A strident legacy

In the decade since his death, Christopher Hitchens’s weaknesses have become our own

Artillery Row

By an old definition he liked to quote, Christopher Hitchens was a gentleman. Erudite, witty, and with a cultivated British accent, he was “someone who is never rude except on purpose”. And he found plenty to be rude about, whether it was American presidents, British royals, or God himself.

In the decade since Hitchens’s death, admirers have often felt the bereavement. The demons of Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency and the excesses of woke politics would have provided many opportunities for his sharp wit. He was an early critic of Trump’s electoral ambitions, arguing back in 2000 that although he was “a ludicrous figure … at least he’s worked out how to cover 90 per cent of his skull with 30 per cent of his hair”.

But the ease with which we can place Hitchens among existing pundits should be a warning. We allow plenty of space in public for those who are certain, morally righteous, and able to entertain audiences with a put-down. If Hitchens fits, it’s because our current madness is part of his legacy.

Though he clearly had a supple mind, much of his fame was due to a talent for Manichean judgements. His most famous book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, was not titled just for effect. “I do mean everything,” he once said. “Because it attacks us in our deepest and most intimate and essential integrity. It says to us in effect that we don’t have free will, that we don’t have the right to decide for ourselves on what is right.”

This was not a rare point of certainty. On matters of free speech, Hitchens was proud to call himself a First Amendment absolutist who took literally the constitutional promise that Congress would make no law abridging free speech. On liberal interventionism, 9/11 was not just a terrorist atrocity, but the start of “a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate”.

The last decade has been an unhappy experiment with these kinds of absolute positions. American intervention abroad has created many corpses, but few stable democracies. Meanwhile, unfettered speech online has created factories of political hatred, where even the mildest inconvenience is treated as an existential threat.

He is endlessly quotable, if not always original or right

And though each year fewer of us believe in God, there’s plenty of other poisons available. Even some of the New Atheists that Hitchens inspired have struggled to quietly enjoy their lives after putting religion aside, as Richard Dawkins advised. Some have embraced bitter the social justice activism that can be directly linked to woke politics, while some “right-leaning New Atheists became indistinguishable from conservative Republicans”, as Ben Sixsmith has argued.

Ideological clashes are expressed through the verbal sparring that Hitchens was famous for. Where gentlemen might once have resolved feuds with pistols at dawn, amateur and professional pundits now film themselves exchanging insults to post online in imitation of a cable television squabble.

Hitchens was not unique in such performances, but he was especially fuelled by conflict. As well as possessing a remarkable ability to start feuds with friends and existing enemies, Hitchens made a point of taking his anti-religious views through the American Bible Belt, and sought out his brother Peter, the leftist politician George Galloway, and leading religious figures for combative debate.

It is therefore no coincidence that Hitchens’s widest recognition came after YouTube was launched. His vicious put-downs — or “Hitchslaps” as they were nicknamed — were ideal for the age of the online video clip, with compilations released years after his death amassing millions of views.

Such theatrics proved inspirational for upcoming pundits. Often less eloquent and nuanced thinkers now make careers out of videos “DESTROYING” opponents. Meanwhile political discourse on Twitter is dominated by quote “dunks”, with the best 280-character insults retweeted by legions of like-minded followers.

Such is the hostility that Hitchens would have no need today to advise Dawkins to embrace the gruffness both have become known for, as he did in a final interview for the New Statesman. Their success ensured that stridency became the default register for public conversation.

The targets of this stridency have proved less enduring. New Statesman editor Jason Cowley was right when he wrote after Hitchens’s death that: “His polemical denunciations and pamphlets on powerful individuals, such as Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger, feel already dated, stranded in place and time.”

Where Hitchens is timeless is in his celebration of free speech, despite the rancour it causes, his encouragement that people think for themselves is equally valuable, with him noting that: “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” On many other subjects he is endlessly quotable, if not always original or right.

And yet his greatest contribution may be the other problem identified by Cowley: “His weaknesses are overstatement … self-righteous indignation … narcissism, and failure to acknowledge or to accept when he is wrong.” In the decade since his death, Hitchens’s weaknesses have become our own.

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