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Why Hitchens deserves to be remembered with Orwell

Few thinkers have shared Hitchens's physical and intellectual courage

My editor has asked me to “cover off” Christopher Hitchens’s politics. It is, of course, an impossible task. Or at least it seems so at first. How to distill a political mind that ranged so widely? There was nothing that Hitchens wouldn’t tackle in print, and the diversity of his interests might suggest a certain erraticism in his convictions.

There was, too, his supposed migration from the left to the right. George Galloway, in one of his many debates with Hitchens, told the audience they were witnessing a phenomenon of nature—reverse metamorphosis. Hitchens, he said, had turned from a butterfly into a slug.

Hitchens deserved the slur, in Galloway’s feeble if eloquent mind, because of his support for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Hitchens had made common cause with George W. Bush, and had therefore betrayed his leftist roots. Galloway was not alone in this view. Tariq Ali declared that Hitchens was among the casualties of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that the man now bearing his name and image was a “vile replica.” An online friend of a friend dismissed him as a “good mind lost to Bush and booze.”

All this misses what Hitchens stood for, which was, in a nutshell, freedom—freedom from tyranny and from religious dogma; freedom of thought and expression; and, on a personal level, the freedom of the individual to pursue and live his life as he sees fit. He didn’t pick his causes from an ideological menu dictating which causes to support or shun.

Few who champion Palestinian freedom from Israel’s occupation also backed Iraqi freedom fighters against Saddam. Hitchens did both. He was a friend to the Kurdish resistance when it was fashionable, and he stuck by them when they were sneered at as American lackeys. He sided with Nelson Mandela, and against Gandhi. He took apart Mother Teresa. And then when Nelson Mandela said some stupid things about race, the United Nations, and Iraq, Hitchens took him apart, too.

(A pre-set political compass did lead Hitchens astray at least once, as a younger man, on Zimbabwe and its odious dictator, Robert Mugabe. Hitchens was initially soft on the brute and admitted in his memoirs it was because he wanted to believe Mugabe was an anti-imperialist rather than an opportunistic thug. He was and is a monster, and Hitchens later attacked him as such, directing his readers’ attention to the millions of Zimbabweans who suffer Mugabe’s rule but are nonetheless generally ignored by most Western journalists.)

One gets the feeling that Hitchens loved language for its own sake. His memoir has some delicious scenes involving regular lunches with now literary legends such as Clive James, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, and Salman Rushdie. They amused themselves with games that involved replacing words in book and play titles. “House” would be changed to “sock,” and “man” to “prong,” or that very English profanity, “cunt.” The results ranged from schoolboyish—”A Cunt’s a Cunt for All That”—to the slightly more sophisticated—“A Shropshire Cunt, by A. E. Sockprong.”

Hitchens was so adept at language, it sometimes seemed as though he’d take on a topic just to see if he could pull it off. And yet there were other topics that spoke to Hitchens’s essence. In 2002, he published a book-length essay, Why Orwell Matters. I don’t know how well it sold. It was denser than a lot of his writing, and it’s not often included in lists of his best works. But it was brilliant. It was brilliant because Orwell mattered deeply to Hitchens. They deserve to be remembered together. Both shared loyalty to their ideals and convictions rather than any one political tribe. They were physically brave. They wrote well. They stood against fascism. And they died far too soon.

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