A few conservative writers, including Jonah Goldberg, David French, and Rod Dreher, have already commented on the now-old news of Kevin Williamson’s hiring-then-firing from The Atlantic. Dreher made a particularly insightful comment about Williamson: “It is hard to separate Kevin the fearless and brilliant writer from Kevin the guy who can be a jackass. You know who else was like this? Christopher Hitchens.”
That got me wondering whether Hitchens (who in fact wrote brilliant columns for The Atlantic) would be given a platform at the 2018, Jeffrey Goldberg-run version of that same publication.
Hitchens held opinions that upset just about everyone. Conservatives were bothered by his criticisms of Mother Teresa and by his relentless assaults on religion generally and Christianity specifically. Leftists hated his passionate support for the Iraq war and his skewering of Bill Clinton. But—and this is the crucial bit—everyone who loved great prose, appreciated thoughtful arguments, and respected intellectuals who abjured all forms of groupthink would have wanted Hitchens to be given a platform from which he could enlighten his readers and engage his opponents.
Williamson’s firing calls into question how many like that are left on the Left. Indeed, a case could be made that Hitchens’s views on identity politics would be considered unacceptable by the elements of the Left that just succeeded in running out Williamson.
In 1989, when he still identified as a staunch Leftist, Hitchens wrote an obituary for the deceased Marxist historian C.L.R. James. In it, he praised James’ touch for art and literature, writing that
James had a developed sense, derived partly from Hellenism, of the symmetry and grace latent in art and work. He makes an excellent guide to the increasingly one-dimensional argument over “Western civilization.” He needed no instruction about slavery and ethnocentricity. But he had no tolerance either for callow, sectarian diatribes, and shuddered at the philistinism that reduces Shakespeare to “a white male.”
How many professors and students at universities today would shudder at that “philistinism?” How many would endorse it? Hitchens understood that what lurked behind referring to Shakespeare, Homer, and Dostoyevsky as “dead white males” was not an attempt to make a positive argument for more diversity, which is fair enough, but a negative argument against the entire Western literary heritage, which is something quite different.
Nor was this the only Hitchens quote that would incur the fury of today’s left-identitarians. In a 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Hitchens wrote that “People who think with their epidermis or their genitalia or their clan are the problem to begin with.”
Hitchens had felt it necessary, during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary that pitted Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama, to argue that people should vote on the basis of reasoned thinking rather than gender or race-based commitments. “If I would not vote against someone on the grounds of ‘race’ or ‘gender’ alone,” Hitchens wrote, “then by the exact same token I would not cast a vote in his or her favor for the identical reason. Yet see how this obvious question makes fairly intelligent people say the most alarmingly stupid things.”
(See indeed, for instance, how Vox’s Matthew Yglesias railed against the notion that “white men just have ideas about politics that spring from a realm of pure reason, with concerns that are by definition universal.” No, Hitchens might counter, white men are not more capable of reason than anyone else; the trouble comes with the idea that one should consciously factor one’s race or gender into decisions that should be made only with the aid of rationality and universal principles.)
And then there is Hitchens’s demolition of the rise Leftist identity politics in Hitch-22:
From now on, it would be enough to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even “erotic preference,” to qualify as a revolutionary. In order to begin a speech or to ask a question from the floor, all that would be necessary by way of preface would be the words: “Speaking as a…” Then could follow any self-loving description…. It would never have done for any of us to stand up and say that our sex or sexuality or pigmentation or disability were qualifications in themselves.
What would left-Twitterdom, the Huffington Post, Salon, and The Guardian have done with such declarations? One can almost imagine headlines like: “In New Memoir, Hitchens Argues That Women and Minorities Should Always Remain Silent.”
Of course, we can’t be completely certain that Hitchens’s views on the politics of race and gender would have sufficed to disqualify him from today’s Atlantic. Perhaps his belief that Henry Kissinger should be prosecuted for war crimes would have saved him. Perhaps Jeffrey Goldberg would have been more willing to defend Hitchens because Hitchens, after all, never flirted with the idea of executing women who get abortions. (Though it must here be noted that Williamson’s views on the death penalty are unclear—in a 2015 lecture he said that he was “generally against capital punishment.” Nonetheless his equivocations are worrisome, at the very least.)
But if the Williamson debacle is any indication, we can reasonably surmise that Hitchens’s deviations from left-orthodoxy would have engendered efforts to hound him out of a job. And this likelihood—that Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant writer and orator, would have been denied a post at The Atlantic—is by itself indicative of how those on the Left who still stand by the principles of open discussion are being overruled by those who vehemently, and increasingly successfully, oppose it.
Christian Gonzalez is originally from Venezuela, but was raised in Miami, Florida. He now studies political science at Columbia University. He can be reached at cag2240 at columbia dot edu.