In Memoriam – Christopher Hitchens

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.

– Christopher Hitchens

In December of 2011, Christopher Hitchens perished in a Houston hospital, the victim of esophageal cancer. His death, like his life, engendered polarizing emotions, a simultaneous and spontaneous outpouring of affection, lamentation and sodality equaled only by the self-righteous, vitriolic screeds of his detractors. This, however, was the essence of his charm, a function of the man he was and the mantle he adopted for himself.

A self-styled contrarian, Christopher possessed an unwavering commitment to certain moral and ethical principles – chiefly secular humanism and a strong belief in the dialectic – cultivated from a lifetime of reading, discussion and travel. In his sixty-two years, he managed to visit, among many other hostile nations, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, putting him, one imagines, in extremely select company. To each new country, new regime, he brought to bear an immense knowledge of history and culture that made him an astute and sensitive commenter and a fierce and tireless opponent. He saw first-hand, often at great personal risk, the depredations of despots, the struggles of the poor and marginalized, and the triumph of power and censorship over democracy and freedom of speech that kept, and continues to keep, so many in perpetual bondage.

He was a journalist, a polemicist, a skilled orator and debater, an essayist of the highest caliber and, perhaps above all, a humanist, and yet none of these terms can convey the character of the man, the style and charisma that marked all his endeavors and made him so eminently likeable even as he attacked, undermined or humiliated the sacred beliefs and figures of our world. If he crossed boundaries, lost his temper or offended, it was ever out of a sense of moral outrage, a knowledge, born of his readings in literature and philosophy, as well as his personal experiences, of the growing divide between man’s innate potential and the dismal reality.

When the Vatican attempted to canonize the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Hitchens took up the defunct position of devil’s advocate and argued against her beatification. He would later boast of being the only person to ever “represent the devil pro bono,” a remark that goes a long way to encapsulating his divisive charm. In a debate on the topic of religious belief, an opponent made the mistake of asking him if he had never prayed in his life, to which Hitchens replied: “Yes, once: for an erection.” Of Jerry Falwell, the religious charlatan and huckster of international fame,  Hitchens was excoriating:

The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing: that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called Reverend.

Who would, even at your network, have invited on such a little toad to tell us that the attacks of September the 11th were the result of our sinfulness and were God’s punishment if they hadn’t got some kind of clerical qualification?

People like that should be out in the street, shouting and hollering with a cardboard sign and selling pencils from a cup.

This of a man who, in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, as the rubble was still smoldering and the body count rising, had the audacity to declare that the attacks were a divine punishment, retribution for a secular society permissive of homosexuality and abortion.

I am dismayed by many of the articles and epitaphs appearing in the wake of his death, purportedly written by admirers, that attempt to exculpate him for what they perceive as his more contentious positions, chiefly his support of American military intervention in Iraq. The tone is apologetic, even condescending, something that the living Hitch would not have tolerated, and is in service of a misguided attempt to rebaptise Christopher to better conform with the viewpoints of the author or publication. This is abominable. Whether or not you agree with his positions on divisive issues, you cannot brush him aside. Anyone with a respect for reasoned debate cannot help but appreciate his point of view, and to disagree with him is at all times to call into question your own motives and perspectives, to be compelled to reexamine your position and the rationale that created it, either to be strengthened in your opposition or forced to concede it, but in either event to be improved.

He will be best remembered for his opposition to religion and superstition, his every speech and work on the subject a reckoning for past and present injustices and a call to arms against the totalitarian and extremist positions that have for so long silenced dissent and suppressed free speech with violence and self-righteous cant. Scarcely a day passes that the international news does not report on some such abomination to free thought and expression, and, with his passing, we have lost our most vocal and potent opponent, the standard-bearer whose wit and erudition made a mockery of the pompous and pious and won to his side legions of supporters. He did not live to see a world free of superstition, and nor will I, but, in breaking the silence, he has set an example that will inspire others to take up the cause and in some distant future he will be recognized for his contributions, not merely to oratory and debate, but to human emancipation. What more can be said of the loss of the irreplaceable? Farewell.