In his article “Christopher Hitchens: Party Pooper,” Gavin McInnes asked why “a mammoth intellectual such as Christopher Hitchens [is] wasting his last days wrestling a straw man such as Jesus?”
He suggested that since most Middle Americans only go to church for a sense of community and tradition, without giving mind to any of the spiritual and pseudo-scientific claims of Christianity, that Hitchens’ futile crusade is “tantamount to shoving a world map into a kid’s face and saying, ‘There is no way in hell Santa could do all that!’”
McInnes’ view is not only reductive, it misses the point entirely.
“I understand if he’s condemning Islam’s misogyny or mocking our love of Israel,” he wrote, “and I get that the Catholic Church is literally a pain in the ass (at least for some altar boys), but the rest of America’s Christians, all 171 million of them, are only in it for the platitudes.” But it is while the platitudes are spat from the pulpit that religion, and more importantly faith, become ingrained in our consciousness and in the consciousness of the next generation.
Hitchens’ desire was never to assert his intellectual dominance over the Bible Belt. It wasn’t a matter of revealing that the magician has a secret compartment in his top hat. Instead, his ambition was far more humanitarian. He was concerned about the psychic well-being of the human race. It was the will to religion that was the problem. And in the absence of will, it was tolerance that was cause for worry.
Hitch’s crusade wasn’t one against Christianity or Islam or Judaism. It was a life-long campaign to obliterate the human impulse towards faith, towards assertion made without evidence. He sought to instil reason and thought in places bereft of such things. It was this religious inclination, Hitch understood, that was the root of all tyranny.
An excerpt from his obituary in The Guardian read, “His loathing of tyranny was consistent: unlike many of the 1960s generation, he never harboured illusions about Mao or Castro. His concerns grew about the left’s selective tolerance for totalitarian regimes.” And he asserted as such in multiple debates whenever an opponent offered the vintage argument that secular regimes were responsible for atrocities of equal enormity to the Church. Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Kim and their heinous ilk were made into Gods. To them, secularism was eliminating the competition.
This absence of reason, Hitchens knew, was madness. As his hero George Orwell wrote: “If human equality is to be forever averted—if the High, as we have called them, are to keep their places permanently—then the prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity.” The only antidote to this insanity was reasoned thought. So as Gore Vidal taught Americans their own history, Hitch set out to teach humanity how to use the skill that is said to separate it from the animal kingdom.
Instead of telling us what to think, he taught us to how to think. He implored us to do so in our every day lives. He did this by chronicling everything he experienced in elegiac, seamless prose that made the reader feel as though they were in dialogue with him.
His intellectual pedigree was unmatched. His powers of articulation and prescience were heroic. Ian McEwan once said of his friend Hitch’s awesome memory “It all seemed neurologically available, everything he’s ever read, everyone he’s ever met, every story he’s ever heard.”
I mean, how do you compete with that?
Having the Hitch as a hero and role model can be a dispiriting enterprise. You will simply never measure up, to any considerable degree, against the staggering intellectual yardstick that the Hitch had firmly planted in the earth. It was foolish, even hubristic, to try.
How do you undertake the already mentally-taxing role of writer or journalist without being wrought with anxiety over the knowledge that no matter how much you know, you will never know as much as Christopher Hitchens?
YouTube has become the quintessential repository for Hitchism. There, you can watch countless videos of him lecturing and answering questions on an endless array of topics, delivering his infamous “Hitchslaps.” Whatever the topic, he had a calculated and erudite opinion. Whatever the country, he’d been there. Whatever the event, book, person, or concept, he was familiar with it. He’d covered it. He’d read it. He’d met them. He’d mastered it.
I reiterate: bloody hell.
But, I’ve come to realise that in my inadequacy, it is I who is being reductive and entirely missing the point. “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” You see, it is enough to think.
Hitchens opened his book “Letters to a Young Contrarian” by expressing disappointment in the English language’s rather lacking ability to encapsulate a person who thinks in a way that is other. “It is a strange thing, but it remains true that our language contains no proper word for your aspiration.” Contrarian, however, is just fine.
When a claim is made, contradiction can and should be a natural response. It should be instinct to immediately refute anything that is said, particularly when it comes from a place of authority. However true it may be, the alternative must immediately be considered. It is this very simple act of contradiction that governments try desperately to bludgeon to death in places like North Korea.
Whatever it is you have to say, I will immediately disagree, because I can, because I must. Then I will demand to see evidence. I will sit happily and listen to your reasoning and only when I am satisfied will I abide your assertion. But first I will disagree, for if I don’t, I may forget how to. “If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then, you had better be well equipped with points of argument and combativity, because if you are not then the “centre” will be occupied and defined without your having helped to decide it.”
In a secondary school philosophy class, the teacher once tasked us with maintaining consciousness during a lengthy video on the life of Jean-Paul Sartre. At one point, about three or four hours in, the narrator explained the impact of Sartre’s death on the French public: “People could no longer ask, what does Sartre think of this?” This stayed with me for some time. It was a month after the Hitch’s death, when the EU imposed their oil embargo against Iran, that I understood fully the unique sense of loss that the narrator was trying to articulate.
It’s obvious to say, but we will never know what the Hitch thinks of the US sequester, of the role of Jabhat al-Nusra in the Syrian civil war or of Obama’s current trip to Israel. Of course, we have a pretty good idea of what he would think. But we won’t get to hear it dispatched from the man himself.
So instead what we ought to do is simply follow his example. Take his rabid pursuit of the truth and fidelity to his own ideals and apply them to our own lives and our own careers, in whatever capacity we are able. It is truly a formula for a better world. Hitch knew this. Take nothing on face value and question everything, even the Hitch. He too was sometimes full of shit.
There is a saying that goes “Whatever you want to say, the Hitch has already said it better.” Thus, I will end with another quote from the man himself, in which he makes his declaration on how to be his favourite kind of person, a thinking person: “Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”