R.I.P. Christopher Hitchens

R.I.P. Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, a journalist and essayist who commented on politics and culture at large with searing insight and rakish verve, threw his acid wit in the face of tyranny and stupidity, wrote freely (and successfully) about his distaste for religion, and remained frustratingly, dazzlingly engaging even when he was given to contrarian provocation or just deliberately being an asshole, died last night at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, according to a statement from Vanity Fair. Hitchens was 62.

While dismaying, the news was likely not a shock to his followers, as Hitchens had offered regular chronicles of his struggles with esophageal cancer ever since being diagnosed in June of last year, which occurred right in the middle of a book tour for his bestselling memoir, Hitch-22. Since then, Hitchens regularly wrote and spoke about his disease with characteristic dry, roguish humor—and arguably, intellectual remove—even as it ravaged his body and eventually robbed him of the sonorous, imperial voice he’d used to withering effect on many a sparring partner. Throughout, Hitchens remained unremorseful about all those many crumpled packs of cigarettes, late-night bottles of booze, and hours of excess that had led to his own particular, slightly disheveled palace of wisdom—and undoubtedly, hurried his demise. (The New York Times has this great quote from Hitchens during a 2010 Charlie Rose interview: “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that—or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation—is worth it to me.” Update your Facebook page accordingly.)

And of course, as author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything—that unexpectedly breakout atheism manifesto that made him a household name in the United States, even (especially) in households where he remains reviled—the proud humanist never reversed his position on God, maintaining that deathbed repentance wasn’t in the offing, barring total mental collapse. The response from those religious readers who saw his cancer as something of a wake-up call—and there were certainly those who expected him to confront his mortality, faced with man’s inherent fear-based need to attach a greater meaning to it all—was both charitable and a little condescending, with Hitchens receiving a steady flood of letters and emails offering their “prayers.” Hitchens, with his usual grace and heaping gobs of smirking amusement, kindly asked them not to bother.

“Repentance,” after all, would be admittance that he had been wrong, and Hitchens rarely—if ever—was that (even when, yeah, you were pretty sure he was). He argued with such forcefulness, internal logic, and intellectual confidence that even those who vehemently disagreed with the thrust of his argument had to admire the way he wielded it. Over the years, Hitchens became a favored guest on radio and TV talk shows, academic panels, and assorted modern-day salons, where he could always be expected to shut down an opponent with some plummy bon mot of Wildean wit, the perfect literary allusion plucked from the recesses of his Oxford-educated (and still restlessly autodidactic) brain, or some other maddeningly brilliant off-the-cuff aperçu. Fans even coined a word to describe these—the “Hitchslap”—and it left its reddening mark on many a face.

That Hitchens was so gifted a writer and speaker—so obviously a smart, funny bastard—made it all the more frustrating to fans when he used his skills to argue for something they didn’t believe in. To avoid mincing words: Liberals loved Christopher Hitchens, and many of the more sensitive among them couldn’t fathom why a man who seemed so intelligent in all other aspects would come to align himself with the neoconservative viewpoint that they so despised. While Hitchens openly admitted that he delighted in being an agitator, and always said that he found a contrary position to be far more interesting to take, many felt it incumbent on someone who had long been so eloquently on the side of the left, beginning with his early days as a Trotskyite editor of Socialist Worker, to stand up against the George W. Bush administration and its war on terrorism.

Instead, Hitchens became one of Bush’s most vocal champions, resigning as a columnist for the liberal magazine The Nation shortly after September 11, and setting out to condemn loudly and often what he saw as the left’s need to blame America first for inciting the attacks. He also unapologetically supported the invasion of Iraq, even during its murkiest quagmires, as well as the overall war on “Islamofascism”—a now-prevalent word he disavowed coining, yet definitely popularized.  

But of course, Hitchens didn’t suddenly "turn conservative" overnight—and in fact, he denied "turning conservative” at all, a fact borne out by his many other, purely independent positions. His beliefs about the looming dangers of Islamic terrorism first began to take shape while on his many journalistic assignments—Hitchens regularly, gamely threw himself into terrible places run by evil megalomaniacs, just to write about it—and it became solidified after the fatwah issued on his friend, Salman Rushdie, which signified to Hitchens that the Islamic world posed a serious threat to all the things he believed in. (In Hitch-22 he wrote, “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression.”) Still, while some were quick to call him a "warmonger" or worse, Hitchens' support was, like all of his stances, complex and far from blind. Witness, for example, his very compelling argument against waterboarding, which he composed only after submitting to it himself.

 

Hitchens' going against the leftist grain was also evident in his pure, unyielding hatred for Bill Clinton, whom he called a “war criminal, criminal psychopath, and rapist” in his book No One Left To Lie To, which was released in the wake of Clinton’s impeachment trial. (Perhaps even more distasteful to Hitchens was Clinton’s “invertebrate” weakness, a seeming willingness to shift position and compromise on his principles—distasteful to Hitchens for obvious reasons.) Hitchens even got caught up in the Clinton investigation himself, offering an affidavit that put his friend, White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, in danger of prosecution for perjury after Blumenthal denied he’d spoken to the press about the President’s relationship. Hitchens countered with a story of an informal lunch they’d shared where Blumenthal called Lewinsky “a stalker,” and soon found himself blacklisted all across D.C. His lasting enmity for the Clintons was so great that he famously, gleefully switched parties from Independent to Democrat, just so he could vote against Hillary in the 2008 primary.

 

Among the many, many others who faced Hitchens’ merciless wrath, often to polarizing reception from his readers: Prince Charles (and the British monarchy at large), Michael Moore, Bob Hope (“This is comedy for people who have no sense of humor and who come determined to be entertained and laugh to show that they 'get it,'" he wrote), and, most famously, Mother Teresa, whom Hitchens attacked in his Vanity Fair column, sparking hundreds of subscription cancellations—including those of staff members, as editor Graydon Carter wryly notes to NPR. He also went after her in the documentary Hell’s Angel and his book, The Missionary Position, in which he condemns Mother Teresa as an opportunist and devious tool of the Catholic Church. (Hitchens once hilariously said that he chose the book’s somewhat salacious title because he “thought Sacred Cow would be in poor taste.”)

 

Somewhat less controversially, at least to his ardent left-wing acolytes, Hitchens also offered one of the most excoriating assessments ever of Henry Kissinger, calling him an outright war criminal in his book, The Trial Of Henry Kissinger, and contributing to the 2002 documentary of the same name. But then, he also riled those same fans by taking the firmly pro-life stance that “life begins at conception”—and, on a much more innocuous note, there was his instantly infamous article “Why Women Aren’t Funny” for Vanity Fair, its self-contained headline sparking even more accusations of sexism. Of course, that particular article probably caused most Hitchens readers inured to his provocations merely to chuckle at what a bastard he was being… again.

 

Compiling a list of highlights from Hitchens’ publishing career would be a useless endeavor; even though their subject is something you might disagree with (and sometimes, especially) they’re all worth checking out to some degree. We’ve mentioned a few here, and you’ll find even more in the mounting number of memorials that have been spilling out all across the Internet since yesterday. (And if you read only one, make it Christopher Buckley’s very personal, very funny tribute in The New Yorker.)

In addition to being responsible for scads of columns and essays scattered across the pages of, to name a few, Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic Monthly, and the London Evening Standard, many of them easily accessible on the Internet, Hitchens was also the author of 17 books, ranging from some of the polemics named on this page to his last published work, this year’s essay collection Arguably, to biographies of some of his heroes, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and George Orwell. The fact that he admired them is readily apparent in his work: Hitchens possessed much of those men’s conviction and aptitude for reason, combined with Wilde’s gift for pithy observation, and the slyly elegant construction of P.G. Wodehouse (Hitchens’ personal paradigm).

Many eulogizers have prefaced their obits with “love him or hate him…,” but that’s not quite right. You both loved and hated Christopher Hitchens, as even when he wasn’t on your side—and even when he was on your side, yet still being a smug prick about it—you had to admire his tenacity and envy his eloquence. He was the best kind of intellectual: a brave one. (Also, one with whom you'd like to have a drink or three.) And our world is now far stupider without him.

BONUS: A Christmas message from Christopher Hitchens.