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Hitchens: Arch-Fundamentalist?

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Christopher Hitchens, who died on Dec. 15, was like all of us: he embodied some of the best and also the worst of human nature. He did so, however, on a scale that was larger than the average life, on a very public stage, from his own bully pulpit. His vanity, his pomposity, his unshakeable conviction in the infallibility of his own opinions and in the judgment of his intellect offered a model of public discourse that was no different in essence from the fundamentalist circles he spent so much of his time deriding.

It was his life's work, he said, to combat superstition and religious totalitarianism. It is astonishing, then, that he, the arch-ironist, could not see the irony of his own absolutist position. And it was indeed a position, rather than a point of view -- a vehement, tub-thumping position -- that Hitchens always took as a matter of course, whatever the subject in hand. His blindness to his own righteousness reminded me in this regard of no one so much as Newt Gingrich, another champion of hubris over humility, who lambasted President Clinton for having an affair while he himself was busy with his own extra-marital dalliance.

But Hitchens the essayist and debater had far more in his arsenal than most politicians, preachers and mullahs. He had the benefit not only of a brilliant mind and a deep and also wide knowledge of literature and ideas. We was brought up through the English private school system and Oxford. That cast of Englishman lives in an environment where droll wit, cutting irony and the infamous put-down were requirements for survival, at least in the class of his generation.

Hitchens mastered them all, and put them to work, not on the English cultural stage, where they are part of everyday life and thus nothing out of the ordinary, but in America, which remains as yet something of an innocent in these dark arts. This is doubtless why their novelty still thrills here.

Add to these weapons the resuscitation of the old romantic trope -- surely long since shunted off into a back alley of history -- that writing, and certainly journalism, requires rage, alcohol and a bad boy posture if its voice is to be heard at all, and you have the makings of a grandiose figure in love with his own image and liable to turn violent, in speech if not in deed, if his pronouncements were crossed or questioned.

Hitchens loved to pronounce. He was as unbending and intransigent in his pronouncements as any of the objects of his scorn, those religious of any denomination who held to beliefs that he considered puerile. Thus my essential discomfort with most things Hitchens: He lived in a world of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. To his mind, anything that was not rational was not only wrong but stupid. Evil and idiocy were always out there, in someone else. In externalizing evil, as George Bush did, Hitchens permitted the end to justify the means. He sanctioned the abuse and murder of others (in Iraq) in the name of reason.

Hitchen's fanatical faith in the power of reason transferred onto others the dark forces that Freud called the id. Fascists and totalitarians did the same throughout the 20th century. As long as we continue to project evil out there, onto some other tribe, nation, or belief system, we fail to see that evil is a product, not of any religion or people in particular, but of the human heart. That is where the danger to civilization lies -- as close to us as our own jugular vein.

If all religions were banished, evil would still exist; though perhaps by another name. The Hindus, for example, prefer to call it ignorance; by which they mean not the absence of rational knowledge, but the darkness of a mind that is absent the wisdom and insight that is available when we transcend our own self-importance.

In a debate with Hitchens a few years ago, the journalist Chris Hedges made the point that Hitchens fulminated against the irrational without admitting the existence of the non-rational. Faith, Hedges said, does not necessarily need a church, a mosque or a synagogue. It is a non-rational intuition of the truth, goodness and beauty that lie alongside the darkness in any human heart; an intuition that spurs us to actions that transcend our drive for personal gain and even survival. Faith transcends our mania for conclusions. It allows us to live with uncertainty, change and, ultimately, death -- not through a belief in a better place that awaits us, but in the faith that all is well with the human heart, in spite of everything, here and now, even in the darkest hour.

Hitchens, however, was all about conclusions, and his most common conclusion was that he was right and you were wrong, unless you agreed with him. And yet he often was right, and always courageous and eloquent enough to challenge received opinion and sacred cows (Mother Teresa for one, whom he called the Albanian dwarf famous for peddling an antiquated form of religious fundamentalism). He was courageous enough, too, to take the contrarian view against both right and left sides of the aisle, and to prise open many people's minds, including my own, to ways of thinking about a subject or idea that they had never considered before. We all need our assumptions questioned, and Hitchens did a public service in being willing to oblige.

Yet I believe his greatest public service was in the example he set in his utter devotion to, and, yes, faith in the power of literature and in reason itself to shape the unfolding human story for the better. He was passionate about words as few are passionate about anything; so much so that he was writing almost until his last breath. The reading and the writing were his love, his meaning and, finally, his means of transcending the trials of his last weeks and months with cancer.

Everything he wrote was an implicit song of praise to writing itself, the one god he knew and loved. Dedication in that degree would be the envy of any believer. Hitchens was, after all, a man of passionate conviction; and in his own way a seeker after truth. For all his posturing and bombast, Christopher Hitchens devoted his life to what he believed in, and that is as good a legacy as any.

Roger Housden's new book, 'Ten Poems To Say Goodbye,' comes out with Harmony Books in February. You can pre-order now on Amazon.