Why Hitchens Matters
How do you write a tribute piece to a man whose work is incomparable? Well, I am about to give it a shot.
If Hitchens didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to invent him.
— Ian McEwan
Hitchens is a name that is known around the world for all kinds of reasons. A name that evokes emotions like love and disdain in equal measure. How does a journalist, a writer, a TV show guest become the measure of good and evil for millions around the world?
Is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our scepticism. Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs. To appeal to our fear and to our guilt. To our terror of death. To preach guilt and shame about the sexual act and the sexual relationship. To terrify children with the image of hell, and eternal punishment, not just of themselves but of their parents and those they love. Worse of all, to consider women an inferior creation. Is that good for the world?
— Hitchens vs Tony Blair at Roy Thomson Hall (26 November 2010)
For those of us who have had the incredible privilege of reading his work and watching him defy everyone and everything even from a distance, he is the gold standard and the flag-bearer for free expression and inquiry. And most of all for the relentless pursuit of truth.
The Dennis and Victoria Ross Foundation awards The Hitchens Prize every year to “an author or journalist whose work reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence.”
That last line sums up Christopher Eric Hitchens. It set him apart.
In a world where truth dies a slow and steady death everyday, this man stood up and challenged authority, demanded evidence, defied the status-quo, and did it all with surreal calm and epic chutzpah.
I want to be told how any society that follows the precepts of Lucretius, Spinoza, Galileo, Russell, Voltaire, Jefferson, Paine, and Einstein has ever fallen into the same pit of ignorance, famine, cruelty, stupidity, hysteria and witch hunting that is the special privilege of the faithful. Let’s try that for experiment and see who comes out better.
What made him endearing to many of us is also what made many others dislike him. His quest for truth meant that if he had a sniff of wrongdoing he would question even the most publicly loved public figures.
If the public figure was considered above the law and had infallible status among the masses he would gather evidence and then launch a scathing attack demanding answers. Essentially that is what journalists are supposed to do — pursue truth irrespective of who they are up against and what popular opinion says about them.
Unfortunately most journalists stop at a line. They would rather not cross that line because of the personal and professional consequences. Much to the chagrin of the establishment, Hitchens just would not stop.
If you want to know why many disliked him, and still do, all you have to do is take a glance at some of the names he targeted.
President Bill Clinton.
Former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, “American hero” Henry Kissinger.
And when the subject was above scrutiny and journalistic bounds, he created his own platform. His next target was God.
That was enough to make more than half the world’s population uncomfortable. But Christopher, as he preferred to be addressed as, wasn’t interested in cheap thrills and fancy praises. He wasn’t one to write a piece in the newspaper or on the Internet and revel in his own glory. He stepped in the lion’s den because he didn’t know any better.
This was the time when he wrote his most famous book and went on to challenge prominent religious figures to public debates. They accepted his challenge and then watched him destroy their arguments with lucidity, nuance, eloquence, and even savagery when he saw fit.
It’s fair to say that Hitchens never lost a debate. Not even to his beloved younger brother Peter who is an accomplished writer and debater himself.
While it’s not possible to list all of Hitch’s literary and oratory masterpieces in one article it’s worth sharing a few moments from his life which now serve as iconic reminders of his legacy.
The time when Hitch was arrested in Oxford (1969) during an anti-aparthied demonstration:
The time Hitch covered the war-torn Kurdistan in Iraq. In solidarity, Hitch pinned a Kurdistan flag to his attire for all his future television appearances:
The time when Hitch destroyed white supremacist father and son duo on national television in characteristic Hitch-style:
The time when Hitch passionately defended his friend Stephen Fry in a public debate versus the Catholic church (which he and Fry famously won by audience vote):
The time when Hitch Hitch-slapped former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a debate:
The time when Hitch put himself through torture to experience the pain felt by those who had been subjected to waterboarding:
The time when Hitch gave a middle finger to his friend Bill Maher’s audience, called them frivolous, and told them in as many words — “fuck you!”:
Quite frankly this is a never ending list. My friend Leanne Davis created this Wakelet profile of Hitch, which happens to be the most popular Wakelet on Hitchens. It is the largest known collection of everything Hitch on the Internet. Pay a visit if you want to know more about Hitch.
If you made it this far and realize why Hitchens matters you deserve a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, his favorite beverage.
I would end this piece with a memorable line from Hitch. This happened when Rabbi Shmuley Boteach gifted Christopher a bottle of wine after a spirited debate against him.
A tip for everyone: you turn the bottle not the cork and then you say “To life!” in any language.