The world loses a philosophical giant
December 18th 2011
About six months ago, I got to see a video of Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of Britain, in debate. I had seen Blair give speeches, and duck and weave on the fly during the Parliamentary Question Hour. I knew he was articulate, could think fast on his feet, and had a encyclopaedic memory. I used to watch him speak and debate, and then watch then-President Bush, and wonder if America had any future at all.
I expected the debate to be a clash of the titans. I knew what a formidable force Hitchens was, but I also knew the man was ill, and I was taken aback when I saw him, hair gone because of the radiation treatments and swollen and puffy from the steroids. His voice was raspy from the cancerous outrages his esophagus had taken.
I also knew that Blair, who could argue convincingly for principles he did not believe in, would be arguing for ones that he did believe in now. A freshly minted Catholic, he had come out of the denominational closet the day after he stepped down as Britain’s PM and it was now legal for him to do so. (It’s still illegal for a Catholic to be Prime Minister in Britain, which shows they can be profoundly stupid, too).
The topic of the debate was, “Is Religion a Force for Good or Evil?” I had just read Hitchens’ “God is Not Great” and had previously read some of his other work, so I had a pretty good idea of what his debate points were going to be. I took it for granted that Blair would have had the diligence to be at least as conversant with Hitchens’ views. This would be particularly true, I thought, since Hitchens was one of Blair’s strongest allies on the subject of Iran, and lent considerable moral and intellectual authority to that disgraceful cause.
It didn’t cross my mind that Hitchens might pull his punches on his ally. Hitchens could be wrong, but he never compromised his beliefs.
The debate was a kitten stomp, Godzilla vs. Bambi. Hitchens never raised his voice (I don’t think he could), he wore a gentle smile, he was unfailingly courteous, and he avoided any hints of bullying or demagoguery. It was Blair, the lion of Parliament and powerful voice of the New Britain, who was stammering and blinking and shuffling notes in desperation. Even as Hitchens’ voice began to fail near the end of the debate, his eloquence and intellectual power never wavered.
Blair, in his eulogy of Hitchens the other day, said as much. “Rather disconcertingly, he debated better than me, I have to say. …He was completely a one-of…in a world full of very stereotypical people, he was deeply unusual. …If he believed something he was completely fearless…he thought about the issues very profoundly. He was a thoroughly decent person.”
Of course, Hitchens respected Blair, too. He may have been contemptuous of Blair the politician, but he respected Blair the man, because, as with most individuals in public office, there are two different entities in the same body.
Gawd help the politician he held in contempt, though. He once said of Sarah Palin, “She’s got no charisma of any kind [but] I can imagine her being mildly useful to a low-rank porn director.” Of George W. Bush he said, “He is lucky to be governor of Texas. He is unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things.” On Jerry Falwell he opined, “If he had been given an enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox.”
Liberals were frequently an outraged target of his. Of American liberals, he wrote, “One of the many problems with the American left, and indeed of the American left, has been its image and self-image as something rather too solemn, mirthless, herbivorous, dull, monochrome, righteous, and boring.” Even as I write this, I’m chewing my soy steak and wondering what I can do to be insufferably pompous and self-aggrandizing today. It’s a hobby.
Britain produces authors like Hitchens on a fairly regular basis. Bertrand Russell. Jonathan Swift. Anthony Burgess (obviously we’re talking quality of output, rather than philosophical similarity here). Charles Dickens. David Hume. Dozens of others. (Does Shaw count? He was Irish, not British). They influence, they change their society, people read them 250 years later. Hitchens has joined that elite.
There were two American writers that Hitchens deeply admired: Samuel Clemens and H.L Mencken. At the end of his life, he could gaze across time at them as their equals, too.
For the most part, Hitchens won the respect, albeit wary respect, of religionists everywhere. Even in America, where hatred of atheists is still considered socially acceptable, most spokespeople for the Christian right were at least respectful. That was remarkable, given Hitchens’ occasional pugnacity. In one Canadian interview, he declared he wasn’t so much an atheist as he was an ‘anti-theist.’ Bill Bennett grinned and hoped that someone would be guiding “a very surprised Christopher Hitchens” around heaven.
There were exceptions, of course. “If Christopher Hitchens is in fact in hell, he’s there because God loves him,” televangelist Bryan Fischer said. “Not because God hates him, but because God loves him.”
I can just imagine the FUN Hitchens would have had with that statement. It expressed, in a nutshell, everything about organized religion that Hitchens found wanting and lacking. God loves you and that’s why he’s going to punish you forever. It might even be a chapter title in his next book.
If he had a drawback, it was his seething hatred of Islam. He supposedly invented the phrase “Islamofascist” and thus smeared hundreds of millions of Moslems who don’t live under or approve of the horrid and repressive regimes of the middle east. It would be the same as claiming that all Americans were like Jerry Falwell and Bryan Fischer because America has a lot of evangelical Christians. It led to his calamitously wrong views on invading Iraq, and injured his premise that atheism should be above such intellectual shortcuts as stereotyping and bigotry.
It was his greatest flaw, but it made him reassuringly human.
While a strident anti-theist, and convinced that religion was intrinsically immoral, Hitchens didn’t stumble into the fallacy that all theists must be immoral. When told that people were praying for his recovery, he recognized the morality of the act and expressed his gratitude. He felt that blind belief in religion could impede morality, but for all its efforts, religion could not prevent morality.
Robert Sheer, a friend and admirer of Hitchens, wrote: “He was a great man, perfect in his intellectual courage, but I am reminded more of the writer, profoundly dedicated to his craft and committed, for all of his sparkle and bouts of excess, to a prodigious workaday effort at making this a better world. In his memory I offer these lyrics from The Internationale, as I recall his somewhat inebriated and ever bemused, but no less heartfelt, rendering of these verses:
Arise ye workers from your slumbers
Arise ye prisoners of want
For reason in revolt now thunders
And at last ends the age of cant
Away with all your superstitions
Servile masses arise, arise
We’ll change henceforth the old tradition
And spurn the dust to win the prize.
That was him. A slayer of superstitions, thundering reason in revolt.
Lift a glass to comrade Hitch.”
Chistopher Hitchens was a human being, and he gloried in it, and made all the rest of us shine just a little brighter.
NOTE: as this was being finished, word came that another giant of the twentieth century, Vaclav Havel, had died. As leader of the “Velvet Revolution” in 1968 against Soviet might, and leader of the Czech Republic years later, he brought courage and integrity to a land long locked in the grip of iron authoritarianism, and finally brought spring to his land.
It was a week in which humanity lost some of its brightest lights.