I FIRST CAME across the writer Christopher Hitchens when he was a young Socialist contributing his “Minority Report” to the Nation. Very much yet in his soixante-huitard, Trotskyist phase, if not in possession any longer of his Socialist International card, he reminded me of my favourite writer, George Orwell.
Not that he was exactly like Orwell in prose style. In all candour I will say that my immediate impression was that his work was a touch undisciplined, the style too much under the sway of his passions. I suppose I “forgave” him this, his positive qualities (passion being among them) more than compensating. He was charming and personable in prose, whereas Orwell’s chief deficiency as I saw it was his lack of warmth and humour. No such problem with Hitchens. A polemicist down to his bones, he could and did dig in, investing himself wholly into an argument. At times, when the disagreement was not in print but in viva voce, he was susceptible to argument for its own sake. Rarely outdone in dialectic, he refused to acknowledge the weakness of his position even in those few instances when it was clearly weak. He loved a fight.
I was soon on his hook. Among my circle of friends, a fresh Hitchens article was an event toward which we looked with impatience. I read his work year after year because he showed all evidence of standing upon principle and meaning just what he wrote. His targets were humbug (Orwell’s term) and thuggishness, which meant he was very busy during the Reagan years. He also proved himself to be in possession of an independent and fearless mind. We may easily forget or under-appreciate what it meant to be an openly “socialist” writer (and a foreigner as well) in Reagan’s America. Hitchens aligned himself with what was in effect the losing side, but did so in order to challenge the corrupt cynicism of the Republicrat-Democan cartel and its sway over electoral politics. At this, he was brilliant.
He of course had his critics, but few of them could or would match him either in powers of analysis or rhetorical skill. Hitchens was an interesting speaker, whatever the topic, and he played well on television. The arrival of the Internet makes it possible to go backward in time and to watch his debates, for example his many appearances on Brian Lamb’s C-SPAN program. He outshines every opponent. The explanation is both simple and depressing. Christopher Hitchens was among the last of the public figures to have suffered the English Public School, in which one was formally trained in debate, rhetoric, and classical literature. His writing, polemic or otherwise, benefitted from his appreciation — one might even say love — of literature and aesthetics. He was a thinker for whom history and the literary canon were constant guides, and both were at his disposal. This distinguished him from the great mass of Washington commentators, extracted from the country’s departments of Poly Sci and most at-home in the horse race approach to political analysis.
Hitchens might well have remained a niche interest for the C-SPAN watching political junkie, but it happened he became a widely known political commentator after September 11. He then became even more notorious with the publication of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The convention by 2003, at which time he was known as a proponent of war against Saddam Hussein, was that he had abandoned the left and become a neoconservative. What few considered however was his attack on Kissinger (which was an implicit attack upon American foreign policy from Kennedy to Bush Sr) issued at precisely the same time. The Chomsky and MoveOn.org left failed to see that Trotsky Hitchens and Anti-Jihad Hitchens were one and the same: indeed, it was the left that had lost faith in America and had broken from its leftist, internationalist, and anti-fascist roots. Hitchens remained until the end almost superstitiously respectful of the US Constitution. He believed deeply in the proposition that America had a positive and necessary role in the world, a role which it often failed to fulfill or which it actively subverted, but which was its proper role nonetheless. Disagreement over this point constituted the break-up of the American left which even now goes largely unrecognized. The point is, Hitchens never abandoned the principles of his Trotsky years.
In his final years, Hitchens was an advocate of skepticism, rational inquiry, science, and the secular state. As he had many times before, he delivered a regular minority report — in this period of his life the minority constituted by atheists, agnostics, and all manner of doubter. On the other side of this debate were the Faithful, eager to impose their truth upon the enemy, by means of lethal force if necessary. Although I saw the merit in this battle, it was Hitchens’s war against religion which most disclosed the weaknesses of the man. There were only two occasions on which I heard him say something which was plainly untrue, the first his claim on Brian Lamb’s program C-SPAN of November 7, 1983 that England did not have journalism degrees and the second in a speech where he described North Korea as a religious state, one divine figurehead short of a Trinity. In combination, his hatred of religious bigotry, his love of argument, and his self-awareness of his rhetorical strength propelled him toward extreme positions against religion. He had committed himself to the proposition that religion poisons everything, and once Hitchens had established a proposition it was not within him to back away.
I recall an exchange he once had with Richard Dawkins, one of the few men who was his intellectual match and more. A question was posed: if you found yourself debating the last religious person on Earth, and you knew as a certainty that you could argue them out of their religious conviction, would you do so? Dawkins took the position that he would much prefer a world without religion in it, but Hitchens answered No, he would not. His given reason was that he lived for the dialectic and that conflict was much more interesting to him than agreement. Dawkins’s displeasure with this reasoning was abundantly apparent, and I myself share it. Having himself argued that religion poisons everything, here was Hitchens now saying that the poison at least served his selfish need for aesthetic interest. The unpleasant fact of the matter is that he did put boredom at the very top of his list of things to be avoided at all costs, and one must therefore confront the probability that this had its immoral aspect — for he was taking an immoral position, and on his own terms, by placing his need for polemic above the battle against (as he himself saw it) barbarism. In a review of Hitch-22, David Runciman gives plenty of ink to the job of arguing that Hitchens was a “political romantic” with a taste for “just enough political adventure to get the juices flowing, but not so much that long-lasting personal hardship might come his way.” It is, in my estimation, the most fair and credible negative assessment of Hitchens in print.
Christopher Hitchens was committed to the truth (note: small t) and endeavoured to fulfill that commitment as well as one can. He had Orwell’s power of facing unpleasant facts, not only in public matters but in his time of illness, and as a matter of course he sided with the just cause and usually against the powerful. This is why he came to be so widely admired. He was apportioned his share of faults and vices, and it must be said that he took too little care of himself, an unfortunate matter for a man with young children. As for his work, I think he will be remembered if at all as a man who chose his targets well and whose judgements were in the main correct, if not conventional. (The near total absence of indigenous peoples in his writings, particularly of the Americas, is something for which I have long meant to take him to task.) His charming and intelligent prose, and his fierce dedication to the principles of humanism, were injections of vital democratic nourishment into the American bloodstream. But there is one other thing. Among his talents was an extraordinary knack for the writing of obituaries. His passing is therefore doubly sad, first because his unique voice and his principled way of seeing will be missed, and second because it is precisely at a time such as this that we turned to him, and were edified.