Along with the encomiums accompanying the death of Christopher Hitchens—many of them appearing on this site—comes the predictable dollop of dissenters. Some of these, I think, are really motivated by an animus toward the man or his ideas, while some seem to be motivated by sheer jealousy. Others, I think, reflect a peculiar strain in the skeptical movement: if we’re to be skeptical about things, then by all means let us evince some skepticism toward Hitchens, too. Let us temper the shouts of praise with notes of scorn.
My own view is that Hitchens was on the whole a hugely admirable person who is to be extolled for the strength of his character, for his courage in facing death, for his absolute willingness to defend and live out his beliefs, for his eloquence in all venues—but above all for his writing and talks.
He was, of course, a prime rallying point for New Atheism, but he was so much more than that. He was the Orwell of our time: polymathic, eloquent, able to say something interesting about nearly everything, and deeply opposed to all forms of totalitarianism. He loved literature and was able to write interesting things about it. It is a real feat, for instance, to be able to write so enthusiastically about Anthony Powell’s novel A Dance to the Music of Time that a scientist like me would procure it and read every volume of this multi-book treatment of English life.
He had something interesting to say about everything, and even if you disagreed with him he nevertheless satisfied the prime requirement of every writer and journalist: what he wrote always lived, always entertained, always made us think.
Like all humans, he was imperfect. He could be boorish, especially with a reservoir of amber restorative under his belt. He was occasionally (but not usually) too pugnacious. He could be paternalistic in some of his remarks about women. And I wasn’t too keen on his jihad against Bill Clinton or his support of the Iraq war. The latter has occupied most of his detractors, but remember that it was one political position among many. I opposed his stance on that largely because he seemed to be giving us license to go into any country whose regime we didn’t like and forcibly remove it—and casualties be damned. But if he approved going into Iraq, why not North Korea, a far worse regime? Or any of the other dozens of oppressive dictatorships throughout the world? I wasn’t too hard on Hitch about this, though, because I knew that he was motivated largely by compassion for his friends in Iraq and his hatred of totalitarianism. But yes, in my view his stand was wrong.
And yes, he drank a lot, and smoked. I find nothing to criticize in that. He knew it could injure his health, and didn’t regret it when it did. So many atheists seem to fall into the category of what I call “leisure fascists”: those people who fulminate when someone engages in any activity that could shorten their lives. They come out of the woodwork, for example, when I put up a post about barbecue. Tough, I say: life is to be enjoyed, and I’d rather have my tenure on Earth be shortened by a few years if I can sometimes eat barbecue instead of only raw vegetables. Hitch liked his Johnnie Walker and ciggies; he said they helped him think and enjoy his life.
One of the more invidious attempts to create a “balanced” view of Hitchens is by Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking, and I give it in its entirety:
As you all know, Christopher Hitchens has recently passed away after a valiant (and very public) struggle against cancer. Most of the commentaries and obituaries were positive, and many of my fellow atheists and freethinkers seem to genuinely admire the man. I have always been puzzled by why, exactly, this is so.
Yes, he was an atheist. Yes, he wrote eloquently. But that’s about it. He was also personally abusive (particularly, it appears, toward fellow writers), misogynist, obnoxiously in your face about his beliefs (or lack thereof), and spectacularly inconsistent (and incredibly often wrong) about his political positions.
So here is my admittedly contrarian collection of commentaries on Hitch, in the hope that we can come up with a more balanced view of the man and begin a thoughtful discussion about just how much good or bad he has done to atheism, freethought, and political discourse.
Pigliucci then links to six articles about Hitchens that contain some criticism, one of them from 2004 which basically imputes all of Hitchens’s unpalatable political views to the fact that he was “a drunk.”
I respond briefly: Pigliucci is full of what comes out of the south end of a bull facing north. Let’s take this dropping first:
Yes, he was an atheist. Yes, he wrote eloquently. But that’s about it.
Give me a fricking break, Dr.3 Pigliucci! That’s about it? Really? Let me dispel your ignorance of his accomplishments by listing the books he wrote, edited, or co-wrote (from Wikipedia):
- 1984 Cyprus. Quartet. Revised editions as Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger, 1989 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and 1997 (Verso).
- 1987 Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles. Chatto and Windus (UK)/Hill and Wang (US, 1988) / 1997 UK Verso edition as The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece? (with essays by Robert Browning and Graham Binns). Reissued and updated 2008 as The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification, Verso.
- 1988 Prepared for the Worst: Selected Essays and Minority Reports. Hill and Wang (US)/Chatto and Windus (UK).
- 1990 The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favorite Fetish. Chatto & Windus, 1990.
- 1990 Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Reissued 2004, with a new introduction, as Blood, Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship, Nation Books, ISBN 1-56025-592-7)
- 1993 For the Sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports. Verso, ISBN 0-86-091435-6
- 1995 The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Verso.
- 1999 No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton. Verso. Reissued as No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family in 2000.
- 2000 Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere. Verso
- 2001 The Trial of Henry Kissinger. Verso.
- 2001 Letters to a Young Contrarian. Basic Books.
- 2002 Why Orwell Matters, Basic Books (US)/UK edition as Orwell’s Victory, Allen Lane/The Penguin Press.
- 2003 A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. Plume Books. Originally released as Regime Change (Penguin).
- 2004 Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays. Thunder’s Mouth, Nation Books, ISBN 1-56025-580-3
- 2005 Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. Eminent Lives/Atlas Books/HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 0-06-059896-4
- 2006 Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”: A Biography. Books That Shook the World/Atlantic Books, ISBN 1-84354-513-6
- 2007 God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Twelve/Hachette Book Group USA/Warner Books, ISBN 0446579807 / Published in the UK as God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion. Atlantic Books, ISBN 978-1-84354-586-6
- 2010 Hitch-22 Some Confessions and Contradictions: A Memoir . Hachette Book Group. ISBN 9780446540339 (published by Allen and Unwin in Australia in May 2010 with the shorter title: Hitch-22. A Memoir.) ISBN 978-1-74175-962-4
- 2011 Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens. Twelve. UK edition as Arguably: Selected Prose. Atlantic.
- 2012 Mortality. Atlantic.
- 2007 The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer. Perseus Publishing. ISBN 9780306816086
Co-author or co-editor
- 1976 Callaghan, The Road to Number Ten (with Peter Kellner). Cassell, ISBN 0-304-29768-2
- 1988 Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (contributor; co-editor with Edward Said). Verso, ISBN 0-86091-887-4. Reissued, 2001.
- 1994 When Borders Bleed: The Struggle of the Kurds (with Ed Kashi). Pantheon Books.
- 1994 International Territory: The United Nations, 1945-1995 (with Adam Bartos). Verso.
- 2002 Left Hooks, Right Crosses: A Decade of Political Writing (co-editor, with Christopher Caldwell).
- 2008 Is Christianity Good for the World? – A Debate (co-author, with Douglas Wilson). Canon Press, ISBN 1-59128-053-2.
- 2008 Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq and the Left (co-author, with other contributions edited by Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman). New York University Press.
- 2010 The Best American Essays 2010 (co-editor with Robert Atwan). Mariner Books.
- 2011 Hitchens vs. Blair: Be it Resolved, Religion is a Force of Good in the World (co-author with Tony Blair). House of Anansi Press.
Look at the range of topics: literature, politics, Mother Teresa (right on the money, he was), Henry Kissinger (on the money again), Thomas Jefferson, the Elgin Marbles (right again), and tons of essays on diverse topics. I needn’t say more to dispel Pigliucci’s willful ignorance.
He was also personally abusive (particularly, it appears, toward fellow writers), misogynist, obnoxiously in your face about his beliefs (or lack thereof), and spectacularly inconsistent (and incredibly often wrong) about his political positions.
I met Hitch only once, and found him charming, as most people did. He was strong minded in his arguments, and though I’ve watched hours of his debate on YouTube, I’ve never seen an instance of what I’d call “abuse”. Far more often people were abusive to him, as in the article above that calls him a drunk and urges him to contact Alcoholics Anonymous. He was opinionated and expressive, but rarely lost his temper unless, as he often was on television, baited by commenters.
Misogynyist? Does Pigluicci know what that means? Let us check the Oxford English Dictionary. “Misogyny: Hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women.” I don’t think Hitch hated, disliked, or was prejudiced against women. Sometimes he was mildly paternalistic, as when he claimed that his wife didn’t have to work, and sometimes he made boorish remarks verging on sexism, as in his famous critique of the Dixie Chicks. But remember that he used equal invective against men: people like Jerry Falwell, whom he called an “ugly little charlatan” and a “little toad” with “chubby little flanks,“ and was not accused of being a misandrist. And he wrote that famous article on women’s sense of humor in Vanity Fair. Before you call that misogyny, go read it.
Balanced against those remarks is his persistent defense of women’s rights, his criticisms about how religion treated women, and his constant refrain that societies could improve only if they empowered women and gave them reproductive rights. (This despite his personal dislike of abortion—in that case he admirably separated his personal views from political necessities). So often these days, especially on atheist websites, a touch of sexism or boorishness, or even a criticism of a woman, is instantly condemned as “misogyny.”
Inconsistent in his political views? Well, he couldn’t be conveniently tucked into a box labeled “left” or “right,” but did that make him inconsistent? It’s the result of his being an independent thinker.
Obnoxiously in your face about his beliefs? So often the “obnoxiousness” was simply strong argument or, in the case of religion, any argument. (I presume that by “lack thereof”, Pigliucci is referring to Hitchens’s atheism). Give me someone who argues strongly for his beliefs, and has evidence to back them up, than a milquetoast who avers that we have to speak softly to make our case and win minds. And Hitchens’s “obnoxiousness” was part of what made him both entertaining and persuasive.
“Often wrong about his political positions”? Maybe about Iraq and Clinton, but that’s not “often.” And I find Massimo “often wrong” in his philosophical positions, including those about scientism, free will, and the way we atheists are supposed to behave. And don’t get me started on Massimo’s biology!
Hitch was no saint, but if he were we wouldn’t have loved him so much. He was a figure larger than life—larger than literature, too—and we’re better for his having lived among us. Pigliucci is simply wrong in implying that Hitchens’s effect on the world was, on balance, negative.
All I know is that if I had a choice of having a drink and a conversation with Hitchens or Pigliucci, or having to choose to read an essay written by either Hitchens or Pigliucci, I know exactly what I’d do.