Anthony Burns ruminates on Hitch’s persistent preoccupations, and wonders aloud about that supposed move from left to right
“For a lot of people, their first love is what they’ll always remember. For me it’s always been the first hate, and I think that hatred… is a terrific way of getting you out of bed in the morning and keeping you going. If you don’t let it get out of hand, it can be canalized into writing. In this country where people love to be non-judgmental when they can be, which translates as, on the whole, lenient, there are an awful lot of bubble reputations floating around that one wouldn’t be doing one’s job if one didn’t itch to prick.” 1
The UK was never really going to be big enough to sustain a freewheeling personality like Christopher Hitchens. By nature he was a big dog looking for other big dogs to bark at, and as a man in possession of the intellectual means to make a name for himself doing it, he needed causes, arguments, and opponents large enough to energise and sustain those means, lest his appetites – the booze, the fags, the need for company – devoured him.
Hitchens moved to the United States in 1981, settling into the Washington DC establishment (after conquering New York) with regular gigs at The Nation and Vanity Fair. He found in the US a more open, less stuffy society that would better fit his polemical style, for as he put it, he did not have to pass as many approval tests in the United States as he did in Britain. The furore in Britain over The Satanic Verses also contributed to his belief that Britain was not going to prove a sufficient bulwark for Enlightenment values in the face of religious medievalism, whereas he believed that the United States might.
Appreciating the greater freedom the US gave him did not make him blind to the grip that religion has on social mores and politics there, where even the most egregious of religious charlatans and confidence tricksters are still accorded dutiful respect by a compliant media, regardless of the nonsense they speak. So the visceral thrill of watching Hitchens deliver a massive ‘Hitchslap’ to the nation on the subject of Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death in 2007 was something to behold. What made Hitchens’ decimation of Falwell’s character and legacy so memorable was the trademark delivery of a series of remarks shorn of all of the polite equivocation and false piety that usually attend the deaths of American figures. Rude and shocking it may have been, but also necessary and bracing when discussing the impact and legacy of a destructive force in American life that held homosexuals and abortion rights supporters partially responsible for the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Hitch eventually transmogrified into a rare thing in America, a public intellectual and man of letters possessed of sufficient wit and panache to cut through the sound and fury of a national media that has no place for considered intellectuals or detail driven policy wonks in their debates. He was able to introduce elements of both by sandwiching them between entertaining bon-mots and stylish takedowns, resulting in a rude, clever and extremely quotable personal style that made him ideally suited to the culture of American cable news where talk-show hosts lined up to book him as a guest despite the inherent danger of being effortlessly upstaged. Hitch’s command of language and argument in debate furnished him with a comfortable living to supplement his earnings from writing. It commanded him a following amongst the younger generation who enjoyed his savage wit and erudition and who reposted “Hitchslaps” on YouTube and many other corners of the social media, boosting his profile well beyond that of a jobbing hack or writer.
However, this profitable love of argument also created a danger that he might one day become an exaggerated stereotype of himself, a mere contrarian saying rude things on television to drive up book sales rather than a purpose driven contrarian always with a point to make. Critics pointed out that Hitchens often over-egged the pudding with the take-downs of his opponents, sometimes so strongly wording his invective that the point he was trying to make became buried under the rubble of his own locutive onslaught.
Hitchens did not always wear his learning as lightly as he could, fond in his writing and in person of letting it be known that he read very widely and very well. He loved the patronage of the literary and political establishment first in the United Kingdom and then the United States, actively seeking out their company and endorsement, and therefore, and in his own way, Hitch could be as establishment as any of the establishment figures he professed to despise, perhaps a going concern for any celebrated radical who hangs around select media and political circles long enough. But at least his practice of putting his neck on the line by visiting many of the lethal hotspots he talked and wrote about while they were still hot displayed a courage and conviction beyond some of the armchair warriors with whom he was sometimes unfavourably compared.
Hitchens unreservedly described himself as a man of the left throughout his career; he lamented the demise of a “global international working class movement” while continuing to believe in the Marxist dialectic and the materialist conception of history. However, he also doubted if there was even a viable socialist alternative to market capitalism any more and celebrated the demise of the Soviet Union and the communist dictatorships it propped up, believing the collapse “resulted in a huge release of human energy and creativity underlining the aspect of human nature that is incompatible with dictatorship and human slavery” 2
This continuing commitment to Marxist perspectives made his falling out with left-wing friends and colleagues over the Iraq War particularly discordant and bitter. Some of his strident responses to left-wing opposition to the war would seem to fit his life-long tendency to rebel against his oldest ideas, positions and arguments, so as to eventually take up argument against everybody, even himself. But it would be a mistake to believe that Hitchens’ opposition to the movement against the war was merely that of a reflexive contrarian and agitator, or that he went from being a man of the left to a man of the right (his erstwhile new friendships with Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle notwithstanding).
Hitchens always sided with, or saw himself siding with, the people who are against tyranny and oppression, and he saw supporting the Iraq War as an extension of that principle, whether or not the coalition forces were themselves acting in a manner that seemed more consistent with that of their enemies than the values they publicly espoused. In his final interview with Richard Dawkins in the New Statesmen, Hitch stated that he “had one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy.” 3 In an earlier interview he had said:
“The realization that American power could and should be used for the defence of pluralism and as a punishment for fascism came to me in Sarajevo a year or two later… That was an early quarrel between me and many of my Nation colleagues, and it was also the first time I found myself in the same trench as people like Paul Wolfowitz and Jeane Kirkpatrick: a shock I had to learn to get over.” 4
If many on the left fell out with Hitchens for his trenchant defence of the Iraq war, they couldn’t help but support his criticism of the Bush administration over the treatment of suspected terrorists delivered into the hands of US forces by ‘extraordinary rendition’ and other Orwellian terms for kidnap and indefinite detention. His decision to allow himself to be voluntarily water –boarded and then starkly describing the experience afterwards as torture confused some on the American right who had become convinced that Hitch had made a permanent transition from the left to the right. Their realisation that Hitch was not their man at all, especially in relation to the place of religion in politics and society, was hastened when he joined the ranks of the ‘New Atheists’ and published God is not Great, then embarked on a world-wide publicity tour to take on all comers in a series of high profile debates, staking out a claim to perhaps be the most visible and effective public atheist since Bertrand Russell.
He wasn’t jumping on the bandwagon when he joined Dawkins and Harris in releasing a bestseller that made out a case against organised religion. Hitchens had been making specific arguments against the pernicious effects of religion throughout his career, whether describing the poison that religion had stirred into the national and ethnic boiling pots in Bosnia and the Occupied Territories, or taking on celebrated religious figures in the forms of Mother Theresa and the aforementioned Jerry Falwell.
As one of the famous ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ (a title he was instrumental in devising) he offered his own unique perspective on how “religion poisons everything”, describing himself as an anti-theist implacably opposed to the tyrannies of religion. Hitchens thought religion to be false and dangerous, but not trivial, and therefore worthy of his opprobrium. Hitch made numerous contributions to the sceptical discourse on religion, including, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence”, a famous response directed at various mantras ranging from faith-healing to Creationism that claim that it is up to the non-believers and sceptics to prove their fantastical religious claims wrong. His rabble-rousing instincts, ideal for a public platform, dovetailed nicely with the more studious approach of a Dawkins or a Dennett. Up on stage he reduced most of his religious opponents to matchsticks, relying on a remarkable memory that could draw on vast repositories of knowledge to illustrate deeper understanding of the subject at hand than his religious opponents, despite religion being, in effect, their specialist subject.
Here is a memorable quote from one of his last public debates with a religious believer (in this case Tony Blair):
“What we have here, and picked from no mean source, is the distillation of precisely what is twisted and immoral in the faith mentality, its essential fanaticism, its consideration of human beings as a source of raw material and its fantasy of purity. Once you assume a creator and a plan it makes us objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well. And over us to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea, greedy for uncritical praise from dawn to dusk and swift to punish the original sins with which it tenderly gifted us in the very first place.” 5
When diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer at the height of his fame and influence, Hitch decided not to slide quietly off the stage but instead set out to publicly document the journey of his probable early demise. In interviews he forthrightly described the inexorable encroachment of cancer, the suffering and indignity caused by treatments that level the status of every cancer sufferer to that of the other, and, memorably, how he was facing up to impending death and extinction. In 2010 Hitch delivered a master class of prose on the subject of his cancer that contained all the classic virtues found in his best writing, being rigorous in its examination, compelling in its narrative, and serious in the lessons it provided all of us on how a lively, powerful and disbelieving mind can make a determined and unsentimental preparation for death. 6
Hitchens appeared to live by one of Mark Twain’s maxims, that “Sacred Cows make the best hamburger”, making the impact of his sheer hard work in producing continuous output for decades, his fearlessness in prose and in person to cause offence or make powerful enemies, and his powerful, sustained arguments that hit straight through to the heart of much that troubles humanity.
Hitch’s unique voice was unmistakeable, irreplaceable and part of our common cultural heritage. He will be greatly missed by those in the skeptic community and far beyond.
Anthony Burns is a skeptical humanist (including being sceptical of humanism for its own good) and a part-time writer, blogger and occasional radio host on all things that provide grist to the mill. Particularly enjoys following the life and times of the discontents and disreputables that remake the world.
You can follow him on twitter at @TheOriginalApe
1 C-Span’s Booknotes, 2003
2 Newsnight interview, November 2010
3 Interview in the New Statesman, 13th December 2011
4 Interview on the History News Network, December 23rd 2003
5 Munk Debate, Toronto, November 27th 2010
6 Vanity Fair, October 2010