Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hitchens' Death
Like many people, I found Christopher Hitchens' writing both infuriating and irresistible: the smugness, the more than occasional gratuitous cruelty and flat-out wrongness (not inaccuracy, mind you, though sometimes that too) on the one hand, the usually superb construction of arguments, the erudition and the almost-always superb prose on the other. His last regular column, in Slate, was a regular pleasure even though it fell on the bad side of that line at least once or twice a month. When his cancer diagnosis became known, I always wondered how long he'd be able to keep it up; when he missed a week or two, I'd start wondering if the end was here. But it still came as a surprise when I read yesterday morning that Hitchens was dead, about two weeks after I'd read his column on the Republican presidential debates. There was no indication whatever that it would turn out to be his final one.

I find this easy to admire: while no doubt Hitchens was a world-class egomaniac and self-aggrandizer, the narcissism was untouched (at least in print) by self-pity at what happened to him. I love that he was unrepentant about all the drinking and smoking, though maybe even more that "I would have quit earlier hoping to get away with the whole thing." That's exactly reflective of a man who felt he was on his own in the universe, responsible for himself above all else and delighted at that prospect. You don't get the sense with Hitchens that he died feeling a great deal of regret about work left undone or much left unfinished.

The reaction to his demise has been interesting. For the most part it's been love and admiration, though not totally unmixed with reference to Hitchens' peevishness, disingenuousness and various other faults. Others have noted that Hitchens himself wasn't in the habit of deference to the deceased; his takedowns of the likes of Mother Teresa were legendary. Perhaps with that in mind, Glenn Greenwald has fired off the harshest postmortem on Hitchens that I've seen:

[F]for the public at large, at least those who knew of him, Hitchens was an extremely controversial, polarizing figure. And particularly over the last decade, he expressed views — not ancillary to his writing but central to them — that were nothing short of repellent.
Subordinating his brave and intellectually rigorous defense of atheism, Hitchens’ glee over violence, bloodshed, and perpetual war dominated the last decade of his life. Dennis Perrin, a friend and former protégée of Hitchens, described all the way back in 2003 how Hitchens’ virtues as a writer and thinker were fully swamped by his pulsating excitement over war and the Bush/Cheney imperial agenda...

There’s one other aspect to the adulation of Hitchens that’s quite revealing. There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins. Part of that is the by-product of America’s refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq. That act of aggression is still viewed as a mere run-of-the-mill “mistake” — hey, we all make them, so we shouldn’t hold it against Hitch – rather than what it is: the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud.

Fair enough, and to me at least Hitchens' cheerleading for the war against "Islamofascism" was his most obnoxious, unjustified and flat-out ugly position. (His over-the-top support for the hypocritical bastards who tried to impeach Bill Clinton in the late '90s, seemingly based on personal loathing for his fellow Boomer hedonist, was a fairly distant number two.) His willingness--his eagerness--to fellow-travel with the neoconservatives and provide intellectual and moral support for a global interfaith war was both tragic and, given his very public atheism, head-spinningly ironic. That he never stepped back and came closer to recanting the view than the occasional concession that the war in Iraq wasn't prosecuted all that well seems more evidence of his ego-mania than anything else. (It's a fascinating and, as far as I've seen, not-noted irony that Hitchens died within hours of the Iraq War coming to an official end.)

Even in his apostasy from the left, though, Hitchens refused to cede his intellectual or political agency. He favored Bush over Kerry in 2004, yet argued--at no personal or political advantage and probably to his disadvantage--that Bush probably stole the election in Ohio. The same stubbornness that bound him to the war in Iraq even after all its justifications collapsed had its root in the man's absolute and uncompromising resistance to totalitarianism in all its forms; in fact, I'm pretty sure that Hitchens hated Saddam Hussein for the same reason he hated the Catholic Church, and indeed organized religion in any form and flavor. He resisted control; he wouldn't accept any yoke whatever goodies, from a think-tank sinecure to the promise of eternal life, came with it.

As legacies go, this strikes me as a pretty fucking great one.


The Navigator said...

I do think Hitchens had an above-average degree of intellectual honesty, but he did display some gigantic blind spots and it's hard to imagine someone so ruthlessly inquisitive and intelligent wouldn't have had some awareness of what he was doing when he jettisoned his old standards in service of a new crusade. He was a big cheerleader in the 1980s and early 90s for the theory that the Reagan Campaign employed an "October Surprise" effort to delay the release of U.S. hostages from Iran beyond the 1980 election - yet when some were suggesting in 2004 that the Bush campaign was considering something similar by announcing bin Laden's capture, Hitchens wrote (probably in Slate) that voicing this theory was offensive and an insult to U.S. soldiers in the field. A dramatic swing from questioning conservative power to defending it.

David said...

His blind spot was in the personalization. He hated, really loathed Reagan--probably just one notch below Saddam, Kissinger and Mother Teresa, about on the level of his animus for Clinton--so he'd believe the worst of him. He was essentially indifferent to Bush 43 and of course a big fan of his wars, so then the (more or less) same vile behavior becomes implausible...