“Ladies and gentlemen. Brothers and sisters. Comrades. Friends. Thanks for coming out.”
Thus began Christopher Hitchens, as was his custom, speaking from behind a lectern facing a standing-room-only audience. They had been waiting in the assembly hall of Southern California’s Biola University for hours, to hear a debate between Hitchens and Dr William Lane Craig, a prominent Christian apologist, on the question Does God Exist? After the moderator’s opening remarks, Craig argued for half an hour in favor of the motion, outlining five distinct arguments for the existence of God. Craig was a formidable opponent: a skilled orator and meticulous logician, who makes his living debating atheists. With the calm confidence of a tenured professor, he delivered a compelling case—academically rigorous, rhetorically impressive. When his time expired and Christopher’s turn came, one could have been forgiven for wondering whether The Hitch had finally met someone who could keep up with him. Only a few minutes into his rebuttal, it was clear that he hadn’t.
This was familiar ground for Hitchens. An international celebrity by this time, he had been on the road for two years, promoting his best-selling book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He was unique among well-known authors in that he invited his harshest critics to meet him for debates at each tour stop. Defenders of the faith—rankled by his acerbic takedown of religion—happily obliged. Debates like the one with Craig often had the feel of heavyweight prizefights. They occurred in sold-out arenas and produced soundbites that would go viral online. They contributed at least as much to Hitchens’ reputation as the criticism and reportage that initially made him famous.
Hitchens was a natural-born brawler, who relished public confrontation. A Marxist of sorts, he lived for the dialectic. And he excelled at the job. Martin Amis once observed that his friend possessed the mesmerizing ability to speak not only in complete sentences, but in complete paragraphs, as if reading from a volume of perfect English prose. Richard Dawkins advised anyone invited to debate Hitchens to decline. The second half hour of his debate with Craig shows why.
As Hitchens weaved breezily through an eclectic array of subject matter—astrophysics, evolutionary theory, moral philosophy, history—with his trademark wit and literary flair, one could almost fail to notice just how devastating a case he had made against belief in the supernatural. By any objective measure, Hitchens was less prepared than Craig, more discursive and polemical than his sober academic adversary and with fewer research notes. Yet, when his time expired and the debate moved into its next stages, it was already clear who had won.
He was at the height of his powers that night in California. Less than three years later, he was dead.
Remembering The Hitch
The web and the printed word are both replete with panegyrics of Hitchens. And, each year on the anniversary of his death from esophageal cancer (he died on December 15, 2011), more are added to the number. This is as it should be, for Hitchens deserves to be remembered.
Most of these encomia are (and will be) works of former friends and acquaintances, people lucky enough to have attended a raucous dinner party, a ten-hour luncheon or some other well-lubricated occasion with a man whose hard living and supple mind are the stuff of legend. To remember The Hitch is to remember a talent not only for turning a phrase in print and on stage, but for drinking and carousing. On YouTube, where his New Atheist debates and fiery television interviews have been viewed millions of times, one can also find roundtables of literary titans—Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Ian McEwan, others—reminiscing about their late friend’s exploits and oeuvre in equal measure.
All of this makes it easy to admire Hitchens’ special combination of erudition and charisma, even if you didn’t know him. Whatever you think of his personal vices (more on those later), you must acknowledge his uncanny knack for repackaging old truths in new words that were instantly memorable. We all have our favorite examples.
His slim book on Mother Teresa, though one might quarrel with a few particulars, teaches us to question that which everyone takes for granted, to notice hidden untruths in each piece of common knowledge and accepted wisdom and to point them out. His judgment that Mother Teresa, a saint whose very name is synonymous with virtue, is a crook and a fraud is shocking because it forces us to consider whether something we regard as obviously true is actually false, and then to wonder, with some trepidation, how many other such things are out there. Conjuring this type of discomfort in the reader was Hitchens’ specialty.
His Letters to a Young Contrarian, which I read in one sitting ten years ago in an airport lounge, admonishes the reader to value the life of the mind as an end in itself and as the only kind of life worth living. The final lines of the book summarize the man as well as any:
Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the “transcendent” and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.
He just had a way of putting things. And he was idolized in large part because he insisted on following his own advice. He lived what he preached right up to the end.
In the prologue of his memoir Hitch-22, while an undetected cancer had already begun its fatal work, Hitchens expressed a desire “to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive, and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me.” When death came, not long after he wrote those lines, he did it actively, just as he had hoped. He appeared on both The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and with Salman Rushdie at the 92nd Street Y the same day he was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, and was writing and speaking publicly until just a few weeks before he died. He lived up to his often quoted declaration that the “one unforgivable sin is to be boring.” It was as if he were determined to prove the truth of Walt Whitman’s lines “that nothing can happen more beautiful than death.”
By any measure, Hitchens was one of the best essayists and most colorful public figures of his era. His early death was a tragedy, and the world is dimmer without him. Yet, much as we cherished The Hitch and wish he was still with us, we should in some sense be relieved he’s not around today. Hitchens was one of those writers whose immense talent and literary achievements were matched only by the immensity of his flaws.
In his professional life, he aimed his barbs at prickly subjects and sacred cows and was always ready with a “Fuck you!” for anyone who challenged him. He courted reputational disaster with every utterance and keystroke. In his private life, he drank and smoked excessively and, in general, lived in a manner that would have landed most of us in hospital after just a few days.
The candle he burned at both ends may have given a lovely light, as he liked to say, but it may also have consumed him. For those who treasure him, this is difficult to accept. But it’s hard to see how a man like Hitchens could have survived with his reputation intact in the world we now inhabit.
Imagining Hitchens in the #MeToo Era
In February 2010, an ailing Hitchens penned a withering critique of Gore Vidal in Vanity Fair, titled “Vidal Loco.” The 83-year-old Vidal had, by that time, become a caricature of himself, brought low by a lifetime of unresolved grudges and grievances and dependence on the bottle. Always something of a conspiracist, he embraced his worst tendencies toward the end, arguing that the US government was complicit in the 9/11 and Pearl Harbor attacks and attempting to rehabilitate a diverse array of villains that included Timothy McVeigh, Charles Lindbergh and Osama bin Laden. Vidal’s descent into what Hitchens called “the gutter markets, where paranoids jabber and the coinage is debased by every sort of vulgarity,” caused him to declare that Vidal’s character had “committed suicide” and to object to the “awful, spiteful, miserable way” in which his former mentor, whom he labeled a “crank-revisionist” and peddler of “denialist history,” had “finished up.”
This is classic Hitchens. However, this particular hit piece was perhaps unduly vicious, given that its target had once, with good reason, dubbed Hitchens his heir. Vidal and Hitchens were eerily similar. Both were wickedly intelligent provocateurs of the establishment class of which they were, ironically, also members. Both wrote prodigiously and prolifically, while consuming huge quantities of alcohol. Both loved to appear on television and were serial name-droppers. Both had a weakness for the sort of glib soundbite they knew was beneath them, but which they found irresistible. And both paired a rare talent for polemic with an extreme sensitivity to even the slightest criticism. They were not exact replicas by any means, but they were alike in many ways—which makes one wonder whether Hitchens would have suffered the same ignominious fate as Vidal had he lived as long.
Polemic and Alcohol
Great polemicists burn bright and hot, but often meet with sorry ends. The examples come easily. Jonathan Swift was insane by the time he died, as was Nietzsche. Hunter S. Thompson drank and drugged himself into oblivion before committing suicide. Oscar Wilde, to whom some (including Hitchens) have compared Vidal, was a broken drunkard when death came. And Thomas Paine, one of Hitchens’ heroes, spent his final days writing angry missives to his editors while “bedridden, penniless, and mostly alone.” There are exceptions, to be sure, but the eminent writers who have been destroyed by their personal excesses are too many to name.
In Vidal’s case, according to Michael Mewshaw in his Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal, “massive amounts of [alcohol] consumed over decades did him incalculable damage, ravaging his physical and psychological equilibrium” and “undermin[ing] his work and his public persona.” This wasn’t true of Hitchens, who liked to boast that he had never missed a deadline and who, in any case, never approached the type of suicidal alcoholism that killed Vidal. But Hitchens died relatively young, while he could still manage what was an extraordinary intake of booze. It is hard to imagine anyone sustaining such superhuman levels of consumption into his seventies and eighties, without doing himself grave damage. Indeed, television appearances in his later years sometimes revealed a man whose relationship with drink was not quite in check.
Even when he was dying of a cancer to which heavy drinkers are especially susceptible, he never regretted choosing alcohol. He believed it made “other people, and indeed life itself, a good deal less boring.” But he never seemed to appreciate the ruinous consequences he was inviting by imbibing so heavily.
Women and the Islamic Question
Even if Hitchens had managed to keep his drinking under control, he would have had other things to worry about. For example, he would have found today’s cancel culture less ready to ignore the casual misogyny he mostly got away with during his life. To name only a few instances that come readily to mind: he once called the Dixie Chicks “fat sluts” (or “slugs,” depending on your source); he devoted an entire Vanity Fair column to the proposition that women aren’t funny; and he wrote in his memoir that “[i]t’s much worse to see a woman drunk than a man: I don’t know quite why this is true but it just is.”
These sins may be slight in the eyes of some, but it’s worth recalling that they were committed by someone who was also known as a libertine. Even the amateur mixologist knows that disdain for the opposite sex doesn’t go well with alcohol and a proclivity for casual intercourse. Although there has never been, to my knowledge, any serious allegation of sexual impropriety made against Hitchens, it is reasonable to wonder whether the reputation of a man who once told Martin Amis he would not leave a party before making “a brief pass at everyone in the room” would have survived #MeToo.
Then there are the allegations of Islamophobia, which Hitchens did nothing to dampen during his lifetime and which he surely would have courted with pleasure had he gone on living.
Utterly contemptuous of this line of criticism, he dismissed Islamophobia as a “fake term” in a 2010 article for Slate. Three years earlier, in the same outlet, he dismissed the suggestion that he had “insulted 1.5 billion Muslims” by arguing “that the believable threat of violence undergirds the Muslim demand for ‘respect.’” Hitchens’s overly simplistic view of Islam is still held by fellow New Atheists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and looks even worse with time. (The same could be said of his bizarre defense of the Iraq War.) It’s not likely that his anti-Muslim views would have softened with age. In the Trump era, characterized as it is by heated disagreements over which minority groups deserve our solidarity, these views could easily have made him a marginal and disreputable figure.
Would Hitchens Have Been Canceled?
If Hitchens were alive today, it’s easy to imagine overzealous contrarianism carrying him beyond the borders of respectable debate. He may have taken up with the Intellectual Dark Web and aligned himself, willingly or not, with dimwitted grifters such as Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro. He may have settled for hackneyed critiques of political correctness and of leftists as Social Justice Warriors or snowflakes. He may have said good things about Jordan Peterson, or advanced the dubious proposition that we have more to fear from the Left than the Right.
Wondering how Hitchens would have navigated our particular sociopolitical climate makes the prospect of his being alive today not only tantalizing but terrifying. Would he have made peace with Trump in 2016, in order to avoid electing Hillary Clinton, for whom his hatred ran pure? (“She’s a mediocre, self-pitying woman who’s never held a proper job.”) What would he have said of the free speech crisis on college campuses, cancel culture or the push for transgender rights? Would he be on Twitter?
If anything is clear, it’s that Hitchens would have done things his own way. And, even if he became a pariah among progressives, he would have maintained a huge (and hugely loyal) following and retained at least some of the characteristics that made people love him. But, even so, the toxic combination of too much booze, too little inhibition, and a fight-to-the-death instinct might have undone Hitchens in the end and rendered his ultimate story, at least for some, a tragedy.
If there is one good thing about his premature death—and I can think of only one good thing—it’s that this sort of end is no longer possible. By dying young, Hitchens ensured that we’ll never know him except at his best.
Only the Good Die Young
When Jonathan Franzen called his friend David Foster Wallace’s suicide a “career move,” he was expressing the ambivalence we feel about great writers who die before their time. Losing Keats, Shelley and Hart Crane in their twenties, Sylvia Plath at thirty and Kafka at forty seems like a cruel joke. (Imagine the verse and prose that was never written and never will be.) Yet there is something to be said for the early death that immortalizes the man or woman of letters in something approaching a state of perfection.
We despair of the poetry Keats could have produced and of which death robbed us, but we rejoice in knowing that he died before he could do or write something that would have called his preeminence into question.
Christopher Hitchens was not John Keats, to be sure. And, at sixty-two, Hitchens was not so young when he died. But, like other saintly writers, he died while still in a state of grace—while living the best version of himself.
In death, he will live forever as the man on the debate stage, tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black in hand, battling some outmatched theologian, and as the eminent public intellectual who faced doom with the kind of courage and dignity we all hope to summon when our time comes.
Although we mourn Hitchens’ absence, we can be thankful that he died before suffering the type of catastrophic decline or mistake to which he was especially vulnerable and that might have forced us to reconsider his legacy. Because he died in his prime, he is more likely to be discovered and revered by future generations and to be remembered as he deserves to be. That is the one good thing.
“Remember the Love Bit”
A couple of months before he died, Hitchens accepted the Richard Dawkins Award at the Freethought Convention in Texas, where he was undergoing treatment. Somehow, he managed to deliver a twenty-minute speech and sit through a Q&A with Dawkins. His body was emaciated, his voice raspy and uneven. He was dying.
As the event concluded and he moved toward the exit, through a standing ovation, he stopped to speak to a young girl who was waiting with her mother. The girl asked him what she should read. He recommended Robert Graves and laughed when she said she had already read “all of it.” She “was eager to meet famous freethinkers” and wanted “to grow up to be a freethinker.” Hitchens reached for her hand with a friendly smirk and said “I wish there were more like you … Lots of love, take it easy.” As he started to go, he paused.
“Remember the love bit,” he said.
And so we will.