This is Why I Still Cherish Christopher Hitchens December 15, 2013

This is Why I Still Cherish Christopher Hitchens

As noted earlier, the irreplaceable Christopher Hitchens passed away two years ago today.

He earned a place in my heart forever not because he was perfect and not because he was a faultless humanitarian (he was neither).

I cherished Hitchens, warts and all, because he was erudite and funny; because he was a sponge and a fountain at once. He was also, for those reasons, one of the best, most cutting orators I’ve ever seen or heard, whether he delivered a prepared speech or ad-libbed his way through a fiery discussion.

Hitchens was never afraid to stake out an unpopular position, at the calculated risk of alienating those who admired him — and even at the risk of fatally biting the hand that feeds.

Whenever he tackled a subject, even if I wasn’t remotely interested in it (the love life of the poet Philip Larkin, anyone?), I found myself engrossed within the span of two paragraphs.

It still smarts that he’s gone.

Here he is, sick with cancer and still at the peak of his powers.

“What we have here, and picked from no mean source, is a distillation of precisely what is twisted and immoral in the faith mentality: its essential fanaticism, its consideration of the human being as raw material, and its fantasy of purity.

Once you assume a Creator and a plan, it makes us objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and then commanded to be well. And over us to supervise this is installed a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea: greedy for uncritical praise from dawn till dusk, and swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place.

However, let no one say there’s no cure. Salvation is offered; redemption, indeed, is promised … at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties.”

Even when I thought him wrong, I admired Hitchens for shaping his own ideology, being his own man, hacking his own path — consequences be damned.

“Suspect your own motives, and all excuses.”

Hitchens didn’t just write that; he lived it. He never was part of a côterie he wasn’t fully prepared to walk away from, if that’s what his intellect told him was prudent or necessary. That’s a very rare attitude because it takes tremendous guts.

The same characteristic showed itself in how he conversed with his allies as well as his opponents. He didn’t ratchet up the rhetoric with the former only to tone it down a few notches for the latter, as most people tend to do. His strength as an orator and his weakness as a would-be convincer were the same thing: he simply didn’t give a toss about being liked.

Another Hitchens quote (it’s been one of my cherished guidelines since I first came across it, about a dozen years ago):

“Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.”

Two years ago, silence, and the grave, imposed themselves on the man once and for all. What a strange sensation it still is after a lifetime of beautiful, fearless, erudite roars.

Thank you, Hitch.

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  • WallofSleep

    The blinkered and superstitious likely see him as a false prophet, and spit “good riddance”, thinking themselves done with this pest.

    Those of us not suffering from Rectal/Cranial Inversion see that he was an exceptional human being, making exceptional use of the human tools at his disposal. He may be gone, but his influence will last for generations.

  • Watchtower&Awakening

    Got my Johnny Walker Black at the ready. We’ll take it from here, Hitch.

    Feel free to check out by reflection on The Hitch:
    http://www.watchtowerandawakening.com

  • Rain

    I found myself engrossed within the span of two paragraphs.

    Same happened to me the first time I read something by him. It was about Mother Teresa. First time I ever heard of the guy. I thought he was some unknown author and wondered why the hell he wasn’t famous. Turns out he was famous. I figured he was strongly biased and was probably exaggerating a few things too. But I was strangely possessed by the words before me. What strange magic did this man have, and where can I get me some, lol.

  • wallofseparation

    The next time a believer tells me I celebrate CHRISTmas, I will say yes…yes I do. I celebrate the very REAL life and death of CHRISTopher Hitchens and others like him…this is our one REAL life, make the most of it.

  • L.Long

    He was and still is SO RIGHT on so many things, that his errors(?) in other areas are not all that relevant, except that they point out his humanity. He is Awesome!!! I wish I had 1/10th his talent.

  • Pofarmer

    Hitchens was one I first started reading in the aftermath of 9/11. He made a lot of sense except for that Atheism stuff. Well, uhm, yeah. He won that one, too.

  • Aram McLean

    “god Is Not Great” is a fantastic book. I’ve read it three times. Just love how the man turned a phrase. And he was incredibly fair in his critique. A salient fact all the zealots failed to grasp due to their own intense bias. A great man for sure.

  • The Vicar

    I was going to post an angry reply to this. Then I went back and reread it, and now I want to post a FURIOUS response.

    Hitchens was an asshole who was bad for both atheism and the world in general. He abandoned his own principles to support a war — apparently because it got him media attention — despite the fact that that war was obviously going to be a disaster in every way to anyone with any sense. Then he refused to admit fault, and spent the last years of his life refusing to even discuss the main issue and siding with the original wrongdoers on related matters.

    He managed to overturn and trample quite thoroughly on the principles the writer of this mush-headed encomium claims to esteem so much, and materially aided a bunch of thugs who not only helped re-entrench militant Islam — Iraq was more secular than most of its neighbors before we invaded and helped springboard the rise of religious rule, and the example of what happened to Iraq has spurred on Islamic fundamentalists around the world — but also destroyed several western secular economies to do it. Furthermore, he did so when even a basic high-school-level understanding of history would have let him know that his position was entirely foolish and self-defeating.

    You can’t claim he was wise, because he spent nearly a decade doubling down on a stupid position; he not only rooted for the war but also was a cheerleader for the pointless, costly, intrusive security state which now (inevitably and obviously) has turned out to be worse for us than for our enemies.

    You can’t claim he was benevolent, because that position was one which maximized the amount of harm he could possibly do. His cheerleading for the right wing, depending on whether you believe public opinion might have actually stopped the Bush administration from declaring a war they really wanted, might easily have done enough harm to the world at large to outweigh everything else he did in his entire career.

    You can’t claim he was honest, because that position was not merely wrong from the start — and obviously so — but was, by the time of his death, so obviously wrong that his fellow-travelers had repudiated it, and yet he refused to do so.

    You can’t even claim he stood by his own principles as quoted in this posting, because he certainly didn’t try to investigate motives — his own or others — or to seek the truth. He blatantly pandered to the right-wing in exchange for media exposure, and never showed even the slightest sign of having done any introspection on the subject.

    If you were wise, you’d never mention his name again, and hope that people would forget this idiot was ever associated with atheism.

  • i’m just the opposite. i stopped paying close attention to him after 911, when i felt like he just lost his mind and suddenly had no problem getting in bed with the very same politicians he’d spent so many years decrying for their christian fundamentalism. islam suddenly became the real enemy, despite the fact that in the west, it’s still only marginally powerful compared to the xtians.

  • you and i are of the same opinion. but it’s good to see it debated here. if this were a web post devoted to some “great Christian” or believer type, i doubt that minority voices like ours were be expressed or allowed. we can, in part, thank him for that.

  • Neko

    He aggressively advocated for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; the latter was one of the worst, if not the worst, foreign policy blunders in US history. Not all that relevant?

  • Neko

    You beat me to it; well done.

    Hitchens was a stirring polemicist, but his descent into neoconservative delirium was tragic. It lent credence from the left to the folly of the Bush administration’s military adventurism and the disastrous policy of pre-emptive warfare. I don’t think his support was cynical, however. He was a genuinely implacable opponent of radical Islam.

  • My only irritation is in not knowing how Hitchens would come to wrestle with that blunder as we gain more historical distance. One of the most fascinating projects of a similar ken I’ve seen is Andrew Sullivan’s cataloging how exactly Sullivan came to understand that he himself was wrong on Iraq simply by collecting and placing in chronological order all the things he wrote on the topic (original is annoyingly paywalled).

    It’s easy to be right after-the-fact when we guess right from the start. More interesting to me is how people deal with becoming aware that we were wrong.

  • Pofarmer

    I dunno, I think he realized that actual violence done in the name of Islam over rode some of the other things for a while.

  • Neko

    I’m very interested to read that piece so may finally cave and subscribe.

    Thanks!

  • Thanks, Vicar. It’s really nice to see someone in this particular space addressing these matters with open eyes and honesty.

    Hitchens’ unwavering support of war in the Middle East was inexcusably reprehensible. Nevertheless, there are many, many people in atheist circles who are willing to look past this because they see his words as so crucial in the genesis of the current atheist movement.

    Human beings do this. They defend their beloved leaders, right or wrong. This serves to illustrate that atheists are no less flawed than anyone else.

  • L.Long

    For the ones who think Hitch was an ass….Well what points do you disagree? Good? then take him down for those points! Can you show he was wrong? GOOD!!! On the war-lots of people were in favor, but he was not the one that started the invasion, it was ahole politicians who did that. Some may say ‘but he influenced them!!!’ To that I call BS! Because if he had that kind of influence, then why are the xtians still in power in the USA????
    Even I thought it would be a good idea to nuke the ‘little sheet heads’; the difference is that just few seconds thinking about it showed that it would not be a good idea. You should do as all skeptics are told to do…question, then ask more questions and look for the full answers.
    When you consider all the atheist UFO nuts it would not be very odd that Hitch had an odd thought or two.

  • revyloution

    Hitchens beat back at the leftist dogma that nonviolence is always the best solution. Its hard to know when to fight, and if you pick the wrong time to fight back, you are eternally a villain. When you pick the right time to bloody the nose of someone, you defeat Hitler and get to be called ‘The Greatest Generation”.

    Hitchens wasn’t afraid to say that sometimes a mad dog needs to be put down. We are still a violent primate species, denying it will just make you a victim.

  • revyloution

    That is exactly the difference between those of faith in unquestionable truth, and those who know that all our knowledge is just a fraction of nothing.

  • revyloution

    Almost completely off topic, I recently wrote about Nelson Mandela. Many have lauded him as a modern day saint, while others focus on his violent past. I pointed out that what made him a relevant figure was his transition from one to the other. Anyone can talk peace, but when someone lives the life of the violent revolutionary and can transition to a peacemaker who welcomes his jailers into his home, that is a man who deserves to be listened to.

  • The Vicar

    Two points:

    1. I am also against the term “The Greatest Generation”. It has been striking that in America “The Greatest Generation” beat Hitler and then, considered collectively, acted as though trying, on all fronts other than support for Jews and/or Israel, to act as though he had won the war. The foolish, costly, evil, and unnecessary security state, the insane right wing media, the elimination of any pretense that religion is not aligned with greed and regressive social policy, the idea that poverty was entirely the fault of the poor, all that was stuff “The Greatest Generation” kept believing in and voting for, over and over and over. “The Greatest Generation” is not great.

    2. Even if we accept that violence is sometimes necessary, and think that Something Must Be Done About Islam, the Iraq war was just plain bad and stupid policy — and this was obviously the case, right from the beginning. History has shown that you can’t use violence to stop a religion unless you’re willing to kill every last person in that religion. (There are no more Cathars, for example. The Catholics more or less killed ’em all.) The more you drop bombs on Islamic countries, the more they and the other Islamic countries will double down on Islam as a unifying movement for their citizens (and, incidentally, hate you for killing people). Anyone who has actually paid attention to history knows this, and knew it long before Bush and Cheney started to agitate for war. There is absolutely no excuse for Hitchens — or you, either — to think that religiously-motivated violence will solve anything.

  • The Vicar

    You thought it would be a good idea to “nuke the ‘little sheet heads'”? Really? Then you were — and apparently still are, if the rest of your post is any evidence — a fool.

    “If he had that kind of influence, then why are the xtians still in power in the USA????”

    Did you ever read about World War II, by any chance? When the Nazis conquered a country, they would set up a government consisting of turncoat natives. There was Quisling in Norway (who let the Norwegians develop nutritional deficiencies in order to supply the Nazis with meat) and of course the Vichy government in France. (And they tried to demoralize the British with William Joyce’s radio broadcasts.)

    They did this because they know what you apparently overlook: if you can find people to agree with you within a particular group, it becomes vastly more difficult for that group to unify against you, and permits people sitting on the fence to assume that that group does, in fact, support you. Hitchens made it look to the undiscerning like atheists are right-wing idiots and hypocrites who back foolish policy.

    (To say nothing of the fact that every group of any size inevitably contains some members whose interest is purely tribal. There is almost certainly somebody out there who would not otherwise have been in favor of the war, but came to be so because Hitchens’ support was trumpeted on TV.)

    Hitchens and his supporters ought to be happy that he is merely facing verbal abuse. The Nazi collaborators were executed whenever found; Quisling was shot, if I recall correctly, and Joyce was hung. What percentage of the momentum towards war in Iraq can be attributed to Hitchens? A hundredth of a percent? A thousandth? With over a million dead by current estimates, that still makes him responsible for at least one death.

  • Neko

    So many dead and the mad dog still roams.

  • Randay

    Before I had read Hitichens book on the that fraud Mother Teresa, I was almost thrown out of a dinner party because from news reports I had read about her I spoke my mind. A couple of people came to me and said that it took some guts to criticize her.

    My favorite speech by Hitchens is in his debate on free speech at Toronto.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyoOfRog1EM&feature=related

  • Rain

    I ever saw anyone say anything negative about Mother Teresa at all ever! Until that fateful day when I stumbled on a Hitchens article. Previously I had just assumed she had the greatest medical facilities of all time. I had seen her speaking before and thought she sounded kind of odd and off base but didn’t think too much of it. Later on I discovered the terms “non sequitur” and “fundamentalist” lol.

  • L.Long

    You stopped listening because….
    Let’s see how that process works out….
    Chemist says mixing these two things makes BIG BOMB!
    But I was not listening because it was shown that he was wrong about something else.
    Ya makes lots of sense.

  • Randay

    It is a funny story that happened in the early 90’s before the Hitchens book appeared(my age is showing). The hostess had invited different people, most of whom I didn’t know and I didn’t know if she was a believer or not. Somehow the conversation drifted towards MT and I spoke out as is my tendency. A lively discussion followed, but finally the hostess decided to let me stay after telling me that I should maybe leave. I didn’t care though I met some interesting people.

  • Randay

    On Youtube see “Hitchens on the Origin of the Koran” and “Hitchens on Islam”.

  • Nichelle Wrenn

    I think this speech and Hithens himself inspired a song by Aiden. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Idgvck6rRj4

  • Little_Magpie

    the debate that this came from, where he was debating Tony Blair, was the best of his video debates I have seen – as a debate – because both he and Blair were responding to each other’s arguments, rather than talking at / over each other with set talking points, sticking to a script and not engaging with what the other is saying, which I saw in most of the other debates.

    As several people have said, he wasn’t perfect and some of his opinons were ones I strongly disagree with, but… people are fallible and imperfect after all. I still respect him a great deal despite it.

    I miss him.

  • revyloution

    Well said, I completely agree.