Everyone is writing about Christopher Hitchens today, or so it seems, so I will too. I never rubbed elbows with him or saw him speak, and—starting with the negative stuff—came to detest him in the ’90s for his irrational hatred of Bill Clinton and cheerleading the latter’s 1998 inquisition by the unspeakable Kenneth Starr and congressional GOP. And then there was his 100% support of the Iraq war and of Bush’s reelection 2004 (before he sort of flipped to Kerry in the final week of the campaign; he couldn’t make up his mind). I wasn’t too hard on some of the liberal hawks for their wrongheaded position on Iraq, as a few of their arguments were not without merit—notably from those who had longstanding ties to the Kurds—, and they tended to acknowledge the objections of those who opposed the war. But Hitchens didn’t give an inch on Iraq and seemed contemptuous of those who didn’t share his views. I also gagged when reading about some of the Republican habitués of his dinner parties. It’s one thing to break bread with, say, David Frum, who at least has some intellectual pretensions and is, politically speaking, not a totally odious SOB. But Grover Norquist?? WTF is an intello of Hitchens’ bent doing socializing with someone like that? I should also note Hitchens’ apologia for the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, which had me moaning in dismay.
But… Hitchens was a brilliant writer and intellectual, and I never stopped reading him. I looked forward to his columns in Slate, articles in Vanity Fair, and review essays in The Atlantic Monthly, and always enjoyed them. I first came across him in the New Statesman in the late 1970s. I followed his dispatches from Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1980 and became a fan from that point on, reading him weekly in The Nation when he moved there from the NS. Even when my detestation started I found myself in agreement with him more often than not. I think he went overboard in his obsession with “Islamofascism”—a neologism devoid of social scientific value—but greatly appreciated his support of Salman Rushdie after Khomeini’s fatwa, his stance on the 2006 Danish cartoons brouhaha, and uncompromising defense of free speech in the face of Islamists and their apologists on the European and North American left. So much of what he wrote was simply excellent and with perspectives that were quite original (for me at least). One example that always comes to mind here is his demolition of the charlatan André Malraux (the BHL of his era), who is, not surprisingly, still respected in France. But what most impressed me about Hitchens was his superhuman productivity, of his ability to knock off several thousand words a day of beautiful prose, reading I don’t how many books a week, while maintaining an active social life and doing everything else he did, and after having consumed a quantity of whiskey that would have had me unable to talk coherently, let alone write anything comprehensible. I was totally in awe of this.
A lefty friend of mine who knew Hitchens wrote to me today about how he continued to like him personally despite their profound political differences. I’ve read similar sentiments from others who knew him. A few months ago I was forwarded an e-mail that Hitchens wrote to a friend of his (a well-known American intellectual). I was impressed by his letter-writing (or e-mail writing) style. Warm and personable.
UPDATE: Here’s a piece by Larry Derfner in the lefty Israeli webzine +972, on how “Hitchens was unfairly castigated by the Left for supporting Iraq war.” He makes valid points, though I will still castigate Hitchens for Iraq, and particularly for his arrogance over the issue.
2nd UPDATE: John Cook has a spot on commentary in Gawker on “Christopher Hitchens’ unforgivable mistake” (on Iraq, what else?).
3rd UPDATE: Here’s a good one by Scott McLemee, “Hypocritchens: Where did the literary luminary go wrong?”
4th UPDATE: A friend of Hitchens’ of over 40 years, Neal Pollack, tells some interesting stories.
5th UPDATE: Michael Lind, in a not nice tribute, says that Hitchens was a “gossip columnist of genius,” not a real intellectual. Ouch!
6th UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald, arguing, as did Hitchens, that one need not avoid speaking ill of the dead if they are public persons, speaks ill of Hitchens and then some.
7th UPDATE: I have a question, BTW. Did Hitchens know any foreign languages? His writings are peppered with French words but I have never seen any evidence that he actually knew the language. Nor do I remember a single time when he came to France, where he was unknown. Reporting trips to various countries aside, he seemed to spend all his time in the US and UK, and mainly in Washington. How boring.
8th UPDATE: Alexander Cockburn says farewell to C.H., his onetime confrère.
9th UPDATE: In in interview in Salon dated 10/10/12, Camille Paglia—of whom I am not necessarily a fan—has this to say about Hitchens: “That kind of sneering at religion that Christopher Hitchens specialized in, despite his total ignorance of religion and his unadmirable lifestyle, was no model for atheism. I think Hitchens was a burden to atheism in terms of his decadent circuit of constant parties and showy blather. He was a sybaritic socialite and roué — not a deep thinker — whose topical, meandering writing will not last.”
10th UPDATE: Gregory Shupak has a review in the 17 Jan. 2013 In These Times of lefty blogger Richard Seymour’s book Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, in which Hitchens is portrayed as “an intellectually lazy poseur and a huffy racist—a man who, despite the remarkable breadth of his reading, ‘often lacked depth’ and was ‘either unable or unwilling to cope with the sorts of complex ideas that he occasionally attempted to criticize.’” Hitchens, “an intellectual opportunist,” was also “a serial plagiarist who failed to get even the simplest of facts right, was allergic to nuance, and made no scholarly contributions.”… Devastating stuff. Seymour really does take Hitch to the cleaners.