I'm saddened to write that the great essayist and writer Christopher Hitchens is dead at the age of 62. He had been weakened by the cancer of the esophagus that he disclosed publicly in 2010 and the treatments he had undertaken to fight his illness. Reason extends its condolences to his wife, family, and friends.
As is clear to anyone who has read even a sentence of his staggeringly prolific output, Hitchens was the sort of stylist who could turn even a casual digression into a tutorial on all aspects of history, literature, and art. As a writer, you gaze upon his words and despair because there's just no way you're going to touch that. But far more important than the wit and panache and erudition with which he expressed himself was the method through which he engaged the world.
Throughout his life, he remained a man of the left, but he had no patience for orthodoxy and groupthink (the first night I met him in person, we ended up bonding over a softness for the early Oliver Cromwell, of all people). Not surprisingly, his biggest rows came among his political and ideological compatriots. A devout atheist, he abjured abortion and was no fan of Martin Luther King, Jr. He made a huge break with the supporters of Bill and Hillary Clinton in the book-length indictment No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family. In the years leading up to but especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, he had nothing but righteous contempt for those he perceived as soft on religious terrorism and ended up leaving his longtime perch at The Nation partly as a result.
It's easy to mistake his thoroughgoing iconoclasm - this is the guy, after all, who wrote jeremiads against Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa - for a reflexive, even juvenile cynicism, but there was far more than that going on. Whether the target of his scorn was much-beloved (he thought Gandhi a great villain for the way he lionized poverty and preindustrial living practices) or thoroughly hated by the wide world (Saddam Hussein, for one), Hitchens was never a cheap-shot artist.
Rather, his positions, attitude, even his jokes stemmed from what can only be recognized as a great Enlightenment belief in Progress with a capital P, rational debate, and the great marketplace of ideas. While I don't share his contempt for religion (he was puzzled by my "apatheism," or indifference to the whole matter), his stance grew out of his conviction that some methods of thought were more advanced and liberatory than others. But because he was committed to rational and public discourse (however caustic at times), you could always argue with him. Which is exactly as things should be. I didn't always agree with him (his positions on the invasion of Iraq, for instance, and his admiration of the awful I.F. Stone leave me scratching my head) and he certainly wasn't infallible. But he was a true public intellectual, giving better than he got, sure, but always up for conversation large and small.
Sometime last night, upon hearing the news of Hitchens' death, Matt Welch tweeted that he was "a startingly generous man in person," which is an understatement if anything. Hitchens was especially generous to Reason over the years. A few months before the 9/11 attacks, we had an intern call him to do a short interview about his forthcoming book Letters to a Young Contrarian. The conversation extended into a couple of hours and was the basis of a long-form interview that is still fascinating to read. It presaged his break with much of the left that would come after the 9/11 attacks and shows that Hitchens was not simply a contrarian but a serious thinker who was constantly rechecking his math:
Karl Marx was possibly the consummate anti-statist in his original writings and believed that the state was not the solution to social problems, but the outcome of them, the forcible resolution in favor of one ruling group. He thought that if you could give a name to utopia, it was the withering away of the state. Certainly those words had a big effect on me.
The reason why people tend to forget them, or the left has a tendency to forget them in practice, has something to do with the realm of necessity. If you make your priority -- let’s call it the 1930s -- the end of massive unemployment, which was then defined as one of the leading problems, there seemed no way to do it except by a program of public works. And, indeed, the fascist governments in Europe drew exactly the same conclusion at exactly the same time as Roosevelt did, and as, actually, the British Tories did not. But not because the Tories had a better idea of what to do about it. They actually favored unemployment as a means of disciplining the labor market.
You see what I mean: Right away, one’s in an argument, and there’s really nothing to do with utopia at all. And then temporary expedients become dogma very quickly -- especially if they seem to work....
Marx’s original insight about capitalism was that it was the most revolutionary and creative force ever to appear in human history. And though it brought with it enormous attendant dangers, [the revolutionary nature] was the first thing to recognize about it. That is actually what the Manifesto is all about. As far as I know, no better summary of the beauty of capital has ever been written. You sort of know it’s true, and yet it can’t be, because it doesn’t compute in the way we’re taught to think. Any more than it computes, for example, that Marx and Engels thought that America was the great country of freedom and revolution and Russia was the great country of tyranny and backwardness.
But that’s exactly what they did think, and you can still astonish people at dinner parties by saying that. To me it’s as true as knowing my own middle name. Imagine what it is to live in a culture where people’s first instinct when you say it is to laugh. Or to look bewildered. But that’s the nearest I’ve come to stating not just what I believe, but everything I ever have believed, all in one girth.
Hitchens spoke at several Reason events over the year, submitted to more interviews, wrote the occasional piece for us, and offered up unsolicited praise of the magazine under the editorship of Virginia Postrel ("I get more out of reading the libertarian magazine Reason than I do out of many 'movement' journals'"). He graciously wrote an intro to the 2004 anthology of Reason, Choice, arguing in part
It is useful and encouraging to have a magazine that approaches matters with an additional dash of hedonism. Freedom might be more efficient, but it also might possibly be more enjoyable....I find that Reason keeps my own arteries from hardening or from flooding with adrenaline out of sheer irritation, because in the face of arbitrary power and flock-like conformism it continues to ask, in a polite but firm tone of voice, not only "why?" but "why not?"
If Reason helped keep Hitch's blood pumping hot for even a minute, that's something we're extremely proud of. And we're extremely grateful for the shelf of books he gave us all to pore over for years to come, and the example of how to move through the worlds of culture, politics, and ideas with an inspiring combination of grace, fun, and seriousness.
In 2003, Hitchens participated in the symposium "Forcing Freedom: Can liberalism be spread at gunpoint?"
Michael C. Moynihan reviews Hitch-22: a Memoir (2010).
For more Hitchens in Reason, go here.
In 2007, Christopher Hitchens headlined Reason's "Very Secular Christmas Party" in Washington, D.C. by providing a dramatic reading of Tom Lehrer's "Christmas Song." Click below to watch.