PZ Myers on Christopher Hitchens

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This page is about comments made by blogger-biologist PZ Myers on positions advocated by Christopher Hitchens.


PZ Myers said, on 2007-10-14 (links added):

Then it was Hitchens at his most bellicose. He told us what the most serious threat to the West was (and you know this line already): it was Islam. Then he accused the audience of being soft on Islam, of being the kind of vague atheists who refuse to see the threat for what it was, a clash of civilizations, and of being too weak to do what was necessary, which was to spill blood to defeat the enemy. Along the way he told us who his choice for president was right now — Rudy Giuliani — and that Obama was a fool, Clinton was a pandering closet fundamentalist, and that he was less than thrilled about all the support among the FFRF for the Democratic party. We cannot afford to allow the Iranian theocracy to arm itself with nuclear weapons (something I entirely sympathize with), and that the only solution is to go in there with bombs and marines and blow it all up. The way to win the war is to kill so many Moslems that they begin to question whether they can bear the mounting casualties.

It was simplistic us-vs.-them thinking at its worst, and the only solution he had to offer was death and destruction of the enemy.

This was made even more clear in the Q&A. He was asked to consider the possibility that bombing and killing was only going to accomplish an increase in the number of people opposing us. Hitchens accused the questioner of being incredibly stupid (the question was not well-phrased, I'll agree, but it was clear what he meant), and said that it was obvious that every Moslem you kill means there is one less Moslem to fight you... which is only true if you assume that every Moslem already wants to kill Americans and is armed and willing to do so. I think that what is obvious is that most Moslems are primarily interested in living a life of contentment with their families and their work, and that an America committed to slaughter is a tactic that will only convince more of them to join in opposition to us.

Basically, what Hitchens was proposing is genocide. Or, at least, wholesale execution of the population of the Moslem world until they are sufficiently cowed and frightened and depleted that they are unable to resist us in any way, ever again.

This is insane. I entirely agree that we are looking at a clash of civilizations, that there are huge incompatibilities between different parts of the world, and that we face years and years of all kinds of conflict between us, with no easy resolution. However, one can only resolve deep ideological conflicts by the extermination of one side in video games and cartoons. It's not going to work in the real world. We can't simply murder enough Moslems to weaken them into irrelevance, and even if we could, that's not the kind of culture to which I want to belong.

A clash of whole civilizations is a war of ideas. The way we can 'conquer' is on the cultural and economic level: the West should not invade and destroy, but should instead set an example, lead with strength, and be the civilization that every rational citizen of the other side wants to emulate. Yes, there will be wars and skirmishes, because not everyone on either side is rational, but the bloodshed isn't the purpose. Hitchens would make it the raison d'etre of the whole Western effort.

This whole last third of his talk had me concerned about the first part. He had just told us in strong terms about the failures of religion and its detrimental effect on our culture, and now he was explaining to us how the solution in the Middle East was to simply kill everyone who disagreed with you. He didn't relate the two parts of his talk, which was unfortunate. I'd like to know whether he thinks the way atheists ought to end religion in America is to start shooting Baptists, or whether he sees other ways to educate and enlighten... in which case I wonder why he doesn't see any virtue in applying those same methods to Islam. I didn't ask the question since the line for the microphone was long, and I had a depressing feeling that the solution would involve sending the Baptists over to Iraq to kill and be killed.

This is not my freethought movement. The Hitchens solution is not my solution.

Leaving aside the essential wrongness of genocide (which is difficult to defend in simple terms), Hitchens apparently refuses to address the suggestion – for which there is considerable evidence – that killing part of a population is likely to turn more of that population against you, or its mirror (that treating a population well is likely to dissuade them from the necessity of fighting you).

A commenter on the blog raises the secondary point that jihadis don't see death as a threat, so there would be no point at which they "begin to question whether they can bear the mounting casualties." They would fight until the last jihadi was dead.

Hitchens's philosophy, though easily dismissable as ignorant insanity, seems to be embraced by many seemingly well-educated and otherwise-sane people. It is crucial to understand why so many people are convinced by it when it is so clearly wrong.

One clue may be that people who embrace this sort of thinking do not seem to be capable of "putting themselves in the shoes" of another, e.g. a moderate Muslim who had no particular beef with America (or freedom, or democracy) until half his extended family became casualties in the American war-for-freedom. It's not clear that they are willing to consider alternative arguments, however – much like the enemy they build for themselves.


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