I knew Christopher Hitchens casually, envied his rhetorical fluency, abhorred his interventionist cheerleading, and was offended by his arrogantly dismissive manner toward those he deemed his inferiors in debate or discussion. Perhaps, his sociopathic arrogance is epitomized by the kind of explanation he often gave of why he was such a heavy drinker, as for instance, “..because it makes other people less boring. I have a great terror of being bored.” I confess that someone who needs to drink hard liquor to bear the company of others likely to be a bore, if not a boor! Presumably as result of his profligate life style, Hitchens surprisingly graduated from Oxford with rather paltry third class honors. If some non-academic institution of appraisal were available to offset Hitchens’ undeniable gifts of the mind with his deficiencies of character and heart, the Oxford grade would seem deserved even if Hitchens had been a dutiful student.
I was particularly appalled one time when we were on a panel together by the way he insulted a member of the audience for putting a question awkwardly. There was something so chilling about this revelation of character as to cancel out for me his brilliance of expression reinforced by an astonishing erudition. It coheres with his willingness to forgo second thoughts about his advocacy of launching an unlawful aggressive war against Iraq, despite the false pretenses and bloody ordeal that the Iraqi people endured, and continue to endure.
There is no doubt that Hitchens faced his own difficult death bravely, without succumbing to deathbed retreats, whether from stubbornness or authenticity it is hard to say. He apparently made many people happy with his dogmatic embrace of atheism during a time of religious revival in this country and elsewhere. He had the courage to express his convictions, but not much empathy, and certainly no humility, for those among us who take religion and spirituality seriously.
For reasons never made persuasive, Hitchens, as disappointed Trotskyites often do, lurched to the right in the early 1990s, and for a while even seemed to join the neoconservative dance. He resigned in 2002 as a columnist for The Nation on ideological grounds, and was clearly more comfortable in the slicker, sicker world of Vanity Fair, and also where his work was far more acclaimed.
Hitchens is for me a hard case when it comes to deciding what to remember and what to forget. As indicated, I found his demeanor generally unpleasant in that Oxonian highbrow sense and his late politics reactionary and essentially mindless in the sense of indifference to the relevance of law, truth, and, most of all, the rights of others to shape their own destinies in the spirit of self-determination. At the same time, someone who unabashedly depicted the criminality of Kissinger’s embrace of Pinochet’s torture and crimes against humanity, deserves some sort of post-mortem salute. As well, like Hitchens disillusioned by the American two party system, I voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 elections, and although it did not contribute to the Bush victory, I came to reconsider my view that the choice between Bush and Gore was of no consequence. I do retain the view that Nader discussed issues that needed to be confronted, especially relating to the excesses of finance and globalized capitalism that neither party has yet to face, and only recently with the Occupy Movement have such questions started to light up the political sky. In the end it is Hitchens erudite and often illuminating essays and articles on political literature, past and present, which will continue to merit attentive reading and will likely be gratefully cherished for a long time to come. Yet even with respect to his intellectual virtuosity, Hitchens lack of a generosity of spirit darkens all horizons of expectation.
In the end, we need to suspend moral and political judgment, and celebrate those rare human beings whose life and ideas exhibited memorable vividness. Hitchens was one of those: Christopher Hitchens RIP (Requiescat in Pace)