Monday, December 19, 2011

Coates on Greenwald on Hitchens: The Cohabitation of Virtues and Sins

After this long linkfest, I had not intended to return to the topic of the late Christopher Hitchens. But I am drawn to do so by the fact I still have grading to procrastinate on Ta-Nehisi Coates, who continues his irritating habit of being a better and wiser writer than anyone has a right to be, and showing the rest of us up. In response to Glenn Greenwald's thoughtful (negative) posting about Hitchens and the reaction to his death, Coates first noted (via) that "over the last decade, Hitchens sins actually injured his prose" -- an incredibly important point all by itself. But then he goes on to say this:
Nevertheless, I think Glenn's frame is wrong. Virtues don't excuse sins; they cohabit with them. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. Perhaps worse he was a slaveholder who comprehended, more than any other, the moral failing of slavery, and it's potential to bring the country to war, and yet at the end of his life he argued for slavery's expansion, and on his death many of his slaves were sent to the auction block.

At his end, Jefferson sided with those who would eventually bring about the deaths of 600,000 Americans. He argued that the antebellum South would have either "justice" versus "self-preservation." To paraphrase Churchill, it chose the latter and consequently got neither. But Jefferson was a beautiful writer, and a great intellect, whose thinking and prose I consistently find stunning. This admiration does not negate his moral cowardice. Both are true at the same time. (The same point could be made in regards to our conversation over Elizabeth Cady Stanton.)

Given Hitchens own ties to this magazine, of which I'm very fond, I'd like to say that--at least in this space--there's no demand for exclusion, or any sense that Hitchens worthy of unalloyed admiration. No one should ever receive, or wisely desire, such a thing. I can't really speak for other people, but I don't believe in an essential, irreducible moral nature. I don't see Hitchens, or anyone else, as a case of either/or.
Word. Yes. "Both are true at the same time": "Virtues don't excuse sins; they cohabit with them". That captures it -- not just for Hitchens, but for the human experience.

Coates says more in comments:
I don't know that his "virtues outweigh his vices." That presumes a kind of grand authority that I neither want, nor feel qualified, to exercise. It's just not a case I would ever make. Nor am I really interested in making the case, it's sort of irrelevant to me. It seems to originate from the need to either declare someone a "good person" or a "bad person." I think it's clear from my writing on slavery and race that I don't really see the world that way.

...If I disqualified people for the horrendous ideas they held or advanced, my personal canon would be sliced in half. I don't think those horrendous ideas should be shooed away. But they aren't a counter to whatever better ideas the person espoused. You can be a horrendous bigot, and a great father. You can be a raving misogynist and a great novelist. Neither cancels the other out--though I understand people often write as though it should.
(Still more here.) "Neither cancels the other": the simple, basic truth about human beings, human merits and vices, human reality that seems so hard for people to grasp. (Including some of Coates's commentators, a fair number of whom seem, uncharacteristically for his comments section, to miss the point.)

It seems that one fair criticism you could make of Hitchens is that he himself did not recognize this truth at all: that he tended to support or condemn people whole, without the least nuance, without any understanding that virtue and sin can and do cohabit. In that sense (as well as in others) I think that Coates is a wiser writer than the man he credits with inspiring him so.

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