The Persistent Appeal Of Christopher Hitchens

12/15/2016 11:25 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2016
Christopher Hitchens.
Christopher Hitchens.

I don’t stand among the ranks of journalists and editors who knew Christopher Hitchens personally and could boast of his company, which was by almost all accounts awe-inspiring, or his friendship, which seems to have been unusually warm-hearted and expansive. In fact, having been born in 1991, I instead belong to the even larger group of millennial undergraduates whose political coming of age coincided with the peak of Hitchens’ fame, as well as the tragic end-point, five years ago today, of his very public battle with cancer.

Few non-fiction writers have commanded such a passionate following among my peer group. Hitchens still has more admirers and imitators than perhaps any other “public intellectual”, dead or alive; Gore Vidal, Edmund Wilson, and H. L. Mencken have faded into obscurity by comparison, and even Hitchens’ political nemesis Noam Chomsky stands no more firmly on the popular pedestal. Due to his powerful presence on Youtube, to many fans he remains as fantastically alive as he ever was. (Even now, whenever I am bored or listless, my habit is to google “Christopher Hitchens essays” in search of some brilliant piece of invective I haven’t yet come across.) All this is partly a testament to his famous distaste for boredom: on every topic, from Benjamin Franklin to dust storms over Sydney, he always managed to find something interesting to say.

This refusal to bore his readers sometimes got him into trouble. He often allowed wit and erudition to hog the stage when simplicity would have made his arguments more compelling, or his emotion more poignant (it was in this sense he fell short in his essay on Mark Daily, which had the potential to be sublime). His angry combativeness, though endlessly entertaining, was a barrier to persuasion. He sometimes seemed perfectly content to preach to the converted, and to treat opponents with a heavy disdain that precluded friendly agreement. It was perhaps this trait—this unrelenting desire to amuse or provoke or do battle—that prevented him from producing the serious, everlasting works of intellect of which he was certainly capable. I wonder if he ever read Bertrand Russell’s argument that “one of the surest signs of a second-rate mind is lack of courage to be boring”, and if so, what his response would have been. On occasions where the inherent interest of the subject matter did allow him to abandon his habitual flashiness, he produced some of the most effective writing of his career—his cleanly executed denunciation of Henry Kissinger being the most obvious example.

Hitchens’ willingness to fly in the face of public opinion—though some have ungenerously construed this as a disingenuous desire to be original—in fact remains a powerful example to all who aspire to intellectual bravery. In his consistent and unapologetic defense of free speech against the forces of intolerance (as in the cases of Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoons), he often put his own skin on the line. In his controversial support for the Iraq War, he was guided by his native opposition to totalitarianism in general, as well as his fierce antipathy towards the brutal Baathist regime specifically. Even as setback after setback caused criticism of the war to grow louder, he refused to budge, proving himself capable of enduring extreme unpopularity for the sake of his convictions.

Hitchens outside the office of the New Statesman.
John Dempsie/Associated Newspapers/Rex/Rex USA
Hitchens outside the office of the New Statesman.

Isaiah Berlin, writing about a hypothetical meeting between Voltaire and Shelley, proposed that Shelley would have been

shocked by ... the apparent triviality and finickiness, the almost spinsterish elaboration of Voltaire’s malice, the preoccupation with tiny units, the subatomic texture of experience; he would have felt horror or pity before such wanton blindness to the large moral and spiritual issues of his own day - causes whose universal scope and significance painfully agitated the best and most awakened minds.

It was Hitchens’ special talent to have combined the virtues of both men—to have taken a serious Shelleyesque stand on the great issues of the day, while always remaining keenly aware of “those small, half-concealed but crucial distinctions and incongruities which give individuality and savour to experience.” He was simultaneously principled, intelligent, and fascinating—a rare combination in today’s world of “think tanks” and calculators on the one hand and ungainly fundamentalists on the other.

Do I wish he were still alive? It goes without saying—and I have no doubt that most people who knew him, opponents included, still miss him dearly five years on. What would he have to say about the Trump Presidency, and the resurgence of European fascism? The dwindling twilight of the post-war European project? We can be sure that he would have served us up with something at once scathing and illuminating. Alas, just as the world began to need reminding of totalitarianism’s perils, its most eloquent resister since Orwell was taken from us.

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