The Christmas Ghost of Christopher Hitchens
“I miss Christopher Hitchens,” the Americana songwriter Conor Oberst sung on his heart-excising 2016 album Ruminations. “I miss Oliver Sacks. I miss poor Robin Williams. I miss Sylvia Plath. Every morning’s a desert. Every night is a flood.”
Naked and desperate lyrics like that are what led GQ to call the 2016 cut the actual best album of the abominable year, 2020. Given that 2021—at least since the summer, the rise of the Delta variant and the aborted “declaration of independence from COVID”—has simply been a less historic, malaise-setting-in extension of the previous year…well, we may as well hand Conor’s contribution the back-to-back prize.
But with a new twist.
The singer once shot to mild infamy with a late night show rendition of “When the President talks to God” maligning, yes, the faith of President George W. Bush, but more so the corresponding hypocrisy of the appalling mistake of invading Iraq. (Also on that track a hilarious reference to “voter fraud,” an allusion to the then-Democratic conspiracy that guru Karl Rove and company stole the 2004 election from John Kerry. Given that Donald Trump may have voted for Kerry, and complained on election night the 2012 election was stolen from Mitt Romney, the once-and-apparently-plausibly-
In other events, Hitchens called for nothing less than the full prosecution of that bete noire of fanatical neocons, Henry Kissinger, and wrote a justification of bombing Baghdad in August of 2002 that made a case, not unlike like the Bush White House later did, by pointing out the company kept by his enemies: “Henry Kissinger opposes an Iraqi war. So do the Saudis. And the Turks. With friends like these…”
Hitchens made the caveat that such thinking was immature, and then in the case of Kissinger, did it anyway.
The record of Kissinger, that master machiavellian, would end up being more mixed on the merits. Eventually justifying the invasion in 2005, Kissinger joined Hitchens on different grounds: pure power. “Because Afghanistan wasn’t enough.” In the clash with violent Islam, the famed Nixonian said, they want to humiliate us, “And we need to humiliate them.”
Hitchens, originally a staunch leftist, made his case for war by contrast on classically moral grounds. Remarking on Hitchens’ bohemian love of drink and smoke, his wife noted that the only problem was if the far older Kissinger outlived her husband. When that came to pass ten Decembers ago, it seemed a divine vindication of that famous Florentine’s conclusion it is better to be feared than loved.
Because Hitchens, despite his litany of enemies and ex-friends, was—and is—so clearly loved. Why?
Other treatments of the late Brit-by-birth Jeffersonian American by choice have noted the sorry state of his policy legacy: Only John Bolton and the Cheney family still openly defend Iraq; his belligerently-pursued final cause of “new Atheism” looks wildly simplistic even to non-believers in this new age of ennui; and for most of his later career Hitchens actively renounced the only one of his earlier positions that has made a comeback—socialism. Eerily, on his deathbed, he double-reversed not on God, but on money: “capitalism, downfall,” are reported to have been his final words.
“He was an auto-contrarian: he contradicted himself as if he felt the only person really worth arguing with was Christopher Hitchens,” his best friend, the novelist Martin Amis, said at his death.
The Hitch’s haters were less charitable. His rival, the hard left ex-New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges said, “Hitchens was always out for Hitchens,” and that Hitchens wrote well about Kissinger because he was, ironically, more similar to Kissinger than he thought—“he lacked a moral core.” But, though Hedges’ appraisal of the human situation ended up being I think plainly both more consistent and correct—the New York Times called the other “C.H.” a “modern Jeremiah” and the Washington Post said one of his 2010s books, America: The Farewell Tour, was “a relentlessly dark indictment of global capitalism”—I think Hedges, and others, got the Hitch wrong.
At the risk of invoking the fact that I was there: I was there…that is, for Hitchens’ farewell tour.
I summoned the man to my alma mater (and Jefferson’s), William and Mary, in the fall of 2010. The college refrained from officially endorsing the event because Hitchens had previously denounced the school’s then-chancellor, Henry Kissinger (yep), in the campus newspaper. He debated the Colin Powell consigliere, college professor, and sometime TAC contributor Lawrence Wilkerson.
I have gotten drinks with Wilkerson in recent years, and corresponded upon Powell’s death, and I wish I could say the same for Christopher. The event was standing room only, the line for autographs out of the door—this despite the fact Wilkerson’s position on Iraq was wildly and widely more shared by the student body. (Though Hitchens’ atheism was certainly at that time more modish). After the event, swilling a gifted bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, his favorite and “the favorite of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party and the Saudi royal family,” he told my devout Roman Catholic friend that the son of God “didn’t turn himself into juice and crackers.” He was instantly forgiven; it was just the Hitch charm.
“It was just a lot of drinks, and it was just a lot of cigarettes, and it ended badly” is how one compatriot tersely concluded to me of his life. Others, on the left and the screwy libertarian right, think Hitchens was spared a real downfall of sorts: in this rendering, as a tedious, embarrassing warrior against cancel culture and China. (Oh, the horror). Others who knew him think no way: The writer James Pogue, a confidante of Hitch’s widow Carol, thinks the man was ultimately too much of an internationalist to throw in with the new nationalism. We’ll never know.
Still, one can’t but think that the heightened stakes of the era that succeeded his death would have better sated Hitchens’ lust for combat, intellectual and otherwise. The great leftist book reviewer George Scialabba argued essentially that when Hitchens summited power, this was still the man who abandoned an earlier ambition to be in Parliament and instead be a writer—that Hitchens found touching the stuff intoxicating, simply irresistible. His youthful moral clarity was channeled into an adult defense of American empire. It’s too bad he died before the United States had an actual peer competitor, and before suddenly so many of the empire’s elite not so quietly doubted the moral mission of the Founding.
Like Apple founder Steve Jobs, who also died in the autumn of 2011, even if the record was uneven it was charismatic and brave, perhaps touching genius. Maybe not perhaps. People wanted to be these men. Ten years on it’s not clear we’re better off without them.
Hitchens declared in his Letters to a Young Contrarian that it was better to have a “life”—his was reading and writing, and certainly carousing—than a career. If the man had his haters, it was certainly partially out of envy that he pursued this credo to the absolute full. Of his books, his letters collection Love, Poverty and War ended up being most relatable, I think. The essential conditions for a full life, especially for a self-styled “writer,” were to experience all three, he said, and I know I have encountered the first two, and am fearfully confident I will experience the third in a major way in my life.
So Christmas every year, for this writer anyway, now brings with it a sad remembrance of an undaunted atheist.