Hitchens Opens Fire on Hope; Shoots Own Foot

When Christopher Hitchens is right, he’s brilliant. But when he misfires, he does it just as big. See his latest Slate piece, Hopeless, in which he both speaks ill of the dead, and makes an ass of himself — the former of which is forgiveable; the latter, lamentable.
Hitchens has made a name for himself by, among other things, attacking those personages who have become larger than life — whose behavior has come to be judged by their reputation, as opposed to their reputation flowing from their behavior. He has rightfully trashed the hypocrisy of Mother Theresa’s views on poverty and the poor, savaged Henry Kissinger’s amorality and the public media’s refusal to acknowledge it, and along the way also taken time out to deflate visions of Princess Diana’s good works — not to mention dismissing Bill Clinton as the common degenerate his behavior showed him to be.
But Hitchens veers wildly off his generally-steady rails when he applies his favorite hammer to the nail of Bob Hope’s celebrity. His critique is simple: that Hope just wasn’t funny.
Hope is “a truly unfunny man”, according to Hitchens, and “never even remotely a comedian”. This is fascinating stuff, and he bangs on about it for a whole column, educating us all about precisely how and why Bob Hope isn’t actually funny.
The one little problem here is that, unlike whether Mother Theresa actually helped the poor or not, and whether Henry Kissinger actually violated U.S. and international laws now and again, the question of whether Bob Hope is funny is not a question of fact. It is a question of opinion — more to the point, a matter of personal taste.
Hitchens was right to challenge the easy celebrity of his previous targets, first because they were operating under false pretenses. Mother Theresa was envisioned to be a friend of the poor, when it would be more accurate to describe her as a friend of poverty; Kissinger operated (and still operates) under a comfortable haze of respectability when any inspection of his behavior and history shows him to be anything but.
More importantly, the continued good reputation of these targets had consequences. People giving money to Mother Theresa might well send it somewhere more worthy if not for the whiff of sainthood that surrounds her. And American relations worldwide continue to be influenced — albeit indirectly — by Kissinger’s wide-reaching associations. Combatting these public perceptions arguably serves the greater good.
But what, exactly, is the purpose of even trying to deflate Bob Hope’s reputation as an entertainer; as simply a funny man? Does Hitchens truly think the world will be a better place; that moral justice will have been served in some sense if he can convince large groups of people that, in fact, the enjoyment they gained from seeing Hope perform was some kind of an error of judgment on their part?
The fact is, I’ve never found Hope to be particularly funny myself. But unlike Hitchens, I don’t consider my own personal taste to be the final arbiter of such matters. Millions of people worldwide seem to feel differently than I on this question. And while such a popular landslide against my chosen opinion will rarely make me reconsider a moral or ethical position, it will get me to acknowledge that if millions of people think that an individual was entertaining, well, then he probably was — even if I don’t find him to be to my own liking.
Hitchens has blazed an honorable path as a contrarian who is willing to challenge orthodoxy when it needs it, and he retains my respect as a man with fierce beliefs and an equally fierce intellect to drive them. But sometimes — particularly in matters of popular culture — the orthodoxy is right by definition, and will do just fine without any challenging, thank you very much.
PS – It serves Hitchens right that Slate’s editors ran his piece with the deeply lame headline “Hopeless” — which I refuse to believe he chose himself.