In September 2002, Christopher Hitchens published a book titled ‘Why Orwell Matters’. In this book, Hitchens expounded the often-misrepresented ideas of his hero, Eric Arthur Blair (known famously as George Orwell), by assiduously peeling off thick layers of ideological overpaint to reveal the true ideas that lay beneath. The expedient appropriation of Orwell’s writings by those on the political right, and left, may have necessitated such a tribute. Hitchens, however, needs no such clarification.
Christopher – as he liked to be called – was a journalist, author, political commentator and undoubtedly, the most eloquent orator of his time. When asked why he decided to become a journalist, Hitchens – who occasionally regaled audiences as a stand-up comedian as well – remarked that he “did not want to rely on newspapers for information”. He was a cultured man (except when he was yelling ‘fuck you’ at Bill Maher’s ‘frivolous’ audience), capable of reciting – in his graceful English accent – the most intricate poetry merely from memory. He was just as capable of engaging in a thought-provoking dialogue on the ideas of Spinoza and Voltaire, as he was of returning, in equal measure, foul-mouthed insults hurled at him by his detractors.
Christopher was a ferociously independent thinker (one wouldn’t expect anything less from a man that admired Socrates), and often found himself swimming against the strong tide of popular opinion. Innately contrarian, he would often criticize people (and ideologies) that were adored, (and sometimes, revered) all over the world. Not only did he disparage the legacy of the much-loved Princess Diana – dismissing her as a gold-digger, devoid of morality, with a bad taste in men – but also attacked the near saintly figure of Mother Teresa. In a documentary for the BBC, and later in his book (provocatively) titled, ‘the Missionary Position’, Hitchens argued that ‘Mother Teresa was little more than a religious zealot. He wrote,
“Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” Christopher questioned her, among several other issues, for the abysmal standard of medical facilities that were afforded to the sick in her care, while herself flying to the best hospitals in the world each time she needed medical treatment. At a time when Obama was being hailed as the symbol of change in American Politics, Christopher described him as a “maniacal narcissist”.
Some of Christopher’s polemics may seem unwarranted or at least disproportionate. It can also be conjectured that he (like most writers) exaggerated his ire and chose to write sensationally simply to sell his books – a charge that he vehemently denied. What can’t be questioned, however, is his willingness to examine the unexaminable.
Arguably the most popular of the (new) Four Horsemen, Hitchens was a self-described ‘anti-theist’. In his book ‘God Is Not Great’, he wrote the following about religion – “that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence”. Hitchens detested the idea of a theistic god (particularly, but not exclusively, as described by the three Abrahamic religions). During his rambunctious debates with ‘believers’ such as Dinesh D’Souza (arguably America’s most popular conservative speaker), and his own deeply religious brother, Peter Hitchens, Christopher called the world posited by these religions as a “Celestial North Korea – a totalitarian state where one could be convicted of thought-crime”. He would often conclude this argument by reminding everyone that ‘at least one could die in North Korea and free themselves from the clutches of tyranny. But in religion, that’s when the real fun begins’. Such arguments, made in his inimitable style, became the hallmark of his debates, and came to be known, among his fans and followers, as ‘Hitchslaps’ (his vast knowledge of history and philosophy – together with his unmatched capacity for rhetoric – made him a formidable opponent). Hitchens was contemptuous of the concept of praying and once wrote, “the man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right”. Curiously, for all his contempt for religion, Hitchens did not (to the consternation of his friend and fellow horseman, Richard Dawkins) wish to eradicate religion. His only desire was for religion to play no part in state governance and public life. The official separation of Church and State in the American Constitution, along with the first amendment, was the primary source of his immense admiration for the American Union- he would go on to become an American citizen in the early 2000s.
Politically, Hitchens never swore allegiance to any one party. He was neither a Democrat, nor a Republican. In what has become something of a rarity in (particularly) American politics today, his focus remained firmly on issues of public and foreign policy. He was on the side of the left with regards to the issues of gay rights and birth control. His views on Marxist policies too were congruent more with those of the left than the right. Yet, Hitchens couldn’t be thought of as just another Leftist. His disassociation with the left – which began with his disappointment with the left’s timid response to the Fatwa issued against his friend, Salman Rushdie, for writing the controversial book ‘the Satanic Verses’, and their contention that the famous writer shouldn’t have inappropriately provoked the followers of Islam – was complete when he professed his support for America’s war in Iraq. When it transpired that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in (what Hitchens would call) Mesopotamia, dug in his heels and continued to defend his hawkish position – evoking the Hussein family’s Orwellian abuse of power against their own citizens, and against the Kurdish nation (of whom Hitchens was a staunch supporter). That he began to wear a Kurdish flag pin on his blazer during this time was yet another reminder of his willingness to espouse causes that didn’t garner much support elsewhere.
Hitchens, much like Orwell, was a polarizing figure. He drew a distinction between second-wave and third-wave feminism, at one point compared the latter, as it were, with infantilism. This, together with his rather controversial – though largely tongue-in-cheek – contention that “women are not as funny as men” earned him (albeit temporarily) the title that is flung about rather arbitrarily nowadays – that of a ‘Sexist’. Moreover, Hitchens was inebriated most of his waking hours (not that it had any adverse impact on his intellectual or oratorial powers) and was considered a womanizer – at one point admitting that one of his greatest regrets was that more women didn’t go to bed with him.
That said, the virtues of the man greatly outweighed the relatively insignificant vices. As anyone who has read Orwell’s 1984 would be, Hitchens was acutely aware of the perils that befall a society when its right to free expression is curtailed. Therefore, Hitchens was a free speech absolutist and once wrote:
“I have visited dozens of countries undergoing crises of war or hardship or sectarian strife. I can say with as much certainty as is possible that, wherever the light of free debate and expression is extinguished, the darkness is very much deeper, more palpable, and more protracted. But the urge to shut out bad news or unwelcome opinions will always be a very strong one, which is why the battle to reaffirm freedom of speech needs to be refought in every generation.”
Having seen first-hand the abject poverty that people had to endure in third-world countries, Hitchens promulgated what he felt was the only way to overturn the situation – “the empowerment of women.” He would remark with supreme confidence, “try it in Bangladesh, try it in Bolivia, it works – works all the time”. He opposed tribalism, condemned racism, abhorred homophobia, and railed against totalitarianism. He had an insatiable appetite for confrontation, and the temerity to dissect ideas deemed too incendiary for rational examination. His ability to deliver thought-provoking arguments, cloaked in irony and humour, made him the most famous ‘public intellectual’ of his generation.
Men like Hitchens don’t come by often. Men who dare to think for themselves. Men who choose not to cower behind dogma but expose themselves to doubt and scepticism. Mankind (or, to quote a popular Canadian politician, ‘Peoplekind) has a weird proclivity to oscillate between order and chaos. And it appears that (particularly) western societies, having enjoyed decades of relative order, are now actively pursuing chaos. The right to free speech, in what is known as ‘the free world’, is fast dissipating. Those who dare to think, let alone speak, differently are attacked for being bigoted, and are promptly slapped with abhorrent labels. In such times of immense polarization and cultural regression, one can’t help but wish Hitchens was still around.
In 2010, while on a book tour for ‘Hitch-22’, Hitchens was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. His passion for writing remained undiminished even in sickness and in his final days, he penned his last book titled ‘Mortality’. Though he fought valiantly and defeated the disease, he ultimately (and most unfortunately) succumbed to pneumonia and breathed his last on December 15, 2011. Christopher had once said of life that “we are born into a losing struggle”. Unfortunately, his struggle, much like that of Orwell’s, was to end far too soon. Reminiscing about the life and death of the incomparable Christopher Hitchens evokes the memory of something that he once said and always lived by:
“Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence”.
Today, as people of limited intellectual equipment and questionable morals make much noise, a great man lies silent.