Commentary Magazine


Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

There is no question in my mind that Christopher Hitchens was the bravest ideologically driven writer since—well, I’ll say it—my father, Norman Podhoretz. The bravery he displayed was not in taking unyielding positions and holding to them even when the outcome appeared bleak, as was the case with his support for the war in Iraq—contrast Hitchens’s stalwartness with the unutterable cravenness of the self-righteously inconstant Andrew Sullivan, whose salivation at the Pavlov-like bell rung by the website clicks of the the anti-war left when he put his toe in the Bush-lied waters turned into an unslaking yearning for the rewards of that Internet traffic, and you get a sense of how things might have been different for Hitchens.

No, his bravery was personal; in maintaining views that angered not those for whom he had contempt but those whom he liked and socialized with and who even held some of the purse-strings for him, like The Nation, Hitchens did the most difficult thing a thinking person can do outside wartime or a threat of imminent violence or danger, and that is take a stand that puts him at odds with the entirety of his community. There can be real fun in this, to be sure, and you can’t be as consistently, almost willfully contrarian as Hitchens was without thrilling yourself by being the mischievous boy who is always looking to get away with something outrageous. But it is still extraordinarily difficult to keep yourself strapped to the mast when the sirens are singing to seduce you and are also threatening at the same time to dash your ship against the rocks. Christopher did, and, like my father, he set a great example for a generation of younger writers who found his combination of literacy, smart-assery, and polemical brilliance so alluring.

That said—and while also acknowledging the limpid quality of his prose, the supernatural ability he had to churn out literate articles despite the fact that he drank more than any other person I have ever known (with the exception of Pat Moynihan), and his enormous personal charm that always made time spent with him a pleasure—Christopher was also capable of expressing himself in a fashion that deserves to be called repugnant. I once saw him at a party in Washington in the 1980s accuse a young Reaganite then working idealistically for a controversial official as that official’s “butt boy” to that Reaganite’s face, an act of public-school mortification and bullying of a kind I’d never witnessed before and hope never to have to see again; he suggested in print once that Ronald Reagan could not negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev because the assassination attempt on Reagan’s life had left the president incontinent and he would have to leave the room too often; he stood in defense of the historiographic virtues of the Holocaust denier David Irving, which is a little like praising Josef Mengele for his medical skills; he wrote indefensibly disgusting things about Mother Teresa; and then there was the case of Israel.

Christopher’s loathing for Israel originated in his days as part of Britain’s neo-Marxist left and its post-1967 decision to treat the Jewish state as an imperialist power (where once it had been considered a great success in the battle against British imperialism). But when he turned from those views, he continued to express an alienation toward Israel even when he came to hold views about the civilizational threat of Islamic radicalism that were remarkably consistent with, say, Natan Sharansky’s. In the end, his feelings toward Israel calmed down but never underwent an evolutionary change, because his problem was not with the notion of a homeland for the dispossessed Jewish tribe so much as it was with the continued existence of the tribe itself—a tribe of which he was astonished to discover in midlife he was a member, on his mother’s side. That tribe survived on this earth through the millennia because of its fidelity to the laws not of man but of God. That fidelity, as I am sure he was honest enough with himself to understand, made his own formidable life possible.