My first encounter with Christopher Hitchens was when I read a piece of his on Slate, a left-leaning website I browsed because it tended to concur with my own opinions. It was shortly after the attacks on September 11th, and during the run-up to the possibility of war in Iraq. I was against the idea of the war for many reasons: one, because it was an attack on those who weren’t responsible for the attacks on U.S. soil, two, because it put our soldiers at risk, but most importantly for the third reason, which was that I didn’t think our country had a plan for what to do after the inevitable victory against the Iraqi armed forces. I was convinced we would be involved in a long period of nation-building, a morass with no end and no tangible sign of Victory in sight. Most of the pieces in Slate agreed with my own opinion, which is of course why I read it, because nothing makes us feel quite so smart as reading words which we already believe.
It was then I saw an article on that site arguing vehemently for going to war. I figured it was some token conservative voice thrown in to try to make it look like Slate wasn’t just a voice for liberals, some troll piece that would infuriate me. Since, of course, the only thing better than reading something we already agree with is to read something that we violently disagree with so we can feel outrage and pick apart the poor arguments and inept reasoning sure to be behind an incorrect opinion, I decided to read it, this thing written by someone named Christopher Hitchens under the obvious-trolling series called Fighting Words. He wanted to go to war, and felt like it was the only reasonable course of action. I dove in, ready to lay out careful arguments in my head to refute that ridiculous notion to justify my feelings of superiority.
The problem was, when I was done, I couldn’t argue with him.
I still believed the war was wrong, but the reasons why he supported it I honestly could not argue with. To Hitchens, Saddam Hussein was a despicable despot, a power-hungry insane man who cared nothing for the people he ruled, who tortured and killed the minorities who disagreed with him, believed in genocide, and felt no remorse for the horrible things he did. Hitchens believed that our country had the ability to wipe this vile man from the world, to remove his grip of power over an oppressed people, and that it was therefore our duty to do so, regardless of whether Hussein had been behind the attacks or not. He detested the idea that a single man could wield such cruel power over his fellow people in an uncontested manner, and lamented that we’d had a chance to depose him a decade before and lacked the courage to do so.
I still didn’t support the war, but I saw why Hitchens would. I started reading him regularly, because he had challenged me intellectually and won. I learned more about him and all the ways in which I did agree with him.
He was an atheist, like myself. I’d sort of drifted to it after a period of agnosticism, which was just a waypoint on my, in retrospect, inevitable shift to complete acceptance of non-belief. I kept my “conversion” more or less to myself, since I tried not to get into religious debates with people just because the emotions involved are too strong, and no one ever engages in religious debates and walks away suddenly changing their minds. Hitchens, though, was full-bore and unapologetically contemptuous of religion. I think it’s mainly because he detested the idea that someone would refuse to use intellectual reasoning in favor of irrational belief, whether that was behind a belief in a supreme being or blind devotion to a party’s political beliefs or anything that smacked of following someone else’s lead and surrendering the individual’s intellectual process. His book god Is Not Great is a refutation of all religion, and he laid out his reasons why he believed this was necessary. I love this book, but I never recommend it to anyone, because if you believe in a higher power, it’s not likely to change your mind, and if you don’t and you haven’t read it, well, who am I to tell you what to do? I found it to an excellent, well-researched piece of work, and far superior to what I’ve read of Richard Dawkins and other atheists.
It was this completely unafraid-to-back-down attitude that I found so engaging in his work. The man loved to argue and debate, and I’m not sure there is anyone who could have matched him. The man was an honest-to-god Devil’s Advocate, asked by the Vatican to present the case against Mother Theresa’s selection for sainthood. I can’t think of a higher compliment than that. He lost, of course, in an inevitable election, but his view of the woman is something most people should read, just so that they can see a different side of the myth-making. That’s what he was always willing to do. He was always labelled a contrarian, but I think that does him a disservice. That word smacks of someone who chooses the opposite side just to be argumentative. He never seemed like that to me. Instead, he wanted people to think about the commonly-held beliefs parroted by talking heads and ridiculous “men of god” whose hypocrisy and falsehoods went continuously unchallenged. His irritation of the myth of Gandhi and how little I knew about the man we all think of as this peaceful, benevolent, open-hearted man opened my eyes and made me realize how much we unquestioningly believe without looking at the facts.
He was a man who probably irritated and offended everyone. Those with a religious bent certainly found plenty of reasons to detest him. His socialist beliefs would sicken the conservatives. His support for the Iraq war (as well as waterboarding, before he himself agreed to undergo the process and came to realize that it was indeed torture and inhumane, and publicly changed his mind – when was the last time you saw someone in the public eye unafraid to admit that he was wrong about something and rethink his beliefs?) doubtlessly infuriated the left. His essay Why Women Aren’t Funny angered women. He was the anti-panderer; it was if he never liked an audience who would whole-heartedly agree with him. I don’t think it’s contrarianism. I think he just wanted us all to think critically and to never accept things at face value or take the words told to us by “wise men” as unchallengeable, including his own.
Christopher Hitchens, as my wife sent to me in a text when she heard of his passing and wanted to give me comfort, “challenged [my] intellect and opinions”. Everything I ever read by the man, even when I agreed with the principle, forced me to rethink and reframe my perceptions and beliefs. I will always admire his refusal to bow down in the face of public scorn, because his opinions were his, and he would be damned if anyone would try to denounce his right to them. This morning, a friend posted this quote of his that I feel perfectly expresses how he felt:
“I don’t need a seconder. My own opinion is enough for me and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”
I loved the man, unapologetic for his vices, unbowed by his critics, a man who lost life-long friends when he pointed out their intellectual dishonesty, who refused to knuckle under pressure to quiet himself and his opinions. I never met him, which I am somewhat regretful of but also thankful. I don’t think he would have liked me. I’m not brave enough to speak my opinions regardless of whom I may offend, I’m too concerned with the preservation of the feelings of others, and I am not particularly fond of poetry. That’s OK, though, since he certainly has the right to his opinion. I am saddened that a light has gone out in the world, a voice for the basic human right to formulate and hold one’s own opinions no matter how popular, a voice who decried our ability to look past the atrocities inflicted on people by others with the strength to do so. He helped me realize that no one can change our opinions but ourselves, and that was something to be welcomed.
It is petty of me, but I find myself thinking about the outpouring of emotion and sorrow and candlelight vigils for the passing of Steve Jobs, a person most would agree was a shit of a human being but ran a company that made delightful gadgets with aesthetically pleasing shapes. I compare it to the response to the death of a man who believed and championed the cause that people deserve better than the institutions, both political and spiritual, that shackle, demean, and destroy them, and I am angry and spiteful to find that most people have no idea who he was, and the little they do know is wrong. But I will apologize neither for this pettiness or the contempt I feel, because they are my reactions and opinions.
I write this in the fond memory of Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011. I will never forget him.