Christopher Hitchens: A combative writer’s complex legacy

Colleagues pay tribute to the Hitchens, who died last week at age 62 of esophageal cancer.

I once called Christopher Hitchens “the greatest living essayist in the English language,” said Christopher Buckley in, and “I would alter only one word in that blurb now.” Hitchens, who died last week at 62 of esophageal cancer, was probably the most vigorous and distinctive voice in our public discourse of recent decades, and certainly one of its most colorful characters. A legendary drinker, smoker, and bon vivant, Hitchens had stamina that was “as epic as his erudition and wit,” and he could churn out yards of glittering, immaculate prose with a blood-alcohol level that would send most of us to the emergency room. Hitchens was certainly a character, said Stephen L. Carter in, but what made him so remarkable was his devotion to “clarity of thought” and his “brilliantly polished” language. He once described Osama bin Laden as a man of “strange, scrofulous quasi-nobility and bogus spirituality.” A visit to North Korea produced this succinct summary: “Newspapers with no news, shops with no goods, an airport with almost no planes.” Sarah Palin, he said, was “a proud, boastful ignoramus,” while of Glenn Beck’s 2010 Tea Party rally on the National Mall he wrote, “The overall effect was large, vague, moist, and undirected: the Waterworld of white self-pity.”

Hitchens hated bullies, said Katha Pollitt in The Nation, but he could also be one. He wrote and spoke with a testosterone- and booze-fueled certainty that left no room for nuance or doubt. Whether denouncing Mother Teresa as a “thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf,” or opining after the death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell that “if you gave Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox,” Hitchens certainly was entertaining. But he embodied the kind of “black-and-white thinking” that inevitably leads to folly. And I never forgave my former colleague for his dismissive contempt for feminism. His attacks on religion were also mean-spirited, said J. Robert Smith in Hitchens was the most aggressive and least respectful of the so-called New Atheists, and his book, God Is Not Great, was a masterpiece of “arrogance and intellectual snobbery,” in which he sneeringly dismissed all religious and spiritual belief as superstitious baloney.

For all the scorn Hitchens dumped on religion, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times, it was “remarkable how much religious believers liked him.” Perhaps that’s because we always had the sense that Hitchens was “not so much a disbeliever as a rebel,” that his atheism was at heart “a political romantic’s attempt to pick a fight with the biggest Tyrant he could find.” For those of us who shared Hitchens’s lack of faith, said Daniel Dennett in, he was a true inspiration. While Hitch could build a logical argument against religion like no one else, he also refused to treat the pious and their irrational beliefs with any special respect. When faced with monstrous fraud, Hitch knew, sometimes “rudeness is called for.”

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So in that spirit, please excuse my rudeness on the occasion of Hitchens’s death, said Glenn Greenwald in On the key issue of recent times—the war in Iraq—Hitchens’s views were “nothing short of repellent.” He’d begun his career on the extreme political Left, but said his first reaction to the 9/11 attacks was “exhilaration,” because he knew they would unleash an exciting, sustained war against what he called “Islamofascism.” In the run-up to the Iraq war, Hitchens ardently defended each of the Bush administration’s bogus pretexts for toppling Saddam, then cheered on any slaughter of Muslims with a “vindictive and barbaric” glee that bordered on the pathological. Hitchens went to his grave “fully unrepentant and even proud” of his contribution to one of the darkest, bloodiest chapters in U.S. history.

Hitchens’s refusal to shift his position on Iraq was a “rare act of pride over reason,” said Andrew Sullivan in the London Times, but I can forgive him for it. As a student of history and a former Trotskyite himself, “he saw the totalitarian evil in Baghdad and Tehran more clear-sightedly than most.” Even after it became apparent that the war was a bungled, bloody misadventure, “his hatred of religion and tyranny” wouldn’t let him recant. Of course Hitchens got it wrong sometimes, said David Frum in, as we all do. We should look to him not for a model of what to think, but of “how to think”—with rigor, precision, and ravenous curiosity. He lived “fully, fearlessly, and joyously,” and in the end, facing cancer, Christopher Hitchens even showed us “how to die: without bluster but without flinching, boldly writing until the fingers moved no more.”

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