Monday, December 19, 2011

Katha Pollitt and Christopher Hitchens' Writing on Women

Katha's review of Christopher Hitchens' work, when it came to his writing on the topic of women* is excellent:
So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan. It all came off the top of his head, or the depths of his id. Women aren’t funny. Women shouldn’t need to/want to/get to have a job. The Dixie Chicks were “fucking fat slags” (not “sluts,” as he misremembered later). And then of course there was his 1989 column in which he attacked legal abortion and his cartoon version of feminism as “possessive individualism.” I don’t suppose I ever really forgave Christopher for that.
It wasn’t just the position itself, it was his lordly condescending assumption that he could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in 1,000 words that probably took him twenty minutes to write. “Anyone who has ever seen a sonogram or has spent even an hour with a textbook on embryology knows” that pro-life women are on to something when they recoil at the idea of the “disposable fetus.” Hmmmm… that must be why most OB-GYNs are pro-choice and why most women who have abortions are mothers. Those doctors just need to spend an hour with a medical textbook; those mothers must never have seen a sonogram. Interestingly, although he promised to address the counterarguments made by the many women who wrote in to the magazine, including those on the staff, he never did. For a man with a reputation for courage, it certainly failed him then. (Years later, when he took up the question of abortion again in Vanity Fair, he said basically the exact same things, using the same straw-women arguments. Time taught him nothing, because he didn’t want to learn.)

I doubt that it was a lack of courage that explains why Hitchens never addressed those counterarguments. He just didn't think women mattered that much as intellectuals.

During the last week I have read many accolades to Christopher Hitchens, of his elegant writing, of his courage and his genius, of how he picked his enemies and how he used his formidable debating talents in attacking them. And all through this I can nod my head and accept that he was a brilliant man, a man of even flawed genius, someone who filled a useful role in the public debates about politics and religion and war.

And yet however hard I try, I cannot get over the fact that he was not writing to me, I cannot get to the point where I could feel comfortable and relaxed writing about his other points, agreeing with them or disagreeing with them.

Because I had learned that I was a baby factory to him, someone who could never be funny, someone whose job it was to fellate brilliant and eloquent men, whose whole existence was defined as the ancillary sexual and reproductive role he had decreed for women. He mythologized women and placed them where he felt they were of use to him in that mythology. And there is no escape from that.

This is something an aware female reader must face. So God Is Not Great? Well, you think women aren't great, either, except when sucking you. Get over that hump before you can join in the general repartee. Get over that point or you will be attacked for not getting the brilliance of the writer. It's like a one-winged bird trying to soar.

And then there is that contempt, so well described by Katha, when she writes about the Question of Women and Hitchens:
It all came off the top of his head, or the depths of his id.
This is sometimes called "mansplaining*." A "mansplainer" gives firm lectures on scant information, seeing nothing wrong with this combination. A "mansplainer" never listens to counterarguments.

When feminism is debated, "mansplainers" regard just existing an adequate preparation for any theoretical discussion and see nothing odd in teaching feminism to individuals who have decades of study in the field, even if the "mansplainer's" own views were permanently formed over a quick chat with some friends while having a few beers the other night. Thus, the gist of "mansplaining" is a contempt towards those one is debating.

And that contempt is what I sensed from Christopher Hitchens.
*I have written about Hitchens on why women are not funny and also on his blow jobs piece. Note that this post is not about his writing on other topics, just on the topic of generic women.
**Women can "mansplain", too, though it is less common (in feminism) and differently flavored.