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How Hitchens Is Great Even in Death

The great Christopher Hitchens, an essayist of fierce and unshakable integrity, has died in Houston of the esophageal cancer with which he was first diagnosed just a year and a half ago.

A complicated figure who should be remembered for the undeviating contrarianism that made him such a good journalist (see his 2001 Letters to a Young Contrarian), Hitchens also emerged in recent years as a leading voice of the New Atheism (see his 2007 God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). He specialized in angering people — a lot of people, a lot of the time. (Update: Including the Jews. This morning at Jewish Ideas Daily, Benjamin Kerstein examines Hitchens’s “loathing for Judaism, or rather the grotesque caricature he refers to as Judaism.” It does not diminish his achievement to observe that many of those whom Hitchens angered were right to be angry.)

He drove his former comrades on the left especially crazy. Many of them broke with him after he condemned “Islamic fascism” in the days following 9/11. By then he had already turned away from his youthful Trotskyism. And he had tried the left’s patience with his bitter opposition to President Clinton (see his 1999 No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton). But the heresy of locating fascism in the Islamic and not the capitalist world was the last straw. He stopped writing for the Nation, to which he had regularly contributed for 20 years, and never again let up on the left for its appeasement of terrorism.

In an essay written for Slate on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Hitchens explained his conception of his literary role:

The proper task of the “public intellectual” might be conceived as the responsibility to introduce complexity into the argument: the reminder that things are very infrequently as simple as they can be made to seem. But what I learned in a highly indelible manner from the events and arguments of September 2001 was this: Never, ever ignore the obvious either.

His detractors on the left and among the religious never understood this about him: everything Hitchens wrote was a provocation to rethink and an invitation to reply. He could be disdainful of his opponents — this is the usual reason given by people who refuse to read him — but Hitchens’s essays are a call to defend themselves. His essays are never bullying, because Hitchens never pretends to have the last word on a subject. Hence the title of his last book: Arguably. (If there is any justice in the literary world it will win the National Book Critics Circle award in nonfiction, for which I — and many others, I’m sure — have nominated it.)

Hitchens set a high standard of argument in several genres, writing a hugely entertaining memoir (his 2010 Hitch-22), political history (his 2005 Thomas Jefferson: Author of America), and literary criticism (his 2002 Why Orwell Matters). In his last months, he added his unsparing honesty to the literature of cancer (see here, for example, and here and particularly here). He is routinely compared to Orwell, but the comparison does neither man justice. Better to say this: exactly like Orwell, he was a man of the left who was the left’s best critic, an utterly unique figure with a plain and compelling voice all his own, perfectly fitted to his age. To honor his memory, I will not pray for him.

Rest in peace.


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