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Christopher Hitchens: RIP

Christopher HitchensI knew Christopher Hitchens casually, envied his rhetorical fluency, abhorred his interventionist cheerleading, and was offended by his arrogantly dismissive manner toward those he deemed his inferiors in debate or discussion. Presumably as result of his profligate life style, Hitchens surprisingly graduated from Oxford with only third class honors. If some non-academic institution of appraisal were available to offset Hitchens’ undeniable gifts of the mind with his deficiencies of character and heart, the Oxford grade would seem deserved even if Hitchens had been a dutiful student.

I was particularly appalled one time when we were on a panel together by the way he insulted a member of the audience for putting a question awkwardly. There was something so chilling about this revelation of character as to cancel out for me his brilliance of expression reinforced by an astonishing erudition. It seems to cohere with his willingness to forego second thoughts about his advocacy of launching an unlawful aggressive war against Iraq, despite the false pretenses and bloody ordeal that the Iraqi people endured, and continue to endure.

There is no doubt that Hitchens faced his own difficult death bravely, without succumbing to deathbed retreats, whether from stubbornness or authenticity it is hard to say.  He made many people happy with his dogmatic embrace of atheism during a time of religious revival in this country and elsewhere. He had the courage to express his convictions, but not much empathy, and certainly no humility, for those among us who take religion and spirituality seriously.

For reasons never made persuasive, Hitchens, as disappointed Trotskyites often do, lurched to the right in the early 1990s, and for a while even seemed to join the neoconservative dance. He resigned in 2002 as a columnist for The Nation on ideological grounds, and was clearly more comfortable in the slicker, sicker world of Vanity Fair, and also where his work was far more acclaimed.

Hitchens is for me a hard case when it comes to deciding what to remember and what to forget. As indicated, I found his demeanor generally unpleasant in that Oxonian highbrow sense and his late politics reactionary and essentially mindless in the sense of indifference to the relevance of law, truth, and, most of all, the rights of others to shape their own destinies in the spirit of self-determination. At the same time, someone who unabashedly depicted the criminality of Kissinger’s embrace of Pinochet’s torture and crimes against humanity, deserves some sort of post-mortem salute. Also, Hitchens erudite and often illuminating commentary on political literature, past and present, will continue to merit attentive reading for a long time to come.

In the end, we need to forego moral and political judgment, and celebrate those rare human beings whose life and ideas exhibited memorable vividness. Hitchens was one of those: Christopher Hitchens RIP (Requiescat in Pace)

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