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Hitchens Is Not Great

I realize I'm a bit tardy with this comment, but the pace of the blogosphere remains intimidating for those of us still marveling over the immediacy of e-mail. A post last week on Christopher Hitchens by Robert Imbelli provoked a lively exchange about the value of what Imbelli called Hitchens's "devilish knack for pricking the pieties of both left and right."Devilish is right. Imbelli regretted Hitchens's notorious demolition job on Mother Teresa, but was more forgiving of his denunciations of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In assessing the reliability of Hitchens's judgments, I thought dotCommonweal readers might be interested in the scurrilous things Hitchens has written about Evelyn Waugh. I've read quite a bit of Waugh, and was dubious about the claims Hitchens makes in God Is Not Great that Waugh supported "fascist movements in Spain and Croatia, and Mussolini's foul invasion of Abyssinia, because they enjoyed the support of the Vatican." With his characteristic hyperbole, Hitchens asserts that "these deformities in one of my most beloved authors arose not in spite of his faith, but because of it."Waugh was a bigot and a reactionary, but did that necessarily mean he was a fascist fellow traveler? According to Douglas Lane Patey, one of his better biographers, the idea that Waugh was sympathetic to fascism because he was a Catholic--or sympathetic to fascism at all--is a canard. That Waugh was a mouthpiece advancing the foreign policy of the Vatican is equally fatuous. Patey notes in his The Life of Evelyn Waugh that Italy was Britain's ally against Germany until 1936. Waugh's enthusiasm for the 1935 Italian attempt to "civilize" Abyssinia at gunpoint deserves condemnation, but as Patey demonstrates, Waugh's principal concern was not in following orders from the Vatican but "to persuade British readers not to sacrifice an ally against both Nazism and Communism merely over the war in Africa."Waugh was a thinker as contrarian as Hitchens pretends to be, but a good deal more knowing about the actual pieties of both the Left and Right. Asked in 1937 which side he supported in the Spanish Civil War, Waugh wrote, "As an Englishman I am not in the predicament of choosing between two evils. I am not a fascist nor shall I become one unless it were the only alternative to Marxism. It is mischievous to suggest that such a choice is imminent" (Patey, p. 146).Whether you regard him as mischievous or devilish, Christopher Hitchens is quite often wrong.

About the Author

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.



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I realize Im a bit tardy with this comment, but the pace of the blogosphere remains intimidating for those of us still marveling over the immediacy of e-mail.Don't apologize! As if it's embarrassing to be thinking about something that happened last week . . . I think that one of the most intellectually poisonous aspects of blogging (and much of the news media more generally) is the incessant and shallow focus on what's happening now.

Commonwweal has given some special attention to Christopher Hitchens with the fine article of Eugene McCarraher and this recent comment by Robert Imbelli. I found his own video interview with Sally Quinn in The Washington Post website "On religion" to be quite insightful in appreciating his own formation and thinking. I will admit to being charmed by his literary style even as I find his perspectives, history, and "certainties" sometimes at variance with the realities that I expereience. Nonetheless, that icy wit and British accent are very appealing. Any chance for some dialogue with one of the bloggers or editors in a sustained conversation that I wouldn't call a debate, but rather an "exchange"?

Since no one knows the father like the son, I would like to recommend a book I just finished reading recently, "Fathers and Sons: the autobiography of a family" by Alexander Waugh New York: Nan A Talese 2007. For Alexander the greatest influence on Evelyn's life was that he was heartily disliked by his own father, who adored Evelyn's older brother, a far less successful writer than Evelyn became. Alexander was the oldest son, and Evelyn repeated the same pattern, even as he realized he was doing it. Evelyn raised his children in the Catholic Church with all of the rigidity of the mother in Brideshead Revisited, it seemed to me. When other children of their class received elaborate birthday gifts, Evelyn's children received holy pictures and prayer books. The children went to Catholic boarding schools. Alexander disliked his school mightily, but Evelyn refused to allow him to quit, even though he agreed with Alexander that some of the masters were probably insane.I know this does not contribute to a sustained conversation about Evelyn Waugh, but it is a good book, and I highly recommend it for its British wit which matches that of the author's father.

Hitchens has appeal for two basic reasons as I see it. First he is a welcome relief from evangelicals and silly people like Robertson. Secondly, many, even religious people, agree with some of his criticisms about leaders in religion even in the RCC. From the parish up to the Vatican, as Greeley would say. And with his wit he adds a cadence to his show. And it is a show. Next he will do an hbo special comedy hour.I have interacted with many atheists. They even have their own magazine. I noticed in the exchange with them that many wish there was a personal God. Clearly it is their experience with bad models that have repelled them. Like the people at a mission that Bernard Haring gave. He noticed how most people kept saying in confession that it was "14" years since their last confession. This concurred with the term of a arrogant pastor who was just transferred from the parish.Hitchens is riding this for all its worth. It is clear who his God is.

The comments by Paul Bauman and Carolyn Colburn about Evelyn Waugh were extremely interesting to me; Waugh's books Scoop and Decline and Fall still (after at least five readings each) still make me laugh hysterically.It is difficult for me to believe, given his finely-honed comic discernment, that he would endorse fascism. His proviso that he would do so only if it were the only alternative to Communism was never a real-world scenario.

Alexander does talk about his father's political opinions, but there is never any suggestion that Evelyn could be a fascist. I forgot to say that at the end of the book Alexander writes a letter to his own son, whose name I cannot spell. The boy is still a baby or toddler. Alexander talks to him about what it will mean in Great Britain to have the surname Waugh. The letter is witty and tender, as is his look at his family that starts with his great grandfather, the first Waugh to attract attention as an eccentric.

Just to set the record straight: Alexander is Evelyn's grandson, not his son. I had taken the book back to the library, so I couldn't check it. He is describing is father and Evelyn, not himself.

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