Christopher Hitchens: Pro-War, Anti-Death Penalty

A few days ago, Corey Robin wondered on his Facebook status:

Something I never understood about Christopher Hitchens: how such a fervent opponent of the death penalty could be such an avid supporter of war.

Supporters of the death penalty, of course, are notoriously fond of war (they also tend to be ‘pro-life’ in the debate on abortion). But why would a ‘fervent’ opponent of state-sanctioned murder be an ‘avid’ supporter or war, another form, one might say, of state-sanctioned murder?

The answer may, I think, be found in the kind of fascination war exerted over Hitchens. He did not think of it as merely an instrument of politics, one wielded to bring about very specific political objectives. Rather, it held him in a kind of aesthetically inflected thrall: he found it beautiful, stirring, exciting.  Many, like Hitchens, are entranced by the beautiful images that war furnishes for our imagination; evidence for this claim can be found in the large number of coffee-table books that purport to be illustrated histories of war. These images need not be just those of exploding munitions and ruined buildings; war utilizes weaponry and men, and photographic and artistic depictions of these, utilized and engaged in combat (or waiting to be) are among our most iconic representations. Gleaming aircraft, sleek, water-plowing  battleships, smoothly recoiling guns, men (and now women) in svelte uniforms, buttoned up, hard and unforgiving. It’s hard to resist the appeal of these. War provides many visual horrors, of course, but these are all too often swamped by the aforementioned cavalcade.  (I’m leaving aside for now, the enduring place that war holds in our imagination as a zone for the establishment of masculine credentials and brotherhood.)

The death penalty, in sharp and instructive contrast, is almost uniformly grubby and sordid. It is underwritten by retribution, an ignoble business at best; it is wrapped up in tedious layers of penal codes, legal wrangling, and procedural disputes; it happens quietly and grimly, away from the public eye, the punishment that dare not  speak its name. All associated with it are diminished; the condemned have lost their human dignity well before they ascend the gallows, the jailers and clergymen and executioners appear merely as bureaucratic functionaries, executing–no pun intended–with nary a trace of flair or style, the bookish orders laid out in the court document sanctioning the killing. There is no glamour, no sheen, no gleaming edges in the death penalty. It is dull, dull, dull. Especially in this guillotine-free age.

If the death penalty could have been lifted, somehow, out of the unappealing morass of state bureaucracy, judicial procedure, and clumsy modes of execution, if it could somehow have brought with it some of the frisson that war provides, then I do not doubt that Hitchens would have been all for it.

Note: One should also not forget that Hitchens considered himself a contrarian. Perhaps his opposition to the death penalty was formed at a time when public support for it ran high; his support of the Iraq War was probably viewed by him as a gleeful flipping of the bird to his former mates on the Left.

Freedom in the Absence of Social Convention

In reviewing Arturo Fontaine‘s La Vida Doble, “a harrowing examination of violence during the Pinochet period,” whose heroine is Lorena, “a female terrorist who is tortured, changes sides, and becomes a torturer herself”, David Gallagher writes:

But why in fact do good fathers and meek husbands and generous lovers undertake such cruel torture? Here Lorena sees the torturer as someone who becomes isolated from any sort of moral standard while granted absolute impunity for what he does, no matter how vile. In the glib manner of a French student of the Sixties, she speculates about two opposing views of what happens when social conventions have no effect. One is that you recover the innocence of the noble savage. The other—the relevant one in this case—is that you revert to a state of primal savagery. Because there are no limits, she tells the “novelist,” an inner monster springs to life, one we all potentially harbor. Once there is no possibility of punishment, “the monster we carry within us, the beast that grows fat on human flesh, is unleashed within the good father or the daughter of a good family.”

Notice that Lorena establishes a dichotomy–there are only two possible modes of behavior possible when social conventions cease to constrain us. But we might speculate too–perhaps for the benefit of a future novelist–that the absence of social conventions might result in a new kind of freedom, one in which, rather than revert to the two states described above, human beings experiment with finding new orderings of moral and ethical values. Certainly, it isn’t clear why these “two opposing views” are the only possibilities open to human beings, why our options in the face of the absence of social conventions would be so limited.

The “two opposing views” that Gallagher refers to are influential, of course, but that might be due to a lack of imagination on the part of those speculating about a convention-free world. In the absence of convention it would also seem just as likely that rather than being innocent savages or beasts, we might merely be utterly confused and bereft, content to experiment with modes of behavior and interaction that might provide some guidance for how to proceed in this newly ordered world.

The “lack of imagination” I refer to above, is an almost inevitable consequence, of course, of a deeply essentialist view of human nature, one committed to the idea that the visible human persona consists of two layers: an abiding, enduring, inner self temporarily covered by a thin epidermis of social convention. But a more existential view would suggest that when social conventions are removed, we have no way of saying what will remain. Perhaps the new being that will emerge will delight in alternating between innocence and bestiality, perhaps it will develop ever more complex characteristics, perhaps it will grow in dimensions–moral, psychological, and emotional–that we cannot yet fathom, gripped as we are by conventional modes of thought. When we think of how constraining social conventions–fundamentally and broadly understood–are, such speculation should not strike us too outlandish.

Making the Abstract Concrete

A few weeks ago, I posted the following quip as my Facebook status:

You don’t really get _Civilization and its Discontents_ till you bring up a child.

And then, a week or so later:

Apropos of my recent comment that you don’t really get _Civilization and its Discontents_ till you raise a child: I don’t think you really get Quine’s inscrutability of reference thesis till you start to shepherd a child through the early language acquisition phase.

There is a more general point to be made here, of course: that seemingly abstract academic theories spring sharply into focus when they are viewed through the lens of personal, emotionally tinged experiences. And child-rearing is perfectly designed provide visceral contact with their truths.

Consider then, my first example above. The child’s first contacts with the civilization that is its host come via it parents, those responsible for not just feeding, bathing, clothing, and otherwise protecting it, but also, all too soon, for inculcating it into the ways of the world. It has to be warned–in an appropriately modified tone of voice–not to bite and scratch,  or harm itself; it has to be restrained–again, sometimes for its own safety, sometimes for that of others; it has to be corrected in countless ways from proceeding along its own path, and guided into trajectories more amenable to those deemed more appropriate for its development. And so as I noted:

Sometimes I’m saddened terribly; something wild and primeval is being constantly tamed, molded, channeled, impressed on. Too essentialist, I know, and not existential enough, but still….

This channeling, this impressing, continues as the child comes into contact  with others besides parents, of course, but it is the parent who has most proximal contact with the changes wrought in the child, and is thus most likely to be affected in turn by them.  The changes in one’s child can produce some melancholy as we realize the coming to be be, and passing away, of different identities; while we happily welcome the growing child into the community of language speakers and concept-wielders, we might regret too, just for a bit, the absence of the babyish bundle, all coo and gurgle, that was once ours to hold tight and close.

And then again, as a friend of mine noted in response to the last quote above:

Yeah, but I’m glad they stop smearing their feces on the wall.


Dreams of the “Undiscovered Country”

Hamlet suggested that “What dreams may come after / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause” and that “The dread of something after death / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will.”

The eternally indecisive Danish prince was right, of course: many, if not all, of us have wondered what lies in store for us after death. The more certain among the materialistically minded reassure themselves that oblivion awaits, a blankness and a void like that of the deepest sleep, like the kind that was our lot before we were ejected into this world naked and helpless and conscious. Others–convinced of the claims of some of the world’s great religions–speculate that eternal torment or pleasures of some form lies in store. And perhaps yet others, stranded at some indeterminate point between these viewpoints of spiritualism and materialism, fret that our knowledge of the relationship of consciousness to the material body is limited and that states of being that we have no epistemic access to, and thus no conception of currently, might be our postmortem fate.

Such uncertainty, of course, is an invitation to the very anxiety referred to by Hamlet: Perhaps our consciousness–in some shape or form–might survive the destruction of our corporeal self; if so, what form would it exist in? What states would persist? Would we–perish the thought–remain locked into some endlessly painful or terrifying state of being? One did not have to believe in divinely dispensed heavens or hells to believe that the riddles of existence might have facets to them painful or pleasurable to the remnants of a once thriving consciousness. (You could call this kind of thinking a holdover of a theistic or eschatological way of thinking.)

At times in the past, I sometimes found myself in precisely such a state of mind and found that my greatest fears amounted to two kinds of states. The first was one in which I felt as if smothered by an impenetrable darkness that lay suffocatingly over me, and which could not be pushed away; my movements were restricted by an all-enveloping black veil. I would be conscious of this darkness but unable to move, unable to illuminate it; it was a sensory deprivation tank of sorts but one in which I could sense and see the darkness pressing in on me. In the second kind of state, I imagined myself–without any sense of corporeal being–to be suspended in a realm that can best be analogized with the space we can imagine lying between those imposing maps of gigantic galactic clusters: endlessly expansive and relentlessly empty.

I found both these allusive suggestions of a postmortem persistence of some fragment of consciousness chilling. (In the second case, almost literally so.)

These lost their grip on my imagination when I realized that in both cases, they reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties of a sort. The first was the fear of being buried alive (those childhood tales of immurement had left a mark) and the second was the fear of being lost or left alone (yup, the childhood impress again.)

I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.


Evicted From The Twenty-Twenty Club

In 1998, I learned I no longer had twenty-twenty vision. This knowledge did not come to me suddenly. On a couple of occasions at work–on the open-plan office floor of an online brokerage–I noticed I could not clearly read the lettering on the ticker-tape that ran across some of the large monitors that hung from the ceilings. And then, a little later, more decisively, out for a walk one night with a girlfriend, I was brought up short by her ability to read street numbers and names off signs well before I could. What, I wondered, was going on? An optometrist quickly put me in the know: I was ever-so slightly myopic in both eyes, with the left just a little worse.

I come from a family of pilots; twenty-twenty vision ran in my family. We did not wear glasses. Well, actually, hang on a second. Toward the end of his flying career, my father developed a cataract in one eye and in the middle of his, my brother was diagnosed with mild myopia (he continued to fly with prescription glasses). Perhaps developing mild myopia at the age of thirty-one was not so surprising.

It was still shattering news though. For weeks after my diagnosis, I moped around, unable to drag myself to the local opticians to order a pair of eyeglasses. It was, I realized, after a brutal ankle injury from a few years before, another disruption of a pristine ordering of my body. My third-degree sprain had left my ankle permanently weakened and unstable, and now this myopia meant a central sensory organ had undergone another irreversible decline. First, locomotion was affected, and then that which guided locomotion. I was no longer whole; I was flawed, damaged somehow. I did not think I possessed bodily perfection before, but I did not consider myself–extremely fortunately–to be laboring under any manner of handicap. Now, they were piling up, radically transforming a self-image ragged at all too many edges. The radical decline promised me as a gift for chronological advancement had commenced.

The day I finally, reluctantly, picked up my prescription glasses and tried them on, I was bemused by the way the world snapped into focus. How long had I not noticed these innumerable blurrings that were now removed, made distinct? The gradual decline had been sneaky and insidious, a hidden fifth column doing its dirty work in my optical corridors. I was overcome by an intense longing for days gone by–when I could watch movies, or distant sunsets, or navigate darkened streets without an ugly prosthetic device sitting on my nose. I was no longer human; I was a cyborg of sorts.

Sixteen years on, of course, I have accepted my altered and corrected vision–in a fashion. I carry my glasses everywhere, though I only put them on when needed. I still envy those in the twenty-twenty club, of course. And on occasion, I still remember  the rising tide of panic that swamped me when the optometrist leaned over and softly said, “How long have your eyes been like this?”

No Atheists in Foxholes, My Ass

Here is vignette #7 from Ernest Hemingway‘s In Our Time:

While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed oh jesus christ get me out of here. Dear jesus please get me out . Christ please please please christ. If you’ll only keep me from getting killed I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell everyone in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please please dear jesus.

No atheists in foxholes, indeed.

This little bon mot, intended to deflate the pretensions of skeptics and disbelievers has a long and dishonorable history; it is often trotted out, a triumphant smirk spreading across the countenance of the faithful as they surmise they have honed in on the Achilles heel of the atheist. The atheist stands indicted: he is merely a fair weather disbeliever. When the chips fall, he will duck for cover under the shelter provided by the Good Lord, just like the rest of us. (There is another, crafty, way to interpret it, of course: that only believers go to war. But I don’t, ahem, believe that.)

I wonder if the faithful ever stop to think–I know, silly question–about how awful an argument for faith this is. It suggests that our true believing nature will be revealed  when shells are cascading down around us, when, in short, we are possessed by extreme fear, anxiety, and panic.

But why would anyone imagine that a psychological state riven by such extreme sensations and affects is one in which we will rationally come to hold beliefs? One might as well just say that in these states, we witness the breakdown of rational decision-making and belief formation, that the beliefs held by those in foxholes are forced upon them by their circumstances.

Similar arguments are made in other domains, and they are just as silly. Consider, for instance, a familiar claim made about reversions to states of nature–as in post-apocalyptic scenarios:

[A] standard moral associated with post-apocalyptic cinema or literature–one proclaimed with varying degrees of explicitness–is, ‘This is what humans would be like if the pre-political, pre-social “state of nature” were to be restored, if laws, the restraints of conventional morality, and all forms of social and political organization were removed’….The apocalypse thus acts as a pretense shredder, showing our supposed social, cultural and moral sophistication to be shallow and superficial, a fair-weather orientation that is only maintained by the force and rule of the law and the comfort of the good times. So long as no desperation is called for none will be shown. But the seven deadly sins will be on ample display once those conditions no longer hold true.


There is an alternative moral to be drawn of course: that the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

To conclude, let me complete my excerpting of the vignette above:

The shelling moved further up the line . We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet. The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.

Note: Italics and capitalization of Hemingway vignette as in original 1986 Scribner Classic edition, pp. 67

Noam Chomsky, My Palestinian Student, and a Gift

A few years ago, at Brooklyn College, I taught a class on the formal theory of computation. We covered the usual topics: finite state automata, context-free grammars, Turing machines, computational complexity. As we worked through the theory of context-free grammars, I introduced my students to the concept of their Chomsky normal forms.  As a quick preliminary, I noted that this form was due to Noam Chomsky, “the MIT linguist well-known for his seminal work on the formal theory of linguistics.” I paused, and then went on, “Interestingly enough, Professor Chomsky is equally well-known for his radical political views and activism, especially regarding American foreign policy, Israel etc.” These quick remarks made, I went on to the business of production rules, non-terminal symbols etc.

Once class ended, I walked back to my office, and began the my usual post-class activities: checking email, drinking left-over coffee etc. As I did so, there was a knock on the door. A student from my class stood there. I had seen him before in class, but he had never spoken up yet. Now, he did so. He introduced himself with an Arab name. (I’m embarrassed to say I do not remember his name.) Then, he spoke again, “Professor, I just wanted to thank you. You brought up Chomsky in class, but you didn’t just say he was a linguist. You talked about his politics too.” Surprised, I said, “Well, I didn’t say that much. Just a quick note really.” My student, though, would have none of it, “Well, professor, too many other professors would simply not mention that aspect of him, as if it was an embarrassment. As a Palestinian, it made me really happy to hear you bring him up.” I didn’t quite know what to make of this, so I thanked him for his kind words. We then chatted for a bit about his background, his family, and that was that. (I remember asking him what passport he carried, a question that always fascinates me when it comes to the modern world’s stateless.)

As the semester went by, my student and I only spoke a few more times. He was unfailingly polite and courteous, and diligent with his work. We might have talked once more about Israel and Palestine, perhaps when some Middle East crisis du année had occurred. Finally, the semester wound down; I assigned the students their final exams, graded them, handed in their grades. Shortly thereafter, one day as I worked in my office, there was a knock on the door again. Once again, it was my student. In his hand, he held what looked like a gift-wrapped item. He thanked me for the class and then handed over the package, saying “This is for you, just a thank-you.” I was a little nonplussed and tried to decline, but again, he was persistent, pressing it into my hands, saying it was just a trifle. Finally, I thanked him and opened my gift. It was a copy of Avi Shlaim’s  The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab WorldHe went on, “I think you might find this interesting.” I agreed.

I lost contact with my student shortly thereafter; I often wonder where he is now. I often wondered too, what he must have felt like, unable, all too often, because of the settings he found himself in, unable to say what was on his mind; I wondered how much he had heard that he couldn’t respond to; I wondered how limited he must have felt his various avenues of expression to be if the mere mention of Chomsky’s activism by a professor in a classroom had felt like an affirmation of a kind.