Hitchens update

November 6, 2010 • 10:11 am

In this month’s Vanity Fair, Hitchens writes about “Manners and the Big C,” that is, how does one talk to a person who has advanced cancer?

But it’s not really possible to adopt a stance of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” either. Like its original, this is a prescription for hypocrisy and double standards. Friends and relatives, obviously, don’t really have the option of not making kind inquiries. One way of trying to put them at their ease is to be as candid as possible and not to adopt any sort of euphemism or denial. So I get straight to the point and say what the odds are. The swiftest way of doing this is to note that the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five. Quite rightly, some people take me up on it. I recently had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to attend my niece’s wedding, in my old hometown and former university in Oxford. This depressed me for more than one reason, and an especially close friend inquired, “Is it that you’re afraid you’ll never see England again?” As it happens he was exactly right to ask, and it had been precisely that which had been bothering me, but I was unreasonably shocked by his bluntness. I’ll do the facing of hard facts, thanks. Don’t you be doing it, too.

The fire is still burning, though.  Here’s Hitch (debating Shmuley Boteach on September 16) taking apart Louis Farrakhan and the “respect” accorded to religious leaders:

“And Joseph Ratzinger, his Holiness the Pope, has just got off the plane in England today to announce that atheists are Nazis. An overdressed little ponce who was himself a member of the Hitler Youth—dares to speak this way?”

You can follow his doings at Daily Hitchens.

48 thoughts on “Hitchens update

    1. Au contraire…I find that U.S. audiences, in particular, often need such an indication that that dry, British delivery is indeed meant to be ironically humorous. Or that it’s OK to laugh. Just one of those dynamics-of-groups things…

  1. I think it is only fair to say that Ratzinger would have been automatically conscripted, at the age of 14 to serve in the Hitler Youth. I suppose it spoils a good story but is it scientific to use a false, or at any rate exaggerated story to score an ad personam point in an argument against religion? Similarly, intemperate references to the ‘overdressed little ponce’ do not help the cause of criticising the Pope’s stand on child abuse or anything else. There is plenty of ammunition available from what the Pope has said without resorting to cheap shots at his teenage, personal life. I suppose the the master of Balliol could be described as an overdressed little ponce by someone unsympathetic to the aims of Academia. http://alumni.balliol.ox.ac.uk/news/fd2007/senior_proctor.asp and we are all guilty of our little, youthful peccadillos.

    1. is it scientific to use a false, or at any rate exaggerated story to score an ad personam point in an argument against religion?

      Well, duh, anecdote is useless in science. But this isn’t a tu quoque fallacy but pointing out Ratzinger’s hypocrisy: “[how] dares [he]”. The circumstances in how he got involved with the Nazi’s aren’t pertinent, it is the guilt by (false) association that is.

      The character assassination is just matter of course, you can take it or leave it but hardly criticize it.

    2. You’ve quite spectacularly avoided the point, which is that the pope, himself a member of the Hitler Youth, accuses atheists of being Nazis.

      To those of us who acquire our ethics the hard way (meaning we have to think about the rightness and wrongness of things on our own) the hypocrisy of this is staggering.

      This is hardly a “cheap shot”.

    3. And perhaps I should point out the obvious (since I didn’t see it at first :-o), the tu quoque is actually yours. Which would be a tad hypocritical too, assuming you were deliberate.

    4. It one thing to have our little, youthful peccadillos, it’s quite another matter when one’s peccadilloes are little youth.

    5. Ratzi was still a good little Nazi. It would be pretty stupid to simply swallow the “my environment made me do it” excuse. After all, there were Germans who opposed the Nazis so why didn’t little Razi do it? The little shit has no moral authority.

      1. I’m not sure we know that he was a “good little nazi”. But even if he were, I think it’s reasonable to expect that he didn’t know or fully understand what was going on in Germany at the time in the way that we do today, fuelled by hindsight. I’m not sure we can expect a child to rebel against that kind of authority *even if he did* know the score. We can certainly respect a child that did rebel, but how much can we really condemn one that didn’t? We don’t know how well we’d do in that position. Do you know what punishment he’d have recieved if he did rebel? Do you know about the environment the conscripts were placed in? I have no idea, so I prefer to give Ratzinger the benefit of the doubt in this one respect.

        I entirely agree that Ratzinger has no basis for moral authority, but that’s because of his actions as an adult. If he’d spent the rest of his life espousing natzi policy and ideals, I’d agree that he couldn’t claim to be a product of his environment. But, dreadful as he plainly is, he hasn’t done this. However, he could have thrown off his Catholic upbringing as well, especially the part that led him to believe that the church and his position in it was more important than children.

        Hitchens’ point seems perfectly valid. Ratzinger ought to know better than most what it means to be a nazi due to his service in the Hitler Youth, so it is especially deplorable for him to compare atheists to nazis.

        1. People on this thread are suggesting that Pope Ratzi compared atheists to Nazis.

          He didn’t: what he said was that the Nazis *were* atheists, that they wanted to “eradicate God” from society, and that their atrocities were inspired by “extreme atheism”.

          All of that is way worse, and far more ignorant, bigoted and clueless, than merely comparing atheists to Nazis.

  2. A tiny personal victory for me in this video.

    When I met Hitchens after his debate with Rabbi Wolpe last April, I told him my joke about reciting the Shahada, knowing that at least the first four words are right. He liked it well enough, and I told him that I hoped that he would use it himself. Now here it is, during Hitchens’s debate in September with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Beautiful.

    1. What a strident, nay yelling, religionist!

      One could suspect he is uncertain of the strength and (non-profit) utility of his beliefs.

      1. no, only two.
        Arabic version:
        “laa ilaaha illaa llaah”
        (crappy transcription, but it is how it is pronounced – ‘aa’ means long ‘a’ and ‘ll’ means doubled ‘l’)
        literal english translation:
        no god except/but allah

        But, the complete utterance is (if you want to convert to islam for example):
        “Ash-hadu an laa ilaaha illaa llaah”
        meaning “I confess there is no god but Allah”, so the first 4 words mean “I confess there is no god”

      2. The joke works just as well in Arabic if you specify the first two words.

        Here is a beautiful carving of the Shahada in the Alhambra, which in Arabic says:

        “لا إله إلاَّ الله و أشهد أن محمد رسول الله”.

        The first two words are la ilaha == “there is no god”. Oftentimes believers recite the Shahada with the words “و أشهد أن” == “wa ashadu anna” == “I believe that”, but this just leads up to the content of the Shahada itself.

        All you need to do to convert to Islam is to recite the Shahada. Hitchens once wrote a funny bit about having to decide which religion is the most stupid, and I can make an argument that Islam’s very simple and not-at-all burdensome conversion rules protect it from being as stupid as competing faiths.

        When an atheist friend of mine became engaged to a wonderful Jewish girl, he had to face the “moral” dilemma of going through an insincere conversion to Judaism so that his wife could be married by a Rabbi, even though she and all of her family are atheists. I advised him just to take the minimum number of ridiculous Jewish conversion classes, lie to the Rabbi whose only requirement was to be told lies, and be done with it. Ultimately, this bothered him—perhaps a sentimental residue of his own Christian background, and he was able to find a Rabbi that would marry them without the requisite conversion papers.

        No need for all that complicated nonsense with the Shahada. And aside from being able to read inscriptions in the Alhambra, I have plenty of stories where knowing a few key religious expressions have been very useful while on travel.

  3. It is not a cheap shot to mention that Ratzinger was in the Hitler Youth.

    There were Germans who refused to join Nazi organisations. There were Germans who deserted from the army. There were Germans who resisted Hitler in various ways, at great risk to themselves. Josef Ratzinger was not one of them.

    1. Pedant point, Ratzi did desert the German army, but only right at the end of the war when the units were collapsing, and after having served for a couple of years.

    2. I believe I read a few years back, that soldiers who refused orders to kill civilians (Jews and all others) in cold blood, cited a section of the military rules manual proscribing such actions. As a consequence of knowing the manual, they simply were removed from the activity, without punishment. The article went on to state that there was no record of German soldiers being punished for refusing to execute non-combatants.

  4. Courageous Sophie Scholl and her brother, who started the resistance group The White Rose while in college and the army respectively, were among the many Germans who resisted the Nazi and what they stood for. And paid with their young lives.

    So yes, Hitch’s criticism of the pope is fair.

  5. Strange things are happening. Michael Shermer is debating Paul Nelson soon, and it appears to be some sort of Road Show. And, this is astounding, Hitch will debate Dembski!

    Dembski is described as a “heavy weight” I guess due to his vast consumption of pizza. No other reason makes sense.

    1. Dembski is described as a “heavy weight” I guess due to his vast consumption of pizza. No other reason makes sense.

      He could probably bluff his way into looking like a heavyweight since he knows some math stuff that Hitchens will most likely have to let slide. IDers have lots of practice with bluffing uninformed people with bafflegab.

      1. Since Dumbski came out as a global-diluvialist and creationist (though by my reading, probably an old-earther) the other week, I think he can surrender any pretense to be a heavy-weight. “Not as stupid as AiG” is a damned low bar to set.

        1. I always have a good laugh when some religious person makes statements such as they’re not as dumb as those YECs – after all they still believe a mountain of lies and superstitions.

          1. Yes. “At least I don’t believe *that*” is a very poor defense. It’s an even worse argument that what you do believe is true, but we’ve all seen it done.

            We need XKCD or Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal or someone to do a Graph of Stupid Religious Beliefs.

        2. Well I’ve seen Hitchens’s debate with Jay Richards, and Hitchens “cleaned the clock”. But Richards is twice as dumb as Dembski, so it’s kind of a tough call.

    2. I don’t know why Hitch is doing this. Some kind of weird bucket list? If I had scant months to live, and I sincerely hope that Hitch beats the odds, FSM knows we need intellects like his, but I wouldn’t waste 1 second on Dembski. Hell, I wouldn’t walk on the same sidewalk right now!

      Perhaps Hitch is going on record as opposing lunacy, like potting easy shots on a billiards table. No doubt, but Dembski is going to get his clock cleaned, rather his hourglass as Dembski could not possibly believe in clocks.

      1. Perhaps he’s doing it for fun.

        We all have good reasons for opposing stupidity and ignorance, but we also have to admit that baiting idiots is *enormous* fun.

  6. Ratzinger could have risked more but as a youth with family (parents, siblings) he would also have been risking them as well as himself. From what I can see, his actions then weren’t praiseworthy but they also weren’t blameworthy.

    Certain of his later actions are blameworthy (e.g., supporting the church’s position towards abortion/contraception even in order to save the life much less the general health of the woman). I believe Hitchen’s term “overdressed” is a reference to his rather expensive and elaborate clothes (somewhat more so than his predecessor).

    Comparing atheists to Nazis was wrong and insulting since many of the welcoming group he was addressing were likely atheists and most British atheists had been just as opposed to the Nazis as their Christian fellows (and I suspect a greater percentage than their Christian fellows had opposed Hitler’s Spanish ally, Franco, when he overthrew the elected government in Spain [Franco was neutral in WWII so remained in power and staunchly supported by the Catholic Church until his death several decades later]). The insult may have been a calculated move to turn press attention away from certain scandals within the Catholic church.

    1. Yes, I think you are very probably right. It seemed quite a non-sequitur and rather does suggest someone whispering in his ear, “Don’t forget to mention the Nazis.”

    2. So cowardice absolves him and despite the fact that he *was* a Nazi, he may claim that he was not and that godless people are Nazis?

      1. Cowardice? or choosing the path that seemed most likely to lead to survival for him and his family. It was not as though he was an enthusiastic member by any evidence I’ve seen. He was drafted at 15/16 and the war ended when he was just 18. We aren’t even talking about a kid who was university age. I’m sure there most here would have done the same given the same position (age, sex, family background). He didn’t show heroism but very few of his age then and there did.

        There is plenty to condemn in his actions and comments as an adult.

        1. You are missing the point, as well.

          I do not think that the pope is being blamed here for being a member of the Hitler Youth, whether willing or no.

          He is being held to account for comparing atheists to Nazis–a poisonous comparison, for which he can have no evidence, when he himSELF was a Nazi, a fact for which there is abundant evidence.

          The pope is claiming a moral high ground to which he is not entitled, pointing at innocents with ten fingers of guilt.

          1. His comparison is incorrect because it is; however, if he or someone in a similar position were denouncing real totalitarians, I don’t think he or they should be restricted from commenting or correctly comparing it to Nazism because he or they were members of the Hitler Youth.

            1. You are describing a context that does not apply here.

              When the pope compares atheists to Nazis, he is not denouncing “totalitarians”. Why make this defense, when it is irrelevant in this context?

          2. Ratzinger is certainly claiming a moral high ground to which he’s not entitled, but it’s possible that you are the one missing the point, or possibly that there are plenty of points to go around.

            I wouldn’t say Ratzinger “was a nazi”. That would be to imply that he shared the views and ideals of the nazi party. I’m not aware of any evidence that suggests this.

            He might have, he might not have. I don’t see that it matters in terms of Hitchens’ point. What does matter is that Ratzi has had cause through his entire life to contemplate and reflect upon what happened to him as a youth, whether voluntary or not, and to understand better than most what it actually means to be a nazi.

            In the light of this, as Hitchens says, how *dare* he compare atheists to nazis?

          3. Helen, it seems to me that you’re the one missing the point. The one you’re making is the obvious one that everyone gets. The one that Erp and others are trying to make is more nuanced–Ratzi was a Nazi because he essentially had no choice; whereas he is accusing atheists of consciously choosing to act like Nazis (that’s so stupid it’s even hard to type!). Some are saying there’s a difference worth noting between something forced on one and something purposefully adopted.

  7. When Humphrey Bogart was dying of lung cancer, he would try to get conversation going by saying something on the order of, “I have cancer. It is perfectly respectable. It’s not like I have a venereal disease.”

    1. This would make conversation a little awkard for anyone at the table who had a sexually transmitted disease, especially those dying of one.

      “So I’m dying, it’s not like I’m in charge of a global organisation dedicated to the covering up of child rape at all costs” ought to get the ball rolling.

      Are STDs not respectable? In the 16th-18th century we Europeans had to import kings and queens all the time because they could hardly go five minutes before dying of syphalis. It’s partly why the remaining royals are such mumbling, inbred igors.

      I don’t think we get to rate the respectability of diseases. I’ve had some close friends who have died of AIDS. And friends and family who’ve died from cancer. I don’t find either disease respectable.

      I might be being a bit preachy, sorry.

  8. I just saw part of another debate where Boteach claimed that Gould didn’t believe in evolution because Gould believed in punctuated equilibrium. So I guess we can assume Boteach is a loud mouth know-nothing blabber mouth? Except more of a blabber loud mouth than most other blabber mouths?

  9. One point of order on Hitchens speech is that Ratzinger did NOT, in fact, “announce that atheists are Nazis” – nor did he announce that the Nazis were atheists.
    If you examine what Ratzinger actually said you will notice a clever piece of Jesuitical rhetoric being applied. Ratzinger clearly IMPLIED that the Nazis were atheists but did not explicitly state so. If you’ve been educated by the Catholic religious orders you will recognize the technique he is using. It’s proper term is “mental reservation” – and its purpose is to mislead others with words and phrases that can have two meanings. In the case in point the description of the state atheism (communism) is in a different sentence from that of State Nazism and thus can be argued is a separate point entirely – although to a listener in all likelihood it will be taken to mean the Pope is directly linking atheism with Nazism. Its lying for Jesus but with an escape clause.

  10. I just saw another Hitchens debate from the 80’s where the term “Republican Right” came up a lot. Little did Hitchens know back then how the term would evolve from the then “intelligent Republicans who had a brain”, to the now “completely bonkers fundie cuckoo! birds”.

  11. How many of us would really be able to reject the national socialist movement? I agree with Hitchens on most everything and there is something about the forced smile of Ratzinger that disturbs me, but still I doubt whether he had a choice as regards membership in the NAZI youth movment. There must have been huge peer pressure, at least.

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