Today marks the what would have been Christopher Hitchens’ 66th birthday. While the controversial writer lost his long battle with cancer in 2011, nearly half a decade later his legacy continues to remain a puzzle to most. To some, Hitchens was a brilliant iconoclast, fearlessly proclaiming truth and reason in a world crippled by political correctness and blind sentimentality. To others, Hitchens was a traitor who abandoned his radical roots in favor of jack-booted imperialism and militarism. After all this time, the question remains: Who was Hitchens?
Born in Porstmouth, England, Hitchens first began his prolific career as a writer for a number of leftist magazines, eventually joining New Statesman in the early 70s, where he quickly made a name for himself as a fiery critic of the the Vietnam War. Hitchens would go on to become an acclaimed foreign correspondent, frequent contributor to The Nation and Vanity Fair, and unapologetic critic of most of the political establishment. No one- from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, from Jerry Falwell to the royal family- escaped Hitchens’ unique blend of unimpeachable logic and acidic invectives. Hitchens made a name for himself in particular by viciously decrying Henry Kissinger, who he argued (not without cause) was a power-worshiping war criminal…
…to the devotees of Princess Diana, who he considered an embarrassment…
…to even Mother Theresa, who he asserted, far from being saintly, was actually willfully dismissive of much of the suffering of those in her care.
All to say, the man wasn’t pulling any punches when it came to speaking up for what he thought was immoral, indecent, and irredeemable.
And had that been it, there might very well be no question as to the legacy Hitchen’s left behind. A menace to conservatives and traditionalists, a hero to radicals and the left. Perhaps Hitchen’s would have even been only a footnote in the culture war- merely an eloquent (if extreme) commenter in the vein of Hunter S. Thompson or Howard Zinn.
But it was not to be.
The attacks of September 11th claimed thousands of casualties- and perhaps among them one might find the person who Christopher Hitchens once was. While Hitchens would claim that the attack “exhilarated” him into action, the rabidly Socialist author so many once lauded had disappeared. Formerly of the most outspoken critics of imperialism, Hitchens began to tout an unambiguously interventionist line, fully supporting the Bush administration and it’s war on terror. When it came to Afghanistan (and later, Iraq) there was no one more red-white-and-blue than Hitch’.
He was not, however, a Conservative.
In spite of the accusations hurled by his former colleagues and comrades, Hitchens could hardly be called a neocon. The same impetus that had led him to throw his support behind Bush also catalyzed his vehemently anti-religious sentiments. While a skeptic and an atheist since a very young age, it was in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that he would become most vocal in his rejection of religion, which he cast as perhaps the greatest cause of fanaticism and violence in history. Indeed, a spate of works (God is Not Great, being the most famous) saw him shape the ranks of the “new atheism” movement, dedicated to not only rejected religion on a personal basis, but seeking to eradicate it from society altogether. While savagely attacking Islam, Hitchens was not shy of directing his attacks at Christianity as well- certainly making him as much a puzzle to those on the right as on the left.
It is possible that Hitchens, stubborn as he was, would’ve altered his views at the prospect of yet more intervention in the Middle East. Possible, and only ever just “possible”. His untimely death in 2011 will keep us from ever knowing for certain what his ultimate conclusions were. We are left to sort it out for ourselves.
So what do we make of him?
I’ve been turning that question over in my head since I decided to write this article a few weeks ago. Hero? Villain?
Neither category seems fitting or fair. To cast Hitchens as a saint would be to ignore his wholehearted endorsement of disastrous wars which have caused untold suffering. To decry him as a monster would be to ignore his tireless advocacy for free speech, reason, and democracy- all of which he championed to his dying day. Still, it’s perhaps here, in his intentions, rather than his outcomes, that we can most accurately see the man.
Just take his points on religion.
I am not (repeat not) an atheist, but I can still appreciate conviction. If you believe something’s true, if you really and truly believe it, then it should cause you to act on it- I can hardly fault anyone for that. I read Hitchens’ crowning work God is Not Great, and I honestly can’t argue with a lot of what he says. I think he fails utterly to make a strong argument against the existence of a god, but his points on organized religion can (and should) be respected by even the most devout. Even at his most uncharitable, I don’t believe Hitchens spoke out of much else than a genuine dedication and appreciation of what he saw as decency and liberty, even if his conclusions were all wrong.
For all his support of the Iraq war, and his often blind condemnation of Muslims (which we’ve argued against on this blog), it’d be hard to cite Hitchens on any hypocrisy.The same ideals that led him to decry the oppression of Iraqis led him to decry the oppression of Palestinians and Kurds. The humanist principles which had him dismiss all faith as superstition also caused him to ardently speak out against the death-penalty and censorship.
Now the question of legacy is one what we at Culture War Reporters have grappled with time and time again. How do we handle our very imperfect and deeply flawed predecessors?
The argument that I’ve made in the past I’ll make again here- simply put, would you call this person good or bad. Split decision, gut reaction, gun-to-your-head, did this person do more good or harm to the world by his or her existence? Is the world richer or poorer for have had ’em?
My reaction is yes.
What do you think?
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