Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away in the Penny Press!

I confess, I was curious to know what kind of response Vanity Fair readers would make to that bad-tempered little snipery by Christopher Hitchens that I mentioned here, the piece in which he takes shots at Gore Vidal for ever daring to disagree with him. I was worried that Vidal himself would respond and perhaps embarrass himself. That appears not to have happened (I find it impossible to believe VF would refrain from telling us all about it), but the magazine did see fit to print one letter objecting to the whole thing. It’s from Ben Farrington, and it reads:
I cannot allow Christopher Hitchens’s latest piece in V.F. to pass without comment. This was an extraordinarily nasty and cowardly attack on an elderly man, Gore Vidal, who, judging from recent appearances, may not be in a position to defend himself.

I have been a great fan of Mr. Hitchens’s writing and have been entertained by his numerous outings and pithy quotes, but this sort of ad hominem attack is poor form.

To which Hitchens replies from high atop his high horse:
I don’t write articles in order that they ‘pass without comment.’ But Gore Vidal is much more gravely insulted by his defender Ben Farrington than he was by my words. I attacked Gore Vidal for what he had said and written (as far back as 2001), and praised him for many things he had written earlier. I made no reference at all to his mental or physical condition. That unhappy job has been taken on by Mr. Farrington, who convicts only himself of the charge he falsely levels. Even at his lowest, Vidal merits a more dignified defense than that.

The disparity between the tone of the letter (“I’ve been a fan, but this is poor form”) with the tone of the response (“gravely insulted”) is the first tip-off to the kind of dirty pool Hitchens is playing here: that Vidal is in mental decline is so heavily implied in Hitchens’ original piece that his “I’m shocked, shocked to hear someone say it” pose in his response here can only be the most disingenuous kind of carnival-barking. And it’s made that much worse, that much more cowardly, by the fact that Farrington’s letter wasn’t the only one VF received defending Vidal – it was just the easiest one for Hitchens to tee up and swat onto the fairway.

Which is extra frustrating this time around, since this issue of Vanity Fair also features a new piece by Hitchens that’s actually playful, immensely readable, and even instructive (on the debit side, it’s only 140 characters long, as the Tweeterization of great American magazines continues apace). It’s called “The New Commandments,” and the bulk of it is Hitchens taking a snide but smart tour of the Ten Commandments and their attendant cloud of Scriptural addendums and clarifications. True, he’s willfully obtuse on some points (especially “Thou Shalt Not Kill”), but overall the piece is amusing (hence my reluctance to pass over it without comment!).

By far the biggest laugh in the piece comes when Hitchens actually writes “I am trying my best not to view things through a smug later prism” when the article is 100 percent entirely based on doing exactly that. And by far the most interesting part is when Hitchens indulges himself in creating the “new commandments” of the title. The tone sometimes veers way too close to the nauseating Upper West Side pan-validation so endemic to moral discourse today (“Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child” … “Be aware that you too are an animal and dependent on the web of nature …” etc.), but it’s always fun to see what other people’s Ten would look like, and some of these – “Denounce all jihadists and crusaders for what they are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions” – remind us (and these days we desperately need the reminder) that Hitchens is, in fact, one of the foremost humanists of our time. Say what you want about the man (and I’ve said plenty), he’s not only actively thinking his way through life, he abhors mindlessness in all its forms. We need to hear from that Hitchens as often as possible.

One puzzling note: at one point Hitchens writes “It’s difficult to take oneself with sufficient seriousness to begin any sentence with the words ‘Thou shalt not.’” As long-time readers of Stevereads will know, I have no difficulty taking myself seriously enough to mimic the Almighty! This naturally got me thinking about my own Ten, done up ala Vanity Fair (not to be confused with my ongoing list of Steve’s Pet Peeves, which is currently at 117 and healthily growing! The latest was added just yesterday: When people fifty yards in front of you stop and hold a door open for you, then get irritated when you don’t effing run in response). Let’s give it a whirl, shall we?

1. Thou Shalt Not Be Pretentious
2. Thou Shalt Not Be Lazy
3. Thou Shalt Not Postpone Necessary Work
4. Thou Shalt Not Smoke
5. Thou Shalt Not Eat Meat
6. Thou Shalt Not Summarize Last Night’s “Lost”
7. Thou Shalt Not Talk to Children as though They were Sugarplum Fairies
8. Thou Shalt Not Ignore Thy Dogs
9. Thou Shalt Not Talk on Thy Phone in Public
10. Thou Shalt Not Say “Going Forward” or use “Impact” as a Verb

See? That wasn’t so hard! Believe me, the ‘Thou Shalt Not’s get easier as you go along! Perhaps Hitchens should give it a try. He could start with “Thou Shalt Not Take Cheap Shots” and go from there.

[caption id="attachment_813" align="aligncenter" width="202" caption="gratuitous shot of rancid tobacco addict Kellan Lutz, from this issue"][/caption]

1 comment:

PatD said...

I will never forget the roles played by significant media re: the promotion of America's invasion of Iraq. Hitchens is very high on that list. His subsequent and lengthy articles on one family's fallen son and waterboarding were the epitome of shameless backtracking and transparent guilt-tripping. A real man, and/or journalist, would've written at length about getting it so wrong, when the truth was all around him.

You give him way too much credit, especially in the "humanity" department, Steve.