Let us now praise an infamous man

Christopher Hitchens is gone. 

‘Dead’, he would prefer. ‘Gone’ is too mystical, a tacit indulgence of superstitious notions of a life beyond the temporal. ‘Death is certain,’ he insisted. ‘There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.’

Now who will rail? Now who will rage? Now who will reason?

Hitchens was more than an ‘intellectual’, though he was an intellect; not just a ‘polemicist’, though his writings were polemical. He was a journalist. Stop and consider that word. Run it through your hands, roll it around your mouth, try and say it out loud: Jour-na-list.

Tastes bitter, doesn’t it?

The trade is at one of the lowest ebbs in its modern history, at least since the days of Hearst: hacking, churnalism, the death of foreign news, obsession with celebrity, layoffs, closures, asset-stripping, the incestuous media/political elite nexus.

Hitchens reminded us that journalism is a noble pursuit: the search for truth, the provocation to thought, and the stirring of passion. His Letters to a Young ContrarianLove, Poverty and War; and Blood, Class and Nostalgia contain some of the finest popular writing one can find. The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice might offend with its outrageous title but the book houses prose of such sharp elegance that its achievement as a work of journalism cannot be denied even if its central thesis is rejected.

He wrote to challenge power and disturb consensus and, above all else, to promote reason, freedom, and human dignity. That he did so with a generous tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black Label in his hand and half the bottle resting in his stomach is a testament to his skill as a writer and fortitude as a drinker.

If Hitchens could rarely be pinned down on what he believed in, no one was ever in any doubt about what he was against. Capitalism in his youth, totalitarianism in middle age, and God in his final years. In many ways he had always been against the same thing: anything that got in the way of enjoying life.

Everyone has their Hitchens. Leftists love his skewering of capitalism and (sadly) Zionism; rightists quote voluminously from his apologias for America and democracy and against terror and tyranny. Non-believers found in him their prophet; Dawkins is the high priest of scepticism but Hitchens was its philosopher-preacher, a Maimonides of heresy.

He is being remembered in America – his America, his adopted and beloved homeland – as a polemicist against religion: a thumper of the Bible, botherer of the godly, defrocker of the saintly.

(The obituaries calling him an ‘atheist’ are wrong. He wasn’t questioning the scientific basis of belief so much as its morality: were God to be proved real, Hitchens would still protest the subservience of free and rational beings to a higher power. ‘I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist,’ he wrote in 2001’s Letters to a Young Contrarian. ‘I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.’)

As a member of the fuzzy faithful – those questioning believers who likely frustrated Hitchens far more than any scriptural fundamentalist because we sully reason to reconcile science and God – I admired Hitchens’ gleeful blasphemy as a test of my religion and a challenge to the intellectual sluggishness of contemporary belief.  Religion cannot be asserted as a human right, insulated by law and social convention; only argument allied to logic, with a tolerance of hope and faith, can articulate the intellectual coherence and moral necessity of religious belief in the 21st century. His cold steel rapier of reason was a gift to theists. His cuts were welcome because they forced us to brush up on our own fencing skills.

My Hitchens was the vicious rhetorician who lobbed ICBMs into the citadels of received wisdom and the righteous tormentor who pursued the relativist Left and its ‘We are all Hezbollah now’ logic to its absurd, reactionary end. When a left-wing paper complained in a headline that Afghanistan was being ‘bombed into the Stone Age’, Hitchens riposted that the Taliban-run gynophobic dystopia was ‘being, if anything, bombed out of the Stone Age’.

His enemies – by whom all great men ought to be judged – accused him of becoming a right-winger. He wrote a book denouncing Bill Clinton and even submitted an affidavit to the House of Representatives accusing a White House aide of smearing Monica Lewinsky and seeking to discredit other women who came forward to complain of sexual harassment. It’s perhaps a commentary on the Left rather than Hitchens that his comrades deemed reactionary his excoriation of Clinton’s racial electioneering in the Arkansas death chamber and the President’s predatory conduct towards vulnerable women in his employ.

But Hitchens’ final break with the Left came with his support for the war on terror and the overthrow of first the Taliban and then Saddam. While liberal journalists and radical professors saw 9/11 as a comeuppance for American hubris and the Islamists as, at worst, a tiny and innocuous cell of religious fanatics not comparable in threat or evil to the US military, or, more crassly, as ‘freedom fighters’ against ‘Western imperialism’, Hitchens was not so blinded. Islamism was a reactionary totalitarianism that sought to replace freedom and democracy with tyranny and brutality. He became a vocal advocate of military force against tyrants, took American citizenship, and (tentatively) endorsed George W Bush’s 2004 re-election bid, all the while denouncing his former fellow travellers as appeasers of fascism. No one has more spectacularly committed apostasy against the doxologies of the modern Left.

Hitchens was the iconoclast’s icon, a graven image for a secular age. But he had his own messiah, Thomas Paine, whose words almost 200 years BH (Before Hitch) sum up his disciple:

I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.

Feature image © Ari Armstrong by Creative Commons 3.0

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