Remembering Christopher Hitchens, 1949—2011
Christopher Hitchens died on this date two years ago. Hitchens was the model of a public intellectual. He was certainly public in his positions and arguments, which allows for anyone interested to assess a person's arguments. And he was intellectually honest in a way that is uncommon, with many (most?) thinkers curtailing their views if they threaten a broader ideological identity. Though definitely a man of the left, Hitchens was never orthodox and ran into trouble given his positions on issues such as abortion (he was against it), foreign interventionism (he was for it), free speech deemed offensive to certain groups (he was for it), and more. While he rarely missed opportunities to offend right-wing sensibilities (he once joked about Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's clearly having started with the president was still in office), he didn't hold back against the left, either. He had few kind words about Martin Luther King, Jr. and he dismissed Gandhi as a "poverty pimp."
He admitted to Reason in a wide-ranging 2001 Reason interview conducted a few months before the 9/11 attacks that his connection to the left was fraying (he would break definitively with The Nation magazine shortly after the attacks). Part of the reason stemmed from his realization that the forces of creative destruction unleashed by capitalism were remaking the world in a way that he—along with Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto—could appreciate:
The thing I've often tried to point out to people from the early days of the Thatcher revolution in Britain was that the political consensus had been broken, and from the right. The revolutionary, radical forces in British life were being led by the conservatives. That was something that almost nobody, with the very slight exception of myself, had foreseen.
I'd realized in 1979, the year she won, that though I was a member of the Labour Party, I wasn't going to vote for it. I couldn't bring myself to vote conservative. That's purely visceral. It was nothing to do with my mind, really. I just couldn't physically do it. I'll never get over that, but that's my private problem.
But I did realize that by subtracting my vote from the Labour Party, I was effectively voting for Thatcher to win.
Hitchens was a good friend and ally to Reason over the years, though we disagreed with him on many, many topics (indeed, on most topics). He graciously penned a foreword to our 2004 anthology Choice: The Best of Reason, remarking
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?"
The world of ideas needs more people like Hitchens: People who speak up for their beliefs, debate them openly and honestly, and have the courage to change their positions when they come to new understandings. Hitchens was an admirer of Thomas Jefferson because Jefferson, for all his limitations as a flesh-and-blood being, was commited to an Enlightenment ideal that we might struggle in the general direction of truth and understanding if we vet all of our arguments in public debate and discourse. That's the model that Hitchens embodied in a manner that will always inspire his audience.
In 2007, Hitchens headlined Reason's "Very Secular Xmas Party," leading the crowd in a rendition of Tom Lehrer's "Christmas Song" after riffing on the the holiday season, the Bush presidency, and North Korea. Take a look: