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May 24, 2004


Backword Dave

According to my Shorter OED, 'prestige' and 'prestigious' derive from the Latin 'praestigium', "an illusion, a conjuring trick". 'Presdigitator' derives from Italian 'presto' + Latin 'digitus' "finger." So, while prestitgious in the C16 mean "practicing legerdemain" that use is now rare; and the two words aren't related, beyond both meaning "smoke and mirrors" "conjuring" and so on. Prestige may be a front, but just because Shakespeare called reputation "a bubble" doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.
From one pedant to another, close but no cigar, as Bill Clinton said to Monica Lewinsky.


I wish Hitchens would stop going on about Moore and tell us about Chalabi. Last I heard from Hitchens on the subject he was preparing the ground to say 'yes he was terrible and probably an Iranian spy but that shows his critics were wrong to paint him an American stooge'. Oh and of course 'which proves that George W Bush was right'. But you never know with Hitchens, he may surprise us yet with an even more ingenious defence which blames the left.

WJ Phillips

There's no-one more skilled in casuistry than a Trot with a taste for luxury and a talent for betrayal.

Backword Dave

Hitchens, quoted in the same piece: "The Vietnamese were a very civilized foe and if they had had weapons of mass destruction, for example, wouldn‘t have used them..." I don't know how he can be so certain about the latter. I also didn't realise that the conflict in Vietnam was quite so gentlemanly. "The liberal reluctance I find is the unwillingness to admit how entirely hateful and unnegotiable with our enemy is and how necessary it is to defeat them not just in Iraq, but everywhere else." I think the anti-communist, pro-Vietnam war side saw things the same way.
He's also asked, "Christopher, let me ask you - talk - let‘s talk about what‘s happening, actually, though, in the war and how I believe - and tell me if I‘m wrong - that our troops seem to be winning the war on the ground in some areas." Hitchens could have replied to this that the war on the ground was won almost 12 months ago. For some reason, he didn't.
If I had any doubts about seeing 'Fahrenheit 9/11', they've now been removed. Thanks, Oliver.

Andrew Ian Dodge

Hitchens does do a wonder line in vicious fisking. There is no one more deserving target for his ire than that blowhard Moore.

WJ Phillips

The only constant in Hitchens's career is his obsessive hatred of "superstition" (religion). He liked the Vietcong because they were commies with maybe just a bit of animism. He hates Henry Kissinger because he worked for a Christian president (and prayed with him, per Woodstein). He trashes Mother Theresa as a suckup to dictators. He puts the boot in Diana, Princess of Wales because she was revered by silly women. He excoriates the Clintons not because they were liars and libertines but because they were pious with it.

It was hard for Hitchens to choose between Islamic fundamentalists and the Christian apocalyptics behind Bush. But neocons aren't big on religion, and Muslims take God more seriously than Southern Baptists; hence a president who represents most of the things Hitchens has made a living scribbling against for 30 years gets the nod as long as he secularises Iraq.

Many Bush supporters would be surprised at the grounds for Hitchens's newly revitalised admiration of the USA:

"Secularism, agnosticism and atheism are as American as cherry pie. Indeed, this is the first and only country to adopt a Constitution that specifically excludes all reference to a higher power. (I say "specifically" because those meeting in Philadelphia did consider, and did decisively reject, any such reference.)" (Washington Post, April 25, 2004, page BW09)

Actually the exclusion was intended to show impartiality between the different Christian sects to which most Founding Fathers belonged. Some were deists, none were atheists, but in Hitchens's imagination the USA is gloriously and offically godless. Michael Moore's Catholicism alone would put him beyond the pale-- never mind that he's communicated a radical message to far more Americans than the leftist Hitchens of yore in his boutique magazines, and got a lot richer into the bargain, without cosying up to Washington insiders like the Limey cheerleader.

Backword Dave

I'm pleased to announce the proverbial and clichéd "clear blue water" between myself and WJ Phillips. I agreed with his first comment; but I disagree with everything in the one immediately above.
I share Hitchens' 'obsessive hatred of "superstition" (religion).' There are far better reasons to hate Kissinger than 'because he worked for a Christian president (and prayed with him, per Woodstein).' Nixon the Christian? What about his infamous racist outbursts? (I'm sure I have a link for these, but I'm unable to find it.) I don't accept the "worked for", and neither would the notoriously immodest Dr Kissinger. Mother Theresa was a "suckup to dictators." There was more wrong with Diana, Princess of Wales than being "revered by silly women" (though that argument has been repeated by others, including our generous host, so it's churlish, and, indeed, as Comrade Hitchens would infer, undoubtedly in longer words, and more convoluted sub-clauses than these temporary and amateurish efforts, indecent to criticise it). If Hitchens did attack Clinton for that reason (and I don't buy it), it's called hypocrisy, and it's a cross waiting for pious or moralising politicians.
Mr Phillips does realise something about the 'left.' I hate (not a word I like) both "Islamic fundamentalists and the Christian apocalyptics behind Bush" (the 'behind Bush' part isn't all that important, except that they are - I'd hate them anyway: it's scary that anyone with any authority takes them seriously). If Bush secularised anywhere (preferably a: Israel; and b: the mid-West) I'd be a fan for life. (But then my ideal, Platonic primus inter pares would be Richard Dawkins.)
I don't accept this distinction between deism and atheism. Shelley was, as I understand, sent down from Oxford as a provocative atheist and, technically, a deist. It's not in Hichens' imagination that "the USA is gloriously and offically godless." It's in the Constitution. There are no words which gainsay this. The only way Mr Phillips can know better than myself of Mr Hitchens is to have read Thomas Jefferson's mind or be in some kind of contact with his departed soul. If the US had been as overtly biased against Catholicism as Mr Phillips claims, it would have had a hard time integrating the Poles, Spaniards, French, Mexican and doubtless other hordes of "poor and huddled masses" whom I've forgotten. (I accept, of course, that JFK was the only Catholic president. There have been no women, and no non-whites. Colin Powell, my preferred candidate, acceded to his wife - who feared, not without precedent, assassination. There is much which I admire about America, but not this particular record.) If the anti-Catholic claim holds water, then so must an anti-semitic one. (Because Jews also interpret God differently from Protestants.) That's not an avenue I'd claim as defensible.
I said I disagreed with everything Mr Phillips said above. After a little thought, I don't. I second his final sentence, and that coupled with his comment on Stephen Pollard's sum up my feelings about Hitchens' stance on Moore.


'It's not in Hichens' imagination that "the USA is gloriously and offically godless." '

The US constitution did not prevent many individual states, such as Massachussets, having there own established churches for decades after the country's foundation. It is only in more recent times that politicised judges 'discovered' that a enforced seperation of church and state is in there.

WJ Phillips

Dave: It will be interesting to see if Hitchens's drift towards full-blown neoconnerie causes him to lay off poor old Henry K. Officially, I believe, Hitchens still wants Kissinger in the dock at a war crimes tribunal in re Cambodia.

I don't understand why you think Nixon could not be a Christian because of "infamous racist outbursts". Christianity is a profession of faith, not conformity to fashions in verbal seemliness.

Again, you may fail to spot "clear blue water" between deism and atheism; but Shelley was sent down for "The Necessity of Atheism" (not "Deism") whereas Thomas Jefferson never declared flatly that there was no God. His Deity was a creator who had recused himself from his handiwork. Jefferson was in the van of those who have tried to purge Christianity of its supernatural and mythical elements.

"I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did."
(Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823)

The Constitution merely disclaims the power of the USA to establish a church (unlike some founder-colonies, as Ross says). It is godless in the sense that God passes unmentioned, but there is no declaration for or against His existence. Subsequently God has sneaked into the Pledge and on the coinage.

I didn't say that the obstat on an established religion was aimed at Catholicism; it was a via media between the varieties of post-Reformation Christianity (Episcopalian, Baptist, Quaker, Swedenborgian, Unitarian etc) which most Founders espoused.

I said that Michael Moore's being a Catholic would be a black mark in Hitchens's eyes. But in any event, the USA which absorbed the waves of Roman Catholic immigrants after the War Between the States is not the loosely federated USA over which George Washington presided. The constitutional republic was destroyed by Tyrant Lincoln and replaced by a statist warfare/welfare killing machine whose operations, alas, we still behold.

Backword Dave

WJ, well you're right about Nixon of course. I'm not a Christian, so I shouldn't try to project how I think Christians ought to act. I don't think anyone can live up to the ideals of Jesus, but I think Nixon fell further short of them than most.
I'd forgotten that it Shelley's pamphlet was called "The Necessity of Atheism." I'm pretty certain that Shelley was more of a Deist, but I doubt I'll find time to revisit the longer poems. I think Shelley is the reason that Salman Rushdie was so surprised by the fatwa. He didn't expect that anyone would ever take religion that seriously these days. We had our blasphemers in the early C19, and they won.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the rational C18, but I don't get "those who have tried to purge Christianity of its supernatural and mythical elements" I can't see what would be left that could be called Christian, apart from some instructions to be nice.
I'll have to read some old Hichens very carefully to see if he really does have a thing about Catholics. I read and liked his Mother Theresa thing, but I share his prejudices there.
And now I have to bone up on the Civil War, which I know next to nothing about. I shouldn't get into these discussions. The reading list just keeps getting longer.


'conformity to fashions in verbal seemliness.' Have I read this properly? Is that all racism is: a non-conformity to a fashion in verbal seemliness?

Backword Dave

No Morgan, you're not wrong, racism is a great more than 'non-conformity, etc.' However, I was wrong to imply that because Nixon was a racist (which he was, it's on tape), he couldn't also be a Christian. Lots of people have held believes I find abhorrent and have claimed to be Christians. Not being one myself, I'm in no position to judge them on that. I'm sure many people who profitted from the slave trade were regular church-goers. My history here is wobbly, but there's evidence of collusion between the Vatican and the Nazis in covering up the Holocaust during WWII. Whatever I think of that (and I do think that was unChristian, and immoral by any standards), it's not for me to say the Pope isn't a Catholic.
WJ argued that Hitchens went after Nixon, specifically because Nixon was Christian (and Ford and Carter weren't?); I said that he was right to go after Nixon, but for totally different reasons. In this case, my bad. I think WJ is wrong (about Hitchens' motivation here, and lots of other things), but the answer I gave was inadequate.

WJ Phillips

Morgan: It's all Nixon's "racism" was, which is the subject under discussion.

Dave: Yes, it's a great shame that everybody in every century doesn't conform to your current ideas of what's nice and nasty. It makes history so hard to fathom, doesn't it?

Guess what: within a century fashionable opinion will be sighing and shaking its head over what our age thought were eternal and obvious moral standards. And it will sound just as blinkered and smug as you do.

Well, I must not be cruel. You want to learn more about the past. That's a good start, but be warned: the more you learn, the less you'll credit the pasteurised third-hand version designed to reconcile the ruled to their rulers.

Backword Dave

WJ, I'm happy to accept that moral standards are not fixed and eternal. I said that I considered the both slave trade and the Holocaust immoral and contrary to Christian teachings as I understand them. I'll add to that, I consider them immoral and contrary to not only my reading of the Bible from school, but to the moral philosophy of Kant who was certainly before the Holocaust and before and the end of the slave trade, so I'm prepared to call anyone who supported either a hypocrite by the morals of their own time, not just ours. If that is blinkered and smug, I am happy to be so.

WJ Phillips

I didn't realise that Kant was universally accepted as a lawgiver during his own lifetime, or indeed subsequently. Which comparable oracle should we all set our moral compass by today? In any case, as an agnostic why should Christian teachings be your yardstick, or that of the many deists who flourished in Europe in Kant's day? The "enlightened" French revolutionaries refused to outlaw slavery.

No, Dave, your nursery simplicities will never allow you to understand our ancestors-- only feel superior to them.

Backword Dave

WJ, I think you've misunderstood the very limited nature of my recantation earlier.
You said, and I agree, that being a foul-mouthed racist perjurer was no barrier to Nixon also being a Christian. My subsequent comments have been intended to support this admission by pointing to other examples of people who have considered themselves Christian and have acted in a manner I consider incompatible -- hypocritical, even -- with that credo.
I'm not claiming that Kant has ever been a universal law-giver, only that Christian moral codes have been written down for two millenia, and that C18 interpretation of them seems little different to modern moral beliefs with regard to slavery.
By the lights of Christian morality, I consider the slave trade to be immoral, and therefore there to have a rift between professed belief and action.
As I'm far too simple to believe that I can understand my contemporaries, I have no hopes of doing so for our ancestors.
I'm happy to argue with you again at Adam Yoshida, but I think that we've strayed too far off-topic to continue this discussion here. I won't be checking this thread for your reply, so save your sneers for the next time.

WJ Phillips

Dave: "By the lights of Christian morality, I consider the slave trade to be immoral, and therefore there to have a rift between professed belief and action."

But most Christians have never perceived such a rift. You cannot be a hypocrite if you don't think you're doing evil. St Paul, often called the first Christian, wrote: "Slaves, obey your masters." The conviction that slavery is intrinsically wrong was not widespread in England until the early 19th century.

Slavery is a coverall term for a wide variety of institutions, found in all sorts of societies, which may or may not have outlived their usefulness in contemporary conditions. As late as 1860, Abraham Lincoln was disclaiming any intention to get rid of slavery. Emancipation was an unintended outcome of war, "under military necessity".

Arraigning the past for failing to uphold current ideas of the Good is worse than arrogant, it's futile. Even marxists are wiser than that.


Bush cannot secularize Israel, as it is far more secular than he is.


Hitchens makes a personal attack on an individual for being fat? Well, well, well... He should look in mirror sometimes, because he's getting there too. How sadly shallow of Hitchens.

Francois Brutsch

Back to Moore, here is what Jean-Luc Godard said (from Un swissroll):

"Il prend Bush pour plus bête qu'il n'est. Et comme lui n'est que d'une intelligence moyenne..."

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