If Christopher Hitchens were alive today
’Tis the season to recall Christopher Hitchens. One decade ago this month, the Anglo-American journalist died of esophageal cancer at age 62. Commemorations and tributes have marked the sad occasion. Hitchens has been remembered, variously, as “a giant of letters and of social criticism,” as an “artist” who “dwarfed his canvas,” and as a writer who “delighted readers and listeners with the sense that one could be both educated and epicurean, both cosmopolitan and combative, both bookish and bombastic.” But he also has been described as a public intellectual who “chose his crucial causes poorly, winning pyrrhic victories that mostly deepened decadence, and left that same civilization more unhappy, endangered, and internally divided than before.”
This last assertion strikes me as overstated and incorrect. Men of letters do not determine the fate of civilization. And the major consequence of an encounter with Hitchens, either in person or in writing, was not unhappiness but pleasure: joy in the company and satisfaction in the prose, even (and perhaps especially) when one disagreed with him. Hitchens would not be so missed today if it were otherwise. His videos would not be so popular on YouTube. An unauthorized biography would not be in the works. Nor would the London Review of Books be releasing a posthumous collection of his essays.
That collection, A Hitch in Time, is a somewhat uneven reminder of Hitchens’s sensibility: ironic, fearless, mordant, libertarian, and imposingly knowledgeable. Hitchens remains vivid in the memories of his contemporaries and in the minds of his readers precisely because he combined an irreplaceable set of traits. The distinctiveness of his persona and the novelty of his voice are why we continue to wonder what the author of Hitch-22 might have said about the year 2021.
And what about it? The other day Graydon Carter, who edited Hitchens for 20 years at Vanity Fair, wrote for the Atlantic, “I’ll be honest: I don’t know where Christopher would come down on the current social and political divide in America.” I found his admission shocking and more than a little mystifying. Recently, while rereading Hitchens’s memoir for the umpteenth time — on this go by listening to the audiobook, which Hitchens reads himself — I found myself convinced that the ideas and attitudes of this supposed “contrarian” were in fact remarkably consistent.
As a member of the Left Opposition, Hitchens believed in some form of social democracy all his life. As an atheist and materialist, he opposed religion and its alliance with politics. As a skeptic and rationalist, he defended the Enlightenment and its legacy of political and intellectual freedom. Hitchens’s change of mind took place when he came to see America and democratic capitalism not as repressive forces but as liberating ones. He neither recognized nor admitted this fact until after the Cold War — but once he did, he swung hard in defense of America as a place where “your internationalism can and should be your patriotism” and as the site of the “only revolution that still resonates.”
Hitchens didn’t swap out his principles. He clarified them. He was unable to remain with a Left that apologized for tyranny and reduced the political to physical characteristics. Yet he also could not join the Right. He may have gone from the Nation to the Weekly Standard, from the London Review of Books to the Claremont Review of Books, but his atheism and his modernism stopped him from embracing an American conservatism that, by the time of his death, was beginning its slide into national populism. When Hitchens became politically homeless, he was unique. Today, he’d be just one denizen of a political Hooverville.
It’s fun to speculate where Hitchens might have ended up on a given issue. I am certain that he would have despised Donald Trump not only as an America First demagogue, but also as irrefutable proof of the hypocrisies and vices of organized religion allied with state power. Still, White House chief of staff Ron Klain wouldn’t be retweeting him either — not just because Hitchens would have avoided Twitter (or so I hope). Hitchens would have scorched Biden for maintaining large parts of his predecessor’s foreign policy while betraying Afghanistan, indulging the Iranian theocracy, and appeasing Vladimir Putin. Hitchens would have seen opposition to the coronavirus vaccine as another manifestation of destructive irrationalism. His dislike of so-called political correctness was well known, and he would have spilled much ink lambasting the left-liberal obsession with race and identity and victimhood. Like his former comrades among the Trotskyists, he would not have kind words for Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of the 1619 Project. But Hitchens also would criticize Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and his American apologists for betraying the ideals of 1989.
What such a list fails to capture, however, is the energy of Hitchens’s prose, the breadth of his allusions, and the wickedness of his wit. Far better to recommend Hitchens’s works and invite a new generation of readers to extrapolate for themselves. The memoir Hitch-22 is the place to start. Then go to the major essay collection, Arguably, then the monograph Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man — which is both an excellent study of Thomas Paine and a succinct brief for Hitchens’s worldview — and finally Letters to a Young Contrarian. I discovered this last text, a collection of letters to an unnamed student, when it was published shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This young reader couldn’t help thinking of Hitchens as an aspirational figure: an engaged journalist and intellectual committed to literary excellence and to political freedom, a dedicated (and in one instance actual) devil’s advocate, an adventurer and traveler who could out-smoke, out-drink, out-talk, and out-write any companion.
I know I wasn’t the only college student at the turn of the millennium whom Christopher Hitchens inspired. Later, as I came to know Hitchens’s work more deeply (and himself as an acquaintance), I found I sharply diverged from many of his views, especially his animosity toward the state of Israel and the figure of Ronald Reagan. Brooding over these disagreements, I concluded that what I found most admirable in Hitchens wasn’t his style, his photographic memory, his fluency, or his adamantine liver. It was his dedication to the rights of the individual in every circumstance, against all enemies, left and right, seen and unseen. His courage in defense of liberty defined him.
Why do we miss Christopher Hitchens? Because freedom needs champions. And needs them now more than ever.
This column originally ran at the Washington Free Beacon.