far as they are distinguishable) being as theocratic as any personal cult invariably is. Thinking about himself was, for Kim, the same as praying. His death was announced by a dutifully tearful announcer on state television (the very same announcer, as it happens, who announced the death of Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung in 1994). He follows in the footsteps of other deified rulers such as Augustus Caesar, Elogabalus and Caligula, the latter pair known more for carnal excess than for piety, for a complete lack of sanity more than for their abiding sanctity.

Hitchens was also a Marxist (he thought "Marxist" more to the point than "liberal") and an atheist. He scorned the prospect of his own deathbed conversion and found it in poor taste when the well-meaning made the ghastly suggestion that perhaps, in the face of his mortality, he might find comfort in a reconsideration. Hitchens' godlessness was born of the rational Enlightenment and he employed it to spread light rather than a medieval darkness. He hated superstition and sentimentality because they make us pig-headed and blind us to the facts - they allow us, for example, to beatify those whom he considered utter charlatans, like Mother Teresa, whom he aspersed on the grounds that she subverted genuine efforts to improve the lot of the poor and of women, and that she diverted money intended for them to found numerous convents elsewhere.
Sisters of Perpetual Motion
Hitchens was one of the "New Atheists," the more militantly anti-religious breed who consider religion a case of arrested development in the evolution of the fully realized human being. His main beef with religion was that it is totalitarianism, unfailingly enlisted on the side of political repression, intellectual arrest, moral ignorance and the sort of unmerited privilege evident in capitalist societies. He may not have been entirely fair or correct about all of that, but he was passionate about it and undeniably offered a clear, if partial, description of some of the recent history of the world. "If," he argued, "you're writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word 'fascist,' if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with 'extreme-right Catholic party.' Almost all of those regimes were in place with the help of the Vatican and with understandings from the Holy See." Hitchens had no particular animus against the Catholic Church any more than against American evangelicalism, or fundamentalism of any stripe. He found it all infuriating.

In that sense, he was a culture warrior always contending with the forces of willful ignorance, scarcely ever prevailing in turning the tide. He seemed not to realize, or simply chose to ignore the fact that humans aren't religious or irreligious or nonreligious on philosophical considerations alone. We are, in the end, rational, superstitious, craven and sentimental in varying degrees. Arguments only go so far. But they're all we have.

On a cheerier note, a man's affianced in Great Britain managed to disinter herself from a shallow grave by using her engagement ring to cut her taped wrists and ankles after her betrothed tasered her with a 300,000-volt taser gun and buried her inside a cardboard computer box in woods about 100 feet from the nearest road. I can't wait for 2012. Unless it's the end of the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment