How shall we remember Christopher Hitchens? For his short-fused, slashing style? No one was more accomplished than he at firing rhetorical salvos at real or imaginary enemies. “Cry for Guatemala, with a corpse in every gate, if I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate.” Whether or not Hitchens knew the lyrics of that Bruce Cockburn song, he agreed with them - more, I suspect, than Cockburn their author did. In the words of an ideology he never entirely relinquished, for Hitchens, “fascism means war” – which cuts both ways. It meant that Hitchens was anything but a pacifist.
The curse, if you wish, which bedeviled Hitchens is that he knew of the existence of evil and sought to deal with it. One thing he could not do: follow the comfortable philosophy of “live and let die.”
He refused to err on the side of caution, which led him to identify one paradigm of evil after another with phenomena as various as William Jefferson Clinton and his entourage, Mother Theresa, and the Jewish practice of circumcision. It seems to me, and just to me, that Hitchens’ moral indignation was often misplaced. At the very least, it was over the top. What to make of so much rank exaggeration, other than to note that he was well-suited to being a regular contributor to Slate and Vanity Fair?
Hitchens strove in every way to be a militant. It is not ironic therefore that he became a militant American (a neo-conservative in the terminology of some). Perhaps it was the path of penance he chose by which he might atone for the heart of darkness that revealed itself in Marxist Leninist practice, whose core ideology he once embraced.
The essence of Hitchens is summed up in the fact that he would stare unblinkingly into an abyss of evil and then take up his sword. He had no explanation for the existence of evil; he offered no explanation as to why a non-believer ought to oppose evil; he remained “metaphysically challenged” to his dying day. He nonetheless trusted his instincts at the intersection of the moral and the aesthetic.
His sword was not always misdirected. I would cite the example of the state erected on murder and torture from 1979 on by Saddam Hussein. It was Hitchens’ friendship with the Kurds and other Iraqis not afraid to die in the attempt to take the Baath regime down that compelled him to ask more from his friends in the anti-imperialist camp than said friends were willing to give.
The radical evil of Saddam's reign of terror his Kurdish friends helped him see led Christopher Hitchens to the opposite conclusion of George Galloway: that a republic of fear like that of Saddam Hussein was worth toppling, if necessary, with the firepower of American empire. For Hitchens, the American- and British-led war against the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and against the so-called Iraqi resistance thereafter was both just and necessary.
No one has a right to pontificate about Iraq without first reading Kanan Makiya’s Republic of Fear. A stop gap solution: a slice of a Hitchens lecture with an accompanying video that records the banal horror of Baathist evil. The great Galloway-Hitchens cage-match at Baruch College, a match Hitchens won handily, is available here. It is a fantastic test of true and false prophecy to re-listen to the 2005 cage match in 2011. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Galloway belongs on a list like the one Orwell compiled. Hitchens, in his post-Nation iteration, clearly does not. To the grave disappointment of many of his friends, Hitchens aspired not to be on the equivalent of Orwell’s list in his mature years. They, on the other hand, continued to imagine no higher honor than to be found on such a list.
Hitchens loved to point out the irony of the time and energy Christians like Tony Blair must spend patching up problems Christianity itself produces (Exhibit A: Northern Ireland). It is ironic in its own way that Hitchens, after he got his second political wind, dedicated much of his time to confronting the demons of the socialist ideology he divorced, never to marry again. By then he only knew what he was not, not what he was. Marriage is forever, as they say. Divorce, on the other hand, is forever and ever.
Christopher Hitchens’ ultimate claim to fame: his role as a spokesman of the “new atheists.” He often did a hack’s job of slashing away at one of his favorite targets – the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims – though of course their God is not one, as Hitchens knew. He performed a service by taking on the most cherished beliefs of the Abrahamic faiths. In this sense, he may have done what he was supposed to do on God’s green earth red in tooth and claw. I speak of course as a believer.
Hitchens’ capacity for courage counts for a lot if, as C.S. Lewis argued, courage is the greatest of virtues. Moreover, his capacity for friendship got the better of him now and then. I know of no other explanation for the fact that he often sounded the note, in his last years, of “humanists of the world unite!” – notwithstanding the obvious truth that a motley crew of Vanity Fair and Hitchens book production reading individuals, however much each might function as the life of a dinner party, would stand no chance whatsoever of prevailing against the gates of hell, or any hell on earth, even if they acted of one accord, an oxymoron.
Those who have the most to gain from taking Hitchens seriously are the believers he loved to lambaste. Perhaps he knew that.
Hitchens was aware that he had misspent his youth; he tried hard to do better in his mature years. Did he succeed? Is it possible that he will someday hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:14-30)? In light of the previous paragraph, the possibility cannot be ruled out.
Hitchens died a slow death in the clammy hands of esophageal cancer. He set himself up for that. The disease taught him something he might not have seen with clarity beforehand, that he was, in his own words, “a fellow sinner” on a par with Christians. A greater gateway truth is hard to come by.
How do we know that Hitchens made his way to that gate? A wonderful irony: the evangelical Christian Francis Collins, a physician and disease-fighter of the highest caliber, attended him in his final, losing battle with cancer. Atheists may well gnash their teeth, but Collins’ tribute to Hitchens in WaPo is revealing. You can only kick against the pricks so long.