Political Animal


November 04, 2012 12:23 PM The worst idea I’ve heard before breakfast …

By Kathleen Geier

… And certainly among the very worst of its kind since Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided to rename DC’s National Airport after Ronald Reagan. A campaign is underway to put up a bust of the notorious misogynist, Iraq War blowhard, and, as George Galloway so memorably described him, “drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay” Christopher Hitchens in London’s Red Lion Square. (H/T: Erik Loomis).

This is on a par with the awesome decision of Houston’s city fathers to rename the Astros’ home stadium as Enron Fields. Fortunately, Labour Party city officials are strongly resisting the move. It’s good to know the Labour Party is good for something, at least! And I’ve got to hand it to them, the Brits do know their way around the velvet-gloved insult. Here’s council representative Julian Fulbrook, responding to an argument in favor of the Hitchens statue:

I also rather doubt that, in the long and possibly cruel march of history, any sort of case could be made out for Christopher Hitchens, even sporting his Third Class Honours degree from Oxford, as in your words, “one of the world’s greatest minds.”

Harsh bong! — especially with that withering reference to “Third Class Honours.”

Various atheist groups are petitioning the city to erect the statue, which I’m adding to the list of reasons why I don’t have a whole lot of respect for organized atheism. Here’s another reason why I find the so-called “skeptics”/atheist “community” to be problematic.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • c u n d gulag on November 04, 2012 1:05 PM:

    I'm all for it - the pigeons of London have gotten tired of poop-bombing Admiral Nelson's statues all over London-town.

    On a serious note, why not build a statue of a real intellectual heavyweight first, like Bertrand Russell? Now THERE was a great thinker, and a great man!

    And then they can work their way down to Hitch. Maybe they can get to him sometime in the 22nd Century - if anyone even remembers who he was by then.

    I had a love-hate thing with him.
    When he was good, he was GREAT!
    When he was bad, he was HORRENDOUS!
    And towards the end, he was much more the latter than the former.

    Sorry, Hitch, but you ain't worth it.

  • Mitt's Magic Underpants on November 04, 2012 1:08 PM:

    Of everything going on in the world, you need to take cheap shots at Freethinkers. Bravo.

  • AndThenThere'sThat on November 04, 2012 1:10 PM:

    Two days before an election with monumental ramifications, and PA posting says, "Britain debates appropriateness of dead brit statue, discuss amongst yourselves." This is the most pressing topic of discussion right now? Really? I'm glad Benen is working today.

  • weirdnoise on November 04, 2012 1:15 PM:

    I've no problem at all with "Freethinkers," except those who are in fact captive to bigotry and sexism. This, unfortunately, seems to be all too common among "organized" atheists.

  • Jay C on November 04, 2012 1:23 PM:

    Not that I think Christopher Hitchens is/was worth memorializing publicly, but if here were, a dull ugly image being urinated on by dogs and defecated on by birds would certainly be appropriate....

  • skiddie2 on November 04, 2012 1:30 PM:

    On a serious note, why not build a statue of a real intellectual heavyweight first, like Bertrand Russell? Now THERE was a great thinker, and a great man!

    Seriously? Did you even google your brilliant idea first? The FIRST result for me is... the Wikipedia article about Red Lion Square, where there is (wait for it)... ... no, I'll let you guess.

  • c u n d gulag on November 04, 2012 1:42 PM:

    Yes, I did.
    But a bust, does NOT a statue make...

  • Comrade Carter on November 04, 2012 1:45 PM:

    I'm an atheist, and in fact I'm an "organized" atheist.

    I'm also against the "honor", (or the "honour") to Mr. Hitchens, long may he rest.

    But, at least, I know now why you would oppose me and mine... The reasons would be clear if you had mentioned them.

  • Keith M Ellis on November 04, 2012 1:52 PM:

    As an atheist for the last thirty years (my adult life), I've long found the intolerance and sexism and such among other atheists, especially the most outspoken, to be troubling but mostly unsurprising.

    Because, frankly, the most difficult continued revelation about the world as it is, and people as they are, is that the good guys are never as good as you want them to be. The freethinkers and the progressives and whoever all have their own vices and hypocrisies.

    That said, it's more shocking to me how much sexism and misogyny I see among liberals and progressives than I see among atheists because, honestly, there's few groups more universally vilified in American society than atheists.

    Among various potentially unfavorable characteristics for a hypothetical Presidential candidate, atheism is more disliked than homosexuality, more disliked than any other thing polled. Atheists encounter bigotry both great and small on a regular basis. And oppressed groups internalize oppression and also usually redirect their resulting anger into oppressing other groups. It's just about the saddest social phenomenon there is. Atheists are angry in the US. But can you really blame them? (Note that in much of Europe, to be an atheist is not the least remarkable.)

    Hitchens, though, was a hateful putz.

    I'm not sure what I think about the skeptic community. I was a member of CSI back in the day, James Randi was a hero to me. This was my twenties. I sort of drifted away from all that — not because my beliefs changed, either my worldview or my frustration with superstition, but because a part of the impetus was a youthful know-it-all-ism and contempt for others that really isn't a part of my deeper character. People are ignorant and foolish and superstitious and a whole bunch of bad things arise from it. But it's more human nature than something that could be eliminated entirely (not to say that it can't or shouldn't be fought!). You do what you can. But I found that the appeal of lecturing people and being continually frustrated with their foolishness lost its appeal.

    Some of the skeptic community are people like I was, youthful and full of vim. Some of the others are just ornery, contrary, and unlikeable by nature and this is good niche for them. That doesn't make them wrong — they're mostly right about stuff — but it does often make them jerks, and often unself-aware jerks. And they're no less prone to the bigotries of American society than anyone else, though you'd sort of hope that they were. But they're not.

  • Bo on November 04, 2012 1:57 PM:

    Boy, I sure hope that Sully doesn't pay a visit to Political Animal today! Your vitriolic outburst concerning his friend and fellow countryman, Hitchens, will not be well-taken and you are likely to find yourself flamed over on The Dish.
    All that being said, I agree with your assessment of Hitchens -- even though he redeemed himself in some small way by turning his arrogant hatred toward GDumbya in his final years.

  • CurtMInIn on November 04, 2012 2:05 PM:

    Another cheap shot at atheists. Yawn. Yes those atheists are so tiresome aren't they? I just hate the way they are speaking out for themselves and criticizing the rest of society. They should just pipe down and accept the fact that they are the worlds favorite target for revulsion.

  • The Rest of the World on November 04, 2012 2:26 PM:

    Yes, that was uncalled-for and offensive, wasn't it?

  • aimai on November 04, 2012 2:30 PM:

    It should be obvious that "atheist" is not equal to "skeptic" and that neither of those words can be understood without quite a bit of social context. Hitchens was certainly an atheist, in a technical sense--he was also a militant atheist in its modern, political sense and probably considered himself a "skeptic" which is, again, a very specific term of art which has come to mean a narrow, generally quite misogynistic, upper class white male sport which has as many tribal issues, passions, and emotional attachments as any of the cults and phonies they presume to target. And I say that as a lifelong atheist. So I get where Kathy G. is coming from here. To pretend that the modern, western, American/english "skeptic" movement isn't well represented by Hitchens precisely because he was a major league asshole, misogynist, prattling self promoter and jingoist is absurd. The only reason why a small sliver of oh the humanity thinks that Hitchens is a hero is because he was a vocal asshole, not because of his contributions to life, literature, the arts or anything else.


  • John on November 04, 2012 2:38 PM:

    c u n d galag - you mean like this bust of Bertrand Russell in, er, Red Lion Square?

  • Robert Waldmann on November 04, 2012 2:55 PM:

    Organized atheism should be a contradiction in terms. I am an atheist and have no idea how we could organize around the lack of something.

    Atheists have nothing in common -- obviously.

    I wouldn't want to belong to any club which has Ayn Rand and Pol Pot and me as members.

  • Anonymous on November 04, 2012 2:56 PM:

    Lots of militant atheists/"the skeptic community" like to talk about how marginalized atheists are in American society, but as far as I can tell this mostly comes down to "things people tell pollsters that they think," rather than "actual negative consequences that atheists suffer in the real world."

  • c u n d gulag on November 04, 2012 2:58 PM:

    As I said earlier, a bust, does NOT a statue make.

    I know his head and brain were what made him, but where's the rest of the man?

    And what's Hitch's memorial going to look like?
    A giant mouth, and a diseased liver with Psoriasis?

    Look, I'm an Atheist, and a guy who sometimes loved Hitch - especially EARLY Hitch, but he ain't no Bertrand Russell!

  • Shane Taylor on November 04, 2012 4:01 PM:

    He may be persona non grata to many American liberals, but John Gray had a compelling take on evangelical atheism. In short, Gray said the "new atheism" is a revival of that old-time Positivism. A teaser:

    The notion that religion is a primitive version of science was popularised in the late 19th century in JG Frazer's survey of the myths of primitive peoples, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. For Frazer, religion and magical thinking were closely linked. Rooted in fear and ignorance, they were vestiges of human infancy that would disappear with the advance of knowledge. Dennett's atheism is not much more than a revamped version of Frazer's positivism. The positivists believed that with the development of transport and communication - in their day, canals and the telegraph - irrational thinking would wither way, along with the religions of the past. Despite the history of the past century, Dennett believes much the same. In an interview that appears on the website of the Edge Foundation (edge.org) under the title "The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion", he predicts that "in about 25 years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe that it does today". He is confident that this will come about, he tells us, mainly because of "the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television)". The philosopher has evidently not reflected on the ubiquity of mobile phones among the Taliban, or the emergence of a virtual al-Qaida on the web.


  • nemisten on November 04, 2012 4:23 PM:

    While I agree with your sentiments regarding misogyny and sexism, it's neither productive nor accurate to lump these onto organized atheism. Yes, there are assholes within that community, just as there are within any organized group: Firefighters, engineers, Interior decorators, etc. This isn't a reflection of the organization -- but of individual assholes.

    The biggest and worst misogynistic and sexist organizations are organized religions. And yes, there are individuals within those organizations who don't subscribe to those traits. Still, to suggest that organized atheism has anywhere close to the level of misogyny and sexism of most organized religions is ludicrous.

  • T-Rex on November 04, 2012 4:26 PM:

    Hitchens was just as dogmatic in his way as the most orthodox Mullah or evangelical pastor. Like a true believer, he wouldn't give up his orthodoxies even when the facts had painfully disproven them -- case in point, his absolute refusal, right to the end, to admit that he'd been wrong about the wisdom of invading Iraq. It doesn't matter whether you direct your zeal to or against religion, any commitment that prevents you from admitting that you're wrong is terribly dangerous.

  • T-Rex on November 04, 2012 4:30 PM:

    Then again, however, I note from Wikipedia that Red Lion Square is currently home to the National College of Anesthesiologists. There's something strangely appropriate about honoring Hitch in that venue.

  • Rieux on November 04, 2012 6:01 PM:


    Lots of militant atheists/"the skeptic community" like to talk about how marginalized atheists are in American society, but as far as I can tell this mostly comes down to "things people tell pollsters that they think," rather than "actual negative consequences that atheists suffer in the real world."

    It's notable how nicely ignorance abets bigotry.

    Apparently you know nothing about the longstanding and widespread practice, documented by Eugene Volokh, of denying atheist parents custody of their children in open court, on the explicit grounds that they're non-religious. Guess those aren't "actual negative consequences," right? Well, anyway, they're consequences visited on people whom you're not really obligated to concede are "actual" full human beings.

    There's also little stuff like being disowned by families, hounded out of communities, and slimed by allegedly progressive politicians. (Ask Congressman Peter Palumbo whom he called an "evil little thing.") But once again, if one starts from the presumption that atheists are scum worth scraping off of one's shoe, who really cares? Why, indeed, should anyone be concerned that seven states' constitutions still deny atheists the right to hold public office--or, in some cases, serve on juries or testify in court? Hatred like that written in black-letter law doesn't do a thing to communicate the worthlessness of alleged human beings, right?

    It's especially precious when atheists get slimed by commenters and weekend fill-in bloggers alike on supposedly liberal blogs. One might note--but clearly one need not note it if one is Kathleen Geier or our Anonymous--that the burgeoning atheist demographic in this country is vastly more reliable supporters for any progressive social position one can name than any major religious group in the country--but once again, why bother? The point that needs to be made on threads like this one is that atheists are sub-human garbage, and as a result hatred directed at them is perfectly acceptable and does nothing to call into question the hater's liberal bona fides. No need to learn anything at all about any of the issues raised by relationships between hegemonic majorities and the minorities they ignorantly despise--just declare that atheists suck and wander away. It's what those people deserve.

  • g on November 04, 2012 6:15 PM:

    This is on a par with the awesome decision of Houstonís city fathers to rename the Astrosí home stadium as Enron Fields.

    Um, no. Enron Field was called such because it was a paid naming opportunity. Houston didn't do so in order to honor Enron, it was done because Enron paid for it. Just like ballparks are named for Comcast or Staples or other corporations.

    One assumes, from the story, that the Hitchens statue is being proposed by people and institutions that want to honor his memory. You or I might find that misguided and inappropriate, but even so, it is not the equivalent of a bought-and-paid-for corporate naming opportunity.

  • buddy66 on November 04, 2012 6:28 PM:

    If you think atheist organizations sport a lot of narcissistic assholes you ought to attend one of our Solipsist conventions. Talk about self-centered!

    About Hitchens ... well, a guy who took on God, Henry Kissinger, and Mother Teresa couldn't have been all bad.

  • TCinLA on November 04, 2012 6:36 PM:

    They could always put an empty bottle of booze in a bucket of cement - that's where most of Hitchens' "ideas" came from.

    Why is it always that lefty morons are worse than righties? Hitchen's is the poster boy for "otherwise -unemployable uncreative typist."

  • Hue and Cry on November 04, 2012 6:49 PM:

    Hitchens was almost relentlessly presenting himself as totally inebriated, bitter and ruined, and I guess I couldn't believe that someone wouldn't get in control of drinking to present well in debate. And just drink later, or three days from then?
    But there was something about him, for better or worse-- and I felt badly when he ironically could not speak again.
    But he was so boozed up and combative, which took from any cogent ideas.

  • Matt on November 04, 2012 7:38 PM:

    Speaking strictly for myself, an atheist--and pointedly refusing to speak for other atheists--it seems to me that Ms. Geier opposes the erection of a statue to honor Hitchens because Hitchens was a nasty, cheap, opportunistic little warmonger who sullied the Left by association even though, in retrospect, his Trotskyite days were just his shopping around for the right brand of marketable extremism.

    I didn't see the word atheist in what she wrote until she got around to mentioning who was agitating for this statue. In other words, mirabile dictu, her problem with Hitchens wasn't his atheism, but his Hitchensism.

    I don't rush to defend Rush Limbaugh just because he's my fellow white male. I don't think people who attack Mitt Romney on this website need to back the fuck off just because I, too, once lived in Massachusetts. Why are atheists on a progressive website taking this as an attack on their atheism? Where is it written (except, of course, in holy books) that Geier has to think well of movement atheism?

    Hitchens was a professional splutterer, but few things made him more spluttery than the observation (heresy! anathema! foul satanic lie!) that he was basically taking all his cues from other religious frauds, and that his smug disciples were every bit as deluded by his schtick as the people with the 700 Club donation number on speed-dial. To react as badly as some in this thread are to criticism of the Blessed Hitchens for his transgressions other than perverting atheism is basically to prove the point of anyone who ever called Hitchens a cynical God-fraud.

  • Jose Hipants on November 04, 2012 8:19 PM:

    Way to go Kathleen, nice job pointing the haters at a dead guy. Hitchens was sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but always a brilliant and funny wordsmith. His very public support for Salman Rushdie should be enough to justify some respect from Progressives and anyone who values intellectual freedom.

  • Col Bat Guano on November 04, 2012 8:47 PM:

    So, Kathleen, you won't mind if I lump you in with the Westboro Baptist Church will you? As long as were going for guilt by association after all. Can't we get better subs here on the weekend?

  • suitworld on November 04, 2012 10:02 PM:

    I liked Hitchens as an atheist, otherwise not so much. An articulate spokesperson for atheism is, for me, valuable enough to make his shortcomings somewhat less important. I don't feel the same way about say, Ayn Rand, whose capitalist triumphialism as a negative far outweighed her atheism.

  • Rieux on November 04, 2012 11:28 PM:

    Why are atheists on a progressive website taking this as an attack on their atheism?
    Oh, I don't know--how about because Geier said it was?
    Various atheist groups are petitioning the city to erect the statue, which I'm adding to the list of reasons why I don't have a whole lot of respect for organized atheism. Here's another reason why I find the so-called "skeptics"/atheist "community" to be problematic.

    It's so nice to be part of a despised minority (we are a community, so thanks for that scare-quote snot, Kathleen) that is considered fair game for generalized antipathy, even in liberal circles... and then for willfully blind defenses from the likes of you.

    Pray tell, what other minority community has to put up with alleged liberals declaring that they "find [said] 'community' to be problematic"? In what universe is that not a bigoted attack? And exactly what is your excuse, Matt, for having missed it?

    Atheists identified as America's most distrusted minority, according to new U of M study

    [University of Minnesota sociologist Penny] Edgell also argues that today's atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past--they offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society. "It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common 'core' of values that make them trustworthy--and in America, that 'core' has historically been religious," says Edgell. Many of the study's respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.

    Edgell believes a fear of moral decline and resulting social disorder is behind the findings. "Americans believe they share more than rules and procedures with their fellow citizens--they share an understanding of right and wrong," she said. "Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good."

  • Keith M Ellis on November 05, 2012 12:33 AM:

    For those who are arguing that any criticism of atheists is entirely irrelevant, I'd agree with you in the context of Hitchens, mostly, because while his atheism was outspoken and a lot of his hateful was tied up in it, he was, after all, one person with idiosyncratic ideas and it's not at all fair to tar all atheists with Hitchens's hatefulness.

    But I think the truer context for Geier's criticism is the many recent and notable controversies in the atheist/skeptic community about sexism and misogyny. That's far more convincingly institutional and arguably subcultural, and these communities deserve to be harshly criticized for this. I say this, again, as an atheist and skeptic (former member of CSI, as I mentioned) and as a feminist.

    Contrary to a few commenters above, I do think that American atheists share many things in common, in general. Atheism is very unusual in the US, it's marginalized and particular to a relatively narrow subculture. It's a particular demographic and it's very male and white. It doesn't surprise me in the least to learn of rampant sexism in these communities.

  • Rieux on November 05, 2012 1:31 AM:

    But I think the truer context for Geier's criticism is the many recent and notable controversies in the atheist/skeptic community about sexism and misogyny.

    Controversies (and bigotries) that the leaders of nearly every prominent organization within the community are fighting against tooth and nail--no thanks to the corporate-guilt backstabbing we get on threads like this one.

    The atheist community does indeed have problems with misogyny. So does the liberal community, and the American community. Using that as a pretext for garden-variety minority-community-bashing is disgusting, no matter how pious the attempt is.

  • Matt on November 05, 2012 11:34 AM:

    Pray tell, what other minority community has to put up with alleged liberals declaring that they "find [said] 'community' to be problematic"? In what universe is that not a bigoted attack? And exactly what is your excuse, Matt, for having missed it?

    I also find the community of Republicans to be problematic. Am I a bigot for that, too? Or is the ideology that you crusade for the only one about which it is possible to be bigoted?

    I notice that having problem with the Hitchensite/"new Atheism" movement now gets you downgraded to "alleged liberal." Okay then. I guess my excuse is that I'm a dumb bigot with pretensions to liberalism. (And don't forget self-hating.)

  • Roger Ailes on November 05, 2012 12:42 PM:

    Perhaps a smoking billboard instead.

  • Chet Manly on November 05, 2012 5:09 PM:

    I also find the community of Republicans to be problematic. Am I a bigot for that, too?

    No, but you are a damn fool if you don't see that there's a world of difference between hating on a person's political affiliation and hating on their religious views.

  • James Hulsey on November 05, 2012 5:35 PM:

    It's completely unfair for Ms. Geier to tar the entire skeptic/atheist community with Ms. Watson's Slate column. Ms. Geier obviously only read the column, and didn't do any more research to determine what the overall response of the community has been.

    And in general it has been supportive of Ms. Watson and other feminist skeptics. What has happened is that there have been a few loud bullies (mostly hiding in Internet anonymity) that have been doing most of what Ms. Watson talked about. Most of the skeptic/atheist conferences have been receptive to the Sexual Harassment guidelines proposed by Ms. Watson and other female skeptics, it's really only been TAM that's been strangely unsupportive.

    Ms. Watson's web site (skepchick.org) has published essays from many prominent male skeptics/atheists, decrying the abuse that Ms. Watson writes about. Unfortunately, the Slate article did not mention that.

    The start of this whole controversy is called "Elevator-gate", and you can find plenty more about it, including both the pro- and anti-Watson sides, with some judicious searching.

    Perhaps Ms. Geier should have interviewed someone before spouting her mouth off about it.

    And BTW, I was never a fan of Hitchens. He fulfilled the stereotype of the "arrogant atheist" that the media loves.