Media Watch: Vanity Fair Stinks

When each new issue arrives, I rip out page after page of perfume-infused advertisements, then pin the issue to the clothesline until the remaining odor of fashionability dissipates.

Far more offensive and less easily separated from the publication, however, is Vanity Fair‘s fashionable contempt for religion. The February 1995 issue stinks in particular because of Christopher Hitchens’ Cultural Elite column. Tucked delicately between the perfumed sheets is “Mother Teresa and Me,” which concerns Hitchens’ attack on Mother Teresa in the British television documentary “Hell’s Angel.”

Having not seen “Hell’s Angel,” I feel rather like Sidney Smith, who commented, “I never read a book before reviewing it — it prejudices a man so!” But since Hitchens’ column describes both the documentary and his motives for making it, he invites examination of his bizarre views.

Hitchens finds Mother Teresa lacking in several areas: (1) she accepts funding from questionable sources; (2) she opposes contraception; and (3) she is famous. Hitchens offers no evidence, however, of funds misused or patients neglected. Instead, he resorts to name- calling (his preferred title for the documentary was “Mother Teresa: Sacred Cow”), sneeringly referring to his subject as “Mama T.,” “the Great White Whale of modern sainthood,” “the world’s most famous Albanian,” and “a presumable virgin” with “a face like a cake left out in the rain.”

Hitchens criticizes Mother Teresa’s refusal to distance herself from people like Baby Doc Duvalier, Robert Maxwell, and Charles Keating. He raises, but does not explore, a moral dilemma — whether a charity should accept money from unsavory sources. Hitchens self-righteously decries her association with disreputable donors; I wonder, though, how popular his views would be with those dying in the gutters of Calcutta.

As one might expect, outside Hitchens’ elite circle, there was much to-do over the documentary. As with most controversies in England, several stern letters were dispatched to the London Times, praising Mother Teresa’s accomplishments. Particularly apt was the comment offered by Roy Richardson (borrowing from evangelist C. H. Spurgeon): “I prefer the way I do it to the way you don’t do it.”

Hitchens doesn’t fancy Mother Teresa’s traditional Catholic opposition to birth control, which, in his view, marks her as rigidly insensitive. Hitchens thus puts Mother Teresa in a logical paradox: it is impossible for her to be at once virtuous and adhere to her church’s teaching.

One wonders what sort of elderly woman would receive Hitchens’ approval. We learn this in the following month’s Vanity Fair (March 1995), in Hitchens’ portrait of Mary Wesley, whose racy fiction has become fashionable. Hitchens shudders with delight as he recounts Wesley’s aristocratic genealogy and her adventures as a baroness who defied social convention and engaged in a bohemian lifestyle.

Hitchens admires Wesley for having been born into a life of wealth, privilege, and self-indulgence, and for having fashionably leftist politics. He glowingly describes how, during a coal shortage, Wesley bullied a driver into giving coal to some old people. For both Wesley and Hitchens, it is better to tell others what and how much to give than to give oneself.meaningless, as “the money wasn’t Keating’s to give. It is hardly surprising that Hitchens prefers Wesley’s fashionability to Mother Teresa’s philanthropy, as, unlike Mother Teresa, Wesley neither challenges Hitchens’ assumptions nor demands (by example) that he tone down his self-satisfaction.

Hitchens also resents that Mother Teresa has acquired a special, enduring fame, unlike the more ephemeral fame which passes as the principal currency of the cultural elite. The cultural elite likes to think they control who becomes famous and who remains obscure, and it is an affront to them that someone who defies their beliefs, as traditional Catholics do, can become famous.

More troubling than Hitchens’ article, however, are the letters to the editor concerning it that appeared in Vanity Fair‘s April issue. Of the twelve letters printed, eight enthusiastically praise Hitchens’ attack. One letter condemns Mother Teresa as “ingratiating, unrealistic, and a religious fanatic,” another criticizes her “medieval opinions on politics and social concerns.” A teacher at a Dallas girls’ school is infuriated by Mother Teresa’s having remarked that there was “spiritual poverty” in Dallas; the teacher considers herself Mother Teresa’s spiritual superior, condescendingly observing the “none of my 50 years of Christian reading or 25 years of Buddhist study encompasses teaching which would encourage statements of this judgmental nature.” In today’s culture, being “judgmental” is the cardinal sin.

There’s an old joke about a mother who yells to a lifeguard, “My son’s drowning! Go rescue him!” The lifeguard jumps into the pounding surf and drags the child ashore, saving his life. When he hands the boy over to the mother, she complains, “He was wearing a hat!” Hitchens and his ilk clearly feel no shame about asking for the hat.


  • Laura Morrow

    At the time this article was published, Laura Morrow was a professor of English at Louisiana State University, Shreveport.

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