WITHOUT A HITCH
A Look at the Legacy of the Late, Great CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
By Tyler Malone
I’m of the opinion that a great debate or discussion can be as satisfying and rewarding as a great meal or, even, some great sex. Too often today intelligent people are afraid to point out idiocy and bigotry, afraid to speak truth to power, afraid of confrontation, afraid of looking like bullies, so they stay silent when they should speak up. Humans learn through dialogue, we connect by way of our conversations with one another, we define ourselves and our world using information gleaned from such interactions. As Christopher Hitchens, one of the great debaters of our time, once said: “Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.”
And now, sadly, the grave will supply Hitchens with that time for silence. The great thinker, writer, debater and provocateur passed away last week, succumbing to pneumonia by way of his stage four esophageal cancer. He had known he was likely to die from his disease and often pointed out, regarding his cancer, that “there is no stage five.” But though he will forever be silent from now on, he left us with plenty of words, strung together in intelligent, eloquent, and cogent sentences, and thus his voice will be heard for generations to come.
Immediately upon his diagnosis, the repugnant question on everyone’s lips was: “Will you start believing in God now that you’re knocking on death’s door?” It is true that some have changed their minds as their expiration date drew nearer, but the truth about deathbed conversions is that they’re much rarer than the religious would like you to believe. Regardless, Hitchens stayed strong in his atheism. He thought it was the rational option when he wasn’t near death, why would his opinion change as he approached the grave? His resolve grew stronger, in fact, in the face of people’s want of a deathbed conversion from him. As he wrote in the preface to his memoir Hitch 22: “It gave my atheism, if you like, a new lease on life. It also helped me keep open a long debate to which I am proud to have contributed a little. To say this debate will outlast me would have been true at any time.”
Soon after Christopher Hitchens’ death, I was speaking with a religious person who joked: “Well, we know where he’s not.” My response was simple: “Exactly, the same place no one is.” Hitchens would have loved such an exchange–it keeps the debate going. Debate was Hitchens’ lifelong passion, witty repartee the greatest weapon he took to battle.
The great cause of Hitchens’ life was to fight tyranny in all its forms. Politically, he did his best to side with the oppressed against totalitarian regimes. Like it or not, that was part of his justification for siding with the neo-conservatives that led us into war with Iraq. Though it’s a position I strongly disagree with, Hitchens is one of the few people that ever gave an argument for that war that I found apposite and even mildly persuasive.
The apogee of this conflict with totalitarianism in all its forms became his late-life battle with the religious. Along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens spent the last decade of his life championing atheist and agnostic causes. All four of these “four horsemen,” as they dubbed themselves, constantly debated any religious leader willing (read: stupid enough) to tussle. All would agree, I think, that Hitchens was their star player: the Michael Jordan of their atheist debate team. Watching these debates on youtube has long been one of my favorite ways to while away the hours. Observing Hitchens brilliantly executing a “hitchslap” (one of Hitchens’ trademark verbal smackdowns) is like watching the perfect performance of an athletic feat. As his pal Sam Harris said: “One of the joys of living in a world filled with stupidity and hypocrisy was to see Hitch respond.” Whether he’s sparring with Dinesh D’Souza, Reverend Al Sharpton, his frequent sparring partner and book-collaborator Pastor Douglas Wilson, or even Prime Minister Tony Blair, the arguments are always captivating, and the way he rope-a-dopes an opponent is artful. Or, as another pal, Martin Amis, confided: “In debate, no matter what the motion, I would back him against Cicero, against Demosthenes.” His book God Is Not Great, which reached the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller List, is equally captivating, and acts as a perfect first read for any person looking not necessarily for answers, but for the right questions.
That’s what one has to remember about Christopher Hitchens: for all his exaggerated bombast and alleged conviction, he was actually an advocate for ambiguity. Because of his atheism, and his assumed certainty that God does not exist, Hitchens is often seen as being a champion of certitude, but nothing could be further from the truth. The cause of Hitchens’ life is the cause of uncertainty. He is a man of Keatsian Negative Capability–that is he is capable of being in “uncertainty, mystery, doubt.” What Keats would call: “a man of genius.”
One of the many great Hitchens quotes–he is infinitely quotable–is from a debate with Dinesh D’Souza: “Atheists do not say we know there is no God. We say, to the contrary, no argument and no evidence has ever been adduced that we consider to be persuasive. There’s no reason to believe, in evidence or argument, ontology or science. The same with the afterlife. Of course we don’t say that we know there isn’t one. We say that we don’t know anyone who can bring any reason to think that there is. This is a very important distinction and it is very regrettable that you miss it and I’m sorry to say, Dinesh, that the immediate loser in an argument about things of which we can and can’t be certain, where the only thing that is certain in these laws is the principle of uncertainty, the immediate loser–the man who has to leave the island (sorry Dinesh, again) right away almost–is the man who says ‘I already know all I need to know, I already have all the information I need, indeed, I’ve been given it by a supernatural body.’”
The atheist position is one of uncertainty, not certainty. He concedes that anything is possible, but without any evidence, there’s no reason to believe in things of a preposterous nature. As Hitchens often claimed, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, miming Keats’ concept of Negative Capability, once said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Of course, Hitchens even contradicts this though by noting: “Some people say it’s a sign of intelligence to be able to keep two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time, and it can be a sign of intelligence. It can also be a sign of stupidity, or of unwillingness to make up the mind.”
He could wiggle out of any position anyone tried to pose him in. He was a provocateur, a contrarian. He even wrote a book called Letters to a Young Contrarian (though, of course: “I was contrarian enough to say that I thought Contrarian was a stupid title”). Hitchens certainly did grow to dislike being constantly labelled a contrarian, but there seem few words better equipped to describe him. The only other one I can think of that works as well: he was, ironically like the Biblical Thomas, a doubter. And doubt should garner greater respect rather than repulsion.
In eulogizing Hitchens, I don’t feel compelled to combat, or even be angered by, some of the strange and somewhat abusive things that have been said in a number of the national papers, not to mention on the clusterfuck of negativity that is the internet. Watching Ricky Gervais battle some disrespectful religious nutjobs on twitter has been fun, but not entirely necessary. Christopher Hitchens was not one to think of the dead as sacrosanct, and I agree with him that the act of dying does not demand the deceased approbation.
As Scott McLemee so aptly put it in a piece in the liberal rag The American Prospect, before going on to discuss Hitchens’ own flaws, “Christopher Hitchens was never one to refrain from pissing on a fresh grave if the occupant seemed to have earned it.” In fact, in the wake of Jerry Falwell’s death, Hitchens hilariously went on several news programs to talk about the legacy of that “ugly little charlatan” (his words). He was brutally honest about his opinions of the man, and it was refreshing to hear one person in the news not fawning over someone who was, let’s face it, an ugly little charlatan. On Anderson Cooper 360, Hitchens said: “It’s a pity there’s not a hell for him to go to.” My initial reaction to Hitchen’s death was: “It’s a pity there’s not a heaven for him to go to.” But as Hitchens has said about the possibility of anything beyond this life: ”There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”
He wanted nothing more, and he’ll receive nothing more. So it goes. Luckily, his words will remain with us. The only form of immortality that we can positively know exists is afforded to Hitchens: a readership. His name is not, to borrow the words of Keats again, “writ in water,” but will be emblazoned on reprintings of his bestselling books for years and years to come. And, like his name and his writing, the great political and religious and moral debates in which he took part will go on.
To say these debates will outlast him would have been true at any time, as Hitchens himself said, but now it feels all the more urgent to say. The cause of his life–to fight totalitarianism in all its forms, including its most ghastly form, that of certain and oppressive religious conviction–will go on, it must. And we hope the debate will continue without a hitch while it attempts to do so without a Hitch.
Christopher Hitchens was a thinker, writer, debater and provocateur.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Jimi Celeste for PatrickMcMullan.com
Design by Jilliam Mercado
Christopher Hitchens, TONY BLAIR Interviewed by GRAYDON CARTER, Museum of Modern Art, Celeste Bartos Theatre, New York, June 23, 2009,
Photography by JIMI CELESTE for Patrick McMullan.com