Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hitchens is 'splaining again.

Whether or not one agrees with Christopher HItchens' conclusions a surprising large number of people don't question the statements of "fact" on which he bases his argument. After all he is male, white, has what sounds to American ears a posh well-educated "British accent." He went to the right schools and speaks with the tone of authority--so what more is there to say?

The first thing to say that HItchens not infrequently is wrong. By this I don't mean that frequently I disagree with HItchens' conclusions but rather that sometimes he is simply wrong on the facts. And since he is wrong on some facts for all I know he is wrong on many facts. And since he is well-educated enough (and has enough resources) that he can easily find out what the facts actually are then he is either consciously lying, unable to conceive of the fact he could be wrong, and feels that the point he is making is so important that fudging or overlooking a few facts is acceptable.

Case in point, in his Slate.com article Lord Haw Haw and Anwar al-Awlaki Hitchen's wrote:
The United States happens also to be almost uniquely generous in conferring citizenship: making it available to all those who draw their first breath within its borders.
Now that statement is a piece of arrant nonsense. Leaving aside the past actions the American government denying access to citizenship to some groups of immigrants the country is today far from being "almost unique" in granting birthright citizenship. The number of member nations in the UN is 193. Let's round up and say that there are at the moment 200 nations. Over 30 of those nations recognize birthright citizenship. So the United States is among a minority of nations there need to be far, far fewer before the phrase "almost uniquely" become appropriate.

Hitchens may be suffering here from "old worldism." He himself was born and raised in Britain and most European nations do not grant birthright citizenship. However the United States, like most of the other nations in the Western Hemisphere, was built from immigrants and historically offered few bars to children of those immigrants becoming citizens. The mistake he makes here is not particularly relevant to the overall argument he is making however it warns the reader that he is arrogant and/or careless about facts.

A further, minor example of the same thing can be found later on in the same article when he writes of William Joyce:
He actually became rather a popular entertainment item in Britain, his arrogant drawling tones earning him the nickname “Lord Haw Haw.”
Despite that rather definitive statement as to why Joyce was known as "Lord Haw Haw" there is some question as which voice of German propaganda the original epithet "Lord Haw Haw" was used to describe. At least four different people were dubbed "Lord Haw Haw" during the war. We also know that some members of the British media simply used that phrase to describe any English language speaking German propagandists irrespective of their particular manners of speech.

Again, this is a minor point except that we become lazy listeners/readers and HItchens (like many other "respected" pundits") becomes a lazy writer/speaker thinker if the underpinnings of their arguments are not subjected to scrutiny.

Interestingly enough neither of these points is pertinent to the case Hitchens is arguing--indeed they obfuscate it. William Joyce (the Lord Haw Haw to whom HItchens is referring) argued as to his "true" citizenship as part of his defense against being executed as a traitor. He claimed that since he was actually an American citizen he could not be guilty of treason to Britain. al-Awlaki, unlike Joyce, was not tried in a court of law. al-Awlaki was not executed he was assassinated. In fact he was assassinated while outside the United States on the basis of the President "deciding" he was a traitor. In other words, the argument is not whether al-Awlaki was actually an American citizen but whether the President acted extra-judicially. To bring up any other points is to muddy the situation rather than make it clearer.

As George Orwell, one of Hitchens' favourite writers, put it. "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”


  1. If al-Awlaki's citizenship isn't a critical point, then what is the big deal then? He isn't the first or even the hundredth person to die during this so-called war against terrorism without either a judicial ruling or even an actual Congressional declaration of war.

    The precedent being set here isn't "Can the President order the extrajudicial killings of people in general?" -- that's already been done over and over again (does anyone know how many drone attacks against terrorism suspects in the Middle East have been launched by Obama alone since 2008?) The precedent here is that this is the first time that this tactic has been specifically and openly directed against an American citizen. The lack of due process is a critical issue but the citizenship question is also important.

    Hitchens's column -- and most of the things he writes about terrorism, Islam, the Middle East, war -- has many problems but his decision to focus on al-Awlaki's citizenship is a valid choice since it is part of what makes this attack so much more controversial than all of the previous targeted killings by Bush and Obama.

  2. Hitchens is specifically very wrong about all matters Middle East and War. He's better when he sticks to atheism. The way he changed his mind about waterboarding -- esp. considering his health -- was pretty hardcore.

  3. @Mad Monkey: I really (obviously) disagree -- Hitchens is distracting people from the point that the American president considers himself to have the right to order the execution of anyone, anywhere on the grounds of "he has decided it should be done." The US keeps claiming that it is a country of laws and not men -- well it should considering acting on that claim.

    Second, I find it more than a little disturbing how much people accept the self-assured claims of people "who know" about things without even looking at them. I don't think Hitchens knows anywhere near as much about a lot of things as he claims. As Nyctotherion points out Hitchens is not infrequently quite inaccurate of "short on facts" on issues about the middle east.

    And, as an atheist, I have become less and less impressed with Hitchens on atheism as the years go by.


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