Christopher Hitchens’ Defense of the Enlightenment

Christopher Hitchens is my favorite writer. His books probably made up around 80% of my high school reading diet. I devoured everything he published, from his autobiography to his studies of religion, the Iraq War, Thomas Jefferson, and George Orwell. Unfortunately, that came at the expense of reading almost anything or anyone else, and so I developed a tunnel vision of politics which assumed that all the values Hitchens defended most vehemently—critical inquiry, the dispassionate pursuit of truth and knowledge, a revulsion to fascism and dictatorship, unequivocal support for democracy—were also accepted by people across the political spectrum. Such optimism was wildly misguided: events since 2016 have demonstrated that liberal democratic principles don’t enjoy unanimous support, even in the West. Nor will the freedoms we enjoy just chug happily along, as if on autopilot. They need to be defended again and again. Revisiting Hitchens’ oeuvre might yield some guidance on how to formulate such a defense.

Many thinkers have struggled to interpret Hitchens’ opinions, heterodox as they were. Was he a neoconservative? Or a leftist internationalist? There is no clear answer. On the one hand, he was a militant atheist who had no time for religious pieties; on the other, he had a soft spot for American patriotism and was a passionate supporter of the US invasion of Iraq. But assigning Hitchens a place on the political spectrum is pointless. What’s crucial is that Hitchens’ first principles originated in the Enlightenment tradition. Hitchens cared deeply for reason, classical liberalism, and secularism; his heroes included Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and John Stuart Mill. Whatever his position on specific matters of policy, he was steeped in Enlightenment values—and it showed.

Perhaps most salient among Hitchens’ Enlightenment convictions was his unambiguous support for democracy. Hitchens suffered neither tyrants, nor those who made excuses on their behalf. All the “alternatives” to democracy, either tried or proposed, came under the surgical scrutiny of Hitchens’ pen; none of them survived his criticism. Islamic theocracies trample the rights of women and homosexuals. Fascist dictators massacre ethnic minorities and wage wars on neighboring nations. Military juntas establish torture chambers and hurl students off helicopters. Communist revolutionaries stoke class hatred and launch savage political purges. Whatever its shortcomings, then, the historical record shows that only our liberal-democratic system has any hope whatsoever of protecting human dignity and fostering human flourishing.

Hitchens’ appreciation for democracy was so convincing that I thought everyone would be persuaded by it and would thus work vigorously to preserve our political system. If anything, however, democratic norms have weakened as of late. In recent years, we have witnessed an American president—the alleged leader of the free world—perfectly willing and able to violate liberal conventions. A president who declared he would (only?) accept the results of the American election “if he won.” This is the same man who flirts with removing the licenses of news networks because their coverage of him is “partisan, distorted, and fake;” who openly sympathizes with foreign autocrats; who encourages his supporters to demand the imprisonment of political opponents. Such behavior should be unacceptable in a democratic society—and yet we still hear from some quarters that Trump’s behavior is excusable because he gave us Neil Gorsuch.

Another aspect of Hitchens’ advocacy of democracy was his unrelenting hatred of authoritarianism in general and of fascism in particular. Again I had assumed that everyone would recognize fascism as the hateful ideology that it is, and that whatever support it retained would be relegated to the fringes of Western political life. If only. The rise of far-right movements throughout Europe continues unabated; all of them preach some form of nativist racism. In the United States, the alt right combines the racist with the conspiratorial and misogynistic to produce a nasty form of right-wing extremism. (And, as Charlottesville showed, the president doesn’t appear to be much bothered by these developments.)

If the proliferation of democratic governments and the defeat of dictatorships were the ends of a Hitchensian politics, then free expression and critical inquiry were the means to attain them. Free speech allows people to criticize injustice; a free press enables information to spread; an informed public can become aware of pressing problems and mobilize to fix them. The importance of free speech appears, then, to be self-evident. The only alternative, after all, is censorship. (And who, Hitchens asks, is to be that censor? Who gets to decide what we are fit to read and write?) Yet here again we see commentators equivocate about defending this core value. Segments of the right seem untroubled by the fining of football players who show insufficient deference to the flag of the United States. Segments of the Left ruthlessly enforce their orthodoxies on the politics of race and gender in intellectual venues, suppressing as best they can anyone who voices heretical views.

To combat willful ignorance in all its manifestations, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens enjoined readers to “Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake,” since “the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.” His public conduct proves that he took his own advice seriously, debating as he so frequently did ideologues and religionists of all stripes.

Yet, despite his penchant for “disputation,” Hitchens would have preferred not to have been forced to argue about things which should command universal agreement. Hitchens, for instance, would not have enjoyed a debate about whether Auschwitz happened—but he would have participated in it if, say, disabusing Holocaust deniers of their anti-Semitic conspiracies required argumentation. Similarly, if called upon he would have been ready to reaffirm the argument for Enlightenment values.

It is never a bad time for a restatement of fundamental values and first principles. The Western world sees free expression challenged, democracy questioned, and fascism resurgent. These are latent threats, alarming to be sure—but they can be overcome. As Steven Pinker writes in Enlightenment Now, “More than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense.” Pinker points out that while the world has made extraordinary progress in the wars against hunger, poverty, disease, and illiteracy, there is nothing inevitable about this expansion of human prosperity. For it to continue, certain structures and values need to be preserved. Radical ideologues from both left and right would have us abandon them. As Hitchens did, it is now our duty to say “no.”

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3 comments

  1. What a fortuitously timed article, Christian. I happen to be writing for my blog an essay that responds to Poe and Keats’s separately expressed doubts about science’s implications for “poetic imagining,” as Derek Pollard puts it, and included in the piece is Christopher Hitchens’s views about the Enlightenment. (This Era, of course, championed inquiry of both philosophy and the scientific method, which I argue are not mutually exclusive.) I was heavily influenced in middle school and high school by Dawkins’s coterie of atheists, including Hitchens, but mostly stuck by Dawkins and Sam Harris (I read then Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ancestor’s Tale, followed by Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape). I’ve since become infatuated by Hitchens’s eclectic writing, having finished his memoir and just begun working through his collection of essays, Arguably.

    We need more young writers like you (and perhaps like me) to help preserve and promote the principles of the Enlightenment, an era which not only endowed America with a constitution that has arguably been humanity’s first and best attempt at just, representative government, but which, as you mention above, is responsible for great extents of human prosperity.

    Maybe I’m reading too much Hitchens.

  2. I miss him too, and I’m so curious to know what he would have written about our current moment I’m tempted to take up necromancy.

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