From Abracadabra to Zombies
god, i miss Hitchens
22 March 2012. While reading a piece on the religiosity of Rick Santorum in the Washington Post by Stephanie McCrummen and Jerry Markon it hit me just how much I miss Christopher Hitchens. The gap left by Hitchens in intelligent, witty, skeptical observation of the human condition that is America during Republican primary season remains and is not likely to be filled any time soon. There are plenty of intelligent, witty pundits around, but none with the verbal skills Hitchens had mastered, and none who continually reminds us of the value of skepticism. McCrummen and Markon mention Mother Teresa in their article, whose name is forever linked in my memory with Hitchens thanks to his book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. (That such an unsaintly person as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu should be honored as an ascetic friend of the poor almost makes me believe in a providential being hell-bent on deceiving us about everything there is.) They bring up Teresa because, like some of Santorum's chums, she reportedly followed a daily two-hour ritual of wearing a spiked metal chain on the thighs. This self-abuse allegedly reminds the wearer of the suffering of the one they consider their savior, a Jewish fellow whose name need not be mentioned. Santorum is not a flagellant, as far as we know, but he pals around with members of Opus Dei, a group which I will let others describe or deride. Though I will wonder aloud here why these folks aren't as passionately moved by the abuse of children by priests or torture approved of by our political leaders. They are inordinately concerned with contraception, homosexuality, and abortion. Nothing is as important to them as issues of sex and reproduction. It is as if the moral landscape has disappeared before their eyes, except for a few items.
What does this have to do with skepticism? Two things. One, Santorum is an absolutist and a dogmatist. He is absolutely certain that the Roman Catholic Church was established by a godman, the one he considers his savior. Two, Santorum's road-to-Damascus moment defines not only his character but his passion. These two factors, and facts, make him the most dangerous kind of politician there is: the one who would make you in his image if he had the power. His image does not include free inquiry and doubt. You and I are not welcome in his world unless we convert to his views.
What great emotional experience transformed Santorum from a lukewarm Catholic to one defined in great part by his passionate anti-abortionist stance? He has his in-laws, the Garvers, to thank for his cathartic moment:
Then came a dinner at the home of [Karen] Garver’s parents, and a discussion about abortion, and then, recalled her mother, Betty Lee Garver, “we had them watch a tape that we had, called ‘Meet the Abortion Providers.’ ”
In the video, people introduced as doctors and nurses who formerly performed abortions graphically described the procedures, their words accompanied by photographs of what appeared to be dismembered fetuses in trash cans.
“They just sat there crying,” Betty Lee Garver said in a brief interview at her Pittsburgh home. “And they became instantly pro-life. . . . With this and when they started to have children, they started to think more about their faith. I think through the years maybe they watched us,” she said, referring to herself and her husband. “And we are devout Catholics, not cafeteria Catholics.”
How would Hitchens deconstruct this story? I don't know, but I wish he were here to do it. I also wish Santorum would watch some movies of priests raping children, CIA operatives torturing prisoners, and American soldiers raping and murdering women and children in Afghanistan or Iraq. Would he be moved to tears? Would his life be transformed by the experience? It's pointless to wonder because it's not going to happen.
Santorum's anti-abortion film story is a reminder of how appealing to the amygdalae rather than the prefrontal cortex is more likely to change minds and affect behavior. I remember one of my own road-to-Damascus experiences. It changed me forever. I was watching an episode of Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man. The camera slowly zoomed in on him crouched over in a muddy field, scooping up some muck in his hand. He was outside of one of the concentration camps where the Nazis had exterminated many Jews, homosexuals, and a few Catholics, I suppose. The Nazis burned the bodies and dumped the remaining ashes into the surrounding fields. I could look up Bronowski's exact words, but they don't matter. The words in my memory are what matter and what I remember is something like this:This is what happens when men aspire to the knowledge of gods; this is what happens when men claim absolute knowledge. The certainty of a Rick Santorum that some god has a plan for him and that his church is favored by some god and that his beliefs are absolutely true is the kind of certainty that, when combined with ignorance and intolerance, will mean ruin for us as it has for so many others.
p.s. For those who are looking for some thin thread on which to hang while defending Santorum, Catholicism, Christianity, or Mother Teresa: I am not implying that Santorum would round up skeptics, atheists, non-Catholics, and people who don't agree that every abortion is immoral and should be illegal. Even if he were elected president of the United States, he would not have to power to do that, not that he would want to if he could. But his absolutism and faith in his certitude are not qualities we should desire in a president. We went through eight years recently where we were led by a president who ruled through his gut and heart, maybe because there wasn't anything in his head. That fellow got us into two wars and created an open door policy on wiretapping his own citizens. Remembering this, I'm thinking that maybe I don't miss Hitchens as much as I thought I did, certainly not as much as I miss Bronowski.