Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

I will miss Christopher Hitchens. Perhaps no other name on a link so speedily bid me click, giddy with the anticipation of an idiosyncratic and literate delight – no matter what subject might be his current fancy. While Hitchens lived, I was very pleased not to be Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, Mother Theresa, or God.

In each of these cases, and so many more, he practiced rhetorical shock and awe – and he achieved devastation (with the exception, of course, of his one nemesis who did not, in his view, actually exist, and about whom, therefore, he borrowed entirely from other people’s biographies, and with whom, I would love to believe, he is currently arguing). In all of this polemical writing, Hitchens drew stark lines – rationally-grounded moral lines, and the verve, the chutzpah, and the integrity with which he did so was a profound 21st century repudiation of relativism and universal tolerance. He had no time for these.

Perhaps it appears on odd attraction – what with my frequent exhortations to civility and courtesy in political discourse. Hitchens could be uncivil, which makes me chuckle as I write it. Indeed, many of today’s left and right self-appointed pit bulls look like vaguely rabid poodles next to a fully-engaged Hitchens.

But that’s because so very few of these poodles have anywhere near the erudition, precision with language, and finally, ideological autonomy as Hitchens did. All of the guidelines I have suggested regarding civility still apply, unless you are Christopher Hitchens or a tiny handful of others who wield words with his grace. Perhaps the civility rules now apply more than ever because we must carefully re-learn the art of fiery polemics without the inspiration of its best practitioner.

I suppose many of the people targeted in Hitchens’ debates and polemical writings felt “bullied,” and we crave the secular certainty that “bullying” is bad. And of course it is, except when it’s really good. As when the bullies get bullied. Or the pretentious get popped. Or the powerful – whether despots or successful peddlers of very bad ideas – get surgically whacked. Which isn’t really bullying at all. Hitchens hated unchecked and brutal concentrations of power – but he also choked on the failure of power to do good, and scoffed at the craven sentimentality that saw no possibility of good in power. That is one reason this British-born brilliance loved America.

I never met Christopher Hitchens, never heard him speak, and never was in the same room with him. I simply became a voracious consumer of anything he wrote. The many tributes from the many who knew him count for so much more – but I have this personal gratitude to Christopher Hitchens, the public intellectual.

9-11 was a defining moment, a paradigm shift for Hitchens, as for me. Something clicked about the call to arms, the urgency of challenging a poisonous and murderous narrative, the obligation of the West, and particularly America with its wherewithal, to take the battle that had been horrifically exploded on our soil to its origins in theretofore much-too-comfortable violent despotism in the larger Middle East.

I supported the Afghanistan war and the more difficult (politically) Iraq war from the beginning, and Christopher Hitchens made a vastly better case for both, especially the Iraq war, than the Bush administration ever managed. If you wish a spoken taste for his eloquence on the subject, see here his debate with George Galloway in 2005.

I would deeply wish to examine and celebrate every moment of his eloquence, but my point is a narrower one. Hitchens tackled a public-relations nightmare that exceeded the talents of the Bush administration, and he did so with a passion and precision befitting the stakes. I’d have supported the Iraq war without Hitchens, but I am eternally grateful that he lent his enormity to the justice of deposing the butcher of Baghdad.

Christopher Hitchens used words artfully and drew lines brilliantly and always conveyed the importance of both. I will miss every column he might have written because I will lose a personal pleasure, and I will miss the tremendous public service of an honest master of words and lines.