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Time for a Soberer Estimation of Hitchens

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Now that the beatification of Christopher Hitchens has climbed down a little bit from the heights it reached over the weekend, there may be room for a slightly soberer estimation. We would like to gently encourage some of that. On evolution, certainly, he was facile and silly. The first coverage of his passing that we heard was last Friday morning, listening to NPR, which played a snippet from an interview he did explaining why women can't be as funny as men.

"For most men, if they can't make women laugh, they are out of the evolutionary contest," Hitchens said. "With women, there's no need to be rendering yourself attractive to men in that way. We already find you attractive, thanks." The comment arose from a Vanity Fair column he wrote on the same theme, citing a Stanford University Medical School study. Which perfectly illustrates Hank Campbell's takedown of evolutionary psychology that we quoted last week: "Most of evolutionary psychology resorts to finding a social construct, interviewing college students, and finding a way to make everything about sex."

The same article in VF -- crude, vulgar and not particularly funny by the way -- mystifyingly adduced the human body, of all things in creation, as a definitive disproof of ID: "The physical structure of the human being is a joke in itself: a flat, crude, unanswerable disproof of any nonsense about 'intelligent design.'"

Daniel Dennett, meanwhile, credits Hitchens with teaching New Atheists the art of being really rude. We're not sure they didn't know this already, but the passage in Dennett's appreciation in the Washington Post is worth noting. Dennett describes a debate involving Hitchens, Dennett, and Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, in which the rabbi touched on the Darwin-Hitler connection, which no honest and informed person can deny. Hitchens didn't wait his turn to speak but boiled up and shouted down Boteach with cries of "Shame! Shame!"

Rabbi Boteach is no shy or shrinking type of personality himself, but it sounds like he stumbled and backed down a bit. Dennett reflects: "What Christopher showed me -- and I keep it in mind now wherever I speak -- is that there is a time for politeness and there is a time when you are obliged to be rude, as rude as you have to be to stop such pollution of young minds in its tracks with a quick, unignorable shock."

Dennett goes on to draw the lesson:

How should one respond to such impostures? There are actually two effective methods, and I recommend both of them, depending on the circumstances: you can follow Hitch and interrupt ("Liar, liar, pants on fire!" or its equivalent). Or you can try something a little bit more diplomatic: You can call the person a faith fibber, my mock-diplomatic term for those who are liars for God. If you are sure your interlocutor is just another religious bully, go Hitch's route: Call him a liar, and don't stop until he stops.
There's a lesson here for all of us, different from Dennett's: We should be courteous but should never, ever backpedal on a defensible point based on fanatical denunciations by these intellectual terrorists. That was Rabbi Boteach's mistake. Having made the connection of Darwin to Hitler, he should have stuck to his guns and told Hitchens to sit down, wait his turn, and stop with the brown-shirt debating tactics.

Observe, too, that neither of Dennett's proposed strategies has anything to do with making sound, valid arguments or defending the truth.

We stand by Jay Richards's and David Berlinski's generous obituaries, published here last week, but take note. A friend points out to us the shockingly mean obituary that Hitchens wrote for Jerry Falwell. In contrast to the sendoff Hitchens has received from friends and foes alike, there was no extending a gracious farewell to a fallen opponent there.