I recently finished a book of essays from Christopher Hitchens titled Arguably, published just two months before he died of cancer in 2011. The articles came from numerous publications — though predominantly The Atlantic and Vanity Fair — anywhere from the late 1990’s to 2010, and the subjects ranged from Thomas Jefferson to George Orwell all the way to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
The compendium is roughly 750 pages long, and written in that very small print with which it sometimes took a half hour to get through only 9 or 10 of them. Just as when Hitchens made TV appearances, his books force the audience to go at his pace. For admirers of his writing and worldview, this exercise is welcomed. If you aren’t, however, one to get jazzed about American history or geopolitics, then it’s probably not something you would pick up in the first place.
Somewhere within Arguably — and I wouldn’t know for sure, since I didn’t have a pen on me at the time and couldn’t highlight the section — Christopher Hitchens talked about what writing meant to him. Or, perhaps more specifically, how “useless” it made him feel when he couldn’t write, or didn’t have the motivation to write, while undergoing chemotherapy. Whether directly or indirectly (again, I don’t remember), Hitchens said if he could not write, he didn’t have reason to keep on.
To me this was the most poignant passage in the book. It was acutely personal, and it resonated because it’s the perfect way to explain how I, too, feel about writing. Christopher Hitchens exhausts a good deal of Arguably reviewing other books, and only on a handful of occasions is it not in the form of all-out criticism of everything that author got wrong. But through his often esoteric language (I probably underlined 200 words I didn’t know) and relentless search for the truth, one has a difficult time coming to the conclusion that Hitchens is anything other than a literary authority. Despite his perception on TV as someone who liked to argue, or assume unpopular and controversial positions on issues, Hitchens’s identity was inescapably married to reading and writing.
That is not to say his faculties didn’t fail him on occasion. Even in the final days leading up to his death he was, without question, one of the few public intellectuals in support of the second War in Iraq. His views on Islam were entirely unpopular among the Left, and if he were still alive he would be considered — along with individuals like Sam Harris, Bill Maher, or Richard Dawkins — a racist, or an Islamophobe. (I myself am not such a lefty, and would not classify him that way, but most on my “side” would lean in that direction.)
As someone who appreciates Hitchens, I happen to celebrate his inconsistencies rather than treating them as some sort of black mark on his character. He simply has too long of a track record being pro-labor and anti-establishment. Every aspect of his ideology led back to being for free speech and for human rights; even in his attacks on Islam, it was never about Muslims as people. It was about the literal teachings of the Koran and how suppressive it is towards free speech, women, the rights of homosexuals, and the like.
The point is, unlike most contemporary journalists and political commentators, one could never put Hitchens in a box. He didn’t fall in line with either the Republicans or Democrats, and I think it’s fair to say he had a decent amount of contempt for the leadership of both parties. From his 2008 article for Vanity Fair titled America The Banana Republic, Hitchens spends several piercing lines diagnosing who exactly the U.S. Government takes care of when they write policy:
In a statement on the huge state-sponsored salvage of private bankruptcy that was first proposed last September, a group of Republican lawmakers, employing one of the very rudest words in their party’s thesaurus, described the proposed rescue of the busted finance and discredited credit sectors as “socialistic.” There was a sort of half-truth to what they said. But they would have been very much nearer the mark — and rather more ironic and revealing at their own expense — if they had completed the sentence and described the actual situation as what it is: “socialism for the rich and enterprise for the rest.”
I have heard arguments about whether it was Milton Friedman or Gore Vidal who first came up with the apt summary of a collusion between the overweening state and certain favored monopolistic concerns, whereby the profits can be privatized and the debts conveniently socialized, but another term for the same system would be “banana republic.”
In my teenage years I occasionally watched Christopher Hitchens — who was a semi-regular guest — when he appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher. Back then I enjoyed listening to him the way a child would, because Hitchens was always the most controversial personality on the panel. When the conversation grew boring or tiresome, I could always count on him the liven things up. But that was before I knew anything.
In my early 20’s I went back to old Real Time clips on YouTube featuring Hitchens, which transitioned into some of his more popular videos. Notably: debating the existence of god with Catholics, Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
That is always going to be Christopher Hitchens’s biggest contribution to my life. He challenged my deepest thoughts and beliefs and forced me to see another way. Some religious people would probably conclude that Hitchens seduced audiences with his English accent, his ten-dollar words, or his clever punchlines. If that is the case then I fell hook, line, and sinker.
The reason that can’t be true, and the reason I am comfortable with my beliefs, is because they have already been put through the bullshit test — which Hitchens only made stronger. He was very clear, in his numerous debates on god, that the aim was not to tell people what to think. Rather he wanted to teach people a way to think, notably to be skeptical, and to rely on provable evidence and the scientific method over tradition and superstition.
As an aside, I don’t think Hitchens singlehandedly persuaded me from Believer to Atheist. Even though I tried for a majority of my life to believe that god was there, that he listened to my prayers and had a special interest in my life and well-being, I can trace my “doubt” back to kindergarten class. From the very first moment I heard a five year-old classmate mention how god intervened to get him a new bicycle, or whatever, I thought that can’t possibly be true. From day one it didn’t make logical sense to my math-centric mind. So more than anything, Hitchens said in a way that made sense everything I already believed. It just took someone to say it, and bring me home to the side I never really left.
Christopher Hitchens was a heavy smoker. He was also a fan of the bottle. He carried with him a justified arrogance and swagger that is impossible to emulate unless you know you’ve got it. Many have tried, and many have failed, to be as cool in the heat of a contentious disagreement as Hitch was. Unironically, in debates with Catholic priests and clergymen, or Jewish rabbis, or Muslim imams, it was Hitchens who sounded like he knew god was on his side.
What can I say? I miss the guy. I miss that I got to “know” him only after he had already passed away. I can’t consult him on the Donald Trump Presidency, or the Hillary Clinton failure, or the Bernie Sanders movement. I can’t hear him shit on everything that I hold dear, or open a new perspective on everything I’m so against.
Luckily we still have books, and his words will live on. His videos on YouTube will remain a garden of information and food for thought. And it’s in using these resources that have made Hitchens something equivalent to a moral compass in my life.
Here is why: Hitchens was a strong supporter of equality for all races and genders. He was the one who said the only proven way to raise the floor in a society is the empowerment of women. He believed The American Constitution is the most important document in the history of the civilized world. He always took the side of the poor and the oppressed in their perpetual struggle against those who own virtually all of the world’s spoils. And lastly but not least, he spent his career speaking truth to power, and fighting against the plagues of hypocrisy and anti-intellectualism.
These are the people everyone should, in my humble opinion, want to have in their society. He was how I hope my future kids turn out to be. And in my own case, he is how I want to be. I can’t give a greater compliment to somebody, and it’s kind of appropriate that that person happens to be a dead guy.
Hitchens remains of great import, now as much as ever, because he proved that one size does not fit all. On the one hand he supported George W. Bush’s War in Iraq, and on the other he voted for Barack Obama in 2008 (and would have again in 2012). On the one hand he was a self-described Socialist (specifically Trotskyist), and on the other he was a materialist who loved the idea of America and the benefits of Capitalism. Every belief he held, and opinion he shared, came attached with it some degree of nuance.
There is a lesson in there somewhere, for me and anyone else that stumbles upon those YouTube videos. That it doesn’t matter where you fall on the political spectrum, or whether or not you choose to believe in a personal god. What’s of consequence is your process, the logical consistency and intellectual honesty behind it.
So if you are up for a new challenge, Christopher Hitchens will be ready, and waiting for you.