A certain style of public intellectuals, untamed by perks of academia, think tanks and public grants is disappearing. They used to have a literary cast of mind, and knew how to apply it to the big issues of the day with style, wit and verve. They were irreverent and value driven.
In Christopher Hitchens we have lost a great untamed public intellectual. Hitchens phenomenal productivity, the ease of his writing, the prodigious literary memory has been hailed time and again. Gifted with a phenomenal memory, with the ability to form sentences that give the reader the pleasures of linguistic precision combined with watching a good knock-out punch he was as good at giving literary pleasure as he was in outraging those whom he attacked. He ferociously went after those he believed to be cynical, hypocritical and cruel, and his targets were as varied as Henry Kissinger, Mother Theresa and Bill Clinton.
Christopher Hitchens was quite unique in combining his literary qualities with an almost old-fashioned moralism. Throughout his life he preserved and cultivated his ability to experience and express moral outrage at abuses of power. Hitchens was trying, throughout his life as a public intellectual, to maintain a sense of what moral decency could mean in politics. His search for an unambiguous moral voice never stopped, and it led to him to one central change of mind.
Hitchens was accused of having abandoned his Trotskyist comrades, particularly after 9/11, when he went on a crusade against what he called ‘fascism with an Islamist face’, and even more so when he backed George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Some thought that he did so because he wanted to be loyal to his new homeland, the United States. Other simply thought that the remarkable quantities of alcohol that he had imbued over his life had blunted his mind.
To understand this remarkable man’s motivations for what looked like a political U-turn one needs to go back long before 9/11. Hitchens’ crusade (and I use this term on purpose) against political Islam began long before 9/11. He was pulled into it very personally through Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa in 1989 against his close friend, the novelist Salman Rushdie, who had to live undercover for years because he was under real threat (some of his translators and publishers were killed). And indeed this affair is what made Hitchens find his voice to the fullest.
In his autobiography, fortunately completed more than a year before his death, he wrote that when he heard about the fatwa he “felt at once that there was something that completely committed me. 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.”
Hitchens could have added ‘cowardice’ on the hate column and ‘courage’ on the love column. Hitchens was famous for his ire against those he condemned or despised. This anger came out with full moral force and sheer disdain against the many writers who cowered when asked to come out in favor of Rushdie, and even more towards those who insinuated that Rushdie had almost deserved the fatwa because he had overstepped the line of politically correct respect for Muslim sensitivities.
The Rushdie affair led to the point where he ceased to see the left as his political home, because, particularly in Europe, it was curiously blind to the forces of political Islam. He derided the European left’s impotence when it came to issues like intervening in Kosovo, after it had looked on, with much handwringing, at the atrocities of Bosnia but without mustering any political will to actually do something. And he positively loathed the timidity of many of his colleague’s reaction to the Fatwa against Rushdie.
Hitchens became an international celebrity through his 2007 bestseller God is not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything, in which he joined evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett and Neuroscientist Sam Harris in the new Atheist’s counterattack on religion. Hitchens, less bound by academic etiquette than his fellow atheists, made his case less by systematic argument than by scintillating prose mustering every trick in the bag.
Of course Hitchens made many enemies by his attack on religion. When he was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer in 2010, his religious detractors were waiting for the moment in which he would ruefully join their ranks, declare newfound religious faith and ask them to pray for his soul.
He didn’t do them the favor; nor did he ever express regret for his smoking and drinking that may have contributed to his cancer, to which he was genetically predetermined (his father had died of esophageal cancer as well). He told Charlie Rose in an interview he gave after being diagnosed terminally ill that “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.”
Hitchens never pandered to fashionable political correctness, and he never compromised, whether in his lifestyle or in his moral and political views. He kept burning the candle at both ends, and enjoyed both the light and the heat. His life and death are captured in one of his many memorable quotations: "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."
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