A long time ago, back when I was basking in over-priced Leftism in Santa Cruz, I gave a gift to my friend: Letters To A Yong Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens.
At that time Hitchens was a venom-tongued writer for the progressive magazine The Nation and was still pals with the other equally acid-tongued provocateur, Alexander Cockburn. (Who believes, among other things, that Al Gore should be tried for war crimes.)
It was before Hitchens’s infamous transformation into a weird neo-con misanthrope radical, back before he all but officially announced his drunken disdain for women, liberals and Muslims.
But elements of his transformation make some garbled sense if you take seriously his alcohol-soaked, Humanist stance. Of course we should support the Iraq War — Saddam was a tyrant who was an obvious stalwart of old-fashioned totalitarianism. He needed to be kicked out! The same with anyone who would stand in the way of Democracy and Reason and all the other bastard children of Enlightenment-era thinking!
Towards this end, he has devoted much of his polemical energy of late excoriating all forms of religion, often getting himself labeled a bigot because of his extremely fierce criticism of Islam.
It’s a sad thing then to watch his obvious lapses as a thinker because, really, Hitchens is a tremendously talented writer who has gone out of his way to attack sacred cows like the Clinton Family and Mother Theresa, as well as old villains who’ve never really been denounced like they should — like Mr. Henry Kissinger. His harsh critique of the institution of religion couldn’t be more relevant today either.
The problem, according to Zach Kaufman at Splice Today is when he tries to talk about pop culture:
“His post-9/11 180 into his own brand of neo-conservatism and his atheist manifesto, God is Not Great, have been the cause of most of the arguments in recent years, but it is his occasional ventures into pop culture deconstruction that should really raise questions. His 2007 Vanity Fair article on how women just aren’t really funny, for example, suffers from the same problem as “Cheap Laughs,” his recent Atlantic Monthly rant against liberal comedians like Al Franken and Jon Stewart (St ephen Colbert is grouped in there too but barely gets a mention in the actual article).”
It makes me wonder whether intellectuals should adhere to limits on what they can talk responsibly and effectively about.
For instance, do people really take into consideration Hitchens’ criticism of Jon Stewart when they turn the television on? Wouldn’t his energy be better spent uncovering repression and corruption in political and religious regimes?
Isn’t pop culture, in its very self-reflexive vapidness, immune to the ribs and barbs of intellectual critique, only because, in pop culture’s eyes, criticism doesn’t matter, it only makes for higher ratings and more gossip and fodder?
Or, more pointedly, can intellectuals even attempt to wrap their heads around pop culture because, when they try to, they are only exposing their own jealousy that they’re not noticed as intensely as the latest Justin Timberlake song or Beyonce nipple slip?