Christopher Hitchens, critic, polemecist and oppositionalist, has passed away at age 62.
It’s a matter for remorse that perhaps as recently as five years ago, I’d have been happy to meet this revelation with a ‘well yes, it’s sad, but…’, before getting stuck into his memory over the usual bugbears; not mere political differences, but also the oft-repeated, well-accepted smears through misrepresentation. Hitchens may have been the kind of person to receive this kind of thing as mere occupational hazard, but he wasn’t someone to have people disappointing themselves.
My prior approach to Hitchens’ writing, I’ve increasingly found disappointing.
It’s hard to say when exactly the turning point was, where Hitchens began to ascend in my view. 2006 had me writing a post following an interview on Lateline between Jones and Hitchens, in which the Abu Ghraib torture scandal was discussed, and where Hitchens, while condemning the torture, described the inmates in an infelicitous manner, as ‘sub-human filth’.
My objection to this particular kind of rhetoric still remains – de-humanising enemy combatants is dangerous, and can precipitate the kind of atrocities Hitchens was condemning. (Yes, it is possible to exaggerate this, and take Hitchens too literally, but still…)
There has been however, despite this, a change of perspective. In the same post, I’d claimed that I didn’t ‘care for his tone’ (I paraphrase). Indeed, I realised I’d forgotten, upon re-reading the post earlier this year, that I’d ever opined such a thing. Memory can play tricks on you.
Not that I was condemning him on the basis of tone in the first place, today, with few exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth.
(As an alternative to this timeline, Hitchens managed to germinate the first seeds of dislike for the school of ambush journalism, misquotation and non sequitur of which Michael Moore is practiced, in my mind as of 2004, when Farenheit 911 was discussed between Jones and Hitchens, also on Lateline).
In 2007, I readily deferred to the firsthand, eye-witness account of PZ Myers on the matter of Hitchens’ speech at a Freedom From Religion Foundation convention at the time. Specifically, I credulously accepted the claim that Hitchens had advocated a kill-them-all approach to dealing with Islamist insurgents – an understandable account, but one I’ve since become unable to believe, and for some time.
Again, a significant difference of politics still remains; generally on the matter of the Iraq War, and specifically concerning the ability of Islamic insurgents to replenish their numbers through recruiting (which occupations rather tend to help). But this is not the point.
The point which I wish to amend came to light with a little prompting from a reader, and reflection upon the content of raw video footage. Hitchens had been advocating a fight until the enemy’s loss of morale, and surrender, not for a campaign to exterminate all Muslims. While I still hold much the same practical objections to this line of reasoning, the two policies are hardly identical, one being considerably more rebarbative than the other.
I have to say I’m remorseful for delaying an open admission of error in this particular detail.
In 2008, my attention was brought to a particularly bad piece of writing authored by Dr Ned Curthoys in Overland (if you can bear the sizable word count, I pull it apart in detail at Butterflies and Wheels). Hitchens was particularly savaged in the article, as were others in a way that was particularly liberal with the factual details (even a few lines of creationist-style rhetoric get a showing).
I was told that whatever the truth of the details, it was still a good article because Hitchens was getting a ‘pwning’. Well, he wasn’t, but that’s beside the point.
At the time, I attempted friendly punch-in-the-arm rhetoric (the word ‘stupid’ was deployed, laughingly), not believing that my disagreement was that serious. Possibly, I needn’t have been so restricted with my scorn – I’ve since had similar, more serious arguments with a few others the same circles, with subsequent falling-outs (or silent treatments). It seems that despite the japes, and the lax fact-checking, some of my interlocutors may have expected to be taken quite seriously all along. Too bad.
Somewhere in all of this has been a turning point, not just in my appraisal of Hitchens, but relatedly in my realisation of myself as a participant in the polity.
It seems I’m ethically left-wing, just not tribally. I don’t care if it’s an unspoken rule amongst some political in-group, I’m not at all happy to casually overlook inconvenient facts in the prosecution of niche-fashionable grudges, and it’s Hitchens I have to thank for helping me realise this. (Yes, it sounds quite obvious in hindsight).
I’m under no illusion that at some point, probably several, cognitive dissonance will make a hypocrite out of me on the matter (reading Hitchens is helpful in realising this as well), but I’d rather be more self-aware and able to act, than less. And I’m under no illusion that I haven’t always lived up to these values – that’s inferred already.
Then, in this timeline, came a re-reading of Letters to a Young Contrarian. To me, god is not Great was an atheist text I had technical quibbles with, by an author I often disagreed with. Letters, as re-visited in recent years, has been more influential, being second only to Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness in nudging Rousing Departures in any particular direction.
Writing to X, in warning against corruption, Hitchens raises familiar tropes.
‘Other invitations to passivity or acquiescence are more sly, some of them making an appeal to modesty. Who are you to be the judge? Who asked you? Anyway, is this the propitious time to be making a stand? Perhaps one should await a more favorable moment? And – aha! – is there some danger of giving ammunition to the enemy?’
(Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001)
In Letters, the assumptions underlying questions like these are skewered by Hitchens, through his own polemic, and through the summoning of Orwell and others. It’s in the face of such passivity and acquiescence that I’m most in sympathy with Hitchens’ words.
This is largely where I’m at now – realising in a more practical sense the implications of my revulsion to clubishness, and finding both comfort and truth (a rare combination) in what Hitchens instructs on the matter. I feel like I’m Hitchens’ rhetorical student X, like I’ve been a fool, and with still more questions to ask.
Of course, I’ve never had correspondence with Hitchens, and now, he’s gone. Not that I’m about to decay into a state of anomie, I’d have liked to have had the chance to meet him at the convention next year – to have had the chance to show my respect, and maybe get a little advice, even if drowned out by similar gushings from others.
While I’ve expressed remorse at my mistakes about the man, I won’t say I regret them. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have arrived at a worse place had I not made these mistakes so obviously, perhaps instead enjoying wrong kinds of success; in-group rewards for surrendering the intellect; pats on the back for the shit-eating grins.
At any rate, I suspect he’d possibly be bothered by self-indulgence of the like I’m displaying – too much umming and ahhing when the answer is right in front of one’s nose. There’s work to be got on with.
Hitchens pissed me off like he pissed off countless others, but ultimately, from the insights and the engagements, the experience has been incredibly educative, and will no doubt continue to be so, long after his passing. More so than some people will be willing to admit.
I’m truly grateful for the legacy Hitch has left us to work with.
(Photo Source: Hugh Greentree).