WHY HITCHENS MATTERS

In September 2002, Christopher Hitchens published a book titled ‘Why Orwell Matters’. In this book, Hitchens expounded the often-misrepresented ideas of his hero, Eric Arthur Blair (known famously as George Orwell), by assiduously peeling off thick layers of ideological overpaint to reveal the true ideas that lay beneath. The expedient appropriation of Orwell’s writings by those on the political right, and left, may have necessitated such a tribute. Hitchens, however, needs no such clarification.

Christopher – as he liked to be called – was a journalist, author, political commentator and undoubtedly, the most eloquent orator of his time. When asked why he decided to become a journalist, Hitchens – who occasionally regaled audiences as a stand-up comedian as well – remarked that he “did not want to rely on newspapers for information”. He was a cultured man (except when he was yelling ‘fuck you’ at Bill Maher’s ‘frivolous’ audience), capable of reciting – in his graceful English accent – the most intricate poetry merely from memory. He was just as capable of engaging in a thought-provoking dialogue on the ideas of Spinoza and Voltaire, as he was of returning, in equal measure, foul-mouthed insults hurled at him by his detractors.

Christopher was a ferociously independent thinker (one wouldn’t expect anything less from a man that admired Socrates), and often found himself swimming against the strong tide of popular opinion. Innately contrarian, he would often criticize people (and ideologies) that were adored, (and sometimes, revered) all over the world. Not only did he disparage the legacy of the much-loved Princess Diana – dismissing her as a gold-digger, devoid of morality, with a bad taste in men – but also attacked the near saintly figure of Mother Teresa. In a documentary for the BBC, and later in his book (provocatively) titled, ‘the Missionary Position’, Hitchens argued that ‘Mother Teresa was little more than a religious zealot. He wrote,

“Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” Christopher questioned her, among several other issues, for the abysmal standard of medical facilities that were afforded to the sick in her care, while herself flying to the best hospitals in the world each time she needed medical treatment. At a time when Obama was being hailed as the symbol of change in American Politics, Christopher described him as a “maniacal narcissist”.

Some of Christopher’s polemics may seem unwarranted or at least disproportionate. It can also be conjectured that he (like most writers) exaggerated his ire and chose to write sensationally simply to sell his books – a charge that he vehemently denied. What can’t be questioned, however, is his willingness to examine the unexaminable.

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Arguably the most popular of the (new) Four Horsemen, Hitchens was a self-described ‘anti-theist’. In his book ‘God Is Not Great’, he wrote the following about religion – “that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence”. Hitchens detested the idea of a theistic god (particularly, but not exclusively, as described by the three Abrahamic religions). During his rambunctious debates with ‘believers’ such as Dinesh D’Souza (arguably America’s most popular conservative speaker), and his own deeply religious brother, Peter Hitchens, Christopher called the world posited by these religions as a “Celestial North Korea – a totalitarian state where one could be convicted of thought-crime”. He would often conclude this argument by reminding everyone that ‘at least one could die in North Korea and free themselves from the clutches of tyranny. But in religion, that’s when the real fun begins’. Such arguments, made in his inimitable style, became the hallmark of his debates, and came to be known, among his fans and followers, as ‘Hitchslaps’ (his vast knowledge of history and philosophy – together with his unmatched capacity for rhetoric – made him a formidable opponent). Hitchens was contemptuous of the concept of praying and once wrote, “the man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right”. Curiously, for all his contempt for religion, Hitchens did not (to the consternation of his friend and fellow horseman, Richard Dawkins) wish to eradicate religion. His only desire was for religion to play no part in state governance and public life. The official separation of Church and State in the American Constitution, along with the first amendment, was the primary source of his immense admiration for the American Union- he would go on to become an American citizen in the early 2000s.

Politically, Hitchens never swore allegiance to any one party. He was neither a Democrat, nor a Republican. In what has become something of a rarity in (particularly) American politics today, his focus remained firmly on issues of public and foreign policy. He was on the side of the left with regards to the issues of gay rights and birth control. His views on Marxist policies too were congruent more with those of the left than the right. Yet, Hitchens couldn’t be thought of as just another Leftist. His disassociation with the left – which began with his disappointment with the left’s timid response to the Fatwa issued against his friend, Salman Rushdie, for writing the controversial book ‘the Satanic Verses’, and their contention that the famous writer shouldn’t have inappropriately provoked the followers of Islam – was complete when he   professed his support for America’s war in Iraq. When it transpired that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in (what Hitchens would call) Mesopotamia, dug in his heels and continued to defend his hawkish position – evoking the Hussein family’s Orwellian abuse of power against their own citizens, and against the Kurdish nation (of whom Hitchens was a staunch supporter). That he began to wear a Kurdish flag pin on his blazer during this time was yet another reminder of his willingness to espouse causes that didn’t garner much support elsewhere.

Hitchens, much like Orwell, was a polarizing figure. He drew a distinction between second-wave and third-wave feminism, at one point compared the latter, as it were, with infantilism. This, together with his rather controversial – though largely tongue-in-cheek – contention  that “women are not as funny as men” earned him (albeit temporarily) the title that is flung about rather arbitrarily nowadays – that of a ‘Sexist’. Moreover, Hitchens was inebriated most of his waking hours (not that it had any adverse impact on his intellectual or oratorial powers) and was considered a womanizer – at one point admitting that one of his greatest regrets was that more women didn’t go to bed with him.

That said, the virtues of the man greatly outweighed the relatively insignificant vices. As anyone who has read Orwell’s 1984 would be, Hitchens was acutely aware of the perils that befall a society when its right to free expression is curtailed. Therefore, Hitchens was a free speech absolutist and once wrote:

“I have visited dozens of countries undergoing crises of war or hardship or sectarian strife. I can say with as much certainty as is possible that, wherever the light of free debate and expression is extinguished, the darkness is very much deeper, more palpable, and more protracted.  But the urge to shut out bad news or unwelcome opinions will always be a very strong one, which is why the battle to reaffirm freedom of speech needs to be refought in every generation.”

Having seen first-hand the abject poverty that people had to endure in third-world countries, Hitchens promulgated what he felt was the only way to overturn the situation – “the empowerment of women.” He would remark with supreme confidence, “try it in Bangladesh, try it in Bolivia, it works – works all the time”. He opposed tribalism, condemned racism, abhorred homophobia, and railed against totalitarianism. He had an insatiable appetite for confrontation, and the temerity to dissect ideas deemed too incendiary for rational examination. His ability to deliver thought-provoking arguments, cloaked in irony and humour, made him the most famous ‘public intellectual’ of his generation.

Men like Hitchens don’t come by often. Men who dare to think for themselves. Men who choose not to cower behind dogma but expose themselves to doubt and scepticism. Mankind (or, to quote a popular Canadian politician, ‘Peoplekind) has a weird proclivity to oscillate between order and chaos. And it appears that (particularly) western societies, having enjoyed decades of relative order, are now actively pursuing chaos. The right to free speech, in what is known as ‘the free world’, is fast dissipating. Those who dare to think, let alone speak, differently are attacked for being bigoted, and are promptly slapped with abhorrent labels. In such times of immense polarization and cultural regression, one can’t help but wish Hitchens was still around.

In 2010, while on a book tour for ‘Hitch-22’, Hitchens was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. His passion for writing remained undiminished even in sickness and in his final days, he penned his last book titled ‘Mortality’. Though he fought valiantly and defeated the disease, he ultimately (and most unfortunately) succumbed to pneumonia and breathed his last on December 15, 2011. Christopher had once said of life that “we are born into a losing struggle”. Unfortunately, his struggle, much like that of Orwell’s, was to end far too soon. Reminiscing about the life and death of the incomparable Christopher Hitchens evokes the memory of something that he once said and always lived by:

“Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence”.

Today, as people of limited intellectual equipment and questionable morals make much noise, a great man lies silent.

 

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GULF (NON) COOPERATION COUNCIL

The increasingly taut Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) finds itself in a state of crisis, the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades. Political issues between the predominantly Sunni Middle Eastern powers, that have always existed beneath the surface, have now erupted – much like Christopher Hitchens did every time he heard the words, “Intelligent Design”. Of all things good and/or bad (depending upon your view of the rather capricious US President) that have followed Donald Trump’s election to the White House, this most definitely is the development which could have the most enduring consequences on a global level.

So, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain decided a few weeks ago to cut diplomatic ties with their enormously rich neighbour, and fellow member of the GCC, Qatar, for alleged regional meddling. Among the many allegations levelled at Qatar is that, through Al Jazeera – a channel owned and funded by the relatively tiny but deceptively wealthy nation, it has been instigating the people of the region to push for democratic reforms and overthrow authoritarian monarchies. It is widely accepted that Al Jazeera was one of the primary catalysts behind the Arab Spring. It has also been alleged that Qatar funds and supports terrorist groups, such as Al-Nusra, in the Middle East. The Qataris, on the other hand, accuse the opposing side of subverting the terms of the GCC, and the UN Charter, by taking unilateral action against them based on unfounded and malicious claims.

Now, the Qataris can’t be absolved of some of their questionable actions. Even the most loyal viewers of Al Jazeera would concede that some of their journalism is disruptive, and rather slanted. (While encouraging people to overthrow a monarchy and push for democracy is a noble act, it looks abysmally hypocritical when one realizes that Qatar itself is a monarchy.) Additionally, there have been well-documented attacks against free speech in Qatar, such as the imprisonment of poet Mohamed Rashid al-Ajami in 2011 for insulting the emir of Qatar in one of his writings. Furthermore, the Qataris have in the past refused to support international sanctions against certain terrorist organizations. In spite of this, though, one is tempted to side with the Qataris in this political tussle due to several reasons. To begin with, Saudi Arabia, the de-facto leader of the protesting faction, is arguably one of the world’s leading sponsors of terror groups. It is widely believed to have funded many terrorist organizations over the years in an attempt to spread its Wahabi ideology. Add to that its grossly illiberal laws, particularly with regard to women, and its medieval punishments, including beheadings, and Saudi Arabia doesn’t look like a country that can claim to hold the moral high ground in this, or any other type of international dispute.

Ever since a land and air blockade was imposed on Qatar, it has come to be viewed as a country that is being bullied by its relatively more powerful neighbours to submit to unjustified demands – one of which is seen as a direct attack on free speech – the call to shut down the Al Jazeera network. Not only has Qatar been able to subsist during this difficult time (with considerable help from Turkey), it has come closer to Iran – which comes as a big blow to Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni-dominated nations of the region. In the short run, at least, Saudi Arabia’s plan to corner Qatar seems to have backfired. Following the poor decision to get his kingdom involved in the seemingly endless war in Yemen, the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, along with his father, seems to have made another mistake in foreign policy. After Donald Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first international destination as POTUS, and spoke openly against Qatar’s alleged funding to terrorists, King Salman was probably emboldened into taking this harsh step against Qatar. He may have felt that with the Americans on his side, he could get Qatar to submit to his demands. He forgot one little thing though – America’s under-fire President alone does not call the shots on their foreign policy.

GREAT FOR INDIA: TRUMP OR HILLARY?

Contrary to what Trump would have you believe, America is still a great country. However, the same can’t be said about its presidential election this year. Both of this year’s nominees have a (let’s just say) “questionable” reputation. While Hillary’s supporters consider Trump a megalomaniacal, tax-evading, and women-abusing criminal, the “deplorables” consider Hillary a devious woman – someone who should be rotting in jail, instead of campaigning to be the next Leader of the Free World.

Say what you want about the two nominees but come 8th of November, one of them will become the 45th president of the United States of America. Just like every other country in the world, with the possible exception of the Philippines, India is eagerly awaiting the election results.  One wonders, though, which of the two nominees will be a better friend to India. While there is no way to predict the correct answer right now, my money is on Donald J. Trump. Here’s why:

India’s biggest problem, for the longest time, has been its hostile neighbour, Pakistan. Even though its economy has been floundering for several years now, Pakistan has continued to grow stronger militarily. Using its military power, and its ever-growing nuclear arsenal, Pakistan constantly tries to counter India’s rise as a global player. With no money to fund its expansionist agenda, the Islamic “Republic” relies heavily on aid money that is given to it by, among other countries, the United States of America. Given Trump’s allegedly hostile, and unfair, attitude towards Muslims, it is likely that he will deal with countries like Pakistan with a firm hand. Unlikely to appreciate the many reasons, most of them tacit, behind America giving aid money to Pakistan, Trump may put an end to this policy altogether. Hillary, having had a say in America’s policies for several years now, is unlikely to do so.

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Trump wants many things; migration into the United States of America, however, is not one of them. Now, can “President Trump” possibly stop all migration to America? No, he can’t. He wouldn’t want to either. What he can do, though, is punish, and stop the inflow of, illegal immigrants. In USA, illegal immigrants from Mexico significantly outnumber those from India. If Trump does what he claims he will, and reduces the number of illegal immigrants in America, then Indians that wish to migrate to America legally will benefit in the long run.

Trump, rather imprudently, considers India a Hindu country and evidently, has a favourable view of it. He has also expressed his desire to work closely with India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. In an attempt to reach out to the American Indian voters, Trump borrowed PM Modi’s famous election slogan, and in one of his recent campaign videos said, “Ab ki Baar, Trump Sarkaar” (Translation – This Time, Trump’s Government). Clearly, President Trump would be more likely to formulate pro-India policies, than would President Clinton.

The election campaign is almost over. Both nominees have their strengths, and obvious weaknesses. Hillary has the advantage of having been in government. Trump, on the other hand, has the advantage of never having been in government, which enables him to freely criticize some of America’s unpopular policies to get people to vote for him. America knows what it’ll get with Hillary. Trump, though, is a surprise package. So, which one of the two nominees will prove to be the better President for USA, and the world? No one knows. However, if Trump becomes the next President of the United States of America, for most Indians, it may not be such a bad thing.

WHOSE REFUGEE IS HE ANYWAY?

The immigration crisis in Europe has been bad for a while now, and it appears to be getting worse. Violence, a poor quality of life, political unrest, fear of persecution and other reasons have led to a large number of people from Northern Africa and the Middle East, fleeing to Europe, in the hope of being able to lead better lives there. The situation in these parts of the world has become so bad over the last few years that every day, thousands of people, with little regard for their safety, board fragile boats that are not fit for the sea by any means, and set sail for Europe. Now, a number of these boats drown on their way, but miraculously, quite a few of them make it to European countries such as Italy, Greece etc.

On reaching the shores of Europe, these refugees feel that the worst is over and that they can finally get on with their lives by moving to European countries of their choice, or even settling down in Italy. However, little do they know that their struggle for survival is not quite over.

This is just the beginning of another struggle; a struggle to find a permanent home. Countries such as Italy and Greece initially help these refugees. They accommodate them in their refugee camps, feed them and provide medical aid to those who need it. However, what follows is an unfortunate, human Ping-Pong match – A match played among the countries of Europe to determine who will take care of these refugees permanently.

No one country wants to accommodate and help rehabilitate all of these refugees on its own. Italy, for instance, has accommodated a large number of refugees over the last few years. However, it wants other countries from the European Union to help shoulder the burden. The Italians believe that just because their country, due to its location, is among the most accessible countries for these refugees, they should not have to take in all of the refugees and resettle them in different parts of Italy. The Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, feels that Europe is not doing its bit to help resolve the problem. And he is right.

Under to the Dublin regulations, refugees must apply for asylum in the first country of their entry to Europe. Italy believes that this rule is unfair. Why should Italy, or Greece for that matter, have to accommodate all of the refugees that wash up on their shores, only because they are the most accessible of the EU countries?

Until recently, people in Schengen countries could travel to other countries that are part of the Schengen agreement, without any problems. However, in light of the ongoing immigration crisis, a number of countries such as France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland have tightened security at their borders. This has resulted in the accumulation of a large number of asylum seekers within the borders of Italy. The French security forces have been catching refugees in their areas and dumping them back into Italian territory. A number of other countries around Italy are doing the same. It has become like a human Ping-Pong match. Men, women and children are being treated like objects. They are picked up from different parts of France and Austria and dumped back into Italy.

Recently, the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, refused to take back migrants who applied for asylum in Hungary and fled to other parts of Europe before their cases were decided. The Hungarians have also decided to erect a fence on their borders to help eliminate illegal immigration into Hungary.

The Italians are irate at these developments. Renzi has warned that if Italy does not receive adequate support from the rest of the EU to deal with this problem, they will resort to “Plan B”, a plan that will “first and foremost, hurt Europe”. Renzi wants the European Union to help forge repatriation agreements with African Nations, and to share the cost of returning home ‘economic migrants’. However, no help appears to be forthcoming.

The situation is a complete mess at the moment. A few countries are suffering, whereas the other member states of the European Union are not bothered about the ongoing crisis. In their attempt to look after their own interests, they seem to have become a little too selfish. They have left countries such as Italy and Greece to tackle the problem on their own. Italy has declared that it will not accept a “Selfish Europe”. Will the European Union be able to find a viable, long-term solution? Maybe.

One thing is for sure though. If the European Union does not find a solution that is acceptable to all of its member states very soon, this problem threatens to spiral out of control.

What Do You Believe?

From prominent business leaders, to politicians, to sportsmen, everyone has an opinion about the ideal way of succeeding in life.  Everyday we get to see articles, blogs, and interviews where successful people from all walks of life share, what they consider, “Pearls of Wisdom”. They share their views about life and tell everyone how their success can be emulated by those who read their invaluable advice. We have grown up learning how we can be successful in whatever we do by following a certain set of rules/beliefs. However, as with every aspect of life, there are always two sides to a coin. What we have been taught right from the beginning, may not always be true. I have listed down some beliefs, along with their contradictions, that may be helpful, but are not the only ways of attaining the elusive success that we all crave.

Try and Try Until You Succeed – Each one of us has been told that quitting is not an option if we wish to succeed in life. Right from the very beginning, we are taught to keep trying until we achieve our objectives. While this may be true, it is most certainly not the only way of attaining success. I recently came across an article on the internet titled, “Winners Also Quit and Quitters Do Win”. The writer of the article felt that if we keep failing at something over and over again, it is possible that our strength lies elsewhere and we should move on and try to identify it without wasting any more time. I concede that quitting is not the answer to our problem of failing at something repeatedly. However, “KNOWING WHEN TO QUIT” can be the difference between success and abject failure.

Slow and Steady Wins the RaceWhile we have always been taught that this old adage is the golden rule to achieve success in life, it may not be the best bet that we have been coaxed in to believing. We have all heard the story of the tortoise and the hare, in which the slow and steady tortoise always pips the fast but complacent hare to the finish line. However, one of the most successful sportsmen in the history of professional boxing, Cassius Clay, i.e. Mohammed Ali, was of the opinion that if one wishes to attain true success, then one should aim to be quick and efficient instead of simply being “slow and steady”. ‘Slow and Steady’ might win the race but we must also remember that “TIME WAITS FOR NO MAN.”

Team Work is Better Than Individual WorkIf you work as part of a team, you will be more successful as opposed to when you work alone”. This is what most of us have grown up listening to. Our minds have been programmed into believing that someone who is working alone is at a significant disadvantage against those, who work in teams to achieve a common goal. However, there are some people who thrive under the pressure of working alone. They feel a certain sense of autonomy when they work alone. Not having to depend on others and not having anyone to hold them back/slow them down, brings out the best in them.

Hard Work is the Only Key to SuccessOnly hard work can lead us to success in our professional lives. Most people grow up thinking that this is the one golden rule which can guarantee success. However, we have all seen real life examples of some employees tugging away at work for years together with little success. We have also seen employees who have achieved great success without having to work as hard as they probably could/should have done. Some people reach dizzying heights in their careers by doing what is popularly termed as, “Smart Work”. With each passing day, a new breed of employees is emerging, i.e. those who believe in both hard as well as smart work. These are the people who have all their bases covered and have the best chance at overcoming the barriers that stand between them and professional success.

It’s Better to be Safe Than SorryWhile some professionals in today’s corporate world believe that – “It is better to be safe, than sorry”. There is an equal number of professionals out there who are believers of the old adage, “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained.” This is not to say that any one group of people stands a better chance of succeeding than the other group. It all depends on how things pan out for each individual person.

It is most interesting to see how many differing opinions and beliefs exist in this world. The last example of the same is the fact that to some people, I am a very diligent, hardworking and honest employee, while certain other people feel, let’s just say, ……….. very differently 🙂