Kinsley on Hitchens

Matt's right that Michael Kinsley's review of God Is Not Great offers some profound insights into how the the media-public intellectual complex works. It's also a textbook example of how that complex works. First, Christopher Hitchens writes a polemic that ranges across religion, religious history, philosophy and science. Then, the editors of the New York Times Book Review decide to commission a review from Michael Kinsley, presumably because both Hitchens and Kinsley are well-known figures in the media-public intellectual world and "Kinsley on Hitchens" has a nice ring to it. Never mind that Kinsley has never evinced any expertise or even any particular interest in the topics and arguments that Hitchens is covering - it's Kinsley on Hitchens! How can they go wrong?

And sure enough, Kinsley has produced a review that, because he's a smart guy and a good writer, has some interesting things to say about Hitchens' career, but has absolutely nothing of interest to say about the book itself. Indeed, the review is essentially a felicitously-written plot summary, which lists some of Hitchens' arguments and deliberately shrugs off analysis. For instance:

The book is full of logical flourishes and conundrums, many of them entertaining to the nonbeliever. How could Christ have died for our sins, when supposedly he also did not die at all? Did the Jews not know that murder and adultery were wrong before they received the Ten Commandments, and if they did know, why was this such a wonderful gift? On a more somber note, how can the “argument from design” (that only some kind of “intelligence” could have designed anything as perfect as a human being) be reconciled with the religious practice of female genital mutilation, which posits that women, at least, as nature creates them, are not so perfect after all? Whether sallies like these give pause to the believer is a question I can’t answer.



But you're reviewing the bloody book! Should they give the believer pause? Has Hitchens devastated religious faith, as he plainly thinks he has? I'm glad he's entertaining - but is he persuasive? Does his book confirm you in your nonbelief, or leave questions unaddressed? Hitchens takes these questions seriously - shouldn't the reviewer, whether an atheist, a believer, or somewhere in between, have the decency to do the same?

Ah, but it's Kinsley on Hitchens. Brilliant!

Update: The line I bolded doesn't appear in the IHT version, which I linked to above, but only in the Times itself.