Christopher Hitchens was great

We all knew it was coming but somehow that didn’t make the news any easier to bear. Christopher Hitchens, the mighty literary provocateur, died yesterday. This is a profound loss to his wife and family, who loved him so much it hurts to think about. And it’s a loss for the Republic of Letters and all those he touched, including the townfolk of Washington, D.C.

Many people have been noting that though they didn’t agree with him on many things, they grieve his death. Well, obviously. Not only did he change his mind rather dramatically on some seminal issues of our day, he was a through-and-through contrarian. If you agreed with him on too much, I’d suggest — in the words of Ed Koch — you seek a psychiatrist. Speaking as an anti-war, libertarian Lutheran … I’m not really sure I agreed with him on anything. But who cares? The man could write. An amazing prose stylist with devastating wit. A master. And it’s been fun to read the obituaries his friends have posted.

I enjoyed Nick Gillespie’s tribute at Reason, but I disagreed a bit with one line — he said “Hitchens was never a cheap-shot artist.” That’s true, but many of his books were full of cheap shots. I found “God Is Not Great” easy to refute with even an introductory course in the religions he trashed.

Vanity Fair had a nice brief tribute to the man and Christopher Buckley wrote a beautiful remembrance at The New Yorker. A sample:

As for the wit … one day we were talking about Stalin. I observed that Stalin, eventual murderer of twenty, thirty—forty?—million, had trained as a priest. Not skipping a beat, Christopher remarked, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?”

I thought—as I did perhaps one thousand times over the course of our three-decade long tutorial—Wow.

A few days later, at a dinner, the subject of Stalin having come up, I ventured to my dinner partner, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?” The lady to whom I had proferred this thieved aperçu stopped chewing her salmon, repeated the line I had so casually tossed off, and said with frank admiration, “That’s brilliant.” I was tempted, but couldn’t quite bear to continue the imposture, and told her that the author of this nacreous witticism was in fact none other than Christopher. She laughed and said, “Well, everything he says is brilliant.”

Yes, everything he said was brilliant. It was a feast of reason and a flow of soul, and, if the author of “God Is Not Great” did not himself believe in the concept of soul, he sure had one, and it was a great soul.

Another favorite part of the piece:

One of our lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, “Should we order more food?” I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit.

John Podhoretz noted a particularly Jewish angle in his remembrance at Commentary:

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.

Douglas Wilson’s beautiful obituary in Christianity Today hit on the interesting and respectful relationship Hitchens had with actual believers:

Ironically, the branch of the faith most interested in getting the “cultured despisers” to pay us some respect is really not that effective, and this is a strategy that can frequently be found on the pointed end of its own petard. Respectability depends on not caring too much about respectability. Unbelievers can smell accommodation, and when someone like Christopher meets someone who actually believes all the articles in the Creed, including that part about Jesus coming back from the dead, it delights him. Here is someone actually willing to defend what is being attacked. Militant atheists are often exasperated with opponents whose strategy appears to be “surrender slowly.”

Earlier this year, my husband and I co-hosted a baby shower with Hitch and his wife, and Hitch and another one of my favorite writers — who is a devout Christian — tore through both a bottle of Scotch and the New Testament as they discussed eternal salvation.

Many tributes end in poetry, a testament to the mark he left with his poetic pen. The Weekly Standard‘s Matt Labash has a great example of a beautiful essay with a poetic end. Some more links here.

But how about the more mainstream media? How did they handle the obituaries? Bill Grimes wrote The New York Times piece, headlined “Polemicist Who Slashed All, Freely, With Wit.” Grimes is an obituary writer for the Times but he’s also known for his many books on food and drink. I was somewhat surprised the obit didn’t get more into Hitchens’ voracious appetite. But it did mention, in several parts, how Hitchens developed his views on “Islamofascism”:

His support for the Iraq war sprang from a growing conviction that radical elements in the Islamic world posed a mortal danger to Western principles of political liberty and freedom of conscience. The first stirrings of that view came in 1989 with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwah against the novelist Salman Rushdie for his supposedly blasphemous words in “The Satanic Verses.” To Mr. Hitchens, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, confirmed the threat.

In a political shift that shocked many of his friends and readers, he cut his ties to The Nation and became an outspoken advocate of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a ferocious critic of what he called “Islamofascism.” Although he denied coining the word, he popularized it. …

He also threw himself into the defense of his friend Mr. Rushdie. “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved,” he wrote in his memoir. “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression.”

To help rally public support, Mr. Hitchens arranged for Mr. Rushdie to be received at the White House by President Bill Clinton, one of Mr. Hitchens’s least favorite politicians and the subject of his book “No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton” (1999).

He regarded the response of left-wing intellectuals to Mr. Rushdie’s predicament as feeble, and he soon began to question many of his cherished political assumptions.

So much to say about this great man, and much will be said in coming days. Please let us know if you see any particularly insightful essays or tributes. As I’m signing off, I’m just now reading this from Peter, his brother. Oh wow, the part about the roof … just beautiful.

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  • Jettboy

    How can I make a comment about Journalism when this isn’t about Journalism? The man could write? I hear Satan has a satin tongue just as much. I enjoy listening to a person of truth and goodness than someone who can spin language that is full of lies and immorality. His death will be honored by me with a metaphorical dance on his grave.

  • Jerry

    I liked Paul Raushenbush’s piece:

    When an Atheist Dies: Religious Reflections on Christopher Hitchens’ Death

  • Dan

    He obviously was and will remain a darling of the press. That means very little. Molly’s admiration however contradicts my belief that the left/anti-religious bent of the press entirely explains the press’s adulation. I still think, however, that it explains a great deal. Part of it may also be that he was a fellow journalist.

    In any event, his reputation has been greatly overblown. He was a good magazine writer/pundit, an uneven polemicist and, intellectually speaking, nothing more beyond that. His diatribes against Mother Teresa and religion were, to put it gently, not notable for their insight. (As David Bentley Hart entertainingly put it, Hitchens’s text in “God Is Not Great” “careens drunkenly across the pages” and the book “raises the wild non sequitur almost to the level of a dialectical method”. Examples (given by Hart):

    Major Premise: [omitted]

    Minor Premise: Evelyn Waugh was always something of a bastard, and his Catholic chauvinism often made him even worse.

    Conclusion: “Religion” is evil.


    Major Premise: [omitted]

    Minor Premise: There are many bad men who are Buddhists.

    Conclusion: All religious claims are false.


    Major Premise: [omitted]

    Minor Premise: Timothy Dwight opposed
    smallpox vaccinations.

    Conclusion: There is no God.)

  • Mollie


    Hart’s analysis is spot on. And I think it was somewhat particular to religion. I mean, like I said, I didn’t agree with him on anything and I even thought he was unfair in many areas, but only on religion did it take over all that was good in his writing.

    I have strong feelings about the man and his work, obviously, but I think you make a good case.

  • Susie

    Mollie, I think he was great too and I am sorry he is gone.

    I disagreed with him on most things – particularly regarding faith where “most” became “everything” – but I enjoyed reading him and listening to him.

    One of the things wrong in our society today is that too many people disagree wholeheartedly with someone and therefore can’t appreciate anything about them. I admit that it is a struggle but it was much less difficult with Christopher Hitchens.

    I am sorry for his family and all who loved him.

  • Julia

    Among other things, Hitchens dared to say things about sacred cows that nobody else would. I didn’t always agree with all of it, but he made me look again at things I just assumed were true about public people.

    The most recent example was looking at Jackie Kennedy with a cold eye.

    I didn’t totally agree with his take on Mother Teresa, but he gave a lot to think about, including opinions of doctors and nurses who had worked with her. I wish the Vatican still had a Devil’s Advocate.

    Hitchens cut through the baloney about people and was never boring.

    His last column for Vanity Fair gives much to think about re: whether it’s true that you become stronger after awful things that don’t kill you.

    Next to that guy from Penn & Teller, he was my favorite atheist.

  • carl jacobs

    Hitchens never understood that atheism is a luxury purchased by the rich. It’s one thing for a man to stand upon the ultimate meaninglessness of his existence when he has food in stomach, and money in his pocket. It’s quite another when he doesn’t. I suppose Hitchens would have said that men are prone to tell themselves stories to make life palatable. What he didn’t tell himself is that men are also prone to tell themselves stories to make themselves free. Stories of a Vineyard, and its owner, and his son, and the tenants who want the inheritance for themselves. Stories of murder and rebellion. The rich trade meaning for freedom because they hope to find meaning in that which can be purchased by riches. It’s a fool’s bargain.

    Hitchens died with his eyes wide open, and his fist firmly extended towards the heaven in which he did not believe. Like Manny in “Runaway Train” he stood on the front of the train and watched for the inevitable end.


  • Will

    And Cotton Mather supported smallpox inoculation. Therefore…?

  • Ray Ingles

    carl jacobs –

    It’s one thing for a man to stand upon the ultimate meaninglessness of his existence

    Meaningless to whom?

    But in the journalism vein… a couple atheists note his passing:

  • Norman

    I found his brother’s tribute very moving:

    It’s hard to think of these public figures as fully human, or I suppose it’s better to say it’s hard to really understand them in that way. Impossible, really, from the simple fact of not knowing them, of having only their work, their image, their reputation before us.

    The contradictions of a real person and a real relationship are in here, as well as a deep and abiding bond.

    I always did like Hitch, as a public figure and especially as dizzyingly talented essayist.

  • Hector

    Re: That means very little. Molly’s admiration however contradicts my belief that the left/anti-religious bent of the press entirely explains the press’s adulation

    Hitchens was only very arguably on the left, at least in his later years (though he did start out as a Marxist of sorts). One of his last pieces in “Slate’ was in praise of Ronald Reagan, which hardly qualifies you as a leftist. He was pretty solidly in favour of U.S. imperialism and of Western liberal-capitalism ever since the first Gulf War, and went on record saying that he wasn’t a socialist any longer.

    As a Christian, a left-winger, and as someone strongly opposed to neoconservative/aggressive foreign policy, I agreed with Hitchens on very little, and reading his essays was usually a surefire way to raise my blood pressure. That said, he was certainly a talented man, and I hope he’s in a better place now.

  • tioedong

    Many years ago, before he became famous as an atheist, I saw an interview of Hitchens where he almost was in tears discussing his mother’s suicide. That interview reminded me of the bitterness of my oldest adopted son, who also lost his mother at a tender age. Since then I have been praying for him.

    Did the press mention his early loss?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Somewhere I have a videotape of Mother Teresa’s funeral, for which ABC News brought Hitchens in for commentary. He was so foul that even Peter Jennings shut him down.

    The ability to string words and sentences together in a coherent manner (not a skill at which I excel) does not imply that one has anything coherent to say.

  • Julia

    Vanity Fair has a lot of info on Hitchins.

    and NYT religion, God and the afterlife.

    Mr. Hitchens discussed the possibility of a deathbed conversion, insisting that the odds were slim that he would admit the existence of God.

    “The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain,” he told The Atlantic in August 2010. “I can’t guarantee that such an entity wouldn’t make such a ridiculous remark, but no one recognizable as myself would ever make such a remark.”

    Readers of “Hitch-22” already knew his feelings about the end. “I personally want to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive,” he wrote, “and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me.”

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    Let me make a journalistic point: Odd how the death of an outspoken atheist spurs more theological comments than the death of a firm believer. Hitchens may have served the faith he so vocally despised better than many who support it at a lower level of public visibility.

    And one clarification of a metaphor in one of the stories above. Petards do not have “pointed ends.” They are bombs, not swords. To be “hoisted” by one is to be blown skyward by it.

  • Arfees

    Mollie, you always seem to hit the right note. I think this submission gave me a better picture of Mr. Hitchens than I had before, especially since I ave not read his works (so many books, so little time even in retirement). I think people like Hitchens are important to Christians because they compel us to rethink our faith and stsnd up for what we believe. If we do that we might even entice those criics to do some more thinking.

  • Dave

    Major Premise: [omitted]

    I would say, rather than omitted, hidden but implicit:

    “To be valid a religion must evoke impeccable behavior, by Enlightenment standards, in any true believer.”

    Thus something like the Rushdie fatwa invalidates the faith of a billion Muslims.

  • J.

    A great man? A bit hyperbolic. Hitchens was a talented, glib British pundit–not a philosopher ala Bertrand Russell, or a writer such as Orwell, but a journalist, and orator. He tended to bombast and ..emotion rather than rationality. His book on Jefferson was not horrible but loaded with predictable PC jargon.

    Hitchens waffled routinely– at times wanted to play the leftist defender of the people–quoting Marx regularly– and then wrote the slashing essay on Mother Theresa (any real Christian, or ethical citizen should find that essay objectionable). His switch to Bush and the neo-cons was quite indefensible, as were his remarks on the Clintons.

  • Mike O.

    Hitchens waffled routinely— at times wanted to play the leftist defender of the people—quoting Marx regularly— and then wrote the slashing essay on Mother Theresa.

    I wouldn’t consider that “waffling”. He has an opinion on X and an opinion on Y. It would be waffling if he was first for X then later against X (or vice versa).

  • J.

    Hitchens was a liberal in 80s or 90s, if not marxist (e.g., he wrote for the Nation) and then joined BushCo and the GOP after 9-11. Meets the criteria of waffling, IMO. Then naive atheists–especially british ones– are rarely troubled by consistency or moral principles. Hobgoblins or something.

  • Mike O.

    J., let me back up for a second as I was confused by your earlier post. The way the one sentence was written it seemed (at least to me) that you were saying by playing “the leftist defender of the people” then following up by attacking Mother Teresa that Hitchens was waffling.

    I think we can agree that waffling has a negative connotation, but we need to determine what it means. Is it a single change in policy, actions, or belief? Is St. Paul a waffler for changing from Judiasm to Christianity? Does someone whose politics change as they get older (as many a person’s does) make them a waffler?

    To me there is no shame in changing if you believe you were wrong, if you think a situation is different now than before, or for any sincere reason. To me waffling comes in two forms. One, going back-and-forth-and-back-and-forth without ever holding any conviction. Two, taking multiple and differing sides on an issue or attitude simultaneously.

    So I don’t think Hitchens was a waffler, but obviously we disagree.

  • Chris Jones

    A person who changes his mind on a matter of substance may or may not be a “waffler.” If he changes his mind based on changed circumstances or new evidence on the question, then he is not a waffler. If he changes his mind because he is persuaded by a superior argument and comes to understand that his previous position was not well-founded, he is not a waffler. If, however, his previous position was based on emotional attachments or intellectual fashion, and he changes his mind because his emotions shift or the fashions change, then he is a waffler. By that standard one can hardly accuse Hitchens of being a waffler.

    Hitchens … joined BushCo and the GOP after 9-11. Meets the criteria of waffling, IMO.

    By that standard, Bush himself was a waffler, too. He was the “humble foreign policy” candidate in the 2000 election, but the events of 9/11 made him look at the world differently. Hitchens was certainly not the only one for whom 9/11 was a reason for re-examining his views in the light of new realities.

    BTW I am not saying these things because I agree with Hitchens’s views on these matters. I do not. I, too, supported Bush’s actions after 9/11 and supported the Iraq war at the outset. Upon further reflection I have come to believe that I was wrong in that. I guess that makes me a waffler in your eyes too. But better to be a waffler who is willing to change his mind in the hope of finding the truth, than to be an inflexible ideologue who, once having taken a position, sticks to it like death, be it true or false.

  • Dave

    Nine-eleven was a watershed moment for the USA, and nobody who re-evaluated either what s/he believes or who hir allies are in the wake of 9/11 can fairly be accused of waffling. I am no Hitchens scholar but on the basis of this thread it sounds to me like he responded by boosting the Marxist attitude toward religion to white-hot intensity as regards Islam.