Christopher Hitchens In his Washington DC home. Photo by Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images

Christopher Hitchens: the last cool columnist

Ten years on from Hitchens’s death, the past seems more foreign than ever

Artillery Row

The ten year anniversary of the death of Christopher Hitchens (15 December) brings to mind two questions. Firstly, has it really been ten years since Christopher Hitchens died? Secondly, has it only been ten years since Christopher Hitchens died? The vivid nature of his prose and rhetoric makes him feel like our contemporary. His obsessions, though, — like atheistic evangelism and Middle Eastern nation building — feel as dated as a Roman artifact.

Columnists have a short cultural lifespan. Once, millions of Britons read Bernard Levin every week. Now? I doubt that most young writers have even heard of him. Classic books are reprinted. Newspapers gather dust. Hitchens’s name does not have all the weight it had ten years ago but it has stayed alive, because the Internet archives essays and appearances and because of the esteem that he is held in by his peers.

His high moralism and rhetorical fury were perfect for the heydays of the War on Terror and cable TV

Janan Ganesh, writing for the Financial Times, believes that Hitchens would have thrived if he had lived to comment on 2021. “He was made for our time, not his own,” Ganesh writes, “The great vacancy in today’s public life is for an equal scourge of the censorious left and the feral right…Hitchens would have been in his element.”

This is bunkum. Hitchens would have been hopelessly out of sorts in the 2020s. How, for example, would he have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic? It is as implausible to imagine that a man with such a lust for life would have endorsed long-term restrictions as it is to imagine that a man with such cheerful faith in the scientific establishment would have had time for COVID sceptics and vaccine hesitancy. Anybody hoping that Hitchens would have carved out some kind of nuanced middle ground, meanwhile, must have forgotten who we are dealing with. No, the plain truth is that the high moralism and rhetorical fury of “the Hitch” were perfectly suited to the heydays of the War on Terror and cable TV.

Liberal commentators like Ganesh miss Hitchens not so much because of his opinions as because he was cool. Ross Douthat mentions Mark Lilla, Anne Applebaum and Andrew Sullivan as other liberals who criticise the left and the right. But while I respect Lilla and Applebaum’s accomplishments and enjoy Sullivan’s writing, how many people do you think have fantasised about having a few drinks with them — or, indeed, with any other political commentator not named “Hitchens”?

Journalism is not — as much as journalists enjoy imagining otherwise — a very glamorous trade. There are honourable exceptions (journalists venturing into warzones or labouring under tyrannies, for example). But in general we journalists and commentators are unusually spiteful, insecure and egotistical, and spend most of our lives behind computers reading about all the sordid details of politics, culture and economics that most people would rather not think about.

Interviewers had a tendency to sound like priests being granted an audience with the Pope

Commentators, like myself, are also vulnerable to overexposure. In general, what makes actors and musicians “cool” is their mystique. It is what we don’t know about them as much as what we do. How often have you heard a famous person talk about politics, religion, economics et cetera and liked them more? That is all commentators do!

Hitchens was an exception. Combining erudition, irreverence and drink-soaked debauchery, the man delighted readers and listeners with the sense that one could be both educated and epicurean, both cosmopolitan and combative, both bookish and bombastic.

He was, in the popular perception, the smartest and the drunkest man in the room. This was the kind of chap that male commentators, having read and drunk less than a quarter as much, aspired to be. Interviewers, visiting Hitchens, had a tendency to sound like priests being granted an audience with the Pope.

This swaggering charisma was especially significant for advocates of “muscular liberalism”. Hitchens, like Bernard-Henri Lévy, lent his style and sophistication to an ideological tendency which, with its associations of opaque think tanks and bone-dry opinion pages, did not exactly have a surplus of radical chic. Could anyone have defended George Bush and Tony Blair half as convincingly? Sure, it remained unconvincing, but a man who tried to ski jump across the Grand Canyon and got within a metre would still have accomplished an odd kind of feat.

Looking back, Hitchensian cool seems more contrived than it did at the time. Did he just happen to be smoking every time photographers were around or was there more calculation to his brand than one might have suspected? That he never had much of a social media presence was a blessing for his legacy. If he had been on Twitter, we would doubtless have seen the difference between witty, eloquent rudeness and plain old rudeness. Non-combatants beating drums of war is a bit sad at the best of times, meanwhile, never mind when it comes to catastrophes.

But it would be wrong to mark the tenth anniversary of Hitchens’s death without dwelling on his admirable features as well. There was the energy and personality of his prose, which seem more striking in an age of lifeless journalese and petty snark. There was the range of his interests, which meant that he could write long essays about authors from Marcel Proust to Philip Roth, and engaging travel journalism about everywhere from Route 66 to North Korea, as well as punchy columns about politics. Pick up Unacknowledged Legislation or Arguably some time. You might be annoyed but I doubt you will be bored.

There was his obvious disinterest in being liked for the sake of being liked, and his willingness to argue with anyone and everyone to defend a principle. While such features can be boorish in a man at times, at others they are priceless.

Though much of the work of Christopher Hitchens offers warning lessons to young writers, these qualities offer valuable inspiration. If any writer from his times still represents them, of course, it is Peter Hitchens. For all of their differences, and all the differences that one might have with them, the work of both brothers is literary, wide-ranging, individual and pugilistic. That, far more than booze and fags, makes writing cool.

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