This past week the world lost a brilliant and insightful political essayist. Or did it?
With this week's passing of Christopher Hitchens, the world lost a brilliant political essayist and insightful man of words, who proved unwilling to withhold any punches as he sought to portray the unvarnished truth (as he saw it) over a three-decade career as a journalist. Hitchens was a prolific author, having written over 20 books, including "God Is Not Great," the seminal title- along with Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion"- of the modern-day atheist movement. (The title of Hitchens' book trended on Twitter last week as news of his passing was included with a #GodIsNotGreat hashtag, resulting in threats of violence and death by peaceful Christians with bruised feelings.) Although Hitchens may not have had a direct impact on Oregon or Portland politics, those of us who contribute to Blue Oregon or engage in discussions within the comment threads cannot deny being impacted by the pieces Hitchens provided for The Nation, Slate, and The Atlantic as well as his numerous appearances on cable news talk shows over the past few decades.
Since the announcement of his death, variations on the themes of Hitchens' literary talents and intelligence have been shared throughout the Internet. Personal memories have also been shared, along with a collection of his best quips and quotes. (The best Hitchens quote I've heard so far: "All right, whose turn is it to pay for me?") Indeed, considering his caustic wit, rumpled appearance, and well-versed Oxford-educated literary background, Hitchens was often times the smartest person in the room and was not afraid to let everyone else know. He epitomized an aura of hipness and London cool that was similar to the Swinging Sixties, only a generation removed and steeped in world-weary cynicism.
Certainly, Hitchens' reputation as a brilliant writer was undeniable and well-earned. The question regarding his intelligence, however, is debatable. A closer examination indicates that Hitchens was stubborn, bull-headed, and perhaps relied too much on his poison tongue to castigate his critics as opposed to admitting making any errors in judgement. Hitchens also carried a reputation as a meticulous researcher, with his atheist tomes plumbing the depths of psychology, mythology, anthropology, and cultural studies as only an Oxford-trained writer can. However, with these talents so easily at Hitchens' disposal, he would often prevent himself to consider evidence that challenged the sole point of view he was arguing in support of. An example of this would be Hitchens' unwavering support- which he kept to his deathbed- of the folly Iraq war by George W. Bush, the colossal trillion-dollar mistake that has been the defining foreign policy debacle of our lifetime.
I'm often hesitant to write from a personal point of view on Blue Oregon, which is ironic because as a political blog, there is no ethical stance requiring neutral objectivity or to prevent personal opinion from influencing the stories written and contributed. (Mostly, it's just being doubtful than anyone is really interested in what I have to say.) But I don't think I'd be able to write down my thoughts about the passing of Christopher Hitchens without personalizing it a little bit. When I heard about his passing, I felt a sense of being disappointed. Not disappointed that he had died- his stomach cancer was terminal, and he spent the last year writing from a first-person's perspective that he called "living dyingly"- but that his incredible gifts were, at best, misused and in all probability wasted.
I first came across Hitchens by reading his brilliant "The Trial of Henry Kissinger" in 2002. Published in early 2001, this book helped provide a context for the 9/11 attacks and the heightened state of global anxiety and fear that was occurring at that time. Hitchens' uncompromising indictment of the former Secretary of State also provided further insight into foreign policy issues that I didn't quite understand- I guess you could say "they were before my time." All though it seems incredibly long ago now, I still remember one of the important foreign policy issues amongst the leftist/ progressive groups I associated with in the late 1990s was getting Indonesia out of East Timor. However, it wasn't until I read Hitchens' depiction of the maneuvering by Kissinger that allowed the United States to be complicit in the slaughter of the East Timorese in the 1970s that I was shocked and appalled. This is not to suggest that this was my first experience to the unsavory role the Untied States plays on the international level, of course, but the moral hypocrisy exposed by Hitchens caused a near visceral reaction in me. The book served as the basis for the Hitchens-produced documentary "The Trials of Henry Kissinger," which packs just as much of an emotional punch and was criminally overlooked for an Oscar. The problem, however, is that this villainous former Nixon cabinet official is still alive, while Hitchens has passed on, having been unable to see Kissinger brought to justice.
So Christopher Hitchens became a hero of mine. For a brief moment. And then the Iraq war came and I found that it was no longer possible to read a single word written by one of the most astute political writers of our time. As mentioned earlier, Hitchens was a died in the wool apologist for Dubya's invasion of Iraq, heralding that such a war was needed to defeat the threat posed by "Islamofascism." (Hitchens did not invent this term, but with his often repeated use of it he practically made it his own.) Of course, invading Iraq ignored the point that the country was not only largely secular, and makes about as much sense as a country deciding to invade the United States because of the presence of such Christian terrorist groups as the Hutaree. For one who often railed about corruption and hypocrisy in politics- the Clintons were a particular target of his, becoming a target for scorn in his book "No One Left to Lie To"- it befuddles me to think how Hitchens was able to use his talents to defend a course of action that was committed for no other reason except to provide Tom DeLay a wider margin of power in Congress after the 2002 mid-term elections. (I wonder, if Obama had ginned up a fake and unnecessary war, would he have avoided the "shellacking" he took in 2010?) This causes me to question Hitchens' supposed intelligence, as anyone who throws their lot with the neo-conservative ideologues that lied us into the war, downplayed the cost in terms of lives and treasure, and then claimed that Iraqi oil "would pay for it all" displays a shocking lack of common sense and good judgement.
As a result, I stopped reading the writing of one of my previous heroes. I would occasionally come across Hitchens' pieces that he contributed to Vanity Fair, but the final straw came when I picked up the November 2007 issue of the magazine to read on a return flight from South America. Hitchen's contribution was entitled "A Death in the Family" and it was about a young man influenced by Hitchens' pro-war pieces to go serve in Iraq, where he was killed by an I.E.D. As I read this article, I remember becoming increasingly angry. Not anger at the war we were lied in to, not anger at the lives and trillions of dollars carelessly mis-spent on a foolish errand. Instead, I was angry that despite the tragic situation that Hitchens' output had led him to, he still felt justified in his support of the war. Indeed, the following excerpt that occurs on the dunes of the Oregon coast, caused me to grip the magazine white-knuckled:
So it was that in August I found myself on the dunes by an especially lovely and remote stretch of >the Oregon coastline. The extended family was there, including both sets of grandparents, plus some >college friends of Mark's and his best comrade from the army, an impressive South Dakotan named >Matt Gross. As the sun began to sink on a day that had been devoted to reminiscence and moderate >drinking, we took up the tattered Stars and Stripes that had flown outside the family home since >Mark's deployment and walked to his favorite spot to plant it. Everyone was supposed to say >something, but when John Daily took the first scoop from the urn and spread the ashes on the >breeze, there was something so unutterably final in the gesture that tears seemed as natural as >breathing and I wasn't at all sure that I could go through with it. My idea had been to quote from the >last scene of Macbeth, which is the only passage I know that can hope to rise to such an occasion. >The tyrant and usurper has been killed, but Ross has to tell old Siward that his boy has perished in >the struggle:
Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier's debt; He only lived but till he was a man; The which no sooner had his prowess confirm'd In the unshrinking station where he fought, But like a man he died.
This being Shakespeare, the truly emotional and understated moment follows a beat or two later, >when Ross adds:
Your cause of sorrow Must not be measured by his worth, for then It hath no end.
I became a trifle choked up after that, but everybody else also managed to speak, often reading >poems of their own composition, and as the day ebbed in a blaze of glory over the ocean, I thought, >Well, here we are to perform the last honors for a warrior and hero, and there are no hysterical >ululations, no shrieks for revenge, no insults hurled at the enemy, no firing into the air or bogus >hysterics. Instead, an honest, brave, modest family is doing its private best. I hope no fanatical fool >could ever mistake this for weakness. It is, instead, a very particular kind of strength. If America >can spontaneously produce young men like Mark, and occasions like this one, it has a real homeland >security instead of a bureaucratic one. To borrow some words of George Orwell's when he first saw >revolutionary Barcelona, "I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for."
Certainly, Hitchens was trying his best to eulogize this young man to a degree that could assuage his guilt over playing some role in his death. The source for my anger, however, was the simple realization that young men like Mark Daily did not have to die, but instead provided their ultimate sacrifice for that most cynical of causes- politics.
That Vanity Fair piece from nearly five years ago was the last words I'd read written by Christopher Hitchens. After reading the various obituaries and memorial pieces devoted to Hitchens over the past couple of days- the New York Times has its typically excellent piece, while Salon's Glenn Greenwald views Hitchens through his particular lens- I was prompted to write the following on my Facebook page this morning: "Lesson learned from the passing of Christopher Hitchens this past week: If I make friends with influential media higher-up types, at my passing will they ignore the fact that I'm a drunken jerk who was colossally wrong on the greatest foreign policy errors of our lifetime."
Was I wrong to share such sentiments after the passing of an almost universally respected man of letters- was it, as they say, "too soon?" I am curious as to what the thoughts of others might be regarding the legacy of Christopher Hitchens, and whether they think it was impolite for me to speak ill of the dead. (A sentiment which, as evidenced by his posthumous trashing of both Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, Hitchens himself would not agree with.)