Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
As I woke up to the news of the demise of Kim Jong-Il, the monstrous and callous dictator of a dystopian, slave and famine state, of which George Orwell himself would be horrified if he would have witnessed its cruelty, it was a logical move to go to www.dailyhitchens.com, a website that sent out links to all things written or related to Christopher Hitchens, one of the greatest socio-political polemicists and rhetoricians of our time. It was a personal natural reflex for myself in the last couple of years – whenever an interesting event or an issue took place in the international media – whether it was the fall of Gaddafi, or the always amusing, embarrassing blabberings of the American Right, the continuous cases of cruel censorship and oppression by religious institutions all over the world, or was it to simply revel in the analyses of the works of Franz Kafka and Arthur Koestler, or simply to know why women weren't funny - it was Hitchens' point of view that would interest me immediately.
However, that natural reflex of enthusiasm quickly turned into a sad realisation that there won't be any new Hitchens articles on the „evil North Korean dwarf“, no analysis and predictions of the events that are to follow this demise – including types of forecasts that quite often in his work turned out to be accurate - no new reminiscences of his own experiences in North Korea, so brilliantly conveyed in many of his articles and lectures, and no unique perspectives on the problem at hand that successfully melded an accessible, down-to-earth approach, through his cut and dry sense of humour and wits, with an impeccable mastery of the English language and countless historical, literature or even pop-culture references and analogies. The man could go from interpreting Socrates, W. H. Auden and Leon Trotsky to quoting Princess Leia from Star Wars in minutes, all while talking about why there is no life after death, and why it would be contemptible if there was one, at least in the case of how the monotheistic religions preach it.
And it was finally death that silenced Hitch and what saddened a great number of free thinkers and admirers around the world. Diagnosed with the cancer of the oesophagus in June 2010, Hitchens went into an aggressive treatment of the disease with admirable dignity, writing about the process and his experiences, during which his physical appearance has notably weakened. To the disappointment of many religious fundamentalists, this didn’t reflect itself in the mind and in his work, which he fiercely continued to pursue, with even more conviction than ever before, which was to argue and fight a case against any kind of totalitarianism. The ultimate and the most cruel totalitarian form possible was, according to Hitch, religion, which brought him a moderate, but worldwide fame since he published his 2007 bestseller God is Not Great.
Although I’ve heard of Christopher Hitchens through his atheism work, it was precisely his work through lectures and articles about North Korea, and about the other two “axis of evil” – Iraq and Iran, that brought him to my attention. I’ve realised soon that not only the man could write, he could write about anything with such conviction and style, that even despite his sometimes controversial and outrageous opinions, you would be so fascinated by the delivery of it, whether it was his eloquence and the power of his voice, or through his sharp writing, that for moments you wouldn't even care as to precisely what Hitch went on about. Hitchens could bring humour and wit while speaking or writing about the most awful of things, but it was rarely, if ever, in bad taste.
I had personally always despised the persistent, shallow and generalising political division of the Left and the Right. Each individual was and is such a complex being, full of opinions that could often contradict each other that such a simplifying and pedestrian collectivism of the human mind in the political and in the social sphere left me often nauseating. Although Hitchens had described himself as a “man of the Left”, thanks to his Marxist and socialist roots during his Oxford and The New Statesman years in the 60s and 70s, he was often accused as being a contrarian, a conservative and a “right-wing convert”, the latter mostly because of his most controversial standpoint of his career – his decisive and never-refuted support of America’s intervention in Iraq. Hitchens went beyond the collective thinking and the generalising, clichéd opinions about certain topics that people had without having even read or seen anything about them, making a convincing case against “saintly” Mother Teresa and her damaging, psychotic religious fundamentalism (as Hitchens puts it in one of his many memorable quotes, “Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor, she was a friend of poverty.”) and “lefty favourite” Bill Clinton, of whose probable crimes people are more aware of, but choose to delightfully ignore them. Further on, he was a harsh critic of historical darlings such as Mahatma Gandhi and Pope John Paul II (although he did call the latter “a man of honour”). This all goes to prove that one could never assume what opinion Hitchens would hold, and this is something that was one of his major advantages as a polemicist and, finally, as a human being.
And how infuriating could the man be! In some of the disagreements I personally had with some of his conclusions, especially when talking about the wars after the dissolution of Yugoslavia (where he had a certain “epiphany” about foreign military interventions, either NATO or solely US-backed, which was exactly the point where he separated himself from many of his colleagues and inspirations from the “Left”, such as Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal), I had a feeling he might have oversimplified the historical circumstances to reach a certain conclusion. His lack of patience and his “rudeness”, as one of the other three “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” Daniel Dennett put it in his obituary, made him more human, more natural and motivated us more to do what Hitch wanted all of us to do – critically observe and question everything that comes to our attention. One of his main reasons for his contempt of religion was the literal absence of a critical standpoint. No matter what you think about his viewpoints, a well-argued and a passionate counter-argument would be precisely what Hitch would encourage.
Rest in peace Hitch. And I pray to God you’re not in Celestial North Korea (Heaven) right now! Your legacy will live on for many, many years to come. I don’t have faith in that (“the most overrated of all virtues”), I see and read it every day, as seen by the countless praises and admiring words told in your account from every side of the political and social spectrum.