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Dead Letters of a Contrarian: On the Career of Christopher Hitchens

The cultus behind the life and work of Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) can only be understood in the context of our fame-obsessed and fundamentally illiterate age. His invocation this past week, in the context of whether Hitch would still be considered hirable by his former employer, the Atlantic Monthly, is a testament to the man’s hold on the intellectual class, even if his work fails to sustain its hold on the intellect.

I used to be one of Hitch’s biggest fans. I remember when his last complete original work, Hitch 22, came out, the excitement and thrill that anticipated it. Hitch had not yet been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him in under 18 months’ time, and practically every day leading up to and following the memoir’s release we Hitch faithful were treated to a new YouTube video, a new interview, a new review of the hero’s next work. Hitch was, of course, the man who could be openly intellectual on CNN, openly snobbish on Fox News, compelling on C-Span—not an easy feat! To admire Hitch was to take him as your leader, standing like a colossus in a sea of ignorance and pusillanimity which is our vapid culture itself.

It’s easy to forget now that the feelings aroused in us Hitch fans were very similar to those once felt for the Obama Administration. The first two years of Obama’s rule had a real euphoria to them. Like Hitch, here was a man who would use ration, reason, and his own natural (let’s not say God-given) speaking talents to enlighten our backward republic and complete Jefferson’s revolution. And for a wannabe intellectual, there was much reason to hope—even if in my infinite wisdom I was above the platitudes of Hope and Change. And in 2010, Barackus Aurelius had not yet been sullied by the boondoggle of the Affordable Care Act, had not exposed himself in the Trayvon Martin affair to be an inane race hustler no better than Al Sharpton, had not yet murdered Colonel Gaddafi and let loose an invasion which may yet destroy Europe. Hitch the skeptic, Hitch the idealist, Hitch the snob and iconoclast seemed a good representative for the hope in Barack and his times.

Then in July 2010 was Hitchens’s cancer diagnosis; in November Obama became a lame duck. By late 2011 Hitch was dead, and Jefferson’s heir was looking for ways to usurp power to the Executive.

For all Hitch’s bluster, the urbane leftism in which Obama trafficked was always second nature to Hitch. Yes, Hitch had the mantras of the Marxists and had better appreciation for Marx’s rigorous thought and personality than most, but Hitch was never a religious leftist the way leftism proscribes and in fact requires. Even as far back as the Thatcher government, he could condemn the evil actions of the British military, but not condemn the bourgeois military as a whole; he could decry the perfidy of the United States, but not proscribe capital punishment for it. The fire and brimstone which to true believers is more natural than breathing was foreign to Hitch and his outlook was one of discrimination. His leftist cohorts appreciated this—someone had to keep commonsense amongst the ranks. And Hitchens’s even-headedness gave the impression that the Left was winning arguments, not just squashing its opposition via blacklist and gulag.

But an impulse for discrimination can only go so far in a True Believer, and if over-indulged, lead one to conservatism. Marxists believe that a poisonous economic system has spread its tentacles across the globe, infecting every element of the culture, i.e. the superstructure. One cannot really believe this and spend time parsing details: All corruption is inevitable to a true Marxist because the system requires it; the individual forms of the corruption are immaterial compared to the larger taint of Capital. Hitch’s leftism was compromised at least as far back as 1982, with his defense of the British government in the Falklands war; to give Thatcher even a moment’s consideration was to make suspect your leftist credibility. Hence when Hitch defected and endorsed a fellow hard-drinking liberal, George W. Bush, True Believers like Noam Chomsky, Katha Pollitt, and Alexander Cockburn were not surprised. Ye cannot worship both Marx and bourgeois fame. Insofar that Hitch could spout the leftist viewpoint, he did so like a religion professor describing the True Presence in the Eucharist, able and willing to share the facts, but without the faith which might gain redemption from them.

Hitch was always a liberal—he was always a free artist of himself. A lover of Anglo-Saxon freedom and American hedonism, he was a man who believed only in negative freedom, and therefore never needed an idea inside himself bigger than the idea of Christopher Hitchens. A great intellectual, consumed with great ideas, can be the most boring man and still write wonderfully; if Hitchens was not writing about himself, he was writing about nothing at all. Thus, in a sense, Hitch 22 was superfluous—all his writing was a memoir. Lacking any Big Idea behind his work, his journalism was often little more than his journals. Much of Hitch 22 comes off like the mere repetition of stronger, more immediate work. Hitch’s defense of Cyprus, for example, is best made in his original book on Cyprus from the 70s (one of the few of Hitch’s books written with true Marxist polemical furor); his criticisms of Bill Clinton are best made in No One Left to Lie To; his debates with Chomsky were best in the pages of The Nation.

Hitch 22 at times feels like an index of Hitchens’s work more than a unique work in itself. Though he touches on personal relationships with Martin Amis and James Fenton, the friendships are not really so special as to warrant the attention; only a true fan (or sycophant) could find them interesting. Hitch’s grief over the suicide of his mother is touching, but the recollection of any mother’s suicide must be touching. Including the story of Yvonne Hitchens’s death is almost a little too easy, as far as filling pages go. It would be much more interesting to read of Hitch’s male relations—how did his relationship with his belittled father, a retired Navy hero whom Hitch calls the Commander, affect his opinions, if not his psyche? And Hitch’s maligned but equal brother, Peter Hitchens, is almost absent from the pages. An entire memoir describing how both Hitchenses became who they are—and how they managed to survive childhood—would be far more interesting than stories about going to a brothel with Martin Amis. Genuine pathos and real insight could be had in a story of the Brothers Hitchens, a truly original tale of lifelong affection and heated battle. But a trip to a brothel really only has one or two possible endings. Hitch is as banal here as a Disney fable, though the “happy ending” in his memoir is admittedly much more banal—the most banal thing in the world, in fact.

One of the great disheartenments in life is to find out what your hero thinks about himself. However brave he was in the face of violence and ridicule, however many books he read or great men he rubbed shoulders with, the soul that Hitchens desired for himself was fundamentally no different from that of any Baby Boomer. He abided by Gore Vidal’s (or was it Aldous Huxley’s?) dictum, “I’ve never passed up the opportunity to have sex or to appear on television.” He lived out the life of a 68’er maybe as fully as possible: As a young man, marching the streets of Berkeley and the sugar fields of Cuba, then marinating in a couple decades of lazy decadence and the pursuit of Mammon and fame, all culminating in the full-throated defense of a Republican hack and American empire, the rejection of God, obesity, and the belief on his deathbed that he had succeeded in doing things his “own way.” As a life-force, Hitchens was seemingly indomitable, his hedonism, self-regard, and pride never meeting a fall until Death, which of course must come to us all.

And yet separated from that life, from that Promethean spark that impelled him, there is not much to appreciate in Hitchens-the-corpse. The soul that animated him, for the most part, died with the body. He is more of a folk hero than a hero. Young men turning to his work for solace, as I once did, will be disappointed at how little they will find.

Hitch was a not primarily a man of ideas. This is fine for a journalist, but it places a high burden on the journalist to keep his life interesting; for when his life becomes boring, so does his writing. Hitchens was adept at keeping his life interesting. But he did this by imitation, not because he was a true original. His primary influence was a far greater writer, and a far greater man, George Orwell.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the men can see the effect of Orwell on Hitchens. Hitchens did his mentor the disservice of repeating Lionel Trilling’s foolish belief that Orwell, for all his talents, was not a genius. This is garbage, grown out of the idea that greatness is unrecognizable outside the halls of academe. “Politics and the English Language” will be read a century hence (if anyone is reading at all), and 1984 is the novel of the 20th Century—about the only book which can acknowledge the inhumanity of our current age and still be sold in Walmart. Orwell’s personal musings show a complex, subtle soul, his intellectual courage prevented him from attaining the popularity he deserved in his lifetime, and his best insights were terrifying in their simplicity and poetic breadth in a way such that no modern writer can compare.

In a sense, we are all living in Orwell’s shadow, but this was especially true of Hitchens, who was always able to delude himself that he was living in Orwell’s 1930s and forever negotiating between the ideological Scylla and Charybdis of Hitler and Stalin. Given his own context, Orwell’s quest against totalitarianism made sense; Hitch had to travel to the Third World to find dictators to inveigh against. Orwell was shot in the neck in Spain; Hitch had to settle for being beaten up in Beirut after drawing graffiti. And beyond personal imitation, it often seems that Hitchens made a point to borrow directly from Orwell’s bibliography. Both men published criticisms of liberal nuisances Kipling, Dickens, and Gandhi. Perhaps Hitch’s prose was better polished. Yet Orwell had the insight to know in the 1946 that the word “fascism” meant scarcely more than “something not desirable,” whereas Hitch helped coin “Islamo-fascism.” Orwell fought a crusade against the Bloomsbury group’s equivalence between the Tory government and the Nazis; Hitch fought a crusade to convince the chattering classes that Saddam Hussein was Hitler. These comparisons have something like tragedy and farce to them. The one realm where Hitch seemed to depart from and surpass his role model was in his atheism—but more on that later.

In retrospect, it’s almost embarrassing how closely Hitchens tried to live in Orwell’s skin. Hitchens could not do the same with the elephantine G.K. Chesterton, yet we find a similar, stranger patrimony, between Fleet Streeters here as well. Hitchens’s last review in The Atlantic was of Chesterton’s collected works, and culminated in a scathing, aphorism: Chesterton was frivolous about the serious and serious about the frivolous. In this rebuke is hidden more than Hitchens would have liked to acknowledge: For all of Hitchens’s so-called contrarianism, his materialism never let him depart too far from egoism and the self-seriousness self-worship demands. Both Hitchens and Chesterton were witty men of letters from middle-class backgrounds. Both defended now-unpopular wars for the sake of anti-imperialism and begrudged patriotism. The last works of both men were memoirs that contain the same line about how they would never pass up the opportunity to talk religion and politics in polite company (though Hitch, eternal Boomer, adds sex to this list). Hitchens was also fond of borrowing Orwell’s notion borrowed from Chesterton of “good bad books.”

Perhaps this genealogy is too speculative. But direct comparison is insightful even without my pet theory. Chesterton and Hitch both trafficked in aphorisms. Yet the difference is this: Chesterton’s aphorisms were sharp, and his thrusts were backed by the mettle of sound philosophy; GKC can do real damage to Shaw, Wells, and Nietzsche in the span of a couple paragraphs. Hitch’s aphorisms are bon mots, the kind that elicit laughs over cocktails but draw no blood. Could anyone imagine Hitch writing a book like Chesterton’s Aquinas biography—grappling with nominalism and scholasticism in a way that sets seasoned Thomists at awe? Chesterton’s beliefs may have been wrong, but those beliefs were deep. Hitchens did not have a philosophy beyond puerile beliefs in negative liberty—forever unaware that the sole merit of liberalism’s negative liberty is in protecting positive beliefs. A man of Chesterton’s genius could never have written a book as philosophically vacuous as god is not Great [sic].

And we finally arrive at the atheism. It was with atheism that Hitch could finally distinguish himself from Orwell. Hitch 22 reeks of the undeserved success Hitch experienced with god [sic], and serves as an attempt to backward engineer all his previous work under the heading of “anti-theism.” By 2010, the anti-totalitarian bent he lifted from Orwell has shifted towards that “dictator in the sky,” and suddenly his work is not loose plagiarism, but on the forefront of the newest freedom—the liberation of man from God. Finally, he has an ethos with which he could adapt the work of his acknowledged hero, Satan. (This is not Christian pettiness on my part—in his Proust exam he cites Milton’s Satan as a hero!)

The correct response to this is scoffs. It all reeks of moral cowardice and intellectual laziness, both of which characterized Hitch’s thought, writing, and actions through the peak years of his popularity. His insisted-upon socialism is a case in point: Does state control of the means of production lead to tyranny or not? The answer to this question is important not only in reflecting on Castro or Hugo Chavez but on the NHS and Obamacare. Or another: Hitch, commendably, and in one of his few acts of true "contrarianism," recognized that a fetus is, in fact, a human being, and therefore has some claim to life. Nonetheless, he arrogantly mocked Mother Teresa for calling abortion the “greatest threat to world peace” in her Nobel Prize speech. Well, if a fetus is a human, then every year more humans are killed by abortion than in the Shoah. An intellectually honest man would have to concede that the “Albanian dwarf” had somewhat of a point. But the vapid, gratuitous insult is more important to Hitch than honesty, and that’s what the reader is left with.

At the end of his life, Hitch never realized that other leftists were laughing at him. Writers like Gore Vidal, Cockburn, and the rest were all just as contemptuous of God, all just as atheistic. The difference is that committed leftists learned from Voltaire and Gibbon that God is to be mocked or shoved aside in a pithy line like Marx’s “opiate of the masses,” not addressed seriously. My own Catholicism is, in part, a side effect of Hitchens’s quixotic war: If not for someone like Hitchens even raising my awareness of theism, I may well have continued down the left’s “arc of history,” ineluctably aimed towards Stalin and Sodom as it is. The anti-Christ (or more precisely, anti-Church) is the leitmotif running through all left-wing movements. The resurrected Robespierre, Marx, Rousseau, might be disgusted with the modern left’s transsexuals, ethnic pandering, and general incoherence, but they would be thrilled with the progress of atheism. The hatred of immutable morality and hierarchy has always been the central core of the left. Hitch insisted on exposing this fact, all for the sake of shallow boasting and self-aggrandizement—remember that Orwell had only warred with Stalin and Hitler, while Christopher Eric Hitchens was combating the Great Dictator Himself! But what’s the point? The pill won more souls to Satan than any argument. This, more than his Bush-supporting, was his true act of betrayal.

Hitchens’s adherence to classical liberalism has won him a following among the chattering conservatives, and it is really only these centrists who still view Hitch fondly. The journalist himself is classical liberalism incarnate—the man untethered to anything but logic, winning over his audience with the force of words and reason alone. And the temptation to liberalism is strong among journalists; it hearkens back to the days when it was pamphleteers who stoked on the liberal revolutions in American and France. If at first, it seems strange that so many milquetoast conservative journalists would fall into formation behind the cosmopolitan, lovable sot, we have to remember that journalists see themselves as journalists before anything else. And Hitchens was the freest of all journalists, unfettered by dull beats, idiotic copy editors, or the most blatantly propagandistic aspects of the trade. Christopher Hitchens was the journalist’s conception of what a journalist should be.

Yet for all of this, his work does not hold up. Hitch pumped out great amounts of material on a vast array of subjects but very rarely provided enough unique insight to give his pieces lasting power beyond the topics at hand. His contrarianism never formed a distinct political or philosophical perspective. His jeremiads against Kissinger and the Clintons are well-aimed but are really nothing special. His biography of Jefferson is lackluster, his atheist work embarrassing. The one time Hitch charted his own intellectual path was in defending the "liberation" of a sovereign nation by the most oppressive imperial power the world has ever known; no one but a fool would want to follow those footsteps. What kind of school could form in the wake of such a man? What would a "Hitchens-esque" work even look like, besides being snide and verbose?

Hitch had many noble qualities, but no great ones. He has many fine works, but no exceptional ones. His best self-was found in the short, punchy pieces he wrote for The Nation and Slate, where his love of wordplay, aphorism, and insult did not have to be diluted with his weak philosophies; Hitch’s best book was The Long Short War for this reason. Classical liberalism is an overrated and unserious philosophy, but Hitch was committed to it—witness his insistence on treating Mos Def like an equal on Bill Maher; he seemed unaware that treating blacks as moral equals is the modern definition of racism. Hitch likes to quote Chomsky’s quote of Marx: That he could not support a revolution that destroyed the British Museum, where so many great radicals educated themselves. If the Congressional Black Caucus has its way, all three men will be nothing but a skin color.

In the six years since his death, it’s astounding to think Hitch gave even tacit support to the causes he once did. Mr. Jefferson’s Party is now insistent upon demographic replacement which will make Anglo-Saxon values irrelevant, and Mr. Madison’s Constitution, written to crush Mr. Shays, is now employed to preach state-supported anarchy in the streets. Hitchens liked to believe his was living perpetually in 1968 or 1938, or 1776 and, Boomer that he was, he let pride and corpulence blind his vision and sense to what was actually going on. The socialism, anti-racism, and anti-theism he promoted in the most florid terms are now used as cudgels by vulgarians who want to eradicate men like Christopher Hitchens. The hallowed pages of Hitchens’s Atlantic are now represented by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a man whose soul is nothing but his skin pigment, his brain a cheap thesaurus. And that’s not even mentioning the rise of Donald Trump.

What would Hitch have to say about these developments? The answer: Who cares? Hitch’s writing, like the historical liberty he loved, is now irrelevant for anything but weak consolation. His fans should acknowledge this, and understand that while he was battling the “totalitarian in the sky,” the true totalitarians were seizing power before their eyes. Upon his cancer-bed, Hitch held fast to his belief that upon death his soul would be annihilated while his work might yet endure. Still, pride must have its fall. Hitch’s immortal soul still exists somewhere, yet his corpus has scarcely outlasted his corpse.

Hitch-22?

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