When cultural critic, pundit, polemicist and essayist Christopher Hitchens announced he was dying last year, it’s likely a number of people wished they could stuff their own viaticum down his throat for any number of his sins. Christians likely hoped for a deathbed conversion from this, one of the most famous contemporary atheists, or as he would have called himself, “anti-theist.” Liberal pacifists who for so long considered Hitchens one of their own likely wanted him to recant his support for the Iraq War, a conflict he considered a humanitarian rescue of a failing nation rather than a corporatist, imperialist incursion by a rogue United States president. Still others might have hoped he’d say he was sorry for the perfectly manicured anathema he cast at Mother Teresa, Garrison Keillor, Gunter Grass, Michael Bloomberg, Valerie Plame, Juan Cole, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Fallwell, David Mamet, Henry Kissinger, the state of Israel, Bill Clinton, George Galloway, Sidney Bluementhal … I’m sorry. Such a list of his targets would be so Pynchonesque in length that it would have to postponed indefinitely. Hitchens was willing to pick fights with anybody.
In fact, the fawning obits already pouring in from all over the world would likely be richly ironic to a man who never respected the dead. When Reagan died, the Hitchens eulogized him as being dumb as a stump. When Fallwell died, Hitchens said if you gave him an enema you could bury him in a matchbox. Today we remember Hitchens the Orwell fan, the former Trotskyist (not Trotskyite, which is diminutive), the unregenerate drunk and flirt, the party animal with an unparalleled wit who could drink 8 vodkas and then write a perfect 1,000 essay in a half hour. The guy who loved to lord it over the hot co-eds, who brandished the words “moral” and “irony” as if they were his own guns taken out of packing oil nobody else was allowed to touch.
Try sometime to imagine you’re Christopher Hitchens, roaming around in rooms of people who talk slower than you do, who are not as quick, that you have an intellectual hammer to swing in rooms where everything looks like a nail. It helps not just that you’re smart but that you value ideas in the first place, of course. Many people, despite Susan Sontag’s Eeyore-like wail to the contrary, love big ideas. Few of us are given such a mind as Hitchens’ to articulate them. And yet to go into Hitchens’ universe is to not simply think differently but also to indulge several obsessions and even predictable modes, some of them as Homeric as science (we live in a world stamped by primitive monkey DNA), some of them crashingly idiotic (women aren’t funny). He made pet obsessions out of anti-Zionism, the misuse of language (he’d quibble about your word usage even if you largely respected the dicationary) the creeping dangers of radical Islam, the dangers of ethnic nationalism, petty demagogues like Al Sharpton and tinhorn dictators like Slobodan Milosevic. His idea fixes about fascism caused him to see it everywhere in sometimes annoying, reductionist fashion (everywhere from North Korea to heaven to Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic.) He abhorred terrorism, but said it was morally defensible against oppressive states. Nobody was allowed to use the word “irony” but him.
He was skeptical of those who were quick to shout charges of racism or anti-Semitism. But he was quick to defend his friends in disingenuous ways. He attacked those who said Noam Chomsky supported repressive or murderous Marxist regimes, but wouldn’t admit Chomsky was skeptical of independent reports of Sandinista oppression and Khmer Rouge genocide because he couldn’t stand any idea that would make the U.S. look morally acceptable by comparison. And of course Hitchens’ defense of and friendship with Holocaust-denier David Irving embarrassed him repeatedly and made easy fodder for Hitchens’ critics no matter what the subject. Even Henry Kissinger, when confronted by Hitchens’ charge that he was a war criminal for various activities in Southeast Asia and South America, simply pulled the “Hitchens is a Holocaust denier” defense, which, stupid as it was, tended to get repeated–later on, by liberals during the Iraq War.
Hitchens called himself disputative, not contrarian, but it’s not hard to locate him in the school of dialectic that Hegel devised and Marx made crude–every thing, whether it’s an idea or a people, will eventually come in conflict with its opposite. But Hitchens was an innovator of the process. It’s not enough to say God doesn’t exist (a banal idea by now, even for people who have come to realize it through ontological reasoning or, even simpler, through total lack of proof). Hitchens took it further and imagined how horrific a God as Christians imagined him would be–just like a North Korean dictator who saw all, knew all, forced you to worship him under threat of eternal sulfurous burning, and never let you roam free of his purview. As Hitchens famously put it remarking on heaven, “At least you could leave North Korea.”
But it also takes a certain arrogance to hold every supposition up for scrutiny, and then believe your own antithesis with such utter conviction. It’s a lonely world for those who ask, What if our sitting president is a criminal? What if giving a dying soldier his last rites violated the Hippocratic oath of “First do no harm” because you were lying to that soldier? What if evil American imperialism could be used to stop a more evil genocide? What if pacifism is just not moral but a moral abdication when you see someone suffering? Why doesn’t someone simply call the police on some of these Catholic priests accused of child sexual abuse rather than leave it to the church? What if Jerry Fallwell made everything up? What if smoking is a good thing?
To be a thinker doesn’t mean espousing each contrary idea, but at least confronting it. It’s that due diligence of thinking that makes it hardest, even for those who value it as a rich experience of life, not to mention those who don’t have time for it. For Hitchens, belligerence was not just an end, but the only way to work through consciousness and illuminate the things we value to find out if they are deserving. As a literary critic, he could not just respond to your ideas but locate them in the work of people who came before, find out what tradition you were thinking in even if you yourself didn’t know. He probably knew you were paraphrasing Flaubert or Locke or Spinoza or Plato before you did. (Bet you didn’t know “Dumb and Dumber” has roots in Flaubert, didja?)
His own drift from socialism allowed him to break from the left over the course of the ’90s. He disavowed Bill Clinton for his behavior during the Monica Lewinsky wars (and even snitched on a Clinton underling to investigators) and questioned the left’s feeble moral response to the evils and growing puissance of radical Islam. For a few months after 9/11, he seemed like the most reasonable leftist on Earth–saying that the past sins of the United States did not bear tolerance of a religious leader willing to kill thousands and revive a medieval caliphate, from safe within the bosom of countries where raped women are stoned to death for adultery.
Unfortunately, that magical lucidity escaped Hitchens, quickly and tragically, as he embraced the America-led Iraq invasion, one of stances he was probably best known for at the time of his death (if not his vitriolic screeds against all religions, Jew, Christian and Muslim) and for which he showed no remorse to the end. It’s likely that Iraq will be written on his Hitchens’ heart as surely as Calais was written on Bloody Mary’s or the swastika on Heidegger’s. Hitchens, a man who had always been best at thinking through an issue to the end, reducing it and then reducing it some more from its inconsistencies, we were shocked to find agreed with George Bush’s policy of pre-emptive war. His reasoning at the beginning seemed sound. As U.S. power had saved Bosnians from violent revanchism in the 1990s, so too could it save Iraqis in a state liquefying between the clumsy palms of a tyrant. More to the point, he said it was America’s responsibility to clean up its mistake in empowering Saddam Hussein in the past.
But in hindsight, it seemed that Hitchens, like other formerly wishy-washy liberals, had found a war he could like, an enemy he could hate enough to remove with violence. A lot of the little problems with his reasoning that seemed so small in 2003 would become big later: Saddam Hussein’s fascism, repugnant as it was, was a bulwark against the kind of Islamism Hitchens hated, not an example of it, and the invasion was more an opportunity to settle scores with enemies than confront the big idea. That made a foggy war foggier. Lumping Islam and fascism together into a sloganeering portmanteau word “Islamofascism” was the kind of activity Orwell might tell us to watch out for, since it robs each concept of their nuances and allows its audience (victims?) to become tools of the word’s creator. As for our adventure in Iraq, it didn’t seem to matter to Hitchens and the hawks that the people we were invading might understand our revenge motivation better than we did and therefore find us worth blowing up with roadside bombs. It didn’t seem to matter that we were fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq only because Al Qaeda knew we were coming there, not because Iraq posed a threat in the first place. It didn’t matter to Hitchens that the invasion would likely spark a civil war, even though the war’s architects had predicted it themselves. It didn’t matter that George Bush was in such a hurry to seize the political moment after 9/11 to garner support the war that there was no post-war planning for the conquered, obstreperous mess Iraq would become.
And the biggest fallacy of all, one that as far as I know Hitchens never had addressed to him, was that you can’t solve a humanitarian crisis by replacing it with a much bigger one.
We all know how it ended. On the same day Hitchens died, America snapped closed its military bases in Iraq, and The New York Times began running brand new information about American atrocities committed there, including the Haditha massacre. The bloodletting against civilians in Anbar Province shows again that all wars, no matter what they start for, usually turn into something else, and their meanings become subducted under larger ones. The good intentions of soldiers, if we take them for granted, eventually turn into a desire for self-preservation and revenge, amorality and moral perversion. After this became apparent and the war started to fall apart in 2004, Hitchens the humanitarian turned into Hitchens the propagandist, moving from critic, a role which he was born to play, to advocate, on the other side of the dialectical divide most often inhabited by liars and obfuscators. In his new role, he became a right-wing Sphinx, dangling tantalizing paradoxes and half truths about the war and insulting people who came back with disturbing facts. He continued to offer teasing admonitions that weapons of mass destruction were indeed found in Iraq when most investigators had debunked that myth. He suggested that an Al Qaeda terrorist leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi had been in Iraq as a guest of Saddam Hussein, even though he was mainly operating under an assumed name in a part of the country not under Saddam’s direct control. There is some question about whether Iraq intelligence agencies knew he was there and did nothing. But then again, George Bush had a chance to kill Zarqawi in Iraq early, but chose to do nothing because he needed extra reasons to invade. Zarqawi was being used by both sides. The Granada-invasion-era Hitchens saw through such casuistry; the Iraq-era Hitchens practiced it.
When documents emerged from Italy showing Iraq had tried to purchase enriched uranium from Niger and turned out later to be forged, Hitchens saw a conspiracy and suggested that the forgers were trying to embarrass the U.S. and obscure real proof. In other words: Fake proof is proof in lieu of real proof. Try running that by Karl Popper.
Hitchens would always remind you that he was in Iraqi and he saw Iraqis throw roses at the feet of invading Americans. True enough as it may be, a rose, as Yeats knew, is a symbol invested with millions of meanings, and in this case could well have meant “Don’t kill us, Yankee.”
This is the Hitchens many of us came to know in the 2000s–dishonest with a horrible case of bluster. He tried to put an elegant classy spin on what was actually name calling–”moral idiots,” in the case of Iraq War opponents or “bitch,” in the case of Richard Armitage. He used violent imagery including strangulation to describe what he’d like to do to “fake” pacifists on the “left.” A lot of us who hadn’t read him seriously yet (me included) likely took this personally. Meanwhile, he was buddying up with the architects of the war like Paul Wolfowitz and demanding journalists apologize to them for what was, to most of us, honest reporting that Iraq was going down in a frisson of anarchy. If you called it anarchy, he’d tell you you’re not allowed to use the word without reading Mikhail Bakunin. This wasn’t a contrarian but a person who seemed to have stood too close to power and caught its cold.
But what he was more known for as the war waned was his resumed religion line, attacking Israel, Islam, Hasidic jewish practices, Roman Catholic encyclicals with a wit remarkable for its endless serrations. But his bluster was intact. He once actually implied that things would have been different for famous murder victim Kitty Genovese if he had been there, ready with knife in hand to save the day. After Hitchens found out he was Jewish in the late 80s (his mother had committed suicide in the early 1970s but concealed her religion), he proudly waved the flag of Jewish anti-Zionist, but eventually conceded that Israel was a status quo power and therefore worthy of defending against a saber-rattling Iran. It’s another way to follow Hitchens’ thought process–take one hatred and then let it be subsumed by a bigger hatred.
If he wasn’t easy to pin down, it’s probably because his thought process looked inconsistent. But then, whenever you picked up his articles after a while, you sort of found the rhythm. The ethnic nationalism of Israel or Serbia were repugnant to him, the self-governing instinct of Iraqis and Palestinians were worth fighting for. Socialism still requires the strong to help the weak and Marxism requires that these self-governing impulses will flourish in any case. If the U.S. is helping a democratic impulse along, isn’t that sort of Marxist?
Of late, Hitchens seemed to have become acceptable to leftists again. He endorsed Obama and called the McCain-Palin ticket “appalling.” He explained his position to conservative super-witch Laura Ingraham with a little bit of reason and a lot of flirting during her talk show, a gambit that embarrassed the silly woman no end (something most good lefties would be too politically correct to try). Lately, he reviewed David Mamet’s book about his conservative conversion and very easily cut through most of the dumb reasoning. In a word, Mamet’s book was “irritating” and Hitchens believes the playwright didn’t really understand Friedrich Hayek, that dubious Austrian butt of wine that present day conservatives purple their lips on.
People talk of his charm and his loyalty to friends. But Hitchens turned on many of them after 9/11. Katha Pollitt of “The Nation,” Hitchens’ former stomping grounds until 9/11, damned him with faint praise in her obit while moving through a list of objections to his sexism, his bullying and his ability to finesse imbecilic ideas and black and white reasoning with airtight sentences that sounded a lot like logic. (Say, his take on humor, which in Hitchens view serves only the biological imperative to get laid, and is thus only the vouchsafe of males–a pretty interesting idea until you remember that guys tell jokes to each other, too, as do women.)
But Pollitt, now in the rare position of having the last word with her old frere, can for her closeness to him do much more harm with a smaller blade. Which do you think is worse: Some online Christian zealot insisting that Hitchens is hellbound for his beliefs, or this Pollitt disavowal of her colleague and friend: “I don’t know how long Christopher will be read. Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones.”
In a word: Ouch! She’s right. Everybody remembers George Orwell. Nobody remembers Leslie Fiedler. But the line is more delicious because Pollitt is a scorned friend. Her comment limns underlying hurt, pettiness and jealousy. She seems smart enough to know that, but didn’t care.
I remember Hitchens’ obit for his own pal, Susan Sontag, and in his introduction how he said the private mind has its own life, its own joys, but that the best intellectuals must sally out of the library and bring their ideas to bear on public discourse, lest they (or their work) become timorous curios in a library; perhaps this was a subtle dig at his compeer, who was probably more famous but nowhere near as prolific as Hitchens. As such things go, this memory of Sontag sounded an awful lot like it was about Hitchens himself. This was a guy drawn to Bosnia, Iraq, Lebanon, civil war-torn Cyprus and other hot spots, a guy who didn’t seem to like being alone, who needed the opinions of others, perhaps even dolts, to whet his observations, sharpen the life of his mind. He wrote about his death a lot, saying he’d entered the land of malady, but that the topic of death bores even him and offers no irony. He reported on it dutifully, explaining the awful food and the chemo, but his last real ideological conflict was the prosaic insistence that he would not get religion at the 11th hour. His comfort was fighting against those who would offer him comfort. But think of how that offers no solace. If he–if none of us rationalists–had Christians to fight with, what would be the truth to explore here? Is it that death is a stupid, not remotely illuminating? Should death even be part of a person’s narrative when it offers no clue to how they lived? Maybe it’s simply the end of the fight, which is why Hitchens seemed to keep writing prodigiously in the face of it and not giving in. Is it only to rage against the dying of the light?
I’m not arguing for Christianity here. But Hitchens’ last demand, that death should be illuminated only in its awfulness, seems to be a continuation of his black and white thinking, his lack of empathy at the expense of reason. He said that it would be humane to tell people on their deathbeds there was no God, because it would be the truth. It’s admirable to deny your own pain. It’s a little arrogant to deny others’ pain for them.
Pollitt was right in one sense: If Hitchens had had a 1984 in him, he’d stand a better chance of being remembered. People who create are always remembered more than people who disassemble. You can wave that off as jealousy or curtness. But if you take a broader view, you could also disavow Hitchens as little more than a professional opinion-haver. He said that his business was irony, and he used the word as if he had patented it, allowing none of the looser forms available. I’ll try to approximate what he meant by it through his repeated denials of what it wasn’t: Irony to him meant living in two realities, one belonging to people who think they know what’s going on and one belonging to people who actually do.
But his real career was simple polemics. And people who make this their business are always selling half a reality–the thesis without antithesis. Even those of us who call ourselves liberal and define ourselves by nothing else live in half-knowledge–live for an argument that like Caliban runs about looking for its reflection and never finds it. It’s artists who actually have bragging rights when it comes to synthesizing reality, which is why Hitchens prized literature so much. It might also be why he was so deliciously waspish: He wasn’t an artist and perhaps he was simply bitter about it (as many critics are). Susan Sontag called intepretation the intellect’s revenge on art, and though Hitchens likely agreed with her, his job was to murder the sensual and erotic every day with Enlightenment cutlery. You could, if you see things with the black and white chauvinism he did, see him simply as a jealous non-artist who used his great mind to live a well-lubricated life winning petty arguments, mostly by quibbling with tiny semantic points. He left us no great reporting, like “All the President’s Men.” He left us no great novel, like “Moby Dick.” He is not better than Jim Carrey for having discovered Flaubert seeds in “Dumb and Dumber.” You could say he taught us how to think, but Steve Jobs also died recently, and the fruit of his different thinking is so ubiquitous that I can’t process these words without it.
If he left me anything–a writer who never met the man or saw him in public–it’s the idea that thinking is a process that must be constantly honed, that assumptions must be constantly questioned. This is a way of life as joyous as discovering a new kind of butterfly and as tedious as continuously taking out garbage. If we get too comfortable with the way we think–something that’s easier to do as we get older and our minds are less dynamic–then we’re doing it wrong.
That I’ve learned by confronting the man’s ideas. And for that, I’ve got to thank him.