Monday, October 24th, 2016

The late Christopher Hitchens


Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

          William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Christopher Hitchens is dead. The words are not unexpected. It wasn’t that long ago that Hitchens saw a published photo of himself with the caption, “the late Christopher Hitchens.” That error prompted Hitchens to write his memoir, Hitch-22. While on tour promoting the book he suddenly took ill. The doctors informed him he had stage four esophageal cancer, and there is no stage five. The picture caption was premature, but not by much.

If Hitchens had a regret at his own death, it was probably the obituaries he never wrote. Henry Kissinger still lives. Bill Clinton still lives. Pat Robertson still lives. Prince Charles still lives. Sidney Blumenthal still lives. And so on. How many public figures are grateful right now that Hitchens has passed, sparing them from allowing him from having the last word concerning their reputations?

If Hitchens was fearless in trodding the graves, he had license. He was the last Devil’s Advocate employed by the Vatican. His brief was Mother Theresa, whom most of us would not have given a second thought to her sainthood. Unsurprisingly, Hitchens had a different opinion that he was more than willing to share.

If that was all that could be said about Hitchens he would have been a boor, and we could dispense with the subject.

Hitchens was a drinker. Not just a drinker, but a defender of strong drink with a preference for Johnnie Walker. Long practice gave him a strong tolerance for the effects of alcohol. His other vice (he would have objected to the term) was smoking and it was probably what did him in.

Hitchens was not a pacifist, any more than his hero George Orwell. He recently expressed the hope that he would be remembered more for his efforts on behalf of Bosnia than Iraq, but clearly Muslims in both countries owe him their gratitude. He also spoke out regarding other populations that he considered oppressed by their governments, most notably in Latin America. Like many on the left, Hitchens was terribly wrong about Chile. To his credit, Hitchens also recognized the evils of Communism and supported the non-Communist left in the Eastern Bloc countries before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Hitchens did not want to be remembered as a writer who moved from the left to the right, a concept he considered cliché. What was perceived as an ideological shift was a criticism of the left’s failures to live up their ideals, and not a shift in his worldview.

In his memoir Hitchens described the difference between an anti-imperialist left, in which the West could do no right, and a more liberal left concerned with rights and free expression. He might not have known it at the time, Hitchens would encounter that fundamental difference in Cuba when he raised the question of whether artists were free to criticize Castro. That they were not just made the rest, “details.”

It’s within that split of leftwing thinking that we find Hitchens’ support of the Iraq war, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the defense of Bosnia. That split also split friendships, and Hitchens would find himself lumped in with “neoconservatives” for endless abuse.

Hitchens was an American. A former citizen of Great Britain, Hitchens decided to become a citizen after the attacks of September 11th.  “…it wasn’t until 9/11, an attack on America and its ideals, that I felt I wasn’t paying my proper dues, that I hadn’t signed up properly.”

The end of Hitchens’ life was filled with answering the great question of what lies beyond. Hitchens was an atheist, and even before the cancer he was spirited in his promotion of atheism with the publication of God is Not Great. When asked about the many who were praying for his recovery, he noted the number of those that were praying for his death. But he did not hold ill will towards those that prayed for him, suggesting that if it made them feel better he would not object to their good wishes.

He warned his readers that any story of a deathbed conversion to Christianity would only happen if the drugs and the cancer treatment made him not himself, and therefore could not be taken seriously. We have no deathbed conversion story, and Hitchens has finally lost the argument none of us can win. The question now becomes what, if anything, did he see on the other side?

We pray that he was wrong. Christopher Hitchens, rest in peace. He was 62.

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