Exceptional Claims: Principle, Personality and Christopher Hitchens

“Do not fear death, so much as the inadequate life.”

— Bertolt Brecht

“No More Games. No More Bombs.”

— Hunter S. Thompson, from his suicide note.

Hitchens was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatsoever about that.

Sadly, the death had been well rehearsed. The passing of the English-American essayist, pundit and provocateur Christopher Hitchens in December 2011, having done the grim dance with esophageal cancer for as long as he could, had been half-expected ever since he made his diagnosis public. Morbid journalism being what it is, many of the obituaries that mourned him were almost certainly written in draft long before his actual death occurred.

It marked the end of a schizophrenic career spent ferociously instigating and engaging in a series of self-propelled controversies — Mother Theresa’s hypocrisies, Henry Kissinger’s war crimes, Bill Clinton’s triangulations, the ‘War on Terror’ he infamously endorsed and the war on religion he personally declared — and dancing erratically across the whole political spectrum, making noise and enemies along the way.

Amongst the tributes to a complicated man and even the post-mortems of a complicated legacy, there was a unanimous recognition from admirers and detractors alike that the way in which Hitchens confronted his own imminent mortality stands to his eternal credit. His final written meditations on cancer are brilliantly unsentimental, revealing a man who refused to surrender one scrap of dignity to the malignancy that eventually robbed him of his life. Without self-pity or bitterness, Hitchens analysed his predicament with sober, searing insight, and was brave enough to realise that, in his own words, “to the dumb question, ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

He also retained his formidable faculties and fiercely-held antitheist principles to the end, resisting all prayers on his behalf, as well as any ghoulish deathbed entreaties from his ertswhile ideological opponents: “Suppose there were groups of secularists at hospitals who went round the terminally ill and urged them to adopt atheism: ‘Don’t be a mug all your life. Make your last days the best ones,'” Hitchens half-joked in response to those expecting a last-minute conversion. “People might suppose this was in poor taste.” Nevertheless, a surprising amount of religious commentators did the respectable thing and, upon his death, publicly regretted the loss of a worthy and assiduous opponent; respect for the heretic’s efforts, as it were.

Après, le déluge: In the days and weeks following his death, the memorials flowed. It seemed every hack between London and Washington who had once worked alongside Hitchens, sank whiskey with him in some press bar or bumped into him at a publisher’s party had a tedious anecdote about the self-styled contrarian they were eager to spin into a contemplative salutation. Writing in the Nation magazine — whose employ Hitchens left under a war-cloud of bad feeling over Iraq, and whose posthumous tributes to Hitchens did as good a job as possible of balancing respect for a former colleague with those differences which led to a parting of the ways — Dave Zirin even managed to get a short essay out of the time the “Bush Doctrine supplicant” spat an unlit cigarette at him. (“On Being Spit Upon—Literally—by Christopher Hitchens”, 16 December 2011)

A few old enemies scrambled to settle unconcluded scores with his suddenly vanished presence — CounterPunch writer Alexander Cockburn, an unsparing critic of Hitchens since 9/11, being the most vituperative — but most seemed keen to bury ugly memories and think the best of his memory as a devastating intellect and endlessly defiant humanist. Hitchens’ friend and confidante Richard Dawkins, another of New Atheism’s so-called ‘Four Horsemen’, described him as “a valiant fighter against all tyrants, including imaginary supernatural ones.” And even I, with all my doubts, could understand the forgiving impulse: in the immediate aftermath of his death, a full accounting of Hitchens’ faults and vices seemed distasteful. Maybe it still does.

And yet, the wave of confused reactions to his passing seemed strangely, unavoidably familiar to me. While some made overly flattering comparisons to George Orwell (a parallel Hitchens had always pretended not to encourage), I regret to say that I could only think of Hunter S. Thompson.

The heavily-medicated, heavily-armed progenitor of Gonzo was an odd breed all of his own, of course, as well as a writer I was never able to entirely make up my mind about (there are hard arguments to be had about exactly what is and isn’t journalism, but not here), equally difficult to admire or dismiss without reservation. However, when he took his own life in 2005, a death everyone really should have been expecting, I recognised the emotional gut-punch it served to many of my friends and contemporaries.

When it happened, I was still at university — it was difficult to go far without finding The Great Shark Hunt on someone’s bookshelf, or a Fear and Loathing poster adourning the nearest wall. A generation grew up with Thompson already a colourful, foul-mouthed elder, a pre-made antiauthoritarian paragon awaiting their eager fascination. Knowing ‘Doctor’ Thompson that way, imaginations well-fed by the myths his books gilded, it was easier to ignore those parts of the legend — the domestic abuse, the unglamorous addictions, the creepy fascination with firearms and the wildly varying quality of his work — that would not stand up to scrutiny.

Now, I worry that I can already detect a similar phenomenon beginning to set in with Hitchens. Just because old arguments may never be concluded does not mean they should be forgotten, and some of the arguments Hitchens fought were very important, indeed. When he was right, there seemed no one better suited to articulate an embattled truth; but when he was wrong, he crashed and burned hideously, spitting accusatory venom at all-comers as he did so. If he emerges posthumously as a cartoonish legend, an ever-quotable iconoclaust, a cherry-picked version of himself that everyone is happy to remember, then we are all guilty of some measure of dishonesty.

Arguably though, as much as it may pain some people to admit it, a good deal of the work Hitchens did transcends his own personal flaws and eccentricities; some of it deserves to stand alone and untarnished, if only for the sake of the atheists, freethinkers and contrarians who have come of age in the past generation, and those who will do so in the one to come. But in the case of a writer whose output was forever coloured by his own protean and unforgiving personality, can the good be easily separated from the bad? And how the hell would one even go about defining the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ anyway?

“When the bones of prehistoric animals began to be discovered and scrutinized in the nineteenth century, there were those who said that the fossils had been placed in the rock by god, in order to test our faith. This cannot be disproved. Nor can my own pet theory that, from the patterns of behavior that are observable, we may infer a design that makes planet Earth, all unknown to us, a prison colony and lunatic asylum that is employed as a dumping ground by far-off and superior civilizations.” – Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Hitchens had enjoyed a visible profile in the British and American media since the ’80s — he never went out of his way to avoid attention, good or bad — but it was God Is Not Great, his brutal, Promethean polemic against religion and its malign influence upon society, that rocketed him to his greatest heights of celebrity upon publication in 2007. The book was the centrepiece in a rhetorical war on what Hitchens saw as the repellant notion of an omnipotent deity, the belief in which was, as he put it in a 2008 debate with his brother Peter Hitchens, “a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime… A celestial North Korea.”

When historians look back upon the movements of our age, from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, it will be interesting to see how ‘New’ Atheism will be remembered; when God Is Not Great was published, it was barely a movement, just a publishing phenomenon. Its first broadside came from Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, written largely in response to the events of 9/11, and published in 2004. In 2006, the philosopher and congitive scientist Daniel Dennett attempted to dismantle religion with evolutionary biology and memetics in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Later that year, the Darwinist advocate Richard Dawkins made his name with The God Delusion, and the trend soldified into a marginal but vocal social force, as well as the scapegoat for every conservative commentator bemoaning a spiritually bankrupt civilisation. Atheism, for so long the unspoken extreme of politically correct secularism, was rising again in the public consciousness.

Peter ‘Bonkers’ Hitchens and His Brother, Christopher

I rarely experience generational differences with my father — a taste for Bob Dylan and a love/hate relationship with technology keeps our view of the modern world fairly level — but where ‘New’ Atheism had begun to excite me, it made Dad suspicious. He found it difficult to get worked up about certain philosophical conclusions concerning God’s non-existence several decades after he had reached them himself. When I flat-out asked him what he thought of ‘New’ Atheism, one non-believer to another, all he could do was sigh deeply: “Hasn’t it all been done already?”

Of course, Dad was right — this was hardly unexplored territory. Or as Tom Flynn of the National Council of Secular Humanism put it: “Something new was afoot, but it was only this: for the first time, uncompromising atheist writing was coming from big-name publishers and hitting best-seller lists. You could buy it at the airport. In consequence, people who had never before experienced atheist rhetoric got their first exposure… Readers familiar with nineteenth- and twentieth-century freethought literature — which, of course, most people weren’t — knew that everything the Horsemen were being praised and condemned for had been done before. Well. Many times.” (Tom Flynn, ‘Why I Don’t Believe the New Atheism’, Secular Humanism.org)

When he was right, there seemed no one better suited to articulate an embattled truth; but when he was wrong, he crashed and burned hideously, spitting accusatory venom at all-comers as he did so.

So, for all its notoriety, what did ‘New’ Atheism truly achieve? What did all its sound and fury signify? A few books glancingly troubled the bestseller-lists; some profitable controversy was drummed up for the media, who loved every minute of it; no politician endorsed atheism’s rediscovered energy, nor did any grand mass-movement emerge. Nevertheless, a coherent opposition to religion was reborn, in the shape of four middle-aged, self-righteous polemicists, to confront an era bloodied by the spectre of religious violence and warfare. And ultimately, ideas were spread and talked about, which should never be underestimated.

For many my age (25 and feeling every day of it), the joke begun by Bill Hicks’s mockery of an absentee ‘prankster God’ reached its punchline with Hitchens’ eloquent evisceration of religion’s claims to virtue: “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.” While Dawkins may have become the Horsemen’s best-known name, it was Hitchens who gave a distinct character to atheism in the cultural imagination, who lent it his personality and mannerisms, his bilious distaste and verbose arrogance, to articulate the bewildered anger of an atheist in the early 21st century.

Hitchens’ own atheism was in equal parts the result of mammoth ego and a keen and questioning intelligence, nurtured on the traditions of European democratic socialism; but like many, his feelings on the matter were brought into sharp relief by the tragedies of 9/11. He saw the direct, real-world body-count of religious hatred, and reacted instinctively. Responding philosophically, he declared war on God. Responding politically, however, he declared war of an entirely different kind. Far beyond his fist-fight with the Almighty, maps were being redrawn in the corridors of power.

“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”

— Albert Camus.

“All the gods are dead except the gods of war.”

— Eldridge Cleaver.

More has been written on the subject of Hitchens and the Iraq war than anyone should ever have to plough through, and the passage of time has not left it any less absurd or depressing to re-read. The short version is: he backed the wrong horse. In the chaotic months leading up to the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the world seemed to run on apocalyptic Wonderland logic, and the long, gruesome years after it, Hitchens and reality parted ways, and he descended into the murkiness of self-contradiction and self-delusion.

Judging by the devastating examples of the past decade, when future generations write of ‘liberal interventionism’, it will be in histories of imperialism. The original intentions behind it might turn up as an amusing footnote. After 9/11, Hitchens unyielding attacks on ‘Islamofascism’ quickly grew into unashamed support for the neo-conservative project in general and its Iraq adventure in particular, becoming as bizarrely entranced with the idea of a ‘New American Century’ as Bush, Cheney or Ashcroft. The joke began circulating amongst British journalists that Hitchens would now have to share the nickname of his brother Peter — a pious, far-right crackpot who wrote for the rabidly reactionary British tabloid the Daily Mail — who had long been known in Westminister press circles and beyond as ‘Bonkers’ Hitchens.

Perhaps it was the experience of No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, his acidic leftist deconstruction of the Clinton presidency — which bizarrely endeared the still nominally anti-capitalist Hitchens to the Republican Right for the simple reason that he had jumped up and down on the Clintons more effectively than they ever could — that helped convinced Hitchens he could find a new ideological home in the uncharted wilds of ‘liberal interventionism’. In the process, he disenchanted admirers, lost friends, and emerged as spiteful and bullying, decrying his opponents as apologists for tyrants and friends of terrorists. In an open letter published in the Nation, the poet and critic Katha Pollitt responded as well as any: “You’ve placed yourself quite forthrightly on the side of Bush, Cheney, Perle and Wolfowitz, whose plans to remake the entire Arab world long predate 9/11, and who seem completely unembarrassed by their own shifting rationales for invading Iraq. (Not even they, however, claim it has anything to do with opposing religious fanaticism. That is your own delusion.)”

Hitchens affected to feel no remorse, only disgust. He had burned bridges before, without regret: when he reflected on his early years as a loyal Trotskyite, it was with the zeal of a convert, all too ready to pitilessly mock the political certainties of his youth for which he was never able to find a satisfactory replacement, and which contrasted so vividly with his philosophical alliance with the neocons, almost Lyndon LaRouche-like in its weird, contradictory symbiosis of left and right wing ideas into a darkly paranoid whole. “Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence” is a Hitchens quote that will endure, and in the case of Iraq, he could never meet his own standard.

Nobody actually uses the phrase ‘sellout’ anymore — in fact, I’m beginning to suspect they never did. The term tends to suggest far more about its user, and their rather precious notions of ethical principles and standards, than it does about the person being described. Personally, the reason I never used it — other than a healthy aversion to hippie clichés — was that I had another word which seemed far more clear-cut: ‘traitor’.

It’s a word that still carries a lot of weight in certain circles, but I don’t know what else to call the rationalist who supported an irrational war; the enemy of capitalism who waved a flag for an invasion predicated on capitalist self-interest; the atheist who opposed all religion, and then dreamed up a double standard that allowed one set of believers to bomb the other, but not vice versa; the man who, as a young and idealistic socialist, once subscribed to the position that became a slogan — “neither Washington nor Moscow” — but eventually couldn’t stand being left alone in the middle.

For better or worse, there will be no one to replace Hitchens for the next generation — so many of the disparate environments that moulded him do not really exist anymore, at least not as they once did. The boozy, nicotine-stained anachronisms of Fleet Street and the byzantine inner-world of the old British Left have not vanished entirely, but evolved into something else… not necessarily for the better. But his example endures, in some aspects inspiring, in other parts cautionary.

As I write this, No One Left to Lie To, Letters to a Young Contrarian and God is Not Great sit on the bookshelf beside me. I think they’ll stay there, for now. That is as much a tribute to Christopher Hitchens as I can honestly muster. Hopefully, being able to acknowledge both the flaws and the virtues of Hitchens is more intellectually honest than Hitchens himself, at his worst, was willing to be. I would be a liar, however, if I denied that at his best, the most compelling and powerful atheist voice of our time helped me — and countless others — achieve a philosophy of our own; a private understanding with a beautiful, godless universe.