After falling into an Internet rabbit hole this week, I learned by happenstance that it was the anniversary of the 2011 death of Christopher Hitchens. I was sort of surprised that he passed away almost a decade ago. Though it also reminded me how much our political discourse has changed.
As a young-ish writer, I met Hitchens briefly a handful of times; most memorably at a “shoot, drink, and smoke” event in Colorado. Hitch hadn’t been keen on the order of things, and got a vigorous head start on the second leg of the event, but nevertheless turned in an impressive performance shooting down clay pigeons. After learning that my family had fled Communism, Hitchens offered his fully formed thoughts — peppered with proper Magyar pronunciations — on self-determination and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. I had, probably unwisely, planned to pick a pick a fight, but missed my chance to tell him my folks hadn’t actually defected until 1968 — or, around the same time he, according to his good friend Martin Amis, had been rationalizing Stalin and the Soviet cause. (Hitchens denied all of it, incidentally, and the famous friendship went on, unaffected.)
Anyway, a few hours later, Hitchens walked up to a podium in the middle of a field in rural Eastern plains of Colorado, placed two drinks in front him, lit a cigarette, and delivered an acerbic, highly entertaining, occasionally profane, rhetorical assault on petty Nanny State authoritarians such as Michael Bloomberg to a receptive crowd of middle-aged social conservatives. Every time I encountered him, the company was different — Evangelicals, D.C. Libertarians, or buttoned-up Bush-era neocons — but he was the same.
That doesn’t mean he played to the crowd. Hitchens was on Bill Maher’s HBO show when he flipped off a liberal audience for its “frivolous” habit of laughing at every inane George W. Bush joke and on Fox News when he defended saying, “If you gave [Jerry] Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox.” Hitchens, disheveled and cantankerous, asked the hopelessly outmatched Ron Reagan Jr., “do you know nothing about the subject at all?” — he was talking about the Iraq War — it was a KO. And I’m not even sure he was right on the substance.
Hitchens, who had made his American television debut on Firing Line, was fun to watch, but I think much better to read, even when I disagreed with him — which was quite often. His essays on figures such as Waugh, Koestler, Wodehouse, and J. G. Ballard — many of them collected in the book, Arguable — are a joy. “No One Left to Lie To” (on Clintons) and “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” are brutal takedowns. His writing on atheism — the topic that made him most famous — were to me, the least compelling and least contrarian of his work. Arguing over the existence of God, claiming that religion is a unique generator of “evil,” might be profitable, but it was quite safe and tedious, even in aughts. Making a liberal case for war against Islamists or arguing that women “aren’t funny” in a glossy magazine are the real blasphemies.
Matthew Yglesias once claimed that Hitchens would be “the leading pro-Trump columnist in America.” This, I suspect, is just projection from someone who lives in a hot-take culture. There’s a big difference between a counterfeit contrarianism that exists to generate clicks and genuine heterodox views. I suspect Hitchens would have abhorred Trump personally, but also defended him when he thought it was called for — which is to say he would have taken what he saw as intellectually honest positions. But really, of course, we don’t know, which is why I was a fan.
Hitchens was probably one of our last “celebrity intellectuals.” His approach, even more than the positions he took, would seem anachronistic in today’s stultified, PC-ridden, compartmentalized media environment where audiences are coddled. That’s a shame.