The late Christopher Hitchens helped define the character and popular perception of Atheism for this generation. But for the self-styled contrarian, where did principle end and personality begin?
"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.