An obligatory eulogy for a truly great man
I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn’t ever have to rely on the press for my information.
- The eminently quotable Christopher Hitchens
A people is a detour of nature to get to six or seven great men.— Yes: and then to get round them
- Friedrich Nietzsche
I became a journalist, though some may dispute that title, for remarkably similar reasons. The cacophonous drumbeat for the Iraq War was my political alarm clock. At the time, I was living in Seattle in a place charmingly dubbed “The Heroin Hotel.” The first time I heard the name Christopher Hitchens, I was babysitting a scab-ridden junkie who was going through detox. The building manager/den mother needed to go get some pot for the junkie’s nausea, and asked if I’d keep an eye on him. He was sweating profusely, groaning, and periodically puking into a bucket. I turned on the TV to drown out the painful retching. And there was Hitchens, making an extremely erudite case for war. I thought, “Who is this pretentious, lying piece of shit?” So, for me, Hitchens’s legacy includes both his impeccable grasp of the English language, and the needless death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
Though I hated him immediately, what made me dislike him more was that I eventually came to like him. The title of his Mother Teresa takedown, Missionary Position, is enough to enshrine him in the halls of awesomeness for all eternity. And despite his ever-shifting justifications for the Iraq War, it’s damn hard not to appreciate the rhetorical venom he heaped on supremely deserving religious idiots.
As a guy who’s tangentially involved in the skeptic/atheist community, I’m friends with people who’ve shared with him scotch and conversation, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat jealous (and when Hitchens actually typed my name, I felt honored). But as a guy who’s tangentially involved in the skeptic/atheist community, Hitchens bothered me greatly, for the same reasons I’m bothered greatly by the skeptic/atheist community: the weird compartmentalization, the seeming inability to apply that cold reason to politics. How much more useful would these smart people be in discrediting myths like Saddam’s WMD than, say, obviously ridiculous propositions like God or chupacabras?
Hitchens can be counted among a tragic number of intellectuals to whom 9/11 represented the moment they stopped being intellectuals. He was so quick to denounce Islam, for its role in “terrorism,” without a) honestly defining terrorism, and b) sufficiently addressing its underlying socioeconomic motivations. The fact of the matter is that what we call “terrorism” is just relatively ineffective warfare for poor people. I’m all for mocking every religion, publishing the odd Muhammad (PB&J) cartoon, and challenging the moronic political correctness of the left. But without repeatedly addressing — or ignoring altogether — the root causes of terrorism, Hitchens proved himself as myopic as Sam Harris. (And if you’re in doubt about Harris being more a reactionary than he is guided by empirical data, check out this debate he had with Robert Wright. And, sorry, but if you’re unswayed by Wright’s fact-based arguments it’s likely because you’re an illogical Harris fanboy/girl.)
Religion, just like hating religion, can be used to justify all manner of terrible things. One of those terrible things was the Iraq War — even though it had absolutely nothing to do with it. Christopher Hitchens used his undeniable genius to help justify one of the greatest tragedies of our time. And reading a near-endless string of sycophantic goodbyes from people who’re supposed to pride themselves on their capacity to reason is, for me, a great deal sadder than his untimely death.
(And for a more thorough, and likely satisfying, counterpoint to the slew of postmortem blowjobs, read this excellent Alex Pareene piece at Salon – or this equally honest obit by John Cook at Gawker.)
In Hitchens’s last article for Vanity Fair, he rightly eviscerated Nietzsche for his notoriously awful sentiment: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” But Freddy had a point about humanity being a detour to get to a few great people, and then round them. For some atheists and skeptics, Christopher Hitchens could arguably be counted among the few great people we needed to get to. And now we need to get past him.