Books

Christopher Hitchens: no heroes, no allies

To the end, Hitchens was most comfortable out on limbs

This obit was first published on Dec. 16, 2011, the day after Christopher Hitchens died of esophageal cancer 

Like any polemicist worthy of the name—and in our time no one deserved that honourable title more than Christopher Hitchens, polemicist tutti polemicists, now dead of esophageal cancer at 62—Hitchens was fond of the sound of his own voice. And with good reason: he didn’t just have a lot to say, he said it with wit, supple (and occasionally venomous) prose and utter fearlessness.

From his days as a young militant Trotskyite to his end-of-life position as the Last Man Standing in defence of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Hitchens always aimed high, preferring to wield his claymore against targets who were fully able to dish it back. High on the list were: Henry Kissinger (“should have the door shut in his face by every decent person”), Mother Teresa (“a lying, thieving Albanian dwarf, friend of poverty, not poor people”), the royal family (“what you get when you found a political system on the family values of Henry VIII”), the entire anti-war movement (“some peaceniks clear their throats by saying that, of course, they oppose Saddam Hussein as much as anybody, though not enough to support doing anything about him”) and God, or at least his more fundamentalist adherents.

Hitchens had few heroes, chief among them George Orwell—another Englishman of guts, integrity and literary gifts—but he was punctilious in giving the devil his due. He confessed himself, the reluctance almost visible when he spoke, a “cautious” admirer of Pope John Paul II’s moral and physical courage, and he was a champion of that raging imperialist Winston Churchill, for his brave stand against Hitler. For Hitchens, Churchill-like courage and magnaminity were the necessary virtues, both in public figures and in himself; not just the bravery to visit war zones or personally undergo waterboarding as he did, but to admit when you were wrong. Although he rejected as an intellectual concept the idea that effective political commentators had to be hated by everyone, (including potential allies), he was, in fact, happiest out on limbs, alone.

A contrarian to the bone, Hitchens was always disgusted by the moral compromises that belonging to any organized group entailed. He was alone among contemporary atheist crusaders in recognizing the pull of culture, family and tradition among the faithful. Perhaps the only one of his ilk to regularly hold Passover seders, he concluded his greatest polemic, God is Not Great, with, “My ideal reader is somebody who will be happy rather than sad that they now have to think for themselves.” Just as Hitchens had to learn after he shed his Marxism, the once-comforting material god that failed, a doctrine much like religious belief: “I say this as one whose own secular faith has been shaken and discarded, not without pain. There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.” His was a singular voice indeed.