‘He had the courage to day unpopular things’: No praise for courting controversy

By Guest Contributor Tami Winfrey Harris, cross-posted from What Tami Said

This post is not about Christopher Hitchens. It is just that eulogizing of the writer has me pondering the adulation we give people and ideas believed to be outside the bounds of “political correctness.”

Hitch was a polarizing figure: He could be a louche wit and raconteur, an exceptional writer, a tireless advocate for the Godless, a moving chronicler of the end of life and also a pompous sexist, racist warmonger and Islamophobe, drunk on privilege (and whatever else). I’ll remind that Hitchens was the guy who argued that women are inherently not funny, who attempted to paint Michelle Obama as a black militant on the strength of a college thesis about the alienation black students often feel on majority white campuses, and who said of the war in Iraq: “The death toll is not nearly high enough… too many [jihadists] have escaped.”

Now, despite all that, many folks were fond of Hitchens–at least that is the impression I get from comments on Gawker, Salon, Slate and the like. How does one square abhorrent pronouncements by a man whose work can also be admirably challenging and engrossing? Apparently, it is by evoking the rather vague and puzzling commendation: Well, even if I didn’t agree with him, he had the courage to say unpopular things. I keep hearing this in relation to Christopher Hitchens and I wonder: Is the will to say detested things praise-worthy, in and of itself?

At the root of the discussion is the myth of “political correctness,” which I wrote about a few years ago in this space:

Disdain for “political correctness” is often positioned as a concern that some important truth is not being spoken for fear of offending someone. But that concern is nothing but smoke and mirrors. To invoke “political correctness” is really to be concerned about loss of power and privilege. It is about disappointment that some “ism” that was ingrained in our society, so much that citizens of privilege could express the bias through word and deed without fear of reprisal, has been shaken loose. Charging “political correctness” generally means this: “I am comfortable with my privilege. I don’t want to have to question it. I don’t want to have to think before I speak or act. I certainly don’t wish to inconvenience myself for the comfort of lesser people (whoever those people may be–women, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.)” Read more…

Since the (conservative-driven) idea that some “Stalinist orthodoxy” prevents good Americans from speaking freely has taken hold, I notice more amorphous applause for people who say controversial things no matter what those controversial things are. Content matters. It is indeed commendable to speak truth to power, or to stand up for right in the face of wrong. But just to say unpopular shit? Why should anyone get cookies for that? Most people would not charge half the human race with a chronic lack of funny, because the statement lacks nuance (As Echidne capably points out here.) and because they have heard of Lucille Ball and Fanny Brice and Moms Mabley and Tina Fey, not because they are cowards in fear of the PC police.

It is not a virtue simply to say controversial things. You know who else says controversial things? Michelle Bachmann. Are we to laud the good Senator for her courage to speak against death panels, despite the fact that, you know, none exist, have existed or were planned to exist? The very idea is silly.

Every unaccepted pronouncement isn’t hidden wisdom. And every speaker of provocative things isn’t a genius. Saying someone has the courage to say the unsayable is meaningless without analysis of what exactly is said.

Image courtesy of Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

  • Anonymous

    Not straw, Mail, Guardian and Telegraph were similar, with nods to his controversies and excesses.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=697711208 Lola Jusidman

    I think the current definition of political correctness could be better aplied to “politeness” or “respect” or “use of euphemisms”. Out of context, the term “politically correct” sounds more like pro-american and “politically incorrect” would be anti-american. The way things are now, it’s much easier and accepted to say something racist or mysoginist than something anti-american.

  • squirrel

    Thanks for the post. Recently, I keep reading comments that because a person is from the UK or Europe, their words and actions should not be read as offensive because we are reading through a US- centric view and don’t realize how different things are outside the US. my mixed ancestry stretches back to many countries where (not so distant) British colonization oppressed, enslaved, and marginalized people of color & women. Makes me wonder why so many think Europeans have no understanding of marginalization of people based on race/sex/class/abilities when it is so ingrained in their history.

  • http://jacqueline-allain.blogspot.com/ Jacqueline Allain

    Wow, I’m a few days late, but this is a great post. I never read any of Hitchens’ books and I don’t have much of an opinion on him, but I, too, grow tired of hearing people praise “political incorrectness” as if it were some great, daring thing. Patriarchy, misogyny, and xenophobia are nothing new; reinforcing them with one’s actions and words is hardly subversive or radical.  Let’s stop praising people for being “daring” enough to uphold privilege. 

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Great post! It’s funny how “politically incorrect” people believe they’re taking back some sort of power they “lost” when they never really lost any power to begin with!

  • Olivia

    This is a valuable point, but it’s a good thing “this post is not about Christopher Hitchens,” because he’s completely the wrong example of it. He earned his reputation for speaking honestly way before the Iraq War, and it wasn’t for espousing a supposedly-somehow-”politically incorrect”-but-actually-orthodox view of the world. He was an active, dyed-in-the-wool socialist for decades. When people talk about “unpopular” positions of his, they mean ones like Mother Teresa being a self-aggrandizing fraud, Henry Kissinger being a war criminal, and a million little things like the ridiculousness of the mourning over Princess Diana and the anti-Semitism of The Passion of the Christ (before Mel’s little drunken treatise on Jews and world history). When he isolated himself from the rest of liberal America over Bill Clinton and again over Iraq, it wasn’t like the Christian right was waiting to welcome him with open arms. And I think a look at the authors of some of those glowing obituaries and comments would go to show that he’s just about the last person of whom you can say that he was only respected by people who agreed with him.

    Also, you have a typo in the headline.

    • http://twitter.com/toropuku kia ahatia

      You’re wrong about that, he  was always the same. I agree with Norman Finkelstein about his courting controversy: http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=4&ar=6 as a ‘leftist’ he shocked people at dinner parties by supporting genocide against Indigenous people or opposing abortion.  And I don’t believe his political incorrectness had anything to do with politics, he had a crush on romantic political heroes like Trotsky and Cheney, he had a personal grudge against villains like Kissinger and Clinton – where is the ideology or principle? It could just as well be the opposite way around.

      Another commenter above pointed out American’s are easily impressed by English minor-public-school boys pretending to be ‘posh’.

      • Froggbr

        That article you link to is quite insightful.  I’ve frequently wondered about these political figures who suddenly stumble and then skid all the way across the political arena until they hit the buffers on the other side.  For some it seems the only rule is to always be hard, ruthless and absolutist, and to hold each new position with as much total certainty as they did the previous, entirely different, one.

    • AlsoAnon

      I’m an athiest and not much of a fan of religion,  But I found it odd that a supposed one-time Marxist like Hitchens should adopt the view that religion was all just a matter of bad ideas that people inexplicably happened to have  in their heads, and that the solution was to attack the believers with abstract argument (with insults and contempt thrown in for good measure).

      Whatever happened to the notion of changing the material conditions?  Whatever happend to ‘being determines conciousness’?

      Also, I thought his ‘God is not great’ book was sloppy and a bit of an uninformative rant.

  • Beatz

    I heard once that Political Correctness came from a conservative think tank in the 80s. Supposedly it was actually a ploy to annoy regular Americans and alienate them from the left, who was obviously going to be blamed for something like this.

    What is interesting to me is that even in that instance republicans are so callous about their privilege. They use it as another political tactic.

  • Anon

    I sort of disagree with this. Not the overall point but I think it is a very US centric response. I didn’t love Hitchens but I think his comments are also much more representative of a British loquacious wit which has nothing to do with conversation between the privileged and the unprivileged. In the US political correctness is very much wrapped up in this. But Oscar Wilde, Byron, etc the whole history of louche witty cynics commenting drolly on society is class bound but not class subversive. They were mocking their class but they were very much insiders. This wasn’t a “working class response” to ” upper class privilege”. I think the fact is that Hitchens was lauded more for his form than content. He was a very clever man who said very clever things in a sort of sneery insider boarding school Oxbridge sort of way and was perfectly happy to be inconsistent and contradictory when it served his prose, and he was late for dinner at the Ivy.

    That’s basically the model for British journalism.

    • Anonymous

      No, I understand that British journalism and humor is different. The point is that Hitchen’s did the obnoxious “I am speaking the inconvenient truth” which was construed as being risqué even though the validity of what he was saying was questionable. 

    • Alsoanon

      I think I probably agree, though I’m not 100% sure what you are trying to say!

      I was never much of a fan of Christopher Hitchens.  I could write a small essay explaining my reasons, but I doubt that is appropriate here.  What I would say is that for me one of the most important things about him was that he was public-school-educated (son of an admiral, I believe).  It seems notable that most of the eulogies of him this side of the Atlantic are coming from fellow white male privately-educated people. 

      The privately-educated make up a small percentage of the population yet dominate the upper reaches of the media and intellectual life.  My sense is that the most important trait a private education and the class background associated with it gives its beneficiairies is self-confidence and the belief that one deserves one’s place in the heirarchy.

      And a lot of these people seem to take to politics less out of some instinctive sense of allegiance (that might come from being born into a disadvantaged group, even if that group is simply the not-posh) but rather as some form of self-realisation.  Its a performance for them, a way of being dazzling and/or combatitive, of making a mark.  (Which I think is  what you are saying above?)

      Which is why I think it was so easy for Hitchens to seemingly dance around the political landscape, jumping from left to right positions without hesitation.  It was all about the performance.

      Incidentally, I remembe rwhen the term ‘political correctness’ was imported to the UK from the US.  Up till then the phrase here was ‘ideological soundness’, and it was mostly used in a slightly-ironic-but-not-entirely-so fashion by lefties amongst themselves.  I believe the PC phrase started out similarly, possibly coming originally from Maoists?

    • C W

      “I think his comments are also much more representative of a British loquacious wit which has nothing to do with conversation between the privileged and the unprivileged.”

      So in other words, you deny Privilege’s existence outside of the United States. Brilliant.

      • AlsoAnon

        I’m not entirely sure, because I don’t know I fully understand what Anon is saying, but I’d read his/her comment more charitably.  

        I don’t think Anon is denying privilege exists, within or without the US, rather I would take the point as being that one shouldn’t have expected someone like Hitchens to be ‘PC’ – becuase his kind exist _within_ the privleged class and their views and writting is best understood as being part of a conversation _within_ that class.  A conversation that seems primarily to be about being provocative and witty for the purposes of ego, fun and profit.  

        So it is correct to say that in the case of folk like Hitchens its not about a ‘conversation between the privileged and unprivileged’.  But saying that doesn’t deny the existence of those catagories, it just emphasises that Hitchens himself was  never really engaged in that particular conversation.

  • Anonymous

    Your political incorrectness is only accepted if its for the sexist, racist, anti-immigrationist, islamophobic status quo. Anyone who is opposite that is deemed too politically correct. But then you are actually being politically incorrect by being against the status quo. So Christopher Hitchens was actually really politically correct in my opinion.

    • http://jacqueline-allain.blogspot.com/ Jacqueline Allain

      Excellent point. Well said. 

    • http://jacqueline-allain.blogspot.com/ Jacqueline Allain

      Excellent point. Well said. 

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  • Rayuela23

    Thanks so much for putting this into words.

  • BSK

    Building on your spot on assessment of the backlash tompolitically correct, it is also a way for the privileged to further victimze rhemselves. As far as I know, that term is a creation of those wo claim to be victims of it, in mich the same way that the phrase (and concept of) “War on Christmas” is a ficticious bogeyman. Unfortunately, the powers-that-be did a wonderful job of crafting a narrative wherein those opposed to privilege and racism and sexism and etc. created that term as a means of oppression, giving themselves rhe perfect storm to hold themselves up as the virtuous truth-tellers standing up to oppression.

    Barf.

  • Anonymous

    Before his death, I only knew of his atheist writings. It’s only when he died that I got to read about his dismissal of women, as well as his drum beating for the Irak war as well as how he basically was an all around bully, especially when he drank etc. I didn’t put him in any pedestal since I thought that he was the poster boy for atheist extremists, but it did she new light on all that praise he was getting from some of his fellow writers.

    • Anonymous

      Atheist extremists? That’s rich. Nothing is funnier to me than hearing people call atheists extremists.  I mean really, where in the world do you see atheists committing mass murder against Muslims, Christians, Jews or Hindus?

      Hitchens’ beliefs in regards to Islam were based on his hatred of organized religion.  It wasn’t based on racial hatred.  If it had been, he wouldn’t have been a supporter of the PLO and other Arab nationalist groups in the 80′s and 90′s.

      • Jay from Philly

        The outspokenly atheist regimes of Mao Tse Tung,  Josef Stalin, and Pol Pot killed untold numbers of people in the twentieth century, probably more than have ever been killed in the name of God in recorded history. The atheist persecution of believers continues in the PRC today unabated. That said, I may never agree with anything posted on Racialicious again, but Christopher Hitchens was a smug annoying and irritating individual. He was a rabid supporter of the War in Iraq, even though he felt he himself was far too superior to fight himself. The War officially ended the day before he died. When he could no longer revel in the blood of thousands of American lives and the future generations of American taxpayers laboring to pay off the money borrowed from the Chinese to pay corrupt cronies, he gave up. Good riddance.

        • Tielserrath

          “The outspokenly atheist regimes of Mao Tse Tung,  Josef Stalin, and Pol Pot killed untold numbers of people in the twentieth century, probably more than have ever been killed in the name of God in recorded history”

          [citation needed]

        • Bananhie

          If you read grebrook’s response, Hitchens’ vitriol was aimed at organized religion.

          While it’s true that the aforementioned dictators did not believe in the divine(s), their ideologies were on par with that of an extreme organized religion –lack of questioning beliefs, dogmatic retribution towards dissidents/infidels, & the supreme authority of an individual or group of individual(s).

        • Anonymous

          I don’t think that you’re right, but you are totally glossing over that MOST other wars, as in almost all of them, are fought over religion.

          • Jay from Philly

            The Iraq War which Christopher Hitchens loved so much wasn’t fought in the name of religion, but in the name of profit.  None of the left-wing types mention how much he loved that war.

          • distance88

            “I don’t think that you’re right, but you are totally glossing over that MOST other wars, as in almost all of them, are fought over religion.”

            KateyKat3:  Name 10 wars/conflicts from the 20th Century that were fought over religion.

            Here are a few 20th C. conflicts that were NOT “fought over religion”:

            World War I (1914-18)
            Russian Civil War (1917-22)
            World War II (1937-45)
            Chinese Civil War (1945-49)
            Tibet (1950-)
            Korean War (1950-53)
            Rwanda and Burundi (1959-95)
            2nd Indochina War (1960-75)
            Ethiopia (1962-92)
            Nigeria (1966-70)
            Mozambique (1975-92)
            Afghanistan (1979-2001)
            Mexico (1910-20)
            Libya (1911-31)
            Iran-Iraq War (1980-88)
            Balkan Wars (1912-13)
            Greco-Turkish War (1919-22)
            Spanish Civil War (1936-39)
            Finnish War (1939-40)
            Yugoslavia (1944-80)
            Colombia (1946-58)
            Romania (1948-89)
            Sudan (1955-72)
            Guatemala (1960-96)
            Uganda (1972-79)
            Angola (1975-2002)
            Liberia (1989-97)
            Cambodian Civil War (1978-91)
            Vietnam (1955-75)

            Arguing about God on the Internet is akin to running in place, backwards, while wearing blinders.  Atheist or theist, I really couldn’t care less.  But the misrepresentation of facts by both parties is hurting the conversation.

    • Anonymous

      Atheist extremists? That’s rich. Nothing is funnier to me than hearing people call atheists extremists.  I mean really, where in the world do you see atheists committing mass murder against Muslims, Christians, Jews or Hindus?

      Hitchens’ beliefs in regards to Islam were based on his hatred of organized religion.  It wasn’t based on racial hatred.  If it had been, he wouldn’t have been a supporter of the PLO and other Arab nationalist groups in the 80′s and 90′s.

    • Anonymous

      So, by your logic, the pope is a Catholic extremist, the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist extremist, Rick Warren is a Christian extremist, too, right? Or do you just hate atheists, and are threatened by anyone who is open and unapologetic about not believing in god?

  • Brandon

    This is mostly on point, but I think the reason why people celebrate the “tell it like it is” individuals is because they agree with them.  They’re not getting their cookies for saying “unpopular shit.”  They get cookies for saying very popular shit that they’ve convinced themselves no one has the courage to say anymore.

    Interesting, because I hear this shit all the time.

  • Anonymous

    Totally summarizes my feelings about a lot of the praise for/comments about Hitchens- and so many other famous white men. 

    Just a small nitpick- Michele Bachmann is a Representative, not a Senator. 

  • Anonymous

    Totally summarizes my feelings about a lot of the praise for/comments about Hitchens- and so many other famous white men. 

    Just a small nitpick- Michele Bachmann is a Representative, not a Senator.