What Can We Steal From Christopher Hitchens’s “Mommie Dearest”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Mommie Dearest,” nonfiction…we’re also considering the rest of the Hitchens oeuvre.
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found: The article was originally published on SlateHitchens also published a book about Mother Teresa called (somewhat cheekily) The Missionary Position.  In addition to publishing several books and countless articles, Hitchens was a legendary public speaker; many of his speeches and debates can be viewed on YouTube.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:
Use of Rhetoric

Discussion:
December 12, 2012 is the one-year anniversary of the death of Christopher Hitchens.  You’ll notice I didn’t say that Hitchens “went on to his reward” or that he “passed away” or that he is “in a better place.”  As Hitchens would agree (if he could), his body is currently in some state of decomposition as it slowly returns to the elements from which it came.  Fortunately, Hitchens has achieved the only kind of immortality for which a writer can hope: his ideas live on in his works and in the hearts and minds of those who read them.

I use “Mommie Dearest” in most of my composition classes because it’s a representative example of powerful rhetoric.  Unlike so many “careful” public thinkers, Hitchens was not afraid to honestly say what he believed.  More importantly, he was perfectly prepared to back up his assertions.  One of Hitchens’ most powerful dictums?  “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”  Hitchens was well aware that he turned readers off when he would call the woman known as Mother Teresa a “fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.”  (And that’s not even the worst of it.  He also employed the phrase “thieving Albanian dwarf.”)  If those readers did not go through the rest of his piece, well, he counted it their loss.  As Hitchens pointed out in “Mommie Dearest” and in The Missionary Position, his antipathy was deserved.  Mother Teresa facilitated human suffering, lent her halo to evil men and did what she could to ensure the pro-poverty, anti-woman policies of the Catholic Church continued in India and beyond.

Hitchens was fueled by pathos (emotion) but delighted in logos (reason).  He was opposed to the compulsory genital mutilation of children.  Other folks, such as Rabbi Harold Kushner, see no problem with the circumcision of young boys.  (The circumcision of young women is a different matter for Rabbi Kushner, of course.)  If you wish, watch this exchange. (It gets really good around 4:40.)  Hitchens is clearly quite disturbed that the man beside him is discussing the genital mutilation of young boys in such flippant terms.  Yes, you could say that Hitch was angry.  Does he heave a chair at the rabbi?  No.  Does he direct thoughtless invective at the man?  No.  Instead, Hitchens reasoned with Rabbi Kushner, using the man’s flippancy to prove his ultimate assertion: “Religion makes morally normal people say and do disgusting and wicked things.  You’ve just proved my point for me.”  The exchange clearly made the moderator and other guests uncomfortable, but that’s their problem, isn’t it?  Well-behaved thinkers seldom make history, do they?

Christopher Hitchens was known for the rejoinders he used to attack his ideological opponents.  These “Hitchslaps,” as they came to be called, are intellectual roundhouses.  Vanity Fair, the home of a great deal of Hitchens’s work, created a video collection of some of the best Hitchslaps.

Christopher Hitchens has been dead for a year, but his ideas will long outlast most of us.  No matter what you may feel about his convictions, you must admit that he was never boring.  In dying, he merely joined the pantheon of thinkers he so respected, including Spinoza, Jefferson, Paine and Orwell.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ ideas like the weapons they are.  Flesh and blood are temporary, but ideas last forever.  Remember that your thoughts are entering a vast marketplace.  Your work must attract an audience in order for you to engage an audience.
  • Consume as many ideas as you can.  Hitchens was a voracious reader; though he wrote no fiction, he had a solid critical grasp of a vast range of work.  He could discuss Euripides as easily as P.G. Wodehouse or David Chase.  His level of erudition is almost unfair; he was able to understand and communicate the thoughts of history’s greatest philosophers, too.

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