Christopher Hitchens: The Gadfly the World Needs Today

On December 15, 2011, the world lost Christopher Hitchens. Aged 62, Hitchens died of esophageal cancer, leaving behind an eclectic legacy that has only become more relevant since his demise.

A decorated journalist, legendary critic and virtually unrivalled debater, Hitchens was not just one of the foremost thinkers of his generation; he was also a provocative and discerning polemicist with the rare distinction of enjoying bipartisan admiration.

Across a career that spanned nearly 40 years and resulted in over 30 books, numerous collections of columns and essays, and still more numerous aphorisms, Hitchens, born British but in possession of an American citizenship, proved himself as a gadfly par excellence, someone whose presence would have made today’s world of echo chambers, Twitter mobs, and frequently unnerving politics, a far more interesting place.

A champion of causes

“I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn’t ever have to rely on the press for my information,” wrote Hitchens, in his simultaneously scathing and sublime memoir Hitch-22. Unlike many armchair columnists, Hitchens’s commitment towards causes did not comprise weekly loyalties harnessed to maintain a regular supply of editorials. He deeply cared about who and what he wrote.

During the 1970s, Hitchens travelled across Northern Ireland, Greece, Cyprus, Argentina and Portugal, unmasking the dictatorial and imperial travesties unfolding in those countries.

Having identified as a British Trotskyite during his younger days and voiced a strong condemnation of American intervention in Vietnam, Hitchens gradually grew disillusioned with the sterility of the Left, though that did not deter him from relentlessly documenting the corruption of the political elite.

Upon moving to America in 1981, Hitchens went all guns blazing against the biggest establishment figures – from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to, most notoriously, Henry Kissinger.

Once the moral vacuity of America’s rich and powerful was exposed, Hitchens shifted his attention to Mother Teresa in The Missionary Position, explosively arguing why she was “not a friend of the poor…[but] a friend of poverty”.

With no grander mortal opponent left to combat, Hitchens singled out god as his next, and ultimate, adversary. His magnum opus, God Is Not Great, which provides as convincing a case as any at the time against organised religion, did not just become a bestseller; it made Hitchens the poster boy for atheism across the West, the defining advocate for an enlightened imagination for those willing to be persuaded, and the latest avatar of the antichrist for those still furiously clinging to dogma.

Letters to a Young Contrarian
Christopher Hitchens

A hero of the mind

“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but how it thinks,” is one of the most enduring quotes from Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian, where the man himself outlines his polemic philosophy.

In the manner of two of his role models, Thomas Paine and George Orwell, Hitchens was a hero of the mind, possessing an intricate range of cerebral skills that inflected every word he uttered with the quality to mesmerise instantly. Besides his enviable knowledge of affairs from Berlin to Baghdad, from Manchester to Mumbai, Hitchens had something of which the world is in short supply today – the untrainable knack for wit and humour.

To read a Hitchens piece or to listen to his oratory is not merely to apprise oneself of the force of his thinking; it is also to smirk and savour, to trace and taste the sheer entertainment that can be produced, almost at will, by a sparkling intellect.

When Hitchens penned lines like “[heaven is a] place of endless praise and adoration, limitless abnegation and abjection of the self; a celestial North Korea” or “Reagan is doing to the country what he can no longer do to his wife”, he managed to capture at once the communicative spirit that transcends hierarchies and fault-lines, through the distillation of vocabulary that is at once blunt yet sophisticated, coarse yet elegant, appealing to a commoner at a rundown pub as well as a connoisseur at an elaborate soiree.

But even more than the stylistic versatility of his prose it was the no-holds-barred courage Hitchens showed in not stooping to the forces of political correctness and public judgement that allowed him to fulfil his primary purpose, the purpose of telling the truth. Although this being Hitchens, there was always the unerring awareness that a truth badly expressed amounts to a lie.

An intellectual lightening rod

If Hitchens were alive today (which most certainly would have meant that he would have been active), what would he have made of the intellectual inertia that has crept into our public discourse?

Would he have become a victim of cancel culture, thanks to someone creating a Twitter thread of how his support for the Iraq War made him complicit in neo-imperialism, or would he have been castigated as a misogynist after viral Facebook posts quoted selectively from his once upon a time column titled ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’?

How would Hitchens have reconciled social media’s proclivities for taking offence with his own proclivity for being unfailingly outrageous?

After lambasting a series of American presidents and British prime ministers and several other heads of state, how would Hitchens have critiqued Donald Trump, Boris Johsnon, or the coterie of populists entrenching their hegemony across the planet?

For those who had followed Hitchens closely, it would have come as no surprise if he were to pop up in Belarus in favour of an embattled citizenry, or land up in Venezuela to study the complicated contours of a crumbling nation, or more spectacularly still, sail off to India to march in lockstep with the protesting farmers, before heading off to file a signature 3,000-word piece for The Atlantic or Vanity Fair.

Hitchens would have been, as he was during his life, utterly ubiquitous. But more importantly, he would have been an intellectual lightning rod for his fellow journalists, writers and critics – from Turkey to Brazil to India – who are being persecuted in all sorts of ways, both big and small, legal and extralegal, and prevented from exercising their right to free speech and expression.

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Hitchens would have given lie to the fast emerging myth that one must agree with their audience in order to be appreciated by them. He would have, with characteristic aplomb, been hailed and harangued by both the Left and the Right, even as he asserted his own need for ideological promiscuity in a rapidly transforming society. He would have reignited the art of arguing with integrity without compromising on intensity, of displaying the strength of ferocity without fulmination, of celebrating a temperament that responded to sardonic cries of “I’ll pray for you” (meant to mock his atheism) with the composed reply, “I’ll think for you”.

Today, if Hitchens were alive, he would have filled the vacuum that only he could have left. Sometimes brash, always brilliant, but never boring, Christopher Hitchens was an enigma our present has no parallel for. Even after nearly a decade of his passing, he remains as indispensable as he is irreplaceable.

Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.

Featured image credit: Reuters