A few rather tardy reflections on the loss of a great public figure.
First, here is Vanity Fair’s memoriam.
Christopher Hitchens—the incomparable critic, masterful rhetorician, fiery wit, and fearless bon vivant—died today at the age of 62. Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the spring of 2010, just after the publication of his memoir, Hitch-22, and began chemotherapy soon after. His matchless prose has appeared in Vanity Fair since 1992, when he was named contributing editor.
“Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic,” Hitchens wrote nearly a year ago in Vanity Fair, but his own final labors were anything but: in the last 12 months, he produced for this magazine a piece on U.S.-Pakistani relations in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, a portrait of Joan Didion, an essay on the Private Eye retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a prediction about the future of democracy in Egypt, a meditation on the legacy of progressivism in Wisconsin, and a series of frank, graceful, and exquisitely written essays in which he chronicled the physical and spiritual effects of his disease. At the end, Hitchens was more engaged, relentless, hilarious, observant, and intelligent than just about everyone else—just as he had been for the last four decades.
“My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends,” he wrote in the June 2011 issue. He died in their presence, too, at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. May his 62 years of living, well, so livingly console the many of us who will miss him dearly.
I was reading Ace’s remembrance of Hitch. Like Andrew Breitbart, I peruse Ace’s comments section almost as much as I read the posts themselves. Most commenters were respectful and more than a few were quite mournful of the loss of Mr. Hitchens. As the comments piled up, another train of thought developed, which could be characterized as the ‘Hooray, The Mouthy Atheist Gets His Comeuppance Sack Dance’. Several commenters, who identified themselves as Christians, seemed to revel in the fact that Hitchens would be damned for his atheism.
An un-Christian response to the death of a human being? Surely.
But then again, what was the grand project of Christopher Hitchens’ life over the last decade? For many people–especially those not familiar with his stance on Islamic radicalism, his disgust for President Bill Clinton or his slow drift away from the political left–Hitch was best known as the public face of atheism. And it’s not like he was particularly gentle about his dislike for religious faith. No, he was a loud-n-proud attack dog for the anti-God side.
It isn’t all that shocking to find that many Christians grew tired of Hitchens’ snarling barely contained disdain for them. Believers are instructed to turn the other cheek and pray for their enemies, but believers are still human after all. Even the most patient Christian will chafe at having his beliefs trampled on over and over again. This is especially true when the trampler in question never bothers to wipe off his boots before stepping on his intended target. Hitchens’ brand of atheism was pointed, angry and more often than not insulting. When he railed against the Church or other religious institutions, it seemed as if his aim was not to change minds but to injure people he perceived as enemies.
In America and the West, Christians have endured decades of writers, entertainers, artists, intellectuals and other taste-makers who attempted to shame believers out of their faith. For many, Hitchens was simply the latest in a long line of pompous know-it-alls trying to make them feel stupid for taking the words of the Bible to heart. Seen in that light, it’s more surprising just how few Christians have piled on in the wake of Hitchens’ passing.
Beyond the question of religion, Christopher Hitchens was a writer that reveled in the act of making ideological allies uncomfortable. Since the time of Clinton’s impeachment, Hitchens was seen by many on the Left as a traitor to the cause. For the audacity of going against American liberalism’s champion, Hitch was vilified by the kind of people who had spent decades using him as an ideological buttress to hold up their arguments.
For many progressives, the final straw was Hitchens’ continuous defense of the Iraq War. The idea of Hitch making friends with the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush was simply too much for many committed leftists to tolerate. The excommunication of Hitchens from the socialist project was all but complete by 2004.
Even as the intellectual Left was ejecting a former comrade from their midst, Hitchens simply wouldn’t or couldn’t play nice in the sandbox with the Right either. Besides his utter hatred for organized religion he made sure to slam other facets of the broad traditionalist caucus. Sarah Palin got no love from Hitch. Neither did the Tea Party; Hitch accused the movement of racial bigotry whenever asked about it. Ronald Reagan, one of conservatism’s great political heroes, was worse than useless in the writer’s judgment.
How much of Hitchens’ argumentative rhetoric came from honest disagreement? How much of it was mere posturing? Sometimes it was hard to tell. The joy Hitchens seemed to take in making people squirm suggests that a good deal of his personality was a well-rehearsed form of contrarianism. This isn’t always so bad; there are far worse sins for a writer than being against the prevailing attitudes of his time.
Still, watch the clip and note how Hitchens goes after Reagan. From our vantage point in the Age of Trillion Dollar Obama, 90’s-era lefty critiques of Reagan’s budget deficits seem ridiculously quaint. More absurd is the sight of a man who at the time still considered himself a member of the socialist movement using national debt as a focus for his attack on the 40th president. For a polemicist who launched into countless tirades denouncing the hypocrisy of his various hate-figures, the grasping for this particular club to bash this particular target is just the sort of cynical opportunism Hitchens made a career out of railing against.
But what a career. To say Christopher Hitchens had a gift for writing is like saying that Lady Gaga has a passing interest in publicity. Even when you found yourself disagreeing with him, he was still far more interesting than most political writers are on their best days. Hitchens was a master of fusing his thunderous moralism to a seemingly effortless ability to create provocative imagery. For this alone, he will be missed by writers and readers across the globe.
But it wasn’t just his writing that made him great. His public persona, an improbable amalgamation of a priapic boozed-up British university student and a joyfully overfed bookworm, made him a joy to watch in a public debate. It was also that improbable mixture that was so surprising. A nicotine-fueled drunk nattering on in a cartoonish plummy Oxbridge accent about Cold War-era Eastern European leftists or some other historical obscurity should not be compelling, yet somehow Hitchens made it work. It’s possible that only he could’ve done pulled off that feat.
For this conservative, it was most enjoyable seeing Hitchens crack on his former leftist pals. Watch and laugh as Hitch eviscerates knee-jerk liberal Eric Alterman’s anti-Iraq War arguments. What comes across most clearly from the clip is the sense that Alterman could not—even at such a late hour–relinquish his lingering hurt over Hitchens’ defection from the liberal sphere. Even as Hitchens piles injury upon injury, Alterman still pines for Hitch to come back to liberal side of the aisle. The barely concealed passive aggression from Alterman gives the game away.
Sometimes a man is defined by his enemies. In many ways, Hitchens was defined by the old comrades he had pissed off over the course of his meandering exit from the progressive movement. The resentment still remains, even after a decade. Repellent lefty shrew Katha Pollitt took the occasion of Hitch’s passing to settle some bitter old scores with her former colleague. Kevin Drum damned himself by damning Hitchens with faint insult. Dave Zirin spun a chance barroom dust-up with Hitch into a comically melodramatic confrontation, complete with a bizarre slapdash amateur psychoanalysis of Hitchens to boot.
Again and again, one is faced with a rather startling revelation: The Left needed Christopher Hitchens far more than he ever needed them. They craved his stylish prose, his combativeness and his intellectual curiosity. More importantly, liberals desperately wanted to be able to claim Hitchens as theirs alone. When Hitch started palling around with liberalism’s enemies, it devastated the socialists–as it does still today.
Was Christopher Hitchens a right-winger, as his many progressive critics accused him of being? Surely not. William F. Buckley once said that an atheist could be a conservative, but a God-hater could not. Hitchens’ disgust for organized religion alone will probably always deny him entry into the conservative caucus. His various other heterodoxies from traditionalism make considering him a a man of the Right impossible.
However, measuring Hitchens by this yardstick is unfair. The man loved his eccentricities more than being a rigid partisan. It was his sort of scattered unpredictable politics, the kind that infuriated both friends and enemies alike, that made him interesting. To complain about Hitchens’ lack of ideological ‘correctness’ misses the point. Hitch forced everyone who read him to question their own assumptions, even for just a moment. During a career that spanned several periods of ideological inflexibility, Hitchens’ ability to break through convention is the greatest gift he could give to his readers.
Hitch would agree with the sentiment that the world is a far better place with people like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden dead. Conversely, the world is a far better place for having Christopher Hitchens live in it for sixty-two years.