Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Christopher Hitchens and the Law

Gerard N. Magliocca

Although it happened before the holidays, I want to take a moment to note the passing of Christopher Hitchens, who was an intellectual hero of mine. Not only was he was a brilliant writer who covered a broad range of topics, but he had an independent streak a mile wide. His point that "sometimes the wrong people have the right line" is a principle that everyone involved in politics should think about, as group-think is all too common these days.

In Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens quoted F.M Cornford, a Cambridge don who wrote that "[t]here is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing." He then catalogued three of the leading arguments for doing nothing:

1. The Wedge

You should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future--expectations that you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy. A little reflection will make it evident that the wedge argument implies the admission that the persons who use it cannot prove that the action is not just. If they could, that would be the sole and sufficient reason for not doing it, and this argument would be superfluous.

2. The Dangerous Precedent

You should not do any admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action that is not customary either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.

3. The Time is Not Ripe

People should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived.


While we are furnished three of the leading arguments for doing nothing, we are not told what is the "only one argument for doing something." I'm reminded of the scene in "City Slickers" when the subject of the meaning of life came up between Curley (Jack Palance) and Billy Crystal's character. Curley held up one finger and after a few comic lines, Curley said "One thing." And the Crystal character asked: "What's that?" Curley responded: "That's for you to figure out."

I have great admiration for Hitch as a thinker and writer, but what did he do?

So I see a problem with his analysis of argumentation on doing nothing. It would come better from someone who had done something.

It is always easier to comment from the sidelines than to lead in the arena. That being said, Hitchens sure made the sidelines more interesting. Hitchens was this libertarian conservative's favorite socialist because he was always honest about the weaknesses of his own side. Many conservatives could learn from him.

With our yodeler's New Year's revealing:

"Many conservatives could learn from him."

about Christopher Hitchens, I look forward to hopefully his honesty "about the weaknesses of his own side." It's not too late for redemption.

It is always easier to comment from the sidelines than to lead in the arena. That being said, Hitchens sure made the sidelines more interesting. Hitchens was this libertarian conservative's favorite socialist because he was always honest about the weaknesses of his own side. Many conservatives could learn from him.
# posted by Bart DePalma : 4:59 PM

You desperately need to buy a mirror.

Weaknesses in libertarian conservatism? There are two primary ones:

1) Markets are made up of people and are thus imperfect and occasionally irrational and self serving. instead of maintaining that markets are always rational, we would be better served to admit their flaws and argue, like democracy, free markets are the worst system except for all the others.

2) Even free marketeers generally like and support social insurance programs for old age, disability and unemployment. The idea that they can be entirely replaced with private charity is not based in reality, especially with the destruction of the extended family. The better approach would be to reform them so individuals have more power over their use.

Our yodeler's beginning list of weaknesses in libertarian conservatism should be expanded by examining the GOP presidential candidates' performances to date. The Tea Party - infested with those claiming to be libertarian conservatives - has seen its favorites climb to the top only to be knocked down, seriatim. So perhaps there are lessons to be learned. Now the Tea Party seems to be nudging towards Rick Santorum who is hardly a libertarian.

Our yodeler seems to be astute in recognizing that the GOP is far from united, at least in selecting its presidential candidate for 2012. I recently came across a statement that "Democrats fall in love, while Republicans fall in line." Our yodeler is the extreme right's Will Rogers as it seems he does not belong to a political party, he is a Republican.

But our yodeler's use of Hitchens' demise to make his point is lame. Yes, Hitchens did make the sidelines more interesting but our yodeler continues to fail in his own efforts, making it difficult to see how conservatives could learn from our yodeler. If Hitchens believed in an afterlife, surely he would skewer our yodeler for his irrelevancy.

I have waited for Gerard's response to my first comment on his post to learn what is the "only one argument for doing something." Not hearing back, I did some Googling and came up with a 12/9/01 NYTimes review by Alexander Star of Hitchens' "Letters to a Young Contrarian" (that also reviews Alan Dershowitz's "Letters to a Young Lawyer"), available at:

Star focuses mostly on Hitchens' book. While such review does not provide a definitive answer to my desire to learn what is the "only one argument for doing something," I do have a better idea of Hitchens as a contrarian. Star includes in his review:

"Nonetheless, one cannot deny Hitchens his independence of mind. Having abandoned socialism, he now [2001] speaks of combining the left's demand for social justice with the libertarian defense of individual freedom. Such politics may be more gestural than conceptual."

Hitchens has written extensively beyond the publication of his book in 2001. I wonder what his subsequent writings have to say about such combination. Was Hitchens a true contrarian, including with respect to his own earlier positions? Probably so. Per Curley, perhaps Hitchens figured out his "One thing," whatever it might have been by the time of his demise.

In one of Thurber's essays (wish I could remember which one, or get Google to find it for me) he looks at arguments between men and women, and considers the underhanded trick of the woman agreeing with the man. The man then says (to the best of my recollection) "well fine, then; you were completely wrong, and so was I. It's amazing how your taking my position reveals how utterly absurd it was!"

That is the kind of contrarian Hitch was.

Give or take.

Let's raise the bar please.

D.G.: Thanks for the links that provide much needed perspective. By the way, do you know what's the "only one argument for doing something"?

I repeat: can we raise the bar, please?

Well there's



My own stab at raising the bar (a mixed metaphor that Hitch would have howled at): he delighted at taking pokes everywhere, which made those who thought he was wonderfully expressing their point develop sudden and acute pains when it turned out he didn't embrace their world view. His later right-wing point of view, for instance, didn't square with his famed atheism; American exceptionalism is ridden with religious assumptions.

Because of this, for many he was an uncomfortable voice. You couldn't count on it, so to speak. For me, this was the essence of what made him a force to be reckoned with: he saw no need to reconcile his views to make anyone else comfortable. Indeed he took gusto in poking everywhere.

Now of course that doesn't make all of his criticisms accurate, fair, or on-target, and they weren't all. But they remain wonderful, forceful, and as the second reference cited above celebrates, a reason to examine, not fear, criticism. Those who can't enjoy and benefit from vigorous criticisms of their views, should stay out of the Hitchen, er, I mean kitchen.

jpk's "nyt" link includes this line:

"In his very brave and very public dying, though, one could see again why so many religious people felt a kinship with him."

Perhaps if his very brave dying were very private, the feeling of kinship may have been stronger. Was Hitchens proselytizing with his very public dying? Did atheists/agnostics feel s kinship with him because of his very public dying?

Hitchens ended his life a drunken bigot, with prejudices after the manner a religious fundamentalist.

When he was good he was good...

but that's no excuse for the blithe ignorance or indifference to detail I'm reading here

Shag, interesting questions.

Hitch went very public with his diagnosis and condition. He was addressing believers more than atheists or agnostics. Proselytizing, probably the wrong word.

If by "blithe ignorance or indifference to detail" you mean pretending Hitch always got it right, or never let his prejudices get the best of him, I don't think anyone in his forum is laboring under any illusions there.

Yes, clearly, he was better at aiming his big guns at others. Yes, his analysis would have been improved if he'd been equally willing and skilled aiming them at his ideas. Few of us are, though.

And yes, he was a dick. Another hero with feet of clay. All granted.

It remains true that "when he was good".

Here's a thought that came to mind as I followed the GOP presidential campaign: Is it a stretch to compare Newt Gingrich with the late Christopher Hitchens?

By the Bybee [expletives deleted], I remain in the dark on what is the "only one argument for doing something." Is it being a contrarian? If I had the answer, then perhaps I might be better able to judge whether Hitchens' arguments over the years hold water. My local libraries do not seem to stock Hitchens' "Letters to a Young Contrarian" and I do not plan to spring cash to check out this one argument. Google searches of both Hitchens and F.M. Cornford (Conford? Comford?) have not been successful in identifying this one argument. Any help?

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