A few short words on Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011.

No doubt Hitchens will chiefly be remembered, fondly and not so fondly, depending on one’s perspective, for his services to atheism. The non-believers will declare him greatly-missed, and those of the opposite persuasion will either bask in his imagined fate or express regret at a life wasted. Indeed, in the FFF my current signature is a quote from him:

To be an unbeliever is not merely to be “open-minded”. It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as politics.

But these words spell out succinctly what Hitchens should mean to all of us, and why his lack of belief in itself was incidental to a much bigger project.

I recall from days gone by Hitchens regularly appearing on polemical TV shows, as his much less talented brother does these days. I don’t recall too much of his views then, but we’re told that he was out there well on the left. My first real encounter came much later with his book Regime Change, now titled A Long Short War. Considering his left-wing credentials this was a remarkably brave but characteristically honest effort, supporting the invasion of Iraq on the issue of human rights. This was basically my stance, too.

In fact it became pointless trying to pigeon-hole Hitchens within the usual political spectrum. He had no time for those that, as he saw it, perverted humanity for their own purposes. His attacks on Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan would please the left while his disdain for Michael Moore, George Galloway and Bill Clinton would gain support from the right. Both sides would be missing the point. Hitchens was a fighter for humanity and its potential and against those who would devalue it, from whence ever they came.

I didn’t agree with everything he wrote, and didn’t even think that he did himself justice all the time. But he had a precision, a power and an eloquence with his language that very few can match. I saw him in person at Hay during a recording for a TV programme and of course he didn’t disappoint. He rarely did.


3 responses to “Hitchens

  • Doze

    Nice piece, Duncan, and much better than most in the press. Personally I think there was a bit of intellectual vanity in his support for the Iraq war – it was just to easy to be against it. And he was wrong.

    But what a writer. Sticks his intellect, vocabulary and beliefs in your face like a broken bottle.

    • Headbutter of the Gods

      Thanks, doze.

      I can understand why you think he was wrong. Everything that the Stop the War demonstrators said would happen did happen. But that didn’t mean that Hitchens was wrong to support the action – although he should have stayed well clear of the likes of Wolfowitz. The action in Iraq and the occupation were failures, as events this week have amply demonstrated. The coalition embarked on their actions for the wrong reasons – anyone with half a functioning brain cell could have foreseen that it would all end in tears, and could have spotted the lies from a parallel universe. It can be added to a long litany of miserable failures from the Bush administration, and the embarrassingly obsequious Blair. Of course it would have been better if Reagan and Thatcher hadn’t been complicit in Saddam’s crimes.

      But Hitchens wasn’t wrong. His entire project was in favour of autonomy and against totalitarianism, where totalitarianism is a condition of utter control from outside. Only where man has control of himself and his thoughts can he flourish intellectually, and religion and dictatorship are brothers-in-arms in denying man’s control over himself. Think about spgdmin, Stasis and TR3 – they spoke of autonomy as if it was something to be avoided, to be deprecated, to be rejected. In doing so they exalted themselves as being subjects. I am not a subject and neither was Hitchens.

      In taking a stand against Saddam Hitchens was standing up for autonomy, and no amount of arguments over sovereignty or the like, or even any principled stand against the deceptions of our own side can negate this.

  • Doze

    I agree up to a point and I’m not a pacificist, But autonomy and invasion by the United states are mutually exclusive terms in my book.

    And he was left in the position of supporting an act of military aggression because he happened to support the (optimistically hoped for) end result rather than the explicit reasons for that actions – ie the WMD nonsense.

    The means were bad enough, the ends, worse.

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