A Belated Obituary of Christopher Hitchens
BY EDWARD CONE
Imagine a man whose heart and mind are of the purest magnolia-white nobility, a man whose devotion to his championed causes knows no limit. A man whose deft yet savage wit collapses the elaborate charades of his enemies. A man who in debate is feared by his opponents, revered by his admirers and reviled by his detractors. A man whose pen, described by some, perhaps inevitably, as acid-tipped, has felled with ease a coterie of smarmy bureaucrats, polished generals, lazy talking heads, fraudulent journalists, Henry Kissinger and at least one sleazy President of the United States. A man so widely read and watched and admired he cannot comfortably walk to his local liquor store, puffing on an entire pack of cigarettes as he makes his merry way, without being hounded by his public who are never ungenerous with their affection, not when it comes to this man, this hero, this standard-bearing knight upon a hill silhouetted by a fast-falling sun: soon the land will be twilit, and after that swallowed by darkness, and who then will protect the citizenry from the myriad crimes of unreason? Our knight-savior labors through the shaded hours without thought of cessation, slashing away at his enemies, and ours. Morning arrives and the gallant peasantry dutifully make their journey hillward before carrying away on their shoulders our hero. In the distance a small but important pack of charlatans and fools, on their faces evidence of either great anger or pallid submission, make known their disapproval, shaking their fists and yelling unkind words. This scene does not escape our knight-savior, and he smiles. He welcomes their hatred
If you were the late Christopher Hitchens, you envisioned this magnificence in the mirror every morning and knew it was true.
The charge, if you pay attention to this sort of thing, is a familiar one. After the September 11th attacks Hitchens changed, or maybe the ghastly attacks brought out his true character. He happily captained a cheerleading squad for endless war — provided, it seems, the wars were conducted against Muslims, the mass of New Hitlers not just barely visible on the horizon but here, making their homes among us, patronizing the same stores, enrolling their children in the same schools. The grand Republic harbors inside its borders the barbarian enemy who, through terrorism and superstition, works to bring down the whole thing amid great fanfare and semtex.
This is not to say Hitchens had descended into the cheap bigotry of Daniel Pipes, burdening himself with weekly appearances on Fox News, ogling Megyn Kelly and raging against the shame, the absolute shame! of the halal cart across the street from the newsroom. His crusade against the New Hitlers had much more to do with his soggy reflection than any deep-felt conviction of imminent danger.
Christopher Eric Hitchens was born April 13th, 1949 — Jefferson’s birthday, he liked to point out, and also Beckett’s, glory which by now reflects quite dimly — to middle class parents. His father was a naval officer. Hitchens from an early age showed a sterling intellect and was groomed for success. A too-often repeated favorite anecdote of those early years has at the heart of it a quote from his mother: “If there is going to be an upper class in this country then Christopher is going to be in it.” His parents certainly did their best on this front. Hitchens was educated at the Leys School, a boarding school in Cambridge, and attended Balliol College, Oxford, which counts on its distinguished roster alumni the likes of Adam Smith, Aldous Huxley and Boris Johnson, Bullingdon Club member, current mayor of London and toff everyman.
It was at Oxford that Hitchens’s reputation for brilliance began to take hold. (And should Oxford come up in conversation, Hitchens would not fail to inform his companions that he was a student contemporary of Bill Clinton, and while they weren’t friends they did allegedly share at different times a girlfriend.) He was politically active, joining the Labour Party before being expelled over his opposition to the war in Vietnam. During the tempestuous months of 1968 Hitchens languished in England while his socialist brethren in Paris tried their hand at, if not revolution, then passionate protest. (Forty years later he would write in City Journal, “As someone born in 1949, I prefer to consider myself not a mere sixties person but a soixante-huitard.”)
The immediate post-Oxford years found Hitchens working Fleet Street. If the preceding sentence has about it a disagreeable overture of prostitution it is not the fault of the present writer. For while Hitchens was not precisely toting his jolly goods to passersby, he did find himself engaged in a bit of journalistic harlotry, gaining employment as social science editor for the Times Higher Education Supplement before being fired and moving on to the New Statesman. It was here he met not only his maybe-well-maybe-not-I-don’t-know-lover Martin Amis but also Ian McEwan, with Salman Rushdie the two future leading hacks of British letters.
By 1981 the humble isle of his birth could no longer contain his expanding ego. He moved to America, writing for The Nation and polishing further his reputation as literary polemical journalist. The following year he began composing for that magazine a bi-weekly column that ran for twenty years, Minority Report. Throughout that decade and the one that followed he published in the London Review of Books, the New Statesman (still), Harper’s, Granta, etc. many cogent essays attacking and lampooning Establishment liars, thieves, murderers and bores of all nations, from Margaret Thatcher to Mother Teresa to Reagan to Bush, not to mention the joyful savagery with which he lambastes his many hack colleagues. Books were brought out, both collections of previously published material — Prepared for the Worst and For the Sake of Argument being the first, best two — and original works like the pamphlet-length On Monarchy, to this day the finest attack on monarchical pretensions since Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and The Missionary Position, his all-too-brief takedown of Mother Teresa. (It was around this time he produced and narrated a rather watchable television documentary on Blessed Teresa of Calcutta called Hell’s Angel.) C-SPAN chat shows and their like could not have him on often enough, and he obliged them, filling an hour here and there with sparkling loquacity, taking on all comers, be they hosts, fellow guests, callers-in, it mattered not. (Many of these vintage C-SPAN apperances may be seen for free on their website.)
And then Christopher Hitchens, Trotskyist, a man who once called Saddam Hussein “the first visionary Arab statesman since Nasser,” a ferocious critic of the 1991 Gulf War, had come to embrace with startlingly few reservations his role as war propagandist, Bush-booster, a man who could call war criminal Paul Wolfowitz his friend and mean it. What happened?
It was, as Melville put it, a clear steel-blue day. On the morning of the eleventh day of the ninth month of the two-thousand-and-first year CE, a decades-long career and well-earned reputation were erased in the time it took three planes to hit their targets in Manhattan and Arlington County, Virginia, and another plane to be brought down by its own innocent passengers near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Almost immediately, Hitchens took to his familiar stomping grounds between the covers of The Nation, but he also ventured outward, daring to tread upon foreign territory from which he would launch loquacious missiles against those who would shortly be his former comrades. He attacked Noam Chomsky, a man whom he had labeled just months prior in Letters to a Young Contrarian “a most distinguished intellectual and moral dissident.” He went further in the pages of The Spectator, a right-wing British weekly, draping over the Left a great blanket on which was embroidered the words Blame America First, and he hesitatesd not at all to deliver a few petty kicks and stomps to the teeth of his unseeing target.
Beginning as a student, at least, Hitchens attached himself to many causes, crowning himself principle defender of the trampled upon, or warred upon, or bored upon. He had his whole adult life exhibited a love for the violence of verbal battle, parrying and riposting, taking in debate the utmost pleasure delivering the death-blow. It was obvious to his readers that Hitchens never had much time for the nuts-and-bolts nuance of social activism — just imagine the late Hitchens penning a modern version of Agrarian Justice. For him it was ever a fight, ever a battle to be waged against an enemy, ever the oppressed or potentially oppressed standing up to their ostensible oppressor, and this tendency among others had not infrequently led to accusations of champagne socialism going all the way back to his days at Oxford.
Hitchens had his political idols — he would have taken issue with that word — and it is no surprise to anyone that he attempted to emulate them. Well known to his readers, these idols had long been George Orwell and Thomas Paine. He had written a book on each man, Why Orwell Matters and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (the latter book having on its cover, somewhat unnervingly, not a portrait of Paine but a jacket-sized picture of its author), and many articles and essays besides. When discussing or writing about Orwell it was not unusual that Hitchens recoursed to praising him for being on the right side of history when it came to fascism and communism; this was of course a common thread in the public tapestry of Christopher Hitchens. With Paine the reasons for admiration were even clearer: Here was a man who with just his pen and his reason helped foment a revolution that changed the world; more than that, here was a man who took it to Edmund Burke in defense of the French Revolution and the rights of men everywhere to loose themselves from the shackles of tyranny, and who brought the fight to his own fellow citizens on matters of Christianity in The Age of Reason, a book over which John Adams, second President of the United States, labeled him a “blackguard”— others were less kind. Paine eventually died a drink-sodden old radical, refusing to his very last breath to recant his Deism and accept into his heart Jesus Christ, an example our hero has done his best to emulate.
Hitchens badly wished to be remembered as having come down on the right side of history. Before 9/11 he lacked a truly historic opponent — yes, it was true that chronicling with great wit the obloquy of the American imperial experiment was important and rewarding and enjoyable. But the American government was no Nazi Germany, and so Hitchens trudged onward through the years without a Great Enemy against whom he might test himself. Well, one late summer morning he no longer had to worry about that, no, there now existed an existential threat so virulent, so powerful that not only were American lives endangered, but the whole of western civilization, all its liberal democratic values, its entire record of high-minded philosophy going back to Thales of Miletus became threatened with imminent extinction. Here, finally, was his chance to play Paine as he took on the imperial tyranny of the British Empire, his chance to play Orwell who mustered all his literary and journalistic might against the powers of Franco and Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin. He fought back.
Did he ever.
In a column for The Nation on September 20th, 2001, “Against Rationalization,” Hitchens wrote that “the bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there’s no point in any euphemism about it.” We have here an early evocation of a relatively small band of terrorists as a collective New Hitler, ready to slaughter us in our sleep. He concluded his column: “But there’s only one way of stating the obvious, which is that this is an enemy for life, as well as an enemy of life.” Witness the not-so-surreptitious commitment to neverending warfare. It is of course important to note that it was not Hitchens doing the fighting and killing and dying, and it surely was not his children who were murdered or maimed irreversibly in a drone attack.
If Afghanistan was straightforward enough, Iraq was somewhat more convoluted. The reader is naturally aware of the ever-evolving casus belli, from violation of the 1991 cease-fire agreement, to Saddam Hussein attempting an assassination of George H.W. Bush in 1993, to the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction, to the need to establish a peaceful democracy for the Iraqi people, to the risk of imminent civil war should withdrawal begin, etc. The justifications are many and Hitchens, as the years went by, proudly trotted out all of them. (He continued to his last cigarette, insisting that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that some of these weapons, or at least evidence of their existence, were uncovered. It is likely even Cheney found that one comical.) He spewed paeans to violence with a bloodlust so visceral one was surprised he had not taken to assaulting Arab-looking passersby or eating their children. In a 2004 lecture at Kenyon College, he spoke sullenly regarding the failures of Fallujah: “The death toll is not nearly high enough … too many [insurgents, we may generously assume] have escaped.”
Should Hitchens, through some trick of the cosmos, read these words he would shrug them off easily enough. “The author is a contemptuous enemy of reason and liberty,” he might say, uncharacteristically failing to fit in somewhere the word “lugubrious.” These charges he has likely heard before. One he might fail to dismiss so easily, however, is as evident as any of the others: Christopher Hitchens had become an awful bore. His Slate.com column was more tiresome and predictable than anything he had attempted previously. Every week his audience was permitted to enjoy, in staid dying prose that lost its vigor years ago, a pitiable second-rate ventriloquist act sans dummy. His longer compositions, including short essays for Vanity Fair and his dubiously self-congratulating and poorly-titled memoir Hitch-22, read like unfortunate parodies of the writer he once was. Only in God is Not Great did he approach something like his vintage self.
It is early evening on June 30th of the present year. A short note is posted on the Vanity Fair website authored by Hitchens himself. “I have been advised by my physician,” it reads, “that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my esophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice.” The diagnosis was esophageal cancer, which was the same affliction that terminated his father. It is not a disease easily or often defeated, a fact acknowledged by Hitchens in a short essay for Vanity Fair, “Topic of Cancer,” a surprisingly reflective survey of his struggle.
His remaining days were few. Barring — he would excuse the expression — a late conversion on the road to Damascus, Christopher Hitchens died a second death having been wrong to the last on the most important issue of his time.
Mr. Hitchens is survived by an empty ideology, several thousand cigarette cartons and too many bottles of scotch to count. He has been missed.