There may be no more heretical figure from the last several decades for both the current mainstream political left and right than the late Christopher Hitchens. He has maintained contrarian positions that range from vexing to enraging for nearly every orthodoxy. Contrarianism can seem his one singular consistency in a slide from “socialist to neocon” and some very imperialist views on war, race, culture, and religion. But his one true allegiance, he would say, was to “the principles of free inquiry” and Enlightenment thought.
Hitchens inquired freely and often, and he was a supremely polished rhetorician who had mastered the art of making arguments, regardless of whether he was persuaded by them himself. It may seem surprising that a crusader against “the race card in American politics” and “the perils of identity politics,” would make the case for reparations for slavery. But he does so in a 2001 Oxford-style debate at Boston University, a forum that requires no personal allegiance to the position.
This context aside, Hitchens’ argument is compelling on its own merits. “It matters not what you think,” he says in a classically liberal formula in his introductory remarks above, “it matters how you think.” He starts with an argument from analogy: with the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, sections of the Parthenon taken from Greece in the 18th century. The acquisition of these artifacts was “an original crime,” says Hitchens, “a desecration of a great historic culture…. It was a theft, a rape, a taking, perpetrated by the strong upon the weak.”
This was, he says, “by the way… all done at the same time as the British fleet… was also the military guarantor of the slave trade.” Not every crime committed by the British Empire could be made good, but “this one could. Restitution could be made.” Upon publishing a book making this case for returning the Greek stones, Hitchens says he was “immediately impressed by the torrent of bad faith arguments in which I was doused… the irrelevant, the non-sequitur, the generalization.” Likewise, when the subject of reparations comes up, Hitches says he hears “a constant whine and drone” of bad faith.
To laughs from the audience, he cheekily calls counterarguments a “white whine.” On the subject of reparations, white Americans display “a rather nasty combination of self pity and self hatred,” he says, the workings of a “bad conscience.” He weaves his scorn for self-interest and flimsy reasoning into an extended analogy with looted artifacts in the British museum. Curiously, he does not seem to argue that Britain make restitution to the descendants of looted people, an obvious conclusion of his arguments for the U.S. But perhaps it comes up in the full debate from which these remarks come, just below.