Round three: The battling Hitchens brothers - Macleans.ca

Round three: The battling Hitchens brothers

Christopher and Peter both have new memoirs. While Peter wrestles with his absent sibling throughout, Christopher essentially ignores his brother.

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Christopher Cox/ Telegraph Media/ David Levene/ Guardian

About half a century ago Eric Hitchens, former Royal Navy commander and harried father, drafted a peace treaty for his two battling sons. It must have been quite the war, since Christopher was not yet 12 and Peter only nine. But sign it they did, and it hung proudly on a wall in the family home for a while, until a furious Peter ripped it from its red frame, erased his signature and recommenced hostilities that have lasted into the 21st century. The brothers Hitchens have never been what family therapists would call close, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t alike. Christopher, 61, a superstar public intellectual, especially in his adopted United States, and Peter, 58, both grew up to become journalists, authors and passionate defenders of their causes. Since a common youthful embrace of Trotskyism, those causes have diverged mightily. Today, the chasm between world views is virtually bottomless, given Peter’s new book, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith, and the way Christopher, one of the world’s most prominent atheists, can’t resist a litany of swipes against religion in his new memoir, Hitch 22, even when discussing something else entirely.

To read their books, it was ever thus. There wasn’t much overtly religious to rebel against in the Hitchens household. The paternal grandfather’s ferocious brand of Baptist faith (his favourite books were about the lives of Christian missionaries in Africa) never took root in his naval son, while mother Yvonne was a secular—and secret—Jew, something her sons didn’t learn until after her suicide in 1973. That left only the Anglican rituals of the boarding schools the boys attended, and while Christopher—more indifferent than antagonistic as a child—was happy enough to sing in choir, it was 15-year-old Peter who set fire to his Bible on his school’s playing field. It was the logical conclusion of Peter’s personal ’60s rebellion against all authority, the start of what he now melancholically calls “several important and irrecoverable years.”

It’s not a story to be found in Hitch 22: Christopher’s parents have a chapter each in the memoir, but his sole sibling gets by with fewer than a dozen, mostly brief, references. A few positive flicks, at Peter’s will of iron and steadiness under fire—Hitchens family traits to be proud of—are followed by Christopher’s self-described “wistful” admission that his morally courageous brother is, well, obtuse on key matters, “almost tragically right wing.” In an interview, Peter says he feels “slightly patronized,” before adding wryly, “but so’s everyone else [in Hitch 22]. I think Christopher made an effort to be fair and pleasant to me.” The sibling notes are summed up and thoroughly skewered in John Crace’s Guardian parody of the memoir: “Of my pathetic brother Peter, whom I adore, I say only this. I admire the persistence with which he maintains his ignorance.”

The situation is inevitably reversed in The Rage Against God, a book on which Christopher’s shadow falls on almost every page. Much as he strives, not always successfully, to keep the personal out of his argument, Peter openly acknowledges that, “I was asked to write it because of Christopher, and I took the opportunity because of that ghastly debate. I want to make up for the fact that I didn’t give a good account of myself there.” That debate, the memory of which Peter finds so disturbing, took place two years ago in Grand Rapids, Mich., at first glance an odd locale. But the city is home to the world’s largest Bible publisher, a half-dozen Christian colleges and Mars Hill, a mega-church that had to buy a shopping mall to hold its 10,000-strong Sunday congregation.

But Grand Rapids is no fundamentalist bastion. The debate itself took place in the liberal Fountain Street Church, which over the decades has hosted speakers ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Malcolm X and Michael Moore. One sanctuary wall has stained-glass depictions of Biblical figures; the opposite wall features the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Abraham Lincoln and, in a telltale sign, Charles Darwin. Far from being a lion’s den for atheist Christopher, it was Peter who felt the chill. “I hadn’t realized what a star Christopher had become in America. There were 1,200 people there and I quickly realized they all wished I was dead.” Even Peter’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq didn’t cut him any slack among an overwhelmingly anti-war crowd. “My brother’s fans,” he dryly recalls, “forgave him his pro-war lapses but were not inclined to credit me for being against the war.”

That may, or may not, be the way Christopher remembers Grand Rapids. He doesn’t mention it in Hitch 22, and declined—via his publicist, who cited the demands on Hitchens’s time occasioned by the launch of his memoir—to comment on Peter’s account or on his book. But videotapes of the encounter do show audience members—often prefacing their remarks by expressions of admiration for Christopher—offering him their anti-war views with noticeably more deference and respect than they expressed their anti-organized religion thoughts to Peter. (Then again, high regard may not be their only motive. In debate, Christopher Hitchens is one rough beast, and few are willing to poke him with sticks. Another reason for Peter’s bad memories of the event, he says, was “I had gloves on—speaking for a religion, you know, of love and peace—and Christopher didn’t. His debating techniques and attacks are virulent. In fact, he’s actually becoming more Nietzschean in his reaction to Christianity’s meek and mild side.”)

The two books thus exist in parallel universes, with Christopher essentially ignoring his brother, while Peter wrestles with his absent sibling throughout. In addressing atheist arguments, as expressed by Christopher, two matters in particular come under attacks as vigorous as any his brother ever mounted. There is Christopher’s tendency to see the evil done in religion’s name as inherent in the nature of faith, while the same evils (or worse) done by avowedly atheistic regimes arise only when those states take on a quasi-religious character. And Peter finds his brother far too sympathetic to the illiberal and repellent idea that the religious instruction of the young amounts to child abuse.

Christopher, though, has good reasons not to particularly dwell on his place among the so-called New Atheists. However fiercely expressed, non-belief is the norm in his world—he approvingly quotes his friend Salman Rushdie’s witticism to the effect that the title of Hitchens’s atheist polemic God is Not Great is exactly one word too long (i.e. “great”). Atheism is not why Hitchens is considered a heretic among people whose opinions he values (or once did). His warmongering (as seen from the left) thus receives a more vigorous defence. And while the two brothers are each naturally the central figure in their books—since Rage Against God, which details Peter’s return to faith, is also a kind of memoir—Christopher, with his abiding need to be right, is the absolute hero of his.

To call Christopher Hitchens arrogant is as pointless as calling the ocean wet. His only defence, echoed by his fans, is that Hitchens has a lot to be arrogant about. His constant attempts throughout the memoir to apply a gloss of modesty to the many times he mentions seeing through the undeservedly eminent or impressing the truly worthy (“I must have been insufferable . . . ,” “I am absurdly proud to have . . . ,” and so on), either charm or irritate, depending on which side of the Hitchens divide a reader belongs. (“The only feeling I have,” runs Crace’s parody, “is of being right, and that has been with me all my life.”) But whether fan or critic, a reader can hardly avoid laughing by the time Hitchens has come to declare he is not comparing himself to William Butler Yeats in his ability to inspire young men to self-sacrifice.

But there is surely another reason for not piling on Peter, the same one that lies behind Peter’s restraint. After decades of rancour as much personal as political, fatherhood and the sheer passing of time have recently brought them to fraternal reconciliation. At Christopher’s Washington home a few days before the great debate, they were more than civil in recalling their common boyhood. “Christopher even cooked supper,” Peter writes, a domestic action that stunned him. Neither brother is liable to hope that a little family feeling might change profound beliefs on either side, nor is Christopher on record as being equally taken aback by some change in Peter. Still, as Peter lightly concludes his memory of the day, “If Christopher is going to take up roasting legs of lamb at this stage in his life, what else might be possible?”