U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Christopher Hitchens: RIP (1949-2011)

[Updated: 9:55 am]

I won’t profess to being either a fan or knowledgeable of Christopher Hitchens’s life and work. But I’m game to reflect here on both. What follows are a few reasonably trustworthy sources to start a conversation:

1. The NYT obituary.
2. Scott McLemee on Hitchens in a June 2010 piece at The National.
3. A collection of his recent essays at VF Daily.
4. Corey Robin’s brief, not-so-flattering reflection on Hitchens’s narcissism.

What are your thoughts? What’s Hitchens’s place–positive, negative, or otherwise—in the late twentieth-century U.S. intellectual landscape? I expect instant-historical perspective and analysis. 🙂 – TL

16 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks Varad.

    In terms of getting the conversation going I ask the following:

    1. Is it Hitchens’s atheism that is his essential character trait?
    2. Is it his 9/11 change-of-heart that will place him in U.S. intellectual history narratives?
    3. What are the top ten essential works, meaning essays or books, by him? Which one is most representative of his contributions to our intellectual landscape?

    – TL

  2. I’m no expert on Hitchens. Like many others, I read him casually and enjoyed some of his pieces, and disliked others. In answer to your questions, I think the answers to numbers 1 and 2 are linked. His atheism didn’t become important until late in his career, and I think can be attributed in part to his reaction to 9/11. There’s a stridency and violence to his rhetoric that flowered after that, which Corey Robin points to in his post. Personally, I found Hitchens’ atheism as shrill and unnuanced as that of his fellow travelers in the so-called New Atheist movement. I think Hitchens will be best remembered as a political writer (at least that’s how I always encountered him) and the atheism will be seen, not as insignificant, but as not the core of his thinking. It can’t be described as part of a coherent anti-authoritarianism, because he wasn’t always anti-authoritarian.

  3. Zirin’s a jackass. I’d probably spit on him, too. He brings down the intellectual level of The Nation every time it publishes something with his byline. But clearly there was a bullying, vindictive side to Hitchens that was not difficult to provoke to the surface.

  4. He may have something intelligent to say about sports and politics, LD, but so far he has kept it hidden from his blog. Perhaps you will have more success in finding it than I did.

  5. This Salon piece by Alex Pareene has some devastating observations. If you don’t want to leave USIH to read it, here are the parts I appreciated (which constitute large chunks of the article):

    1. It’s…important not to whitewash his role in recent history.

    2. There was no more forceful intellectual voice in support of the Iraq War than Hitchens. There were others who were more prominent, more influential or more persuasive, but Hitchens was the perfect shill for an administration looking to cast its half-baked invasion plans as a morally righteous intervention, because only he could call upon a career of denunciations of totalitarianism and defenses of human rights.

    3. We had the world’s self-appointed supreme defender of Orwell’s legacy happily joining an extended misinformation campaign designed to sell an incompetent right-wing government’s war of choice. The man who carefully laid out the case for arresting Henry Kissinger for war crimes was now palling around with Paul fucking Wolfowitz.

    4. This might be my favorite: Once he became an unpaid administration propagandist, Hitchens, formerly a creature of left-wing magazines whose largest mainstream exposure was in Vanity Fair and occasionally on Charlie Rose, was suddenly on TV rather a lot. The lesson there, I think, is that the popular American mass media will make room for even a booze-swilling atheist Trotskyite if he’s shilling for a the latest war.

    5. His post-9/11 conception of an epoch-defining clash of civilizations between the secular West and the jihadists is more than slightly ridiculous. The secular West faces any number of graver existential threats — like unaccountable too-big-to-fail financial institutions and climate change, to name two that immediately come to mind — than that posed by the less-than 1 percent of the world’s Muslim population that subscribes to Salafist jihadism. Hitchens, the old Orwell worshiper, clearly just wanted a great big generational threat to tackle fearlessly, with polemics attacking the sclerotic establishment liberals who failed to see that the world was at the brink of disaster.

    6. His Clinton hatred was something more hysterical than reasonable…and his grand campaign for atheism involved a good deal of silliness as well (Bertrand Russell did the case against God earlier and better). He had an unpleasantly boorish attitude toward women, best exemplified by his embarrassing “why women aren’t funny” bullshit.

    7. There was always something cartoonish about old “Hitch” the rakish intellectual character, puffing away on cigarettes and slurring bon mots in interviews, penning furious denunciations of hypocritical public figures while hosting salons and drunken parties at his Washington, D.C., apartment that some of the most powerful and prominent people in the world of politics and media attended.

    – TL

  6. I don’t know what to make of Hitchens. I have friends who have been profoundly influenced by his anti-religious polemic and felt really liberated by his, well, prophetic stance against belief in God. Others vilify him for his post 9-11 “turn.”. I don’t know his work well enough to know how much of a turn that was.

    It seems to me that Hitchens didn’t trouble himself with a burden to be systematic or consistent in his views by any criterion that the beneficiaries / targets of his polemic would recognize. That doesn’t mean that someone else looking at his work won’t be able to identify some underlying continuity or sensibility at work in shaping / shifting his thought.

    As far as I know, there is no requirement that we all be consistent in our epistemic commitments. Thank God…or don’t.

  7. Was it Emerson who said that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines”? [Verified.] …Let us therefore avoid, at all costs, the consistency of fools. -TL

  8. I know that Brian Leiter has had (extensive) problems with the NYT’s philosophy blog, The Stone. But this post by Louise Antony (University of Massachusetts Amherst) on atheism helped me understand something about Hitchens’s atheism. Although Antony takes her thinking back to Plato, she follows a distinction on morality that reminds me of Aristotle who, in his Nicomachean Ethics, argued that our “oughts” (positive and negative) in pursuing the good life depend on both individual and social factors working in congruence—morality independent of God or anyone’s gods. Mortimer Adler echoed these thoughts in two books written in 1970-71, both of which I discussed this summer in my “Almost Always Polemical” series (esp. here and here (near bottom)). Adler explicitly made his ethics of common sense agnostic. – TL

  9. A last link and I’m letting Hitchens go: Jim Livingston was also inspired by Hitchens’s death to reflect on the meaning of atheism. It’s not often that you get historians going all religious-theological-irreligious on you. – TL

  10. Here is a death that is, for me, more sorrowful: Vaclav Havel, whose political actions and essays stand as a moral beacon for all countries, ours included.

  11. Tim, thanks for posting the link to Jim Livingston’s piece. It was a good reminder of how history can be — I would say must be, but that’s too categorical — true philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom.

    My own wisdom, such as it is, on death and mortality, runs along some of the same channels, if not at the same depth, as Livingston’s thought here.

    Livingston writes, “… the uniquely human knowledge of impending death —we’re all waiting to die, we just don’t know how it will happen—keeps us thinking about what should endure when we’re gone. If you’re immortal, you can’t care that much about what will last among human beings because you know all of it will decay, and you’ll be there to watch it die. If you’re not immortal, these things matter.”

    Or, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it, “The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning. For death is the end of every man, and the living take it to heart.” I guess I’m alive then, because mortality — mine and everybody else’s — is something I have certainly taken to heart.

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