Tuesday, April 26, 2011

technical hitch

Reading Martin Amis's piece on Christopher Hitchens in the Guardian prompted a few thoughts, the first being: Christ, get a room, boys - Amis's puppyish big-brother adoration of Hitchens' every utterance (though in fact Hitchens is only about four months older) is slightly comical, and in any case literary types reminiscing about their younger days of hanging about drinking in various fashionable salons while being effortlessly and raffishly witty and beating off the ladies with a shitty stick always loses a bit in the telling, unless you were actually there at the time.

My second thought was to (slightly more charitably) cut Amis a bit of slack, as this really has the feel of a eulogy about it, and the general news about Hitchens' current state of health following his cancer diagnosis back in mid-2010 is not good. Let's hope Amis doesn't know something we don't.

Then, just when I was getting a warm feeling about Amis's reminiscences about his old friend, he goes off the rails in the last four paragraphs, starting thus:
My dear Hitch: there has been much wild talk, among the believers, about your impending embrace of the sacred and the supernatural. This is of course insane. But I still hope to convert you, by sheer force of zealotry, to my own persuasion: agnosticism. In your seminal book, God Is Not Great, you put very little distance between the agnostic and the atheist; and what divides you and me (to quote Nabokov yet again) is a rut that any frog could straddle. "The measure of an education," you write elsewhere, "is that you acquire some idea of the extent of your ignorance." And that's all that "agnosticism" really means: it is an acknowledgment of ignorance.
This notion that a sort of "aaah, but we can't actually know" agnosticism is somehow a more nuanced and sophisticated and grown-up position to take than plain unvarnished atheism is pretty high on the list of things that make my blood boil, particularly as it's usually (as here) uttered by people who really should know better. Russell's teapot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are funny constructs, but they exist to make a very simple philosophical point about where the burden of proof for extraordinary claims lies. To ignore this is either craven intellectual surrender to the status quo or just plain dishonesty.

To wash away the bad taste left by all that, here's Hitch on his favourite whisky, which turns out to be Johnnie Walker Black Label. I wouldn't say it's my favourite, although it is excellent, but then I think it's fair to say that even after he's had to cut down a bit recently Hitch puts away a fair bit more of it than I do, so I defer to his judgment. He does also make a case against fixating on some esoteric malt as your tipple of choice here:
Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won't be easily available.
Fair point. Note however that he appears to be slumming it with a bottle of Red Label in the photo above (which is from here).

Finally, just to bring the blood back to the boil for a moment longer, here's a Daily Mail article about Hitchens' cancer treatment. Note how there's a sneaky implication that Hitchens is having some sort of deathbed conversion here, atheists-in-foxholes stylee - that would be true if he were getting the eminent Francis Collins to pray for him, but in fact Collins is doing some pioneering experimental genetic treatment and Hitchens has volunteered to be a guinea pig, having, it would appear, very little to lose by doing so.

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