A friend of mine observed upon news of the sudden death of North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il how unfortunate it was that Christopher Hitchens did not at least live long-enough to witness his demise an ironic 2 days after his own. I both agreed and felt it wasn’t so inherently-tragic: While Hitchens’ own tireless passion for the liberation of peoples suggests he is among those who believe that nothing is providential or inevitable about the struggle against despotism, both his prose and his public speech suggest the quality of a champion of enlightenment and liberation who suspects he will not have to contend with his adversaries for long–at least not in historical terms.
In an age of vulgar peddlers of fruitless confrontation and eloquent pleaders for civil accommodation, Christopher Hitchens was neither. His was an eloquent plea for vitalizing confrontation. He was a fine Nietzschean agonist, allowing that a mostly-conventional Democratic Socialist can be a Nietzschean agonist. He was a mid-20th century leftist-populist all his life, inspired by George Orwell both in his embrace of the traditional movement for Social Democracy and in always volunteering his prose for the offensive against those who seek to close down debate through assertions of authority. His particular revulsion towards religion led him to the enthusiastic (though not unqualified) embrace of President George W. Bush’s War on Terrorism and Iraq War, making the otherwise-unreconstructed Social Democrat into a Neoconservative for the rest of his life. In 1 of his last publications before his death, Hitchens defended—with visible trepidation—our government’s intentional killing of a US citizen working with al-Qaeda in Yemen earlier this year.
Given this strange combination of influences and motions, each of which simultaneously made Hitchens “cool” and “not cool” to the more-dogmatic partisans of the left and the right, eulogies for the British reporter, author and polemicist have focused on his integrity. This is considerable, for while many of Hitchens’ views were in substance more-moderate than those of the associations he made by them, his brilliance in expressing condemnation, contempt and counter-intuitive provocation meant that he would often sound like a committed partisan when he was in fact a studies recruit—and to stretch the military metaphor, an officer at that. His reasons were at times thoughtful, at times less-so, but always clear. While his passions were always substantively-political, he might still be best-understood as a writer. No one can express himself so well without that very fact affecting everything he does.
Somehow I’m still skirting the subject of Christopher Hitchens the polemicist. This would be the time to note that Hitchens’ success as a public intellectual is about the presence of a particular vice among his obligatorily-recited virtues: Hitchens could be as expressively-shrill as he was substantively-rational. In short, he developed his talent for drawing blood with prose because he was a hothead.
If you have any doubt of this, consider that Hitchens was beaten and almost kidnapped by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party—a Lebanese Facist faction—after he defaced one of their publicly-displayed swastikas with the Mother of All Curse Words. Was he in the right? Of course. Was he doing something impulsive at great personal risk, with naught but a personal sense of satisfaction to be gained? Of course.
What are we to say in response when, at the outset of the War on Terror, Hitchens’ opening remark is simply “You want to be a martyr? I’m game.”? William F. Buckley Jr., that part-Paleoconservative, pre-New Right founder of the National Review, expressed himself similarly though more-mutedly, in “So You Want a Holy War?” Hitchens’ enthusiasm for a war against zealots, I suspect, was motivated not by the exact character or identity of those on whom we would make war, or by their intention or capability to do us harm. Hitchens seemed as eager as anything simply to rinse the World of religious fundamentalism, as if this conflict really were of the same nature as 1 immense war against Fascism, or perhaps like many large wars against Communism fought across 2 generations. Now, as domestic protest movements topple long-ruling dictatorships and amidst the transitions we frantically try to sort-out the “good Islamists” from the “bad Islamists”—there is a difference and we had better develop an eye for it—everything begins to look more-complex than it did in Hitchens’ Enlightenment typology.
Still, if “we” (I leave it to the reader to imagine the faction) could laud all of Hitchens’ judgments in matters political, would he have had his integrity? He threw in like a partisan but thought for himself–and thus across party lines–and he would write prose as beautiful or as ugly as the point he wanted to make required. As much as a journalist can be, he was an exemplary public intellectual, unconcerned with silly conceits like “objectivity” or standing “above the fray.” He never crowed loudly, and he would stay with a cause, like the Iraq War, after it had become unpopular if he still judged that it was right. He presented himself as a man possessed of few delusions, and as he was when he ridiculed the propaganda of dictators or the public censure of makers of respectable opinion, he was telling us the truth.