There is little doubt that Christopher Hitchens was a fine scrapper who could be searing in sharpness. He was one who did enjoy his battles with a certain manic relish. ‘Hitch’ did have a habit of sniffing out places where revolution and violence tended to find root. Stints in Poland, Greece, Portugal and a host of other countries made him something of a traveling scribe, reporting on woe wherever he went.
With a degree of venom, he proceeded to latch on the American juggernaut, embracing the virtue of violence in the face of tyranny. This was, in a sense, not surprising. His move to the Nation in 1981, and such works as Blood, Class and Nostalgia, showed that a Brit’s love affair for New World panache runs deep.
This did not prevent him from being a critic of imperial power, till, at least, the war in Iraq. (In a sense, the split he would have with his colleagues on the left was already taking shape in 1999 over the issue of Kosovo.) Indeed, Hitchens even had a falling out regarding the war in 2003 with his brother Peter, who tends to earn his keep on the conservative side of politics. Peter stood firmly against the war as being fundamentally against Britain’s interests, while brother Christopher thought otherwise, rattling sabre and pen with equal enthusiasm.
Hitchens’s pre-Iraq War writings demonstrate a relentless pursuit of the nature of how power can be abused, dominated by his case against former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. But in doing so, he proved totally Jacobean, with about as much instinctive sense as one. In embracing American power, he was not always reflective on its hazardous consequences, seeing a progressive strain in its application. Like that other fan of empire, the historian Niall Ferguson, he was not always kind to the disasters that good old empires inflicted on indigenous populations.
As Alexander Cockburn, occasional colleague, and at times opponent, posed in CounterPunch, Hitchen’s craved to be part of the very establishment he critiqued, a situation that reached its great realization on becoming an American citizen. As George Russell, a columnist for the conservative magazine Commentary penned in the November 1990 issue, ‘He is a busy fellow indeed, and everywhere he bites, usually with condescension the hand that feeds him.’
Hitch’s modern target proved to be God and ‘fascism with an Islamic’ face, a somewhat naïve diagnosis that did not do his intellect justice. Opportunism was certainly not something he was above. But it proved a perfect target in the post-Cold War world, aligning well when he decided to don a Kiplinesque disposition to America’s burdens. Where there are despots, America will set you free. Or so he seem to imply.
While he never claimed never to believe in God, Hitchens did write as if he believed in the manifestation of a secular patriotic entity. In that sense, he was a totally consistent secular ideologue. In October, for his services against God, he received the Atheist Alliance of America’s Richard Dawkins award. Again, his targets were predictably those of religious fundamentalism, ‘the rising menace of Islamic jihad’ and ‘the emergence of probably the most reactionary papacy since the mid-19th century’ (Guardian, Dec 18). For Hitchens, the context of martyrdom could still be noted, but it was the martyrdom of the under dog. ‘Those willing to die for a cause larger than themselves have been honoured from the Periclean funeral oration to the Gettysburg Address.’
Even after death, he continued to cause a stir, creating a flurry of comments as to whether the New York Times had, in fact, paused production. This was subsequently denied, but his effects were noted.
His passing means that there is one less grenade thrower in the world. For that, we are the poorer, though more balanced readings of his legacy will have to wait. Every polemicist, even one of the more refined nature of Hitchens, needs time to be valued.