Christopher Hitchens died of esophageal cancer in 2011. He was a champion of enlightenment, and eschewed the darkness of religious superstition and ignorance. Hitchens consistently argued for an open and free exchange of ideas, unfettered by the constraints of religious dogma. He was the author of many great books, and was one of the finest intellects produced by the 20th century. The following are seven quotes from the works of Christopher Hitchens:
Remembering Christopher Hitchens: Seven great quotes
1. Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.
2. That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.
3. Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.
4. Gullibility and credulity are considered undesirable qualities in every department of human life -- except religion.
5. The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.
6. The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.
7. Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals. It’s our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated.
On 7 October, I recorded a long conversation with Christopher Hitchens in Houston, Texas, for the Christmas edition of New Statesman which I was guest-editing.
He looked frail, and his voice was no longer the familiar Richard Burton boom; but, though his body had clearly been diminished by the brutality of cancer, his mind and spirit had not. Just two months before his death, he was still shining his relentless light on uncomfortable truths, still speaking the unspeakable ("The way I put it is this: if you're writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word 'fascist', if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with 'extreme-right Catholic party'"), still leading the charge for human freedom and dignity ("The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that's absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do") and still encouraging others to stand up fearlessly for truth and reason ("Stridency is the least you should muster ... It's the shame of your colleagues that they don't form ranks and say, 'Listen, we're going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements'.").
The following day, I presented him with an award in my name at the Atheist Alliance International convention, and I can today derive a little comfort from having been able to tell him during the presentation that day how much he meant to those of us who shared his goals.
I told him that he was a man whose name would be joined, in the history of the atheist/secular movement, with those of Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Paine, David Hume. What follows is based on my speech, now sadly turned into the past tense.
Christopher Hitchens was a writer and an orator with a matchless style, commanding a vocabulary and a range of literary and historical allusion far wider than anybody I know. He was a reader whose breadth of reading was simultaneously so deep and comprehensive as to deserve the slightly stuffy word "learned" – except that Christopher was the least stuffy learned person you could ever meet.
He was a debater who would kick the stuffing out of a hapless victim, yet did it with a grace that disarmed his opponent while simultaneously eviscerating him. He was emphatically not of the school that thinks the winner of a debate is he who shouts loudest. His opponents might have shouted and shrieked. Indeed they did. But Hitch didn't need to shout, for he could rely instead on his words, his polymathic store of facts and allusions, his commanding generalship of the field of discourse, and the forked lightning of his wit.
Christopher Hitchens was known as a man of the left. But he was too complex a thinker to be placed on a single left-right dimension. He was a one-off: unclassifiable. He might be described as a contrarian except that he specifically and correctly disavowed the title. He was uniquely placed in his own multidimensional space. You never knew what he would say about anything until you heard him say it, and when he did, he would say it so well, and back it up so fully, that if you wanted to argue against him you had better be on your guard.
He was recognised throughout the world as a leading public intellectual of our time. He wrote many books and countless articles. He was an intrepid traveller and a war reporter of signal valour. But he had a special place in the affections of atheists and secularists as the leading intellect and scholar of our movement. A formidable adversary to the pretentious,
the woolly-minded or the intellectually dishonest, he was a gently encouraging friend to the young, the diffident, and those tentatively feeling their way into the life of the freethinker and not certain where it would take them.
He inspired, energised and encouraged us. He had us cheering him on almost daily. He even begat a new word – the hitchslap. It wasn't just his intellect we admired: it was also his pugnacity, his spirit, his refusal to countenance ignoble compromise, his forthrightness, his indomitable spirit, his brutal honesty.
And in the very way he looked his illness in the eye, he embodied one part of the case against religion. Leave it to the religious to mewl and whimper at the feet of an imaginary deity in their fear of death; leave it to them to spend their lives in denial of its reality. Hitch looked it squarely in the eye: not denying it, not giving in to it, but facing up to it squarely and honestly and with a courage that inspires us all.
Before his illness, it was as an erudite author, essayist and sparkling, devastating speaker that this valiant horseman led the charge against the follies and lies of religion. During his illness he added another weapon to his armoury and ours – perhaps the most formidable and powerful weapon of all: his very character became an outstanding and unmistakable symbol of the honesty and dignity of atheism, as well as of the worth and dignity of the human being when not debased by the infantile babblings of religion.
Every day of his declining life he demonstrated the falsehood of that most squalid of Christian lies: that there are no atheists in foxholes. Hitch was in a foxhole, and he dealt with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to be able to muster. And in the process, he showed himself to be even more deserving of our admiration, respect, and love.
Farewell, great voice. Great voice of reason, of humanity, of humour. Great voice against cant, against hypocrisy, against obscurantism and pretension, against all tyrants including God.
Christopher Hitchens, 1949–2011: In Memoriam
By Graydon Carter
Vanity Fair ~ December 15, 2011Christopher Hitchens was a wit, a charmer, and a troublemaker, and to those who knew him well, he was a gift from, dare I say it, God. He died today at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, after a punishing battle with esophageal cancer, the same disease that killed his father.
He was a man of insatiable appetites—for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and, above all, for conversation. That he had an output to equal what he took in was the miracle in the man. You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who could match the volume of exquisitely crafted columns, essays, articles, and books he produced over the past four decades. He wrote often—constantly, in fact, and right up to the end—and he wrote fast; frequently without the benefit of a second draft or even corrections. I can recall a lunch in 1991, when I was editing The New York Observer, and he and Aimée Bell, his longtime editor, and I got together for a quick bite at a restaurant on Madison, no longer there. Christopher’s copy was due early that afternoon. Pre-lunch canisters of scotch were followed by a couple of glasses of wine during the meal and a similar quantity of post-meal cognac. That was just his intake. After stumbling back to the office, we set him up at a rickety table and with an old Olivetti, and in a symphony of clacking he produced a 1,000-word column of near perfection in under half an hour.
Christopher was one of the first writers I called when I came to Vanity Fair in 1992. Six years before, I had called on him to write for Spy. That offer was ever so politely rejected. The Vanity Fair approach had a fee attached, though, and to my everlasting credit, he accepted and has been writing for the magazine ever since. With the exception of Dominick Dunne (who died in 2009), no writer has been more associated with Vanity Fair. There was no subject too big or too small for Christopher. Over the past two decades he traveled to just about every hot spot you can think of. He’d also subject himself to any manner of humiliation or discomfort in the name of his column. I once sent him out on a mission to break the most niggling laws still on the books in New York City. One such decree forbade riding a bicycle with your feet off the pedals. The photograph that ran with the column, of Christopher sailing a small bike through Central Park with his legs in the air, looked like something out of the Moscow Circus. When he embarked on a cause of self-improvement for a three-part series, he subjected himself to myriad treatments to improve his dental area and other dark regions. At one point I suggested he go to a well-regarded waxing parlor in town for what they indelicately call the “sack, back, and crack.” He struggled to absorb the full meaning of this, but after a few seconds he smiled a nervous smile and said, “In for a penny . . . ”
Christopher was the beau ideal of the public intellectual. You felt as though he was writing to you and to you alone. And as a result many readers felt they knew him. Walking with him down the street in New York or through an airplane terminal was like escorting a movie star through the throngs.
Christopher was brave not just in facing the illness that took him, but brave in words and thought. He did not mind landing outside the cozy cocoon of conventional liberal wisdom, his curious, pro-war stance before the invasion of Iraq being but one example. Friends distanced themselves from him during those unlit days. But he stuck to his guns. After his rather famous 1995 attack on Mother Teresa in these pages, one of our contributing editors, a devout Catholic, came into the office filled with umbrage and announced that he was canceling his subscription. “You can’t cancel it,” I said. “You get the magazine for free!” Years ago, in the midst of the Clinton impeachment uproar, Christopher had a very public dustup with his good friend Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton White House functionary—the dispute was over which part of a conversation between them was or was not on the record. Christopher wound up on television a lot defending himself. He looked like hell, and I suggested we bring him to New York for a bit of a makeover and some R&R away from the cameras. The magazine was pretty flush back then, and we set him up with a new suit, shirts, ties, and such. When someone from the fashion department asked him what size his shoes were, he said he didn’t know—the pair he had on was borrowed.
I could not begin to list the pantheon of public intellectuals and close friends who will mourn his passing, but it would most certainly include Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Richard Dawkins, James Fenton, Christopher Buckley, and Hitchens’s agent, Steve Wasserman. Christopher had his share of lady admirers too, including—but certainly not limited to—Anna Wintour, back when he was young and still relatively fragrant. His wife, Carol, a writer, filmmaker, and legendary hostess, set a high bar in how to handle a flower like Christopher, both when he was healthy and during his last days. An invitation to their vast apartment in the Wyoming on Columbia Road, in Washington, D.C., was a prized reward for being a part of their circle or even on the fringes of it. We used to hold an anti–White House Correspondents party there in the 90s and 2000s; the Salon des Refuses, he called it. You could meet anyone there. From Supreme Court justices to right-wing windbags to, well, Barbra Streisand and other assorted totems of the left. He was a good friend who wished his friends well. And as a result he had a lot of them.
Christopher had an enviable career arc that began with his own brand of fiery journalism at Britain’s New Statesman and then wended its way to America, where he wrote for everyone from The Atlantic and Harper’s to Slate and The New York Times Book Review. And we all called him our own. He was a legend on the speakers’ circuit, and could debate just about anyone on anything. He won umpteen awards—although that was not the sort of thing that fueled his work—and in the last decade he wrote best-sellers, including a memoir, Hitch-22, that finally put some money into his family’s pocket. In the last weeks of his life, he was told that an asteroid had been named after him. He was pleased by the thought, and inasmuch as the word is derived from the Greek, meaning “star-like,” and asteroids are known to be volatile, it is a fitting honor.
To his friends, Christopher will be remembered for his elevated but inclusive humor and for a staggering, almost punishing memory that held up under the most liquid of late-night conditions. And to all of us, his readers, Christopher Hitchens will be remembered for the millions of words he left behind. They are his legacy. And, God love him, it was his will.
Christopher Hitchens—the incomparable critic, masterful rhetorician, fiery wit, and fearless bon vivant—died today at the age of 62. Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the spring of 2010, just after the publication of his memoir, Hitch-22, and began chemotherapy soon after. His matchless prose has appeared in Vanity Fair since 1992, when he was named contributing editor.
“Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic,” Hitchens wrote nearly a year ago in Vanity Fair, but his own final labors were anything but: in the last 12 months, he produced for this magazine a piece on U.S.-Pakistani relations in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, a portrait of Joan Didion, an essay on the Private Eye retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a prediction about the future of democracy in Egypt, a meditation on the legacy of progressivism in Wisconsin, and a series of frank, graceful, and exquisitely written essays in which he chronicled the physical and spiritual effects of his disease. At the end, Hitchens was more engaged, relentless, hilarious, observant, and intelligent than just about everyone else—just as he had been for the last four decades.
“My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends,” he wrote in the June 2011 issue. He died in their presence, too, at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. May his 62 years of living, well, so livingly console the many of us who will miss him dearly.
He was a writer and a fighter who lived fully and fearlessly, and died too soon
By David Frum
National Post ~ December 17, 2011
A friend of theirs once took Christopher Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue to dinner at Palm Beach’s Everglades Club, notorious for its exclusion of Jews.
“You will behave, won’t you?” Carol anxiously asked Christopher on the way into the club. No dice. When the headwaiter approached, Christopher demanded: “Do you have a kosher menu?”
Christopher was never a man to back away from a confrontation on behalf of what he considered basic decency. Yet it would be wrong to remember only the confrontational side. Christopher was also a man of exquisite sensitivity and courtesy, dispensed without regard to age or station.
On one of the last occasions I saw him, my wife and I came to drop some food — lamb tagine — to sustain a family with more on its mind than cooking.
Christopher, though weary and sick, insisted on painfully lifting himself from his chair to perform the rites of hospitality. He might have cancer, but we were still guests — and as guests, we must have Champagne.
I once had the honour of sharing a debating platform with Christopher, on the same side thank God. It was like going into battle alongside the U.S. Marine Corps. The audience was overwhelmingly hostile. The longer Christopher talked, the more subdued they became. As the event broke up, a crowd of questioners formed around him. I created a diversion thinking it would help him escape for some needed rest. But Christopher declined the offer. He stood with them, as tired as I was, but ready to adjourn to a nearby bar and converse with total strangers ’till the bars closed.
Hitchens was not one of those romantics who fetishized “dialogue.” Far from suffering fools gladly, he delighted in making fools suffer. When he heard that another friend, a professor, had a habit of seducing female students in his writing seminars, he shook his head pityingly. “It’s not worth it. Afterward, you have to read their short stories.”
He delighted in writing himself, of course, and in all that surrounded writing. I had the dazzling experience one night of listening to Christopher and Salman Rushdie replay a favourite game, wrecking book titles by changing a single word.
I wish I could remember them all, not only because they were so funny, but because I still wince at the scolding Christopher gave me when he overheard me relating the anecdote from memory and mangling his alternative to The Great Gatsby, as “The Good Gatsby,” rather than “The Big Gatsby.”
He especially liked gallows humour. When the nurses asked him, in that insinuatingly cheerful way they have, how he was feeling, he’d answer, “I seem to have a little touch of cancer.” If he was late to emerge from his living room to see you because of the exhaustion and nausea of chemotherapy, he’d excuse himself with, “I’m sorry to keep you waiting. I was brushing my hair,” of which, of course, there were only a few wisps left.
I never expected to become friends with him. It was my wife Danielle who sparked the relationship. She and Christopher were booked as guest commentators on the same TV network — CBC, I think — on election night, 1996, shortly after we’d moved to Washington. The format had them talking for 10 minutes at the top of every hour, then adjourning for 50 minutes of newscast.
At the end of the first 10 minutes, my wife decided she did not want to spend most of the rest of the evening in the nasty green room provided. “I’m getting a drink,” Danielle announced. Christopher never had to hear that invitation twice, certainly not from a very beautiful woman. Over the next four hours, they moved back and forth between the studio and a nearby bar, talking for 10 minutes per hour and drinking for 50. When Danielle lurched home that evening, she raved about this brilliant and charming writer I just had to meet.
I vetoed the idea. I knew Christopher’s writing and had encountered him a few times in the 1980s. He was an impressive person, no question about that, but I objected to his ad hominem attacks on people I greatly admired. Then, a few weeks later, I had my own face-to-face encounter with him. We were guests together on C-span’s morning program, which convened at 7 a.m. He rolled in looking absolutely like hell. Of the dead, nothing should be said but good, but — wow. Christopher’s eyes were bloodshot, his clothes were crumpled, his face was ghastly. And then he started to talk. And then he made me laugh and laugh and laugh.
The show ended at 8 a.m. Even for Christopher, that was not drinking time. We adjourned to the nearby Phoenix Park hotel for a coffee and two more hours of talk. When I did finally get home, I had to admit to my wife, “OK, you were right.”
Danielle mobilized Christopher to write for a magazine she then edited, the Women’s Quarterly. For the very uncharacteristic fee of $200, he and David Brooks divided a page to settle the question: Who were sexier — leftwing women or right-wing women? Christopher championed right-wing women, and told the story of the erotic thrill he had experienced when Margaret Thatcher had slapped him on the bottom with a rolled-up newspaper.
For such a pugilistic intellect, Christopher Hitchens could be surprisingly sensitive and deferential. I well remember my anxiety before the first time he joined a party with my in-laws. My father-in-law is perhaps the only person I know who has visited even more countries than Christopher, but politically — uh oh. Peter Worthington is not one to mince his words about anything, least of all his view that British colonialism did the people on the receiving end much more good than harm. But when Christopher heard that Peter had been with Hitchens’ beloved Indian Army on the eve of the 1962 Himalayan war with China, politics flew out the window, as the great journalist in him extracted every anecdotal detail.
Not every evening went so well. In the aftershock of 9/11 and Hitchens’ great political rotation, I made the mistake of organizing a dinner with him and Middle East expert Daniel Pipes. That time, Christopher arrived spoiling for a fight. The evening ended with Christopher storming out of the house.
Carol struggled to follow him, but he moved so fast that he had vanished around the corner of a neighbouring street before Carol reached the sidewalk.
She realized she couldn’t get home on her own because Christopher had departed with the keys to their car in his pocket. Nor could she re-enter the house, without offering an awkward explanation to all the other dumbfounded guests. Andrew Sullivan played Sir Galahad and returned Carol home. The Hitchens’ car remained parked on our curb till late the next morning.
At most parties, though, he was wit in a white suit. He’d enter the house and push past the offer of what he called the worst phrase in the English language: “White or red?” He’d walk into the kitchen, to the small pantry where we keep our own stock of liquor and help himself to a slug of Johnnie Walker Black, which I learned to think of as the whisky you drink when you’re drinking more than one. Soda, no ice. In recent years, and contrary to reports, the pours got smaller and the spacing between them grew wider.
Was his body rebelling? Or did the mind need less artificial impetus as it raced faster and faster down the current toward the waterfall at the end?
In recent years, as I’ve undergone a political rotation of my own, I’ve thought more and more about the example Christopher set. Interviewed in about 2003 by C-span’s Brian Lamb, Christopher gave this answer to a question about his former belief in socialism: “I miss it the way an amputated man misses an arm.”
It’s a bewildering experience to move away from prior certitudes. The most usual response is to careen to exactly opposite certitudes — to clutch at some prosthetic substitute for the vanished limb. Christopher refused this ready aid.
Perhaps his formal moment of departure from the political left came when he was summoned to answer for his deviations before the editors of the left-wing Nation in 2002. He rode the train up from Washington, sat at the long conference room table to await the interrogation — and lit up a cigarette in defiance of all no-smoking ordinances. What was there to be said after that?
If Christopher quit the left, however, he never joined the right. Like his great hero George Orwell, he was a man whose most creative period of life was a period of constantly falling between two stools: His newfound hatred of British anti-war activist George Galloway never dimmed his old animosity toward Henry Kissinger. He was for the Iraq war without ever much trusting or liking the leaders who led that war.
The stock phrase of the 2000s on the right was “moral clarity.” If moral clarity means hating cruelty and oppression, then Christopher Hitchens was above all things a man of moral clarity. But he was also a man of moral complexity, who would not submit to Lenin’s demand that who says A must say B. Christopher was never more himself than when, after saying A, he adamantly refused to say B.
By the end, the one-time Trotskyist doctrinaire allowed no furnishings inside his mind except those that he had deliberately chosen and then shaped to his own use.
One sometimes hears of people who try to model their writing or their persona on Christopher Hitchens’ example. The results are usually absurd and sometimes perverse. Christopher did not offer a model of what to think. He offered a model of how to think — and how to live. Fully. Fearlessly. Joyously. And then, alas too soon, of how to die: without bluster but without flinching, boldly writing until the fingers moved no more.
Christopher Hitchens, an enemy of religion, a true inspiration to atheists
By Charles Lewis
National Post ~ December 16, 2011
The most obvious thing that can be said about Christopher Hitchens was he was an enemy of religion. His mistrust of the religious instinct was profound.
That would be clear to anyone who read his seminal atheist tome, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, heard his attacks on Mother Teresa, someone he called a fraud and a sacred cow, or witnessed his withering dismissal of anyone religious during one of his many public lectures.
“His atheism was as orthodox and unbending as the characteristics that he disliked in religion,” said Father John Kavanaugh, a Jesuit professor of philosophy at St. Louis University, Mo.
To fellow atheists, Mr. Hitchens was a true inspiration. He gave voice to what many non-believers felt in their bones, but were too polite to articulate. Most importantly for fellow non-believers, he ratcheted up the arguments against religion from the philosophical to the visceral.
“The old atheism believed in live and let live,” said Justin Trottier, president of the Toronto-base Canadian Secular Alliance and a leading voice in the Canadian atheism movement.
“The idea in the past was you take on the fanatics and make friends with the good religious people.
“But Hitchens said faith itself was the problem. That it undermined the ability of society to move forward. He thought the entire religious enterprise was foul. It was a real problem to have so many people who could not justify their belief in the invisible without a reasoned argument.”
Mr. Hitchens was what atheists called jokingly “one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse,” the group mentioned in the New Testament as representing the end of the world, said Mr. Trottier.
“He was our devil’s advocate.”
But unlike his three companions, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, all philosophers and academics, Mr. Hitchens was a journalist who got his feet and hands dirty seeing for himself the impact of religious fanaticism, Mr. Trottier added.
“He lived in the real world and it brought him a lot of respect.”
Mr. Hitchens’ timing was also perfect. God Is Not Great was published after 9/11, a time in which fear of religious fanaticism was at its peak.
But his ability to exploit that fear opened him up to criticism, even by those who were not religious.
The historian Karen Armstrong, a former nun, has said Mr. Hitchens’ biggest mistake — as well as that of the other new atheists — was to confuse fanatical elements in religion with the totality of all religion.
“All insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion,” she wrote in The Case For God.
“This has weakened their critique, because fundamentalism is in fact a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend.”
American author and journalist Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest in New York, agreed Mr. Hitchens contributed to secular society’s mistrust of religion by focusing on its shortcomings.
At the same time, he did keep the religious from becoming complacent, Fr. Martin said.
“I would say that intelligent atheists keep religious people on their toes” by forcing them to really think about what they believe, he said.
In a piece in the Roman Catholic magazine America on Friday, Fr. Martin wrote he hopes in the life beyond this one Mr. Hitchens will get a different glimpse of God.
“So I hope that Christopher Hitchens, famous atheist, fearless polemicist and, in his own unique way, brave seeker, will now be pleasantly surprised by God.
“And if he finally makes it to heaven, I hope he gets a chance to get to know the prodigal love of God, which eluded him on earth. After that, I hope he gets to know Mother Teresa a little better than he did on earth.”
Remembering the greatest columnist and essayist in the English-speaking world
by Jonathan Kay
National Post ~ December 16, 2011
British-born journalist and atheist intellectual Christopher Hitchens, who made the United States his home and backed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, died on Thursday at the age of 62.
Hitchens died in Houston of pneumonia, a complication of cancer of the esophagus, Vanity Fair magazine said. “Christopher Hitchens – the incomparable critic, masterful rhetorician, fiery wit, and fearless bon vivant – died today at the age of 62,” Vanity Fair said.
As the greatest columnist and essayist in the English-speaking world, Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was read and admired by millions of readers — including National Post readers. But he was even more admired by fellow journalists: Hitchens did things the rest of us are scared to do, like subject himself to waterboarding so he could decide whether it’s truly torture (it is), or travel to Iraq at the height of the war. Hitchens also had the editorial courage to express what was in his brain, without first pushing his words through the “who will this piss off?” filter that just about every other columnist on earth uses to avoid alienating his “base.”
Hitchens had no base — which is to say, no regular mob of readers who could be depended on to applaud his columns — because he had no dogma. He supported the Iraq war, but also wasn’t afraid to call bullshit on the “alternate reality” approach to science embraced by Tea Party types and Christian conservatives. (This explains why, despite his hawkish attitude on Iraq, he always remained a virtual non-entity on many hard-core conservative web sites and media outlets — they simply didn’t know what to make of him.) He was a libertarian, but also a hawk. He supported Israel, but never made the subject a fetish, or gave a free pass to the hard-core Jewish settlers whose fanaticism is no different from that of any other militant ethnic movement. He decried Islamofascism, mocked Mormonism, flipped the bird to God and Mother Teresa alike, and embraced obscure (to Westerners) geopolitical causes such as that of the Kurds.
In the current GOP presidential field, there is not a single candidate who has not been savaged, either directly or indirectly, by one or another column written by Hitchens. In an age when everyone in Washington is obsessed with getting face time on talking-head shows, Hitchens rarely got invited — and actually found a way to get thrown off the set when he did (as occurred when he used the N-word, in an entirely non-racist way, on Hardball With Chris Matthews).
Hitchens often is compared with George Orwell. And it is of morbid interest that both men died about 20 years short of the average lifespans associated with their respective eras — largely thanks to fundamental choices they made about how to lead their lives.
Orwell was a brilliant writer, but also a cranky, anti-social sourpuss. And he spent much of his latter life in an abandoned farmhouse on the remote Scottish island of Jura, whose cold, rainy climate exacerbated his tuberculosis. To the extent Orwell is remembered for his relationships with other intellectuals, they were relationships conducted at long distance through the exchange of letters.
Hitchens, for all his other similarities with Orwell, was the exact opposite in this respect. His essays are peppered with detailed descriptions of his literary and social hobnobbing with elites from Britain, America and the Middle East. There seems scarcely a famous writer or world leader about whom Hitchens could not provide a breezy anecdote with which to season one of his blistering essays. He was not just a polemicist, but also a raconteur, and he lived the very un-Orwellian alcohol-soaked, smoke-hazed life that we associate with that French-derived term.
This lifestyle (the smoking, more particularly) likely gave Hitchens the esophageal cancer that killed him on Thursday. But as with Orwell — who I doubt would have conceived of the grey world of Nineteen Eighty Four without the gloomy, rain-soaked isolation of the Hebrides for inspiration — there was a faustian element to Hitchens’ choice: Many of his best columns were based around his social vignettes, and the bits of gossip and insight he glimpsed amid smoke rings and empty highball glasses.
On several occasions, when I dined with Hitchens in Toronto, I had occasion to see how the man operates: He dominates every discussion with his wit, and then sits back as the second-raters around him (ahem) try to match him by sharing their best material. In this way, his journalism not only reflected his own massive intelligence, but best-of gleanings from pundits and preeners in every city he visited.
It makes me sad to think that I will never again be at a table to hear him, as I did in 2008 at Toronto’s University Club, hold forth about the mau-mauing of Britney Spears while pausing between bon mots to tell off a hovering waiter who was asking him to put out a cigarette. I didn’t realize it at the time — but there, in that single dinner-party moment of casual brilliance and indulgent self-destructiveness, were the two inseparable sides of Christopher Hitchens. RIP to both.
Christopher Hitchens' Last Interview Excerpts
Featured in the New Statesman Christmas Issue
Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens
"Never be afraid of stridency"
Richard Dawkins: One of my main beefs with religion is the way they label children as a "Catholic child" or a "Muslim child". I've become a bit of a bore about it.
Christopher Hitchens: You must never be afraid of that charge, any more than stridency.
RD I will remember that.
CH If I was strident, it doesn't matter - I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You've educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out.
Stridency is the least you should muster . . . It's the shame of your colleagues that they don't form ranks and say, "Listen, we're going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements."
Fascism and the Catholic Church.
RD The people who did Hitler's dirty work were almost all religious.
CH I'm afraid the SS's relationship with the Catholic Church is something the Church still has to deal with and does not deny.
RD Can you talk a bit about that - the relationship of Nazism with the Catholic Church?
CH The way I put it is this: if you're writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word "fascist", if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with "extreme-right Catholic party".
Almost all of those regimes were in place with the help of the Vatican and with understandings from the Holy See. It's not denied. These understandings quite often persisted after the Second World War was over and extended to comparable regimes in Argentina and elsewhere.
Hitchens on the left-right spectrum
RD I've always been very suspicious of the left-right dimension in politics.
CH Yes; it's broken down with me.
RD It's astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.
CH I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian - on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy - the one that's absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do.>>Much more in The New Statesman
Christopher Hitchens dies
Vanity Fair writer was a religious skeptic, master of the contrarian essay
Washington Post ~ December 15, 2011
Christopher Hitchens, a sharp-witted provocateur who used his formidable learning, biting wit and muscular prose style to skewer what he considered high-placed hypocrites, craven lackeys of the right and left, “Islamic fascists” and religious faith of any kind, died Dec. 15 at a hospital in Houston. He was 62.
He had pneumonia and complications from esophageal cancer, according to a statement from Vanity Fair, a magazine for which he worked.
Mr. Hitchens, an English-born writer who had lived in Washington since 1982, was a tireless master of the persuasive essay, which he wrote with an indefatigable energy and venomous glee. He often wrote about the masters of English literature, but he was better known for his lifelong engagement with politics, with subtly nuanced views that did not fit comfortably with the conventional right or left.
In his tartly worded essays, books and television appearances, Mr. Hitchens was a self-styled contrarian who often challenged political and moral orthodoxy. He called Henry Kissinger a war criminal, savaged Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, ridiculed Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and then became an outspoken opponent of terrorism against the West from the Muslim world.
In 2007, Mr. Hitchens aimed his vitriol even higher. He wrote a best-seller that disputed the existence of God and then enthusiastically took on anyone — including his own brother — who wanted to argue the matter.
His supporters praised Mr. Hitchens as a truth-telling literary master who, in the words of the Village Voice, was “America’s foremost rhetorical pugilist.” Writer Christopher Buckley has called him “the greatest living essayist in the English language.”
Enemies vilified Mr. Hitchens as a godless malcontent. A onetime colleague at the Nation, Alexander Cockburn, called him “lying, self-serving, fat-assed, chain-smoking, drunken, opportunistic [and] cynical.”
Mr. Hitchens was a raffish character who constantly smoked and drank, yet managed to meet every obligation of a frenetic professional and social schedule. A writer for the Observer newspaper in Britain described him as “at once resolute and dissolute.”
Friends and enemies alike marveled at how the hedonistic Mr. Hitchens, after a full evening of drinking and talking, could then sit down and casually produce sparkling essays for Vanity Fair, the Nation, the Atlantic, Slate.com and many other publications without missing a deadline.
“Writing is recreational for me,” he said in 2002. “I’m unhappy when I’m not doing it.”
He seldom produced an uninteresting sentence while writing with authority on a dizzying array of subjects, including books on Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and the Elgin Marbles. Besides his political essays — usually about international affairs, seldom about domestic U.S. policy — Mr. Hitchens also wrote about strictly literary subjects, including the authors Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, P.G. Wodehouse and Philip Roth.
The writer he was most identified with, though, was George Orwell, the British essayist and author of “1984.” Orwell’s bracing moral courage and brisk prose were among Mr. Hitchens’s ideal models.
In his 2002 book “Why Orwell Matters,” Mr. Hitchens sought to rescue Orwell from “sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise” and noted that the most important thing to be learned from Orwell was that “it matters not what you think, but how you think.”
Mr. Hitchens was often quite funny in print, but his humor was usually at the service of his rhetoric and larger ideas. He seemed to delight most in the things he disliked.
But unlike many armchair polemicists, Mr. Hitchens had the courage to take his convictions to the streets. He was shot at in Sarajevo, jailed in Czechoslovakia and, as recently as 2008, beaten bloody in Beirut.
He was among the first to criticize Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for issuing a 1988 fatwa, calling for the death of Hitchens’s friend “The Satanic Verses” author Salman Rushdie.
At 59, Mr. Hitchens voluntarily underwent a session of waterboarding, the practice of simulated drowning that had been approved by the George W. Bush administration for the questioning of prisoners. Although Mr. Hitchens supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his view of waterboarding was without equivocation.
“If waterboarding does not constitute torture,” he wrote in Vanity Fair, “then there is no such thing as torture.”
To Mr. Hitchens, literally nothing was sacred. He assailed the reputations of many religious figures, including Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. He had little but contempt for Clinton, whom he knew at the University of Oxford in the 1960s, and titled his 1999 book about Clinton “No One Left to Lie To.”
In a series of articles in Harper’s magazine and in a 2001 book, Mr. Hitchens attacked Kissinger, saying the former secretary of state should be charged with war crimes for supporting Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile and for encouraging what Mr. Hitchens viewed as genocidal policies around the globe.
At times, Mr. Hitchens sacrificed friendship on the altar of principle. During the Clinton impeachment spectacle of 1998, he submitted an affidavit to congressional Republicans saying that Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal — a longtime friend — had called Monica Lewinsky “a stalker” who was harassing the president. Many considered Mr. Hitchens’s statement an unpardonable breach of trust.
Mr. Hitchens seemed more comfortable on the international political stage and had long ties to Iraq, which he first visited in 1976.
“I should have registered the way that people almost automatically flinched at the mention of the name Saddam Hussein,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, “Hitch-22.”
Nevertheless, he opposed Desert Storm, the early 1990s war with Iraq during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Over time, Mr. Hitchens’s anger toward Hussein’s regime festered, and he came to believe that the West had a moral duty to stand up against what he saw as assaults on freethinking, tolerance and an open society.
His wholehearted endorsement of the 2003 U.S.-led intervention in Iraq marked an irrevocable point of no return for many of his old friends on the left. He was seen as deserting his long-held beliefs and crossing over, once and for all, to take up arms with the neoconservatives then in power. In 2011, after many conservatives had come to think of Mr. Hitchens as one of their own, he coined a scathing phrase to describe the tea party movement: All politics is yokel.
Mr. Hitchens rejected the neoconservative label — and all others — and maintained that his views went beyond political partisanship. Rising totalitarianism in Muslim states and his antipathy toward religion of any kind led him to cry out against what he called “fascism with an Islamic face.”
“It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved,” he wrote in “Hitch-22.” “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.”
Christopher Eric Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, on April 13, 1949. His father was a career navy officer who became an accountant at a prep school.
His mother had social aspirations for her two sons and once said, “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it.”
The family scrimped to send him to a private boarding school, and he became the first member of his family to attend a university, graduating from Oxford’s Balliol College in 1970. He wasn’t a stellar student, but he had a gift for friendship and a hearty appetite for argumentation and debate.
He formed close friendships with the novelist Martin Amis and other members of the London literary elite and, in the 1970s, was a mainstay at London’s New Statesman magazine. He quickly became almost as well known for his speaking appearances as for his writing. Pudgy and disheveled, he approached the lectern as if unhappily awoken from a hangover.
When he opened his mouth, however, Mr. Hitchens unfailingly proved to be an eloquent and persuasive orator. Fully formed, tightly argued sentences poured from his lips in a precise, well-modulated baritone. He could summon forth literary references, historical analogies and vivid descriptions without a moment’s pause.
“It all seems instantly, neurologically available: everything he’s ever read, everyone he’s ever met, every story he’s ever heard,” novelist Ian McEwan, a longtime friend, told the New Yorker.
In 1973, Mr. Hitchens’s mother and her new paramour, “a defrocked former vicar,” died in a suicide pact in an Athens hotel room. While attending to arrangements for his mother, the 24-year-old Mr. Hitchens dutifully filed dispatches about the political situation in Greece.
Fifteen years later, he learned from his grandmother that his mother had deliberately concealed a central fact of life: her Jewish parentage.
“On hearing the tidings, I was pleased that I was pleased,” Mr. Hitchens wrote in an essay, but he did not otherwise embrace Judaism or any other faith.
He wrote relatively little about his atheism and disdain for religion until his 2007 bestseller “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”
He attributed many of the world’s most serious problems to religion, from ethnic cleansing to the subjugation of women to the denial of scientific progress. He criticized religious faith as nothing more than a fatuous belief in magic, fables and nonsense, calling it “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
The book became a rallying cry for religious skeptics, and Mr. Hitchens was in steady demand to debate representatives of many faiths.
For years, he maintained a crowded schedule of traveling, writing, lecturing and teaching at various colleges. In 1980, he was married to Eleni Meleagrou and moved to the United States, settling in Washington two years later. He became a U.S. citizen in 2007.
After a divorce, Mr. Hitchens married Carol Blue in 1989. She survives, along with their daughter, Antonia Hitchens of Washington; two children from his first marriage, Alexander Hitchens and Sophia Hitchens; and his brother, Peter Hitchens, a conservative British columnist, who in 2010 published a book subtitled “How Atheism Led Me to Faith.”
On Oct. 12, 2010, after the effects of Mr. Hitchens’s cancer were obvious, he faced his brother in a 90-minute debate in Washington on the existence of God.
“Despite his clearly frail physical condition,” The Washington Post reported, “Christopher’s acerbic tongue and quick wit seemed undiminished.”
Mr. Hitchens was fully aware that some people believed his cancer was the result of divine retribution for his seeming apostasy. Others gathered to pray for his recovery and, in many cases, for his eventual conversion to the faith of their choice.
He was grateful for their kind wishes, but he reserved special disgust for those who thought he might recant his atheistic beliefs in the face of cancer.
“I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire,” Mr. Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair in October 2010, “who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”
Copyright: Vanity Fair, The Independent, The National Post 2011
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