Opinions

Farewell, dear Hitchens

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Of the handful of living people who have significantly shaped my view of the world, Hitchens is the first to die. Like many of my contemporaries, I was swept up in the great wave of de-conversion led by Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. It's a pity that most people haven't made it past Hitchens's God Is Not Great, which reads more like a collection of debate transcripts thrown together too quickly. (One has to sympathize: after a career of taking on God's servants, he was surely keen to wage direct war on 'the dear leader'.)

Although he made his career as a print journalist, Hitchens was an adept orator and debater. Perhaps his book-length attack on God fails to impress because he was so skilled at dispatching any reason to entertain faith in an hour-long debate.

Taking on the divine certainly made him so famous, but Hitchens was keen to expose stupidity and groupthink at every turn. In The Missionary Position he convincingly argues that Mother Theresa was a friend of poverty, not of the poor, and that her support of the Duvalier regime in Haiti was disgusting. He makes a convincing case that Henry Kissinger committed crimes against humanity in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, and he eagerly attacked the celebrity cult of Princess Diana in numerous essays.

Hitchens never lacked confidence when making arguments, although his reversal on some positions should deflect accusations of zealotry and absolutism. Hitchens loved stories where justice, rather than one of the so-called "greater goods," takes precedence.

To my mind, when his collections of essays aren't contenders, Hitchens's best book is Letters to a Young Contrarian, which embodies two of his most consistent calls to arms: that we ought never fail to think for ourselves; and that failing to stand up for what we believe in is to commit the double transgression of complicity and cowardice. Perhaps his love of intellectual confrontation -- indeed, valuing it for its own sake -- will not resonate with everyone. But his claim that "conflict may be painful, but the painless solution does not exist in any case and the pursuit of it leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness" is worth heedingt.

For Hitchens, the conflict was something to be enjoyed. He attacked the notion of Utopia, where people sit around in idyll bliss, as something to be reviled.

That was his greatest strength. He had respectable opinions on a number of issues, but his devotion to the process of seeking truth -- and his unwavering defence of standing up for it -- made him so great. Pouring a drink, sitting around a table and arguing until morning is time well spent after all.

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Comments

Hitchens almost forged his own ideology. He wasn\'t a socialist or a neo-conservative or whatever, but his positions were consistent and taken as a whole made sense. A leftist in a militant anti-fascist sort of way- that may have been the most typical in the 1930s-, a strong believer in the values of the Enlightenment and above all, of course, a secularist. I don\'t think it\'s even fair to lump him in with Dawkins and Harris. Publicly, he was less atheist and much more secularist.

Viewed in that light, I enjoyed God is not Great. He was weak when he delved into metaphysics (so was Dawkins) but he did a decent job of focusing on his strengths- political history, pro-secularism- rather than his weaknesses (metaphyics/philosophy). At least, he did a better job than Dawkins did in The God Delusion, in my opinion.

I agree that God is not Great wasn\'t his greatest work, but I think anything he ever wrote was incredible. Before I knew of Hitchens, I didn\'t think there was any way I would actually consider an argument for the morality of the Iraq war, but Hitchens always made you reexamine your position.

Penn Jillette perfectly summarises this: \"Nothing about Christopher Hitchens disagreeing with me depresses me. It means I\'m probably wrong, I got a lot more thinking to do, but it never seems to me that he is disingenuous, it never seems to me that he is lying or scamming me and it never seems to me that he\'s fucking crazy, we just disagree. In my idea of utopia, that\'s how I want to feel about everyone I disagree with.\" Couldn\'t agree more.

For those on the left who view him with suspicion due to his support of interventionism later in life, please read this heart-breaking article he wrote in 2007: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2007/11/hitchens200711

It\'s clear that while Hitchens viewed the war as being morally necessary, he was never complacent in his support of the Bush administration, nor was he without his doubts about its conduct.

Well, that\'s enough hero-worship for one night.

Thank you, Christopher, for the inspiration over the years and for constantly making me think. You will be missed.