Sunday, July 29, 2007

Bullshit or Not: Hitchens Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." So I've stolen it for what is seeming to be a fairly regular series of posts.

This week, it's a passage from Christopher Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian:

One is sometimes asked "by what right" one presumes to offer judgement. Quo warranto? is a very old and very justified question. But the right and warrant of an individual critic does not need to be demonstrated in the same way as that of a holder of power. It is in most ways its own justification. That is why so many irritating dissidents have been described by their enemies as "self-appointed." (Once again, you see, the surreptitious suggestion of elitism and arrogance.) "Self-appointed" suits me fine. Nobody asked me to do this and it would not be the same thing I do if they had asked me. I can't be fired anymore than I can be promoted. I am happy in the ranks of the self-employed. If I am stupid or in poor form, nobody suffers but me. To the question, Who do you think you are? I can return the calm response: Who wants to know?
When I am asked, my response tends to be "a thinking person who cares."

And that is what interests me in this passage. What are the criteria for being a legitimate critic? Is the bar really lower on the critic than it is on the person being criticized? If you criticize without having a positive alternative, a better way that you are proposing, are you just throwing stones? If and/or when Hitchens is stupid, in poor form, or drunk, is it really true that only he suffers? Does the bad critic really hurt no one else? Is criticism self-justifying on Enlightenment grounds, wherein testing claims by subjecting them to the most rigorous scrutiny is a necessary condition for finding truth? Or is someone who is merely a critic doing something less noble? We certainly treat being judgmental as contrary to etiquette in contemporary culture. Is this a problem or a solution?

As usual, feel free to leave responses ranging from a single word to a worked out dissertation. So, bullshit or not? You decide.