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Losing Christopher Hitchens

Losing Christopher Hitchens

Journalism’s intellectual giant died ten years ago. Our civic discourse will never recover.

I’m not proud I got into an online row with a semi-pro mommy blogger on July 4th over her out-of-context Frederick Douglass quote. Still, her response that Facebook was a place for her opinions and not debate has stayed at the forefront of my mind. The morning began with coverage of the right’s frenzy over Cori Bush’s newest banal tweet. It then segued into my first listen of former 90s nü-metal star Aaron Lewis’s country song “Am I the only One?”—a MAGA anthem that conservative influencers couldn’t stop crowing about when it became the #1 song on iTunes. I’d had enough by the point she told me to scroll on by.

My sympathies may align more with the former lead singer of Staind than the rudimentary sentiments of the potty-training aficionado and the Squad member, but I found myself wondering why the depth of such media was so scant. Lewis is merely the latest artist to prove conservative interventions in the culture industry are largely ignorant of aesthetics, wallowing in shallow pathos while ignoring the universal appeal that made the great books so great. What ultimately rescued the holiday were the closing lines of a Thomas Jefferson biography by Christopher Hitchens I’d selected as festive reading: “If the American Revolution, with its secularism, its separation of powers, its Bill of Rights, and its gradual enfranchisement of those excluded or worse at its founding has often betrayed itself at home and abroad, it nevertheless remains the only revolution that still retains the power to inspire.” Such statements may not elicit the same gut reaction as posts claiming American freedom is for white people or lyrics like “This ain't the freedom we've been fightin' for It was somethin' more, yeah, it was somethin' more,” but their intent is not to massage their target demographics but to privilege the truth, a goal woefully out of fashion in this climate.

When Christopher Hitchens died of esophageal cancer in December 2011 at the age of 62, he ended a career built on being the only one all too early. The quintessential British man of letters with consistent contributions to Vanity Fair, Harper’s, The Nation, Slate, and The Atlantic, he willfully alienated his base through his post-9/11 focus on the dangers of Islam and support of the War in Iraq. A devout anti-theist, he earned the ire of the right shortly thereafter with his bestselling book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything to such an extent that the ambiguity of Facebook likes responding to news of his cancer diagnosis sparked an ethics debate over the intent of social-media expression. During 2004, he excoriated the zeitgeist films of Michael Moore and Mel Gibson a few weeks after violating as many of Michael Bloomberg’s petty laws as possible in a whirlwind NYC tour turned acidic act of participatory journalism (he arguably outdid himself by his insistence on being waterboarded at the twilight of the Bush administration). In a career spanning hundreds of articles and over a dozen books, his most reviled targets remained Henry Kissinger, the Clinton Family, and Mother Teresa, whose financial discrepancies and support of Haiti’s Duvalier regime that Hitchens helped uncover led the Vatican to invite him to her canonization hearing. As he writes in his treatise on mentorship, Letters to a Young Contrarian, “Any fool can lampoon a king or a bishop or a billionaire. A trifle more grit is required to face down a mob, or even a studio audience, that has decided what it wants and is entitled to get it.”

Yet, what elevated Hitchens above rote provocateur was his steadfast allegiance to culture and debate. When Hitchens wrote about atrocities in North Korea, Iraq, Cuba or Apartheid South Africa, his reportage hinged on his travels and relationships with locals built over decades. Such immersion and striving for personal connection also informed his opinions of his adoptive country of America, whether in his earnest travelogue of his time on Route-66 or his assessment of Borat that concludes with the question, “In what other country could such a character talk his way into being invited to sing the national anthem at a rodeo?” Hitchens’s rational tolerance also led to his lifelong facilitation of public discourse with his fiercest opponents—cordial and respectful affairs he nevertheless peppered with what his greatest admirers call the “Hitchslap,” which would have made quite a viral niche had its progenitor not died at the peak of his career. Amid these engagements, Hitchens merged the journalist’s dedication to truth with a voracious appetite for the arts, as apt to assess the latest John Updike novel, divulge an obscure connection in Graham Greene’s social circle, or write a book-length study of George Orwell as cover Iranian election irregularities—a facet of the life of the mind that the right’s political obsessives would do well to emulate as would Hitch’s lefty near-successors Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi.

While Hitchens speculation has become an annual holiday pastime in intellectual circles around the anniversary of his death on December 15, what he would make of our current moment is difficult to discern. He was as unforgiving of Joe Biden’s stalwart racism as he was Michelle Obama’s ideological framework, which continued to smart as she traversed the country on her Becoming Tour. His book-length expose of the Clintons bears the title No One Left to Lie to—a rare instance of shortsightedness in his often prophetic career. In positing that the role of the dissident is not “a claim of membership in the communion of the saints,” Hitchens offers a truism all echelons of political life have long abandoned to cancel culture only trumped by his characterization of identity politics as the one big chance for “the dense and boring and selfish.” However, his most applicable lesson comes midway through Contrarian: “Distrust any speaker who talks confidently about ‘we,’ or speaks in the name of ‘us.’ Distrust yourself if you hear these tones creeping into your own style. The search for security and majority is not always the same as solidarity; it can be another name for consensus or tyranny or tribalism.”

As I write, my joy over discovering a horde of “We’re in this together” tote bags in a Walmart clearance bin quickly died upon learning the latest CDC mask guidelines meant to protect “us.” Cori Bush is as likely to tweet something incendiary as mommy blogger is to Instagram a pic of her reading Ta-Nehisi Coates by the pool. Thanks to Hitchens, I know I’m not the only one.

Essential Hitchens:

  • Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001) (Buy)
  • Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays (2004) (Buy)
  • Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (2005) (Buy)
  • Hitch-22: A Memoir (2010) (Buy)
  • Arguably: Essays (2011) (Buy)