Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Hitchens is not great

I have never understood the adulation accorded to British pundit Christopher Hitchens. An ex-leftist who turned somewhat neo-con in his later years, he has acquired begrudging respect from people across the political spectrum, who see him as a sharp-thinking curmudgeon. He has always struck me as an obnoxious creep a bit too preoccupied with tearing others down and trying to prove his smug superiority to the masses.

But there are jerks, and then there are dishonest jerks. Until last week, I would not have placed him in the latter category. (But then, I'm far from a regular reader of his writings.) That was when he reached for one of the oldest and crudest tricks in the hatchet-man grab-bag, where you select a portion of a quote to make a person appear to be saying the opposite of what they're really saying.

In this essay ("Blind Faith"), he comments on Obama's recent "race speech." The essay is not a partisan attack on Obama. It is a rambling hate-fest against organized religion, in which he takes shots at both parties. But one paragraph caught my attention:
Look at [Obama's] accepted choice of words for the ravings of Jeremiah Wright: controversial, incendiary, inflammatory. These are adjectives that might have been--and were--applied to many eloquent speakers of the early civil rights movement.... But is it "inflammatory" to say that AIDS and drugs are wrecking the black community because the white power structure wishes it? No. Nor is it "controversial." It is wicked and stupid and false to say such a thing. And it not unimportantly negates everything that Obama says he stands for by way of advocating dignity and responsibility over the sick cults of paranoia and victimhood.
Ouch. To think that all this time we took Obama's speech to be condemning the views of his former pastor. How gullible we were to think so, until Hitchens came along and showed how Obama's word choice suggested nothing of the kind. All Obama did was use adjectives that could just as well apply to Martin Luther King! My God! How stupid could we have been to have fallen for this?!

But then I decided to check Hitchens' quotes against a transcript of Obama's speech. I did not find any mention of the word inflammatory. All I found was one incendiary and two controversials, the second of which appears in the following statement:

"But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial.... Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country...." (emphasis added).

The speech goes on to condemn Wright's most notorious remarks in quite clear, unequivocal language.

Did Hitchens actually hear or read the speech, as opposed to merely skimming it over? Or is he just a plain old liar? The most charitable judgment I can muster is that he was quoting from a highly selective memory.

My only remaining question is how he could get away with such a flagrant and obvious distortion of the most talked about speech in the campaign so far. Even hatchet-men usually don't commit their nefarious acts in broad daylight. I guess there are just a lot of things you can get away with when you're an already esteemed commentator whose current piece goes unexamined under a mountain of punditry.

Update (4/8/2007): Someone suggested to me that Hitchens was directing his criticism not at Obama himself but at the "phalanx of reporters" and "men of the cloth" who fawned over the speech. Therefore, he was not distorting Obama's words, but commenting on a general trend.

Nice try, but no cigar. His criticism would make no sense if applied to reporters, who would never be expected to call anyone "wicked" or "stupid" in a news report. As a reporter himself, I'm sure Hitchens understands that. And if he wasn't directing his criticism at reporters, there's no way you can possibly read his paragraph as limiting the criticism to "men of the cloth."

The only way his paragraph can make the slightest sense is if it's criticizing Obama for using ambiguous language, and criticizing reporters and clergymen for overlooking this flaw.

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