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After Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was arrested in an airport restroom for trying to pick up another man, Hitchens penned an erudite piece on what the British once called “cottaging,” or cruising in public lavatories. Linking together conversations with gay politician Tom Driberg, a poem published in Private Eye, and statistics from a 1970 doctoral thesis, he composed a thoroughly amusing digression built on the slenderest of conceptual reeds. It is hard to view the Clapham Common toilet in quite the same way after learning that it “acquired such a lavish reputation…that, as I once heard it said: ‘If someone comes in there for a good honest shit, it’s like a breath of fresh air.’ ”
With time, Hitchens did less reporting abroad. That was a shame, but age has its prerogatives. There are exceptions in Arguably, including a piece on a visit to Beirut, where Hitchens was beaten, along with two colleagues, by members of a loutish pro-Syrian party. That episode garnered publicity but hardly showed Hitchens at his most lucid. The assault came after he had defaced a plaque commemorating a party hero.
More memorable on that trip was Hitchens’ lecture at the American University of Beirut, titled “Who Are the Real Revolutionaries in the Middle East?” In it he sought to defend modern Arab democrats who had resisted dictatorship, thinking his listeners would concur. Instead, Hitchens was rudely badgered for having supported the Iraq war. The reception so rankled him he describes it in his introduction to Arguably, explaining why he dedicated the book to a Tunisian, an Egyptian, and a Libyan who embodied the Arab revolts of 2011. Hitchens had been correct about the pull of freedom in the Arab world, his dedication a riposte to an audience too self-righteous to have anticipated this. There can be felicitous clear-sightedness in what feels emotionally proper.
The knowledge that he had perhaps less than a year to live, Hitchens noted, “has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending.” How odd for him to suggest that he had ever left any doubts on that front.
Contributing Editor Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster).