Blaming the Victims: Christopher Hitchens is not that great either
Christopher Hitchens lost his mind some time ago, but this fever dream of a column sort of takes the cake:
Let me ask a simple question to the pseudoliberals who take a soft line on the veil and the burqa. What about the Ku Klux Klan? Notorious for its hooded style and its reactionary history, this gang is and always was dedicated to upholding Protestant and Anglo-Saxon purity. I do not deny the right of the KKK to take this faith-based view, which is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I might even go so far as to say that, at a rally protected by police, they could lawfully hide their nasty faces. But I am not going to have a hooded man or woman teach my children, or push their way into the bank ahead of me, or drive my taxi or bus, and there will never be a law that says I have to.
What the fuck is he talking about? The main thing that bugs us about the KKK was their tendency to wear hoods and their ideas about purity? It wasn’t the whole century of racial terror thing? Cause I thought it was more the lynching, the political violence, the burning down houses, and the century of racial terror. I thought preventing black people from being American citizens was the main thing. But I guess wearing hoods was pretty bad too.
Yet as insanely stupid as this column is, I’m fascinated by the fact that his central rhetorical figure is his weird notion that because you’re supposed to show your face inside a bank, you should also have to show your face everywhere in America:
On the door of my bank in Washington, D.C., is a printed notice politely requesting me to remove any form of facial concealment before I enter the premises. The notice doesn’t bore me or weary me by explaining its reasoning: A person barging through those doors with any sort of mask would incur the right and proper presumption of guilt. This presumption should operate in the rest of society. I would indignantly refuse to have any dealings with a nurse or doctor or teacher who hid his or her face, let alone a tax inspector or customs official. Where would we be without sayings like “What have you got to hide?” or “You dare not show your face”?
It makes sense that you be requested not to wear facial concealment when you are in a bank. It’s still a complicated civil liberties issue, but at least it makes sense: it’s easier to rob a bank if you wear masks while you do it, so a bank wants you not to wear a mask.
But why exactly does he object to anyone anywhere wearing facial covering? Why is it that law enforcement is the instantly appropriate frame through which to think about this issue? Is it because Muslims are presumed, by virtue of being such, to be threats of some kind? Certainly you have to find some way of accounting for his weirdly aggrieved sense that veiled women are pushing past him in line at the banks, as we seem to have an awful lot of “barging” and “push[ing] their way into the bank ahead of me.” And certainly “My right to see your face” seems to be his takeaway point, in a way that makes his solicitousness for the choices of Muslim women a little hollow.
Which is why it’s so interesting that he not only conflates the “you” that is the dangerous Muslim threat assaulting his delicate sensibilities in public spaces with the “you” that is the sad Muslim victim of Muslim male power (speaking of “the right of women to show their faces, which easily trumps the right of their male relatives or their male imams to decide otherwise”), and which he actually poses as defending. But he at least recognizes that Muslim women that want to wear the veil are sort of a problem for his argument. After all, he can only imagine that horrible, horrible veiled lady that pushed past him in the bank as a threat to his civil liberties and imagine himself to be thereby in solidarity with her against her “male relatives” or “male imams” if he’s completely emptied her out of any subjectivity at all, making her into a weird repository of the desire of other males. And so, he makes the very silly claim that we “have no assurance that Muslim women put on the burqa or don the veil as a matter of their own choice,” despite the fact that we have lots of testimony that some or many do.
Now, of course, I’m not trying to make any generalizations about Muslim women or make any kind of statement about veiling as such; precisely the opposite, I’m pointing out that the only way to generalize about a massive group of massively heterogeneous people like “Muslim women” is to do what Hitchens is doing here: dumb yourself way, way down. After all, if some Muslim women somewhere choose to wear the veil of their own free will, then his argument falls apart, and he’s just imposing his personal preferences on that person in a deeply illiberal way. And so he categorically denies that possibility, arguing that we have evidence pointing the other way and supplementing it with a sense that we can’t really know more than that, that we just don’t have access to what Muslim women think, darn it.
Which is the real problem with his argument: rather than asking how he can best be an ally for the people he’s advocating for by getting to know as much as possible about them, his argument relies on knowing as little as possible about them. Yet just as with FGC/FGM/FGwhatever, if you want to have this conversation and have a coherent position on how to address it (especially as white person), you have to start with strong familiarity with why and how it happens and then proceed with a deep and basic solidarity with the people whose actual asses are on the line. Which is why a column like this one would be a lot more persuasive if it weren’t suffused with bitter rage at the mere sight of veiled women in his presence, and if his response to this “aggressive sign of a refusal to integrate or accommodate,” weren’t to take it so personally. And if the sight of a women being hidden from his gaze didn’t so instantly become a “right and proper presumption of guilt,” maybe Hitchens’ own psychodrama wouldn’t seem to be the most obvious place to look for the method in this column’s madness.