Christopher Hitchens and the culture war

Where would the late ciceronian speaker have fit into today’s polemical battles?

Artillery Row

No one could debate an opponent quite like Christopher Eric Hitchens. Born in 1949, the English author, polemicist and social critic verbally disarmed countless opponents throughout his relatively short life. His combative rhetorical style was often met with derision by his critics, who saw him as a controversial figure. But I will always remember him for his passionate defence of free expression.

It was this vociferous defence of free speech that drew him to the United States in his early thirties. Writing in a 2006 Vanity Fair article that he found it “much easier to be an independent writer in a country that had a written constitution and a codified Bill of Rights”. Living in a sparsely furnished top-floor Washington apartment a stone’s throw away from the centre of US political power, the prolific author would spend the next twenty five years writing some thirty books and countless articles for The Nation.

Thousands would pack auditoriums and lecture halls to watch him speak. Ciceronian in his ability to command a crowd — loquacious, erudite and blessed with a razor sharp wit, he would often inveigh against his common enemy — organised religion. A highly skilled orator he would regularly pour scorn on both Islam and Christianity, which he claimed poisoned western thought and morality. Audiences revelled in his scathing remarks — often idolising him. Even though he claimed to despise a captive audience, as a lifelong atheist, the irony was not lost on him.

A fearless defender of civil liberties, he never lost his own ability to speak candidly. In a rather poignant final interview we got to witness his idiosyncratic sarcasm one last time. Talking to Jeremy Paxman about his oesophageal cancer and how it had started to severely restrict his ability to speak, the avowed apostate told the Newsnight presenter he thought God had finally caught up with him and was punishing him for blasphemy.  

During his lifetime, the far-left were arguably a lot less present — limiting themselves to anti-capitalist protests and anti-war marches. It begs the question: what would he make of today’s politically correct progressive climate?

In the ten years since his death, the culture war has evolved and morphed inexorably into an all consuming social justice ideology. While I picture a present day Hitchens being cancelled over his stinging invectives against Islam, censorship and all forms of illiberal authoritarianism, since his passing we have witnessed the emergence of identity politics. Academic disciplines such as critical race theory now dominate our educational institutions, designed to inculcate a generation of students with a eurocentric vision of slavery, mired in victimhood and postcolonial self-loathing.

Whilst it would be impossible to say what he would’ve thought about all issues pertaining to identity politics, we can speculate on his thoughts regarding reparative justice.

The philosophical and moral antecedents of Hitchens’ position were made clear when he took to the stage at the Boston College of Communication in 2001.

His opponent was the conservative economist Glenn Loury. The topic was “Should the United States pay slavery reparations?” Opening with an analogy, Hitchens cited the case of the Elgin marbles and argued they should be repatriated to Greece. Equating the forced labour of black Africans with the desecration of the Parthenon was, according to Hitchens an insult to both Greek and black culture — an example of what he calls “the strong preying upon the weak”. 

Unfortunately for Hitchens this is a false equivalence. When it comes to the Elgin marbles, the plaintiff is not a surviving individual, it is the physical structure of the Parthenon itself. As such, an argument can be made that the repatriation and restoration of the marbles would be of aesthetic benefit to us all — for generations to come.

The situation regarding reparations for the descendants of slaves is entirely different. The right to a personal claim cannot exist in perpetuity. A statute of limitations exists for a reason. Three months after the end of World War II negotiations began to force Germany to set in motion reparations to all surviving Jewish people who suffered during the Holocaust. Over the next thirty years, $845 million was allocated for compensation. In 1988 the German government allocated a further $125 million to all surviving Holocaust survivors in monthly payments of $290 for the rest of their lives.

The events of 11 September meant the former socialist put his full support behind the invasion of Iraq

Switching to a more emotive line of argument, Hitchens then shifts attention to his adopted Washington DC. He tells the audience that most bricks in the capital were put there using “unpaid labour, under the whip” where “dead labour becomes dead capital,” stridently telling the crowd that “Backpay [is] owed and it’s overdue…”

To understand why he believed contemporary white America owes a debt, we have to know his intellectual background. In his formative years he was a self-confessed Marxist — believing exploitation was written into the profit motive. Immersed in the counter-cultural protest movements of the 60s, It would’ve been easy to imagine him skipping lectures, walking the short distance to Oriel College and campaigning to remove the Cecil Rhodes statue.

Reparations, he tells us, will teach society a lesson. But when it comes to restitution, we are faced with some problems. The first is financial – who owes what to whom? Taking money from people who are not slave owners and giving it to people who are not slaves risks turning people into victims. Something Loury himself mentions he does not wish to see.

Then it’s logistical — how would we ascertain who is the descendant of a slave? Would DNA evidence be required? Where does this leave people like Beyonce – who is mixed race and descended from slave owners?  Then it’s moral — what about the residents of Gettysburg? Haven’t they already paid reparations in the blood of their ancestors? Or do today’s residents too need to be taught a lesson? We don’t get the answers as he does not pose these questions.

But by far the greatest problem with this line of reasoning is that he employs the very same argument against his common enemy — Christianity. By arguing that people should atone for an inherited sense of collective guilt means he invokes the religious doctrine of original sin — a position he was famous for rebuking. By forcing those alive today to repent for a previous generations moral comportment is akin to mankind forever atoning for Adam’s transgressions in the Garden of Eden. He unironically equates the doctrine of original sin with reparations. He was an outstanding polemicist but how we failed to see the contradiction in his own reasoning we’ll never know.

Although by contemporary standards he would be judged to be ‘woke’ on the issue of reparations, on transgenderism I feel he would sit on the other side. In a discussion on circumcision with Rabbi Harold Kushner, Hitchens argued that the compulsory mutilation of children’s genitals was a disgusting practice. I would imagine he would have a lot to say about the Tavistock clinic.

Later in his life Hitchens switched political sides. The events of 11 September 2001 meant the former socialist shifted ideologically to the right — putting his full support behind the invasion of Iraq. Although he once quipped that he’d been a republican all his life as he despised all forms of monarchy, he never faltered in his defence of liberty. Regardless of his opinions — no matter how much I disagree — they were his. And he was allowed to have them.

Still, I would much rather take him on now he has gone. The risk of a real life Hitchslap would’ve been far too much.

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