As of Thursday, apologists for various delusional sacred cows both religious and political, from both the right and the left, may breathe a collective sigh of relief. For now a true champion of Reason is no more. Christopher Hitchens is dead.
You can read his obituary (shuffled mid-print to the front page!) in the NY Times for a glimpse into the life history of this contrarian polemicist. You can find long lists of quotes that demonstrate his formidable lucidity and wit, his rhetorical genius and his talent of striking directly to the heart of a given topic. You can peruse his professional journalism prominently displayed in the various publications to which he prolifically contributed, and you can read his wide-ranging, penetrating and insightful books.
My purpose here is to give my personal impressions of the man, taken from afar though they may have been–and not because they matter, but because I am compelled to do so. Even armed with Google and a jumpy mouse finger, I am not nearly literate enough to quote great poets and authors, as Hitchens was known to do from memory, and as would be appropriate in a decent remembrance of him. The best I have to offer is sincerity and earnestness, I’m afraid. By all means, look elsewhere for grander fare: Hitchens deserves it, to be sure.
A Love of Truth
I was introduced to Christopher Hitchens early on in my deconversion, when I came across the Four Horsemen discussions and, subsequently, his various public debates with apologists. The thing that struck me almost immediately was that Hitchens never lost an argument. Anyone at all familiar with the subject of Christopher Hitchens knows this–fans and detractors alike. All but the most oblivious or disingenuous can agree that, on the field of rhetorical battle, Hitchens never lost.
But what is most important about this fact is that it had nothing to do with sophistry or showmanship: his arguments were always cleanly logical and tightly anchored in fact. Although delivered with consistently superior wit, sophistication, and humane appeals, his finely honed (though often off-the-cuff) points earned their victories, the hard way, with their inherent integrity. And this never failed to be true. No matter how many times I witnessed Hitchens obliterate the comparatively puny arguments of his interlocutors, no matter how many unexamined assumptions he laid bare, I was always pleasantly surprised by yet another rhetorical coup from this master of polemic. To be disabused of one’s own fumbling misapprehensions with such artistry, integrity and personal knowledge as Hitchens displayed is something few ever come to appreciate–if they even have the good fortune to experience it.
I had the chance to thank him in person a few years ago when he came to St. Louis’s Powell Symphony Hall to debate the theist apologist Dinesh D’Souza. I sat in that audience and tallied D’Souza’s logical fallacies (Hitchens’s column remained pristine, I’m afraid), cheered Hitchens’s strongest points (i.e., all of them), and expressed my chagrin at D’Souza’s constant evasions, factual errors and sophistic approach. I beamed in triumphant joy as Hitchens chided the apparently unthinking applause of D’Souza’s many supporters for being willing to clap for anything said by defenders of the faith, regardless of its insipidity. My heart soared in recognition of something I once, albeit fleetingly, thought I had lost all respect for: a love of truth.
You can observe these things for yourself, by watching the same debate I attended:
A tenacious insistence on truth and reasonable, humane ethics–including the necessary willingness to stand in defiance to pretenders of these values, and to hold them accountable as pious frauds–these qualities practically define Christopher Hitchens for me (and probably for the many who admired him from afar). While I didn’t have the pleasure of making his acquaintance in the proper sense, I was and am left with the enduring impression of a man who personified integrity.
But this impression was not made solely by Hitchens’s polemical exploits. His embodiment of integrity was revealed in his professional life as a journalist and activist as well, in acts of profound courage and ethical fortitude: spine, in other words.
One particularly endearing example (to me, anyway) was the time Hitchens defaced the poster of a fascist gang in Beirut, resulting in his being assaulted in the street. The story subsequently went viral, and many over-wise folks berated Hitchens for his recklessness in possibly endangering the lives of himself and his companions, and for being a “rookie” at overseas civilian life. Thankfully, some commentators were able to set aside considerations of tactics for a moment and recognize the deeper cosmopolitan wisdom behind such spontaneous displays of righteous intolerance. As one commentator put it, “Some may call Hitchens a fool for making his stand, but I will say to them that he is then the rare sort of fool I’d like to have on my side.”
Michael J. Totten, one of the Lebanon-based journalists who was accompanying Hitchens when the incident occurred, reported on its aftermath:
The three of us relaxed near the Phoenicia’s front door for a few minutes. We would need to change cars, but first had to ensure we hadn’t been followed.
“You’re bleeding,” Jonathan said and lightly touched Christopher’s elbow.
Christopher seemed unfazed by the sight of blood on his shirt.
“We need to get you cleaned up,” Jonathan said.
“I’m fine, I think,” Christopher said.
He seemed to be in pretty good spirits, all things considered.
“The SSNP,” I said, “is the last party you want to mess with in Lebanon. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you properly. This is partly my fault.”
“I appreciate that,” Christopher said. “But I would have done it anyway. One must take a stand. One simply must.”…
I later sat down with him over coffee and asked him to reflect on the recent unpleasantness.
“When I told you that I should have warned you,” I said, “that I take partial responsibility, you said…”
“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” he said. “Thank you, though, for giving me a protective arm. I think a swastika poster is partly fair game and partly an obligation. You don’t really have the right to leave one alone. I haven’t seen that particular symbol since I saw the Syrianization of Lebanon in the 1970s. And actually the first time I saw it, I didn’t quite believe it.”
“You saw it when you were here before?” I said.
“Oh yes,” he said. “But it was more toward the Green Line. I did not expect to see it so flagrantly on Hamra.”…
Christopher has seen Beirut at its worst. He visited Lebanon during the war and immediately after. In 1991, he told me, the city looked like Rotterdam after World War II had gone to work on it.
“Anyway,” he said, “call me old fashioned if you will, but my line is that swastika posters are to be defaced or torn down. I mean, what other choice do you have?”…
“But I was impressed,” Christopher said, “with the response of the cafe girls.”
“What was their response?” I said. “I missed that.”
“Well,” he said, “when I was thrown to the ground and bleeding from my fingers and elbow, they came over and asked what on earth was going on. How can this be happening to a guest, to a stranger? I don’t remember if I was speaking English or French at that time. I said something like merde fasciste, which I hope they didn’t misinterpret.”
A reckless stand against fascist shit is often the only kind of stand that is available. After all, fascists aren’t exactly fans of free speech. As Hitchens said, “what choice do you have” but to be reckless in the face of a gang of ideological bullies? The only other conceivable choice is to let them have their way–and that just isn’t an option for some of us. At any rate, we aren’t insectoid tacticians; we’re homo sapiens, upright, bipedal, chordate and (let it not be denied) hot-blooded to boot! It is certainly true that if everyone responded tactically to fascist propaganda, maybe no one would be assaulted in the street and the fascist gangs could rule us peacefully. Thankfully, though, there are reckless fools like Hitchens keeping the fascists busy guarding posters instead of running the world. Now, if there were just a few more like him in Lebanon, this tiny but inordinately powerful gang could be put in its rightful place (i.e., as the ones forced recklessly and ineffectually to deface property, on pain of legal prosecution).
Another reckless stand against fascism (religio-fascism, in this case) was his friendship with Salman Rushdie. This points up the moral degeneracy of the insect camp mentioned recently: doing a human thing like defacing a poster is easy to discredit as foolish, but what is the proper tactic to employ when fascist thugs declare a fatwa on your friend? “Unfriending”, or cutting off contact, is also an arguably human thing to do, but it is not a morally appropriate response to a fatwa, regardless of the tactical value of such. The only thing a moral person can do in that situation is to take a reckless stand against the fatwa. (It is my fervent hope that the reader is beginning to appreciate how relevant to our experiences are those of Christopher Hitchens–if not, please keep reading, for I intend to make the relevancy crystal clear.)
I’ll let Hitchens introduce this story, from his piece for Vanity Fair, titled “Assassins of the Mind“:
On Valentine’s Day 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran gave Salman’s book The Satanic Verses the single worst review any novelist has ever had, calling in frenzied tones for his death and also for the killing of all those “involved in its publication.” This was the first time that most people outside the Muslim world had heard the word fatwa, or religious edict. So if you have missed the humorous and ironic side of Mr. Rushdie, this could conceivably be the reason why. Just to re-state the situation before I go any farther: two decades ago the theocratic head of a foreign state offered a large sum of money, in his own name, in public, to suborn the murder of a writer of fiction who was not himself an Iranian.
Despite what was readily perceived by Hitchens as a call to action, many who would have otherwise rallied in support of Rushdie and free speech despicably washed their hands of the affair. Hitchens continues:
I thought then, and I think now, that this was not just a warning of what was to come. It was the warning. The civil war in the Muslim world, between those who believed in jihad and Shari’a and those who did not, was coming to our streets and cities. Within a short time, Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, was stabbed to death on the campus where he taught literature, and the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was knifed in his apartment in Milan. William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, was shot three times in the back and left for dead outside his Oslo home. Several very serious bids, often backed by Iranian Embassies, were made on the life of Salman himself…
For our time and generation, the great conflict between the ironic mind and the literal mind, the experimental and the dogmatic, the tolerant and the fanatical, is the argument that was kindled by The Satanic Verses...
Not everybody agreed with me about the nature of this confrontation. President George H. W. Bush, asked for a comment, said that no American interest was involved. I doubt he would have said this if the chairman of Texaco had been hit by a fatwa, but even if Salman’s wife of the time (who had to go with him into hiding) had not been an American, it could be argued that the United States has an interest in opposing state-sponsored terrorism against novelists. Various intellectualoids, from John Berger on the left to Norman Podhoretz on the right, argued that Rushdie got what he deserved for insulting a great religion. (Like the Ayatollah Khomeini, they had not put themselves to the trouble of reading the novel, in which the only passage that can possibly be complained of occurs in the course of a nightmare suffered by a madman.) Some of this was a hasty bribe paid to the crude enforcer of fear: if Susan Sontag had not been the president of PEN in 1989, there might have been many who joined Arthur Miller in his initial panicky refusal to sign a protest against the ayatollah’s invocation of Murder Incorporated. “I’m Jewish,” said the author of The Crucible. “I’d only help them change the subject.” But Susan would have none of that, and shamed many more pants wetters whose names I still cannot reveal.
But the voices of the spineless pants wetters would prevail, with their appeals from the left to a self-defeating “tolerance” of tyranny and to faux-multiculturalism. Joining them on the right, of course, were the equally idiotic counterparts to the radical Muslims, the fundamentalist Christians, who (as Hitchens pointed out) stupidly presumed the book insulted belief in a god (and that was good enough for these superstitious fools to find it insulting). From this deadly cocktail of limp cowardice and bigoted paranoia emerged a base capitulation to the violent and petulant demands of a violent and petulant dogma, which in turn led to the culture of self-censorship that will (or should) go down in the annals of western civilization as one of the most shameful compromises of its hard-won liberties.
Thankfully, though, not all religious people–indeed, not all Muslims–are opposed to “insulting” speech:
Sometimes this fear—and this blackmail—comes dressed up in the guise of good manners and multiculturalism. One must not wound the religious feelings of others, many of whom are poor immigrants in our own societies. To this I would respond by pointing to a book published in 1994. It is entitled For Rushdie: Essays by Arab and Muslim Writers in Defense of Free Speech. Among its contributors is almost every writer worthy of the name in the Arab and Muslim world, ranging from the Syrian poet Adonis to the Syrian-Kurdish author Salim Barakat, to the late national bard of the Palestinians, Mahmoud Darwish, to the celebrated Turkish writers Murat Belge and Orhan Pamuk. Especially impressive and courageous was the list of 127 Iranian writers, artists, and intellectuals who, from the prison house that is the Islamic Republic, signed their names to a letter which said: “We underline the intolerable character of the decree of death that the Fatwah is, and we insist on the fact that aesthetic criteria are the only proper ones for judging works of art.… To the extent that the systematic denial of the rights of man in Iran is tolerated, this can only further encourage the export outside the Islamic Republic of its terroristic methods which destroy freedom.” In other words, the situation is the exact reverse of what the condescending multiculturalists say it is. To indulge the idea of religious censorship by the threat of violence is to insult and undermine precisely those in the Muslim world who are its intellectual cream, and who want to testify for their own liberty—and for ours. It is also to make the patronizing assumption that the leaders of mobs and the inciters of goons are the authentic representatives of Muslim opinion. What could be more “offensive” than that?
And so we see that the properly offensive intellectual fascism that assassins of the mind are partial to is not limited to the fatwa. History clearly corroborates what Hitchens so eloquently teaches us by word and deed: that refusing to make a reckless stand against such fascist shit is, in fact, nothing more or less than opting to make a far more reckless de facto stand for it.
Grind Them Down!
After the debate in St. Louis, I did get to shake hands with this brilliant anti-fascist crusader, and to mumble my sincere if starstruck appreciation for his efforts at helping me secure what he called “the fundamental emancipation that the human mind must undergo before it can consider any very serious questions”: i.e., the emancipation from the intellectual fascism of religious delusion. Waiting in line to get my copy of God Is not Great signed, this socially awkward former cultist was grateful for the moral support supplied so generously by the very dear and attractive platonic girlfriend who accompanied me (and who, subsequently to her attendance at this event, also became a great admirer of Hitchens). As we approached the table, it occurred to me that I would not be able to express all I would have liked to. My fantasy was (and now shall ever be) that the Hitch would agree to join us for drinks, and the three of us would get gloriously drunk and partake in an orgy of regalement and tawdry jokes late into the night–and then maybe go deface some posters together. Of course, this didn’t happen.
But he may have noticed in my demeanor something of the fascist shit I had endured. For, as he handed the book back, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” To my delight, I recognized the phrase from a long-ago visit to an “Irish” pub of unknown authenticity. Scrawled on the wall was the aphorism’s original Dog Latin form: Illegitimi non carborundum.
Hitchens’s laconism evoked my recollection of the day a couple of Flurry’s thugs–fascist enforcers, bastards–came to visit me in my home, bearing in their shriveled breasts a writ of excommunication for me. My crime (as it is with so many) was daring to ask the wrong questions of the “Generalissimo”, and the outcome of this meeting left me with no other choice than to, as it were, deface some posters.
My “corrective” letter to Flurry was, no doubt, a reckless stand. Be that as it may, the faux-fatwa of excommunication was not something I feared, not even then. It always seemed to me that bullies and their tactics, as a rule, should never be feared, that the truth was paramount, and that no bully should be allowed to deny me or anyone else access to it. And Flurry had revealed himself as just such a bully, an intellectual fascist, a thug with a gang prepared to do his bidding in terms of social and psychological violence. Well, I’d rather be utterly alone than to capitulate to bullies and thugs. Even more, I would be remiss if I let it go at that. I felt the truth of this in my boiling blood.
Notice how Hitchens reacted to the prospect that his attackers in Beirut should be considered dangerous:
“Once you credit them like that,” he said, “you do all their work for them. They should have been worried about us. Let them worry. Let them wonder if we’re carrying a tool or if we have a crew. I’d like to go back, do it properly, deface the thing with red paint so there’s no swastika visible. You can’t have the main street, a shopping and commercial street, in a civilized city patrolled by intimidators who work for a Nazi organization. It is not humanly possible to live like that. One must not do that. There may be more important problems in Lebanon, but if people on Hamra don’t dare criticize the SSNP, well fuck. That’s occupation.”
What lesson can we take from this, other than we should never allow ourselves to submit to intellectual “occupation”–that we should never credit bullies with the fear they illegitimately demand? This is especially important when the Khomeinis (and, if I must make the point explicit, the Flurrys and Armstrongs) of the world are allowed to propagate their fascist shit with impunity. Who will answer them? Who will do what is necessary to create and sustain the kind of society in which fascist bastards are never free to grind down the intrinsic, natural rights we should dutifully cherish and defend by practicing them? We obviously cannot rest on our haunches and rely on the military and police of our various States to protect our self-evident (but not self-sustaining!) liberties. The reason these agents do such an apparently poor job of it is that (contrary to the propagandist cliches) it is not, in fact, their job to do in the first place. It is ours! There is, after all, a price of liberty that we all must pay, and sometimes eternal vigilance demands that we make a reckless stand–a foolish, hot-blooded, beautiful display of integrity.
Christopher Hitchens made it his life’s work to confront fascist bastards of all stripes and grind them down for a change. And Hitchens was almost certainly the most effective carborundum the world has ever known.
If his struggle with cancer had been a debate, he would undoubtedly still be among the living–and cancer would be, to the rest of us, less of a threat for tangling with him. Sadly, tragically, cancer is still the mindless, spineless killer it always was, and Hitchens is gone. But his words contain the cure to another kind of mindless, spineless cancer. And those words persist–their indomitable integrity will continue to present a formidable challenge to any who would abdicate reason and humanity in favor of doctrine or partisanship. May our memory of the man who wrote and spoke those words be a continual encouragement to demonstrate such integrity in our ongoing pursuit of reason and liberty–especially so in the face of fascist bastards everywhere. And now if I may craft some mock Latin doggerel myself…
Repugno tyrranis, carborundum!
Rest in peace, Hitch. We will never forget you.