Monday, August 31, 2009

Christopher Hitchens Wades into the Moral Sludge

When an editor at a reputable publications asks you to review a book he always asks whether you know the author personally. If you did, you were disqualified.

Apparently, such moral strictures are only for the little people. Larger-than-life characters like Christopher Hitchens claim a personal exemption.

I am normally a great admirer of Hitchens' work. Unfortunately, I cannot say as much about his review of a book written by his dear friend Elizabeth Edwards. Link here.

Hitchens seems to believe that a full-throated admission of the extent of his personal friendship with John and Elizabeth Edwards absolves him of any taint of bias.

When you review your friends' writing, you are prone to loyalty. Assuming that you value your moral character, loyalty is a powerful motivating factor. Would anyone seriously consider sacrificing a friendship for the pittance that book reviewers normally receive? Would you not be inclined to defend your friends from charges of moral turpitude?

They are your friends. In defending their behavior, even in empathizing with their condition, you are also defending your own decision to befriend them.

So Christopher Hitchens decided to offer some comments on John Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter. The affair took place at around the time that Edwards learned that his wife's stage IV breast cancer had become incurable.

Strangely, Hitchens chose to rationalize his friend's affair by trotting out the now-discredited Freudian theory of life and death instincts, of Eros and Thanatos.

In his words: "In the unequal battle between life and death... Eros has its part in warding off Thantos, and if this really was, as I believe, her husband's first lapse, it might have been partly because of the death-haunted context in which he, for all his money and charm, found himself."

Mickey Kaus correctly noted in "Slate" that Hitchens has hereby made a fool of himself, especially in invoking the "Thanatos made me do it" defense. Frankly, we would all find the "Devil made me do it" defense more persuasive.

And what does the Thantos defense mean anyway? Does it mean that Edwards was especially vulnerable to the feminine wiles of Rielle Hunter because he was afraid to die? Might it be invoking the more grotesque suggestion that Edwards found the prospect of his wife's death to be a special kind of aphrodisiac?

Would it not be more plausible to imagine that Edwards felt abandoned and rejected by his dying wife and that he found comfort in the arms of another woman.

So Hitchens let his loyalty get the better of his judgment. That is not the worst moral flaw. Loyalty to one's friends is surely an important virtue.

But why is loyalty not at issue when it comes to the Edwards marriage?

Forget about the dalliance and ask yourself this: would it not have been better to display a minimal degree of spousal loyalty and be discreet about it?

When you put yourself on the national political stage by making yourself a candidate for the presidency, you are inviting every imaginable kind of scrutiny. Candidacy invites the tabloidization of your life. Under the circumstances a man who had a moral spine would have withdrawn from the race and done his utmost to keep the disloyalty to himself.

By failing to do so he has also drawn his friends into the fray, putting them in the untenable position of having to conjure up implausible reasons to defend the indefensible.

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