Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hitchens on Politics

Andrew Sullivan has been posting a lot of good stuff from Hitchens. One particularly interesting post is this exchange between Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, in what was apparently his last interview:

"RD I've always been very suspicious of the left-right dimension in politics.

CH Yes; it's broken down with me.

RD It's astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.

CH I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian - on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy - the one that's absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do

I am, predictably, 100% with Hitchens on that one.

Another good quote is provided by Mario Rizzo. This is from a talk he gave at Cato, which is interesting (I'll have to read the whole thing at some point) because I've never heard of it and you don't usually hear it mentioned as being among Hitchens's engagements, but every libertarian in the blogosphere seems to be aware of it:

"The old slogan of the anarchist left used to be that the problem is not those who have the will to command. They will always be there, and we feel we understand where the authoritarians come from. The problem is the will to obey. The problem is the people who want to be pushed around, the people who want to be taken care of, the people who want to be a part of it all, the people who want to be working for a big protective brother."

I think one of the biggest blindspots of modern libertarians is that they hear something like this and they think that what Hitchens refers to as "the will to obey" is the same thing as "the will to self-govern". It's not at all, in fact it's exactly the opposite. This servility that Hitchens criticizes (this was in reference to some nanny state elements of Bloomberg's New York) is inimical to self-governance. But you have to remember that Hitchens was a democrat. He was in Orwell's tradition. He was a humanist. That - I think - is the real heart of the classical liberal tradition, so of course there's going to be some affinity with libertarianism which is one branch that grew out of the classical liberal tree. But it's important to remember what Hitchens stood for - for humanity, against authority. The first clause is as important as the second.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Your first paragraph was fine, but not the rest of this.

    I don't understand why you insist on being like this Gary. You have your own blog, after all. Please go away. I'm going to be off studying for a while, and I don't want to have to worry about what kind of things you're posting.

  3. Ah, that word again!

    "Self-governance" is being repeated again today. I was talking to some folks about how the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists in Egypt, along with all their offshoots - with 75% control of Parliament altogether - are going to impose ban on alcohol and segregation of men and women in the workplace.

    When I told people how terrible it is that urban educated progressive Egyptian women are going to live in a medieval lifestyle, people told me it is okay. IT IS SELF-GOVERNANCE!

    Because the masses of rural Egyptian voters are going to force women out of jobs, it is the best thing that can happen to an Egyptian woman, because Egypt is a democracy, and thus Egyptian women "self-governed" their way into oppressing themselves.

    It's a highly metaphysical term with no basis in real, physical, tangible reality.

    Democracy and self-governance were used as justifications for mass murder of Tutsis. Hutus started Hutu Power movements because they felt that "true democracy" would come in Rwanda once the majority - the Hutus - had the power to assert themselves. Especially in mass murder of minorities.

    Democracy sucks and is a crappy system. It led to millions of dead Tutsis. It is going to lead to oppression of Egyptian woman. Don't be a democrat, Daniel. The conclusions of this ideology are dark and nasty.

  4. Daniel,

    Being like what? Truthful? The guy was a warmongering, keyboard warrior addicted to his own self-delusions of grandeur. It is what I said about him many times (including here) before he was dead, it is what I say about him now. The only possible reason you could be offended is due to my pugnaciousness; which seems strange given the Hitchbot's application of the same attribute.

    Back during the height of the Iraq war when the Hitchbot was at full tilt re: his ardor for war a friend of mine who actually fought in Iraq said this to me (here I paraphrase): "I hope Hitchens dies of ass cancer." Well, he sort of got his wish fulfilled.

    Have a nice life.

  5. "It's a highly metaphysical term with no basis in real, physical, tangible reality... Democracy and self-governance were used as justifications for mass murder of Tutsis."

    The same is true of "liberty" or "freedom" or "equality." Look at what the French did in the name of "fraternity." It is not difficult to look at at an institutional system or a political regime and say "this is *not* what *legitimate* democracy is." Just because mass murderers hijack a value-laden term in order to institute an oppressive regime does not undermine the value or the ideal. If people tell you "it is okay. IT IS SELF-GOVERNANCE!" you have the very easy, very obvious reply: "no, this is NOT SELF-GOVERNANCE. Naive majoritarianism does NOT equate to self-governance."

  6. Hume -
    I agree in spirit with these points, but have to note something here. The mass murder of the Tutsis could potentially be described as "democracy". It was rule by a majority of the people. These are democracy's excesses.

    This is why it's so important to say that we as classical liberals embrace multiple values, that these multiple values are in tension, that each value has its own excesses associated with it, that we think all are essential elements to a civilized society, and that the exact recipe for mixing them is not one that we have - but that there are lots of potentially good ways of mixing them. Other values of course include liberty and equality. I think when you ensure you respect democracy, liberty, and equality - all of them - you usually come out with pretty decent results. But any one on their own can come out in a massacre (and even together things can go wrong).

  7. Those are very nuanced conclusions, Daniel.

    I think you added an interesting qualifier. Not only are democracy, liberty, and equality values that can reach dangerous conclusions when taken in isolation, they can have bad results when taken altogether as well. Even a mixture of democracy, liberty, and equality could lead us down a bad road.

    The desire to bring those three things to Middle Eastern countries did result in the Iraq War. People of vice can use those values to (rightly) justify terrible things and people of virtue can use those values to (also rightly) justify necessary things. No value is ever absolute.

  8. While I'm somewhat comfortable with accepting value pluralism, I disagree completely with equating democracy with simple 'majority rule' or with minimalism (i.e., formalist conception of representation (see Schumpeter)). I also disagree that democracy can be meaningful without a defense of the voting system involved. One must provide an account of why, e.g., single member plurality voting is morally valuable and contributes to the underlying values of collective self government and political equality. In my view, it doesnt. 'Democratic' representative governance does not ground political obligation in the absence of proportional representation, a specific division of labor (both horizontally (specific account of political equality) and vertically (specific account of 'representation')). The best account of these concerns that comes immediately to mind is found in Thomas Christiano's The Rule of the Many. Dworkin also provides an interesting argument against simple majoritarianism in Freedom's Law (The Moral Reading and the Majoritarian Premise).

    In the absence of these institutional mechanisms and values, to say that the majority rules is NOT to say there is a democratic system of collective self government. In the absence of collective self government, "democracy" has no value at all and is simply oppressive government of some over others.


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