Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Life and Death and Then What?

Christopher Hitchens died last Friday. He was 62. Though it’s too early to say with surety, it seems he died as he lived - convinced that as the title of his last book declared: “God is Not Great,” and further convinced there was no such thing as God. Many of us wondered whether he would have a change of mind and/or heart after being diagnosed with terminal cancer of the esophagus but, so far, there are no reports that he did.

Unlikely as it would seem, Hitchens interested me as he did other conservatives. Unlikely because he was an apologist for communism, an admirer of Leon Trotsky who, with Lenin and Stalin, led the Russian Revolution, and he was a bitter critic of Mother Teresa. He was a darling of the left because he was an intelligent, articulate, atheist socialist.

He was a champion for the principles of leftist orthodoxy until he came out in support of President Clinton’s impeachment in the late 1990s. The left was in shock. Then he wrote a book about the Clintons called “No One Left to Lie to: the Values of the Worst Family.” That was heresy for a “progressive.” Next came the September 11th attack on the United States which, among other things, made him decide to become a US citizen. Following that, he exposed the left’s myopia in its refusal to condemn radical Islam in spite of its treatment of women, homosexuals, its denial of free speech, freedom of religion, and its willingness to use violence wherever and whenever to impose sharia on everyone. The final straw occurred when in 2003, he supported the US invasion of Iraq.

Hitchens pursued truth as he perceived it. He had heart and he had integrity. That’s more than I can say about most of the people I encounter on life’s journey. We perceived the world differently but I trusted the man in some intuitive way. He seemed to put the search for truth above himself, and I’ve discovered that I can relate only to people who do that. I’ve come to believe that Truth has a capital T but Hitchens denied that to his death.In his last essay for Vanity Fair Hitchens wrote:

Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span. However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that "Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger."
He was referring to the debilitating effects of chemotherapy on his body.

That last quote is, ironically, attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche - author of the famous phrase “God is Dead” that has become the mantra of 20th century secular nihilism and championed by Hitchens during his lifetime. Nietzsche, however, predicted that the post-Christian 20th century would cause a decline in civility, indeed of western civilization itself, because Christianity has been responsible for the rise of those cherished western values including individual freedom and equality. As frequent Hitchens’s debate opponent Dinesh D’Sousa put it: “Unfortunately for the critics of Christianity, even values they care about will, according to Nietzsche, eventually collapse.” Nietzsche, Hitchens and millions of others like them believed the universe, our world, and those of us in it just happened by chance, and our existence doesn’t mean anything. That’s the essence of nihilism, which has which has become the ruling ethic - if you can call it that - of our age. Ironically, Christopher Hitchens had a brother, Peter Hitchens, also a writer, who is both a Christian and a political conservative. Evidently they were never close, even in childhood, but they were civil to each other most of the time. Often they debated God publicly and politely. After his brother’s death, Peter Hitchens wrote:

While I was making my gradual, hesitant way back to the altar-rail, my brother Christopher's passion against God grew more virulent and confident. As he has become more certain about the non-existence of God, I have become more convinced we cannot know such a thing in the way we know anything else, and so must choose whether to believe or not. I think it better by far to believe.

So it seems Peter Hitchens’ belief in Christianity is informed more by Pascal’s Wager than by intrinsic faith. During one of his debates with brother Christopher he said: “I think both the atheist and the Christian fear there is a God, but the Christian also hopes there is one.”
Christopher Hitchens believed fervently that his body would turn to dust and that would be it - lights out. I wonder what he’s thinking now.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Cultural Clues

As American culture gets more strange, people’s ideas about what is attractive get more and more strange too. A couple of hours at the Maine Mall last week depressed me as I looked around at people and mannequins. Sloppy is popular. People go to great pains to look unkempt. They put enormous time, money, and effort into trying to appear as though they don’t care how they look. It’s oxymoronic. Jeans and hats look worn out, but they’re for sale. Trendy stores sell clothing that would be rejected at the Salvation Army or Goodwill thrift stores, but they’re expensive at the GAP.

Mannequins I saw there appeared unfinished. It was as if clerks started to put clothing on them but got called away before they had time to button the shirt or tie the laces. The jeans had patches in them - crudely sewn at that. It’s fashionable to look like you don’t care how you look, but yet it’s obvious that the mall rats who dressed just like the mannequins cared very much about trying to look that way. They were posing just as the mannequins were too. The mall rats moved around, but might otherwise be mistaken for the headless plastic models.

Hairstyles followed similar themes. Men, if one could call them that, stood around with affected carelessness. It seemed their intention was to look like they didn’t have time to comb their hair after getting out of bed. They had put some kind of stuff in it to make parts stand out perpendicular to their scalp, while other parts stuck out at different angles. Many kept their pants down below their butts as well. I’d hoped that trend would have died out by now, but no. On it goes.

Dye-jobs, tattoos and metal stuck in faces abounded. I wrote about this in a column called “Skin Graffiti” last year. It annoyed the pierced and tattooed around the world for months as one can read in the comments that followed. If you’re seeing this in a newspaper, they can be found here: . I described people who stretched out their ear lobes by painfully inserting ever-larger discs into them. Others stretched out their lower lips in the same way and I wondered what they were going to do when such things went out of fashion as they inevitably will. They’ll likely search for a plastic surgeon to fix them. There are specialists who repair cleft upper lips on newborn children so I guess they could repair stretched-out lower lips on crazy people just as well.

Speaking of which, there have been some bizarre stories of botched plastic surgeries in the news lately. A woman in Miami impersonated a plastic surgeon and was arrested after she had injected “fix-a-flat” substance into the face of another woman. You know that substance you can buy in a pressure can for $5.00 at the auto parts store that will plug the hole in a flat tire and inflate it as well? That’s the stuff. The “patient” ended up with bubbles in her cheeks. The “doctor” had also injected fix-a-flat mixed with cement into her own butt, presumably to make herself look attractive. How did she look? Just as if she’d injected tire inflator into her butt, that’s how. She must have thought “buns of cement” would be a less strenuous alternative to “buns of steel.” The arrest photo showed her dressed in stretch pants and a stretchy pullover - items she’s going to have to stock up on in her wardrobe from now on.

A young man in New Jersey had silicone injected into his penis by a woman in New Jersey who was also pretending to be a doctor. He later died of a blood clot and the woman was arrested for manslaughter. It’s hard to believe someone would be dumb enough to seek out that kind of service. Thinking about it though, it’s a relatively short step from getting pierced or getting dye injected for tattoos. I’ve heard that many have had these things done to intimate parts of their bodies. To a narcissist, silicone breast implants to silicone penis injections would seem a short step too.

All this makes me think I’m fortunate to have been born before the 1960s. Though I lived through them and their aftermath, I can still remember what it was like before that awful decade, and can hold out hope that someday we’ll overcome the insanity it catalyzed.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Cracks In The Veneer

Civilization is but a thin veneer over the seething mass of humanity.

That outlook on the human condition is attributed to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and shared by others, myself included. A more recent example would be William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” that novel baby boomers had to read in school. It resonates with me still and more so lately. For the unfamiliar I’ll summarize the plot: A plane crashed near a remote island. On board were early-adolescent British boys and some teachers, but only the boys survived. They had to stay alive on the island without adult supervision, and how well or badly they did that is the main theme of the book. Mostly, they devolved. Their innate savagery emerged and became stronger than the civilizational constraints with which they had been imbued.

Golding obviously believed humans to be innately prone to savagery, able to overcome it only by the constraints of civilization which they receive through western tradition, and which is maintained by the supervision of elders within that civilization.

An opposite view of humanity held by many in the west would be that of the “noble savage,” the idea that humans in their natural state are given to peaceful coexistence. Such adherents would write a different kind of novel - one in which the boys shared and cooperated on the island rather than fighting and killing one another. Anarchists within the “Occupy Wall Street” or OWS movement would hold such a view - that without the constraints of government to control them, the default mode of humanity would be one of sharing and mutual cooperation. It was interesting to observe their naive attempts at uber-democracy such as their cult-like chanting repetition of a speaker’s remarks, and their refusal to move in any direction unless there were a
group consensus supporting it.

During the short life of OWS, the notion that we’re all inherently good and nice when not influenced by capitalist greed was not being borne out. Fights, assaults, rapes, thefts, drug overdoses, and vandalism abounded in virtually every camp across the country. In nearby Portland’s relatively peaceful “Occupy Maine” camp, three were arrested when one beat on his drum to wake up the rest of the campers in Lincoln Park, only to be choked by another and hit with a hammer by still another who wanted to sleep in. The western mainstream media heralded the “Arab Spring” as a renaissance of secular democracy against oppressive military dictatorships across Muslim North Africa. I wrote weeks ago how Van Jones, President Obama’s disgraced “Green Jobs Czar,” declared OWS to be an “American Autumn” in the spirit of the Arab Spring, as if it were comprised of smiling happy people holding hands in blissful anarchy, but none of that is panning out either. Egypt’s recent elections have given over control of the country to radical Islamists who will impose Sharia on everyone. It won’t be long before Egyptians start pining for the relatively blissful days of Mubarak’s military control. A year or two should suffice. Ask the Afghans. Ask the Iranians. I wouldn’t want to be a Christian, a woman, or a homosexual in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood takes over.

The British government is preparing for riots when the Euro collapses - and they’re not even in the Eurozone. Greeks are rioting already - and they’re not in default yet. What will happen when they are? Western democracy is a wonderful thing, the highest attainment of western civilization, but it’s not sufficient by itself. If democracy were imposed on the island described by Golding in his novel, who would win power? It wouldn’t be the civilized Ralph.

Jack, leader of the savage group, would prevail and then what? There wouldn’t be any more elections, that’s for sure. Hitler, remember, attained power in a democratic Germany. The majority in any democracy can elect a government that President Reagan described as like a baby: “an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other,” a government that will tax, borrow, spend and print money until everyone is destitute. That is what’s happening in Europe and in the United States. When those governments collapse it won’t be pretty. What will it be like? Look at Somalia. Look at Afghanistan before we invaded. That’s what it will turn back into when we leave too. Authority will be in the hands of whomever controls the most men with automatic weapons riding in the back of pickup trucks. That thin veneer of civilization is showing cracks in Europe as hard times approach, and we’re likely see more in 2012. What scares me is that we’re on the same path Europe is, just a bit further back. If we don’t change direction soon, look out.