If you don’t mind, let’s lock horns for a bit over the following question: Who would you nominate as the greatest thinker of our time? Perhaps you would go the hi-tech route and vote for Bill Gates or Steve Jobs; the scientific – Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins; the religious – Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama; politics – Angela Merkel or Margaret Thatcher; and the literary – Doris Lessing or Salman Rushdie.
My vote would be for Christopher Hitchens, the British-born writer and best-selling author who became a US citizen and died in 2011. Why “Hitch,” as his friends and fans lovingly called him? Hitchens was encyclopedic, eloquent, formidable in debate (as his many YouTube clips attest), an effective popularizer of science much like Voltaire was during the Enlightenment, a fierce critic of theocracy, and not to be underestimated, incredibly funny, the x-factor he could unsheathe at any moment to dispatch opponents already wobbling.
So, why bring up Hitchens now? One reason is that he would have likely weighed in on current attempts by politicians to shape public discourse. This has been the case in Israel, where just recently Education Minister Naftali Bennett proposed a Code of Ethics that would prohibit lecturers from advocating their political views in the classroom.
The code would also bar instructors from supporting academic boycotts of Israeli institutions, and, in perhaps the biggest slap, would establish a unit to monitor political activity on campus and report transgressors.
Predictably, Bennett’s proposal jolted members of the Left into action, with many teachers and students denouncing it as an attack on academic freedom.
After heavy criticism, the education minister appears to have softened his stance. “The code is not an obligation,” he said. “We are going to try and reach the widest possible consensus. It is not the Ten Commandments but a starting point for a dialogue. I am calling on everyone to calm down.”
But even Bennett’s seemingly innocent call for “consensus” raises more questions than it settles. Is he really trying to create true freedom of expression, which, paradoxically, he would achieve by stamping out certain voices? Or is building consensus his overall strategy? If it’s the latter, then, why is it desirable? As Bennett uttered his clarification, I remembered that Hitchens had some provocative things to say about “consensus”; they might be of use as the heated debate unfolds.
In his 2001 book, “Letters to a Young Contrarian,” Hitchens writes, “The idea of ‘unity’ is granted huge privileges over any notion of ‘division’ or, worse, ‘divisiveness.’ I cringe every time I hear denunciations of ‘the politics of division’ – as if politics was not division by definition.” In other words, consensus building is a platitude we all seem to strive for, but unthinkingly.
Is it the highest good, as many believe? Hitchens says no and gives two compelling reasons why.
FOR ONE, imagine that a perfect consensus comes about. Then what? What else would there be to do? To the contrary, Hitchens is convinced that “human beings do not, in fact, desire to live in some Disneyland of the mind, where there is an end to striving and a general feeling of contentment and bliss.” Second, even if we have this desire, he explains, it’s simply unattainable. “In life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation…There must be confrontation and opposition, in order that sparks may be kindled.”
He adds, “We know as a law of physics that heat is the chief, if not the only, source of light.”
Throughout his career, Hitchens took positions he knew would cause considerable friction and heat, but would result in illumination.
On the issues of Israel and Judaism, he was the fiercest of critics. Shortly after his death in 2011 some commentators in the Jewish world believed he was an antisemite, though Hitchens combatted antisemitism, stating it was “the common enemy of humanity.”
Nevertheless, his harsh critiques made him vulnerable to the charge. He once called Zionism “a stupid idea to begin with… a waste of Judaism,” arguing that it didn’t make sense to turn Jews into peasant farmers, when most of their achievements were intellectual in nature and within secular Diaspora societies.
This was not the way to save European Jewry, he argued. Zionism had also guaranteed a quarrel with the Arabs over land.
Toward the end of his career, however, Hitchens dampened his critique. In 1987, at age of 38, he discovered that he himself was Jewish. “On hearing the tidings, I was pleased to find I was pleased,” he later recalled in an essay. He also recognized the deep impact of Jewish thinkers on his intellectual development, citing Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as his greatest influences. As an outspoken atheist, he praised Jews for being the most post-religious group in the history of humanity, saying, “The curse of monotheism was first inflicted on us by the Jewish people, it’s very good it should be repudiated by them too.”
Lastly, though Hitchens had long criticized American foreign policy and Israel as a member of the Left, things began to change after 9/11. He eventually broke with the Left over radical Islam and the threat it posed to “civilization.” He lost many more friends when he threw his support behind the “war on terror” and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. For his former comrades, this pushed Hitchens into the ranks of conservatives and neocons, though Hitchens often repudiated such labels.
In this context, Israel became less of a problem for Hitchens as very dangerous fronts began to open.
All in all, Hitchens espoused ideas that continue to rub many the wrong way – a bit too much friction for them to bear. But are we better off without them? Are we better off with a lovely, but fairly boring and unfruitful consensus? With Bennett’s Code of Ethics pending further approval, who will be Israel’s next Hitch? At the end of “Letters to a Young Contrarian,” which is essentially an advice book for the aspiring contrarian, he advises the following: “Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.”