December 15, 2016
Life so often seems now like catching up. I know better than to believe this feeling is unique to me. One imagines there is an age where you know a great deal about a great many things and it becomes more and more difficult for anyone to speak about something or someone located in the public sphere, though apart from pop-culture, that you cannot acknowledge and nod knowingly about.
This is obviously ridiculous but nevertheless it does pain me and produce in me the closest thing to regret I will allow, to discover people and things and ideas that I wish I had discovered earlier for no other reason than I would have, in the end, spent more time with them.
For example, Christopher Hitchens. Up until his death, on this day in 2011, I had only a peripheral awareness of “The Hitch.” I recognized him, I’m sure, from appearances on Firing Line and Charlie Rose, CSPAN and other places, but he was to me just another intellectual, part of the TV intellectual parade.
Then, upon his death from cancer, I opened a New Yorker and there was an obituary written by Christopher Buckley, the son of WFB. I say that I didn’t even know he was sick only partly as the joke, which I think he would appreciate, but mostly to indicate I was not in any way a follower of the man prior to his death. I actually did not know he was sick.
It is very likely I was on a plane as I read the obituary because I am only an occasional subscriber to the New Yorker and in those years when I am not stacking the magazine alongside feelings of guilt for not reading each one cover to cover (John Updike, when asked if he read every issue of the New Yorker, with which he was so closely associated for 50 years, said only, “Well, it does come every week.”), I make a habit of buying a copy whenever I board a plane. I am currently a subscriber because I no longer fly very often and I have to drive nearly 10 miles to buy a copy where I live in north Georgia when, for most of my life living in California, it was available at every grocery store. This aside is important to me because I have spent over six years now in a land that is foreign to me, or I am foreign to it, for reasons Christopher Hitchens embodied.
In any case, I read son Buckley’s (aka “Young Buck”) fond remembrance of Hitchens five years ago and it made me curious to know more about Hitch, as he was known. I explored. I read. I watched. I listened. I fell in love with the man, or the public man, at least.
So what I endeavor to do here, on the fifth anniversary of his death and in an embarrassingly poor affectation of his writing voice, is recommend him to you if you don’t know him already, and share in the collective grief the day requires if you do. I have no standing to write about him, I have only my sorrowful wish, this year more than any other since his death, that he was still alive.
Following the publication of his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens insisted that his book tour take him through the Bible Belt rather than play it safe within the Union and on the coasts, and he requested debate partners whenever possible. Everywhere he went the locals were invited to bring forth their greatest champion to argue against him on behalf of religion and belief in God and they did. All three of the world’s major religions, sometimes at the same time, stepped onto the battlefield. Some of them were practiced and sophisticated apologists for faith, lawyerly and pedantic, and some were simple hucksters. Hitch carefully dismantled the former and joyfully destroyed the later while always remaining ruthlessly polite and gentlemanly in that very British manner. Like the grandest of southern women, you knew he was graciously inviting you to go to the hell he didn’t believe in when he called you “sweetie.”
As with all political debates (and a debate on religion is, at its heart, a political debate), both sides claim their gladiator victorious even when one is left without any limbs with which to crawl off the bloodied stage. Hitchens said, famously I think it is fair to say, since it is now called Hitchens’s Razor: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” His best and most worthy opponents where those who hurried to this stalemate on the question of God in just ten moves (I have read that this is the quickest draw possible in chess, twelve moves if you want all thirty-two pieces remaining on the board) so that the conversation could move on to the value of religion which is, of course, debatable.
Although I cannot imagine Hitchens giving the exact same speech more than once (I mean saying the same things in the same order, which is what I think he meant when he said he would never do such a thing), he did have speaking engagements almost nonstop and like anyone who speaks before an audience regularly, there were many things he said almost every time. If you watch or listen to the many recordings available of him speaking and debating, you will see these coming. He often, though not always, greeted his audience as “brothers and sisters, friends and comrades,” and when he did he would sometimes pause in anticipation before saying “comrades,” as if the word alone might offend or inspire his audience. I think it’s clear he hoped for both.
Like an old circuit preacher or a politician on the stump he told the same stories and jokes over and over again. Whenever the conversation drifted toward eastern religions he seemed incapable of not telling a joke about the Buddhist monk who ordered a hot dog with everything (he would pause here for those who thought this was the punch line). The monk pays for the hot dog with a 10 dollar bill or a 20 dollar bill (the denomination varies) and the hot dog vendor offers no change. When the monk inquires after his change the vendor replies, “Change comes only from within.”
It’s not a great joke. I prefer his less often used joke about crossing a Jehovah Witness with a Universalist, which results in someone who knocks on your door for no reason.
Nevertheless and anyway, Hitch died five years ago today and I wish he hadn’t because he would assail with panache, I think, the mouth breathers who dragged their knuckles across the pavement to vote for Donald Trump, as well as the lost and earnest party faithful. He would disembowel as would a surgeon the cynical establishment conservatives who’ve set us on the path to becoming a mafia state to cover their own seats of power. He would offer no tenderness or mercy. They would all, and Trump especially, be his sweeties. Which is not to say Clinton supporters would fare any better.
In his waning days he continued to speak and be interviewed and when it was clear that he was dying he would address the gravestone in the room by noting, “I’m dying, but so are you.” There was no death bed conversion for Christopher Hitchens, though some may pretend otherwise, or declare knowledge, without any evidence, of a near miss. (He called the commonly heard claims of death bed conversions by well-known atheists a “very nasty little history.”) His politics changed over the years, expanded and contracted, as it should be with an honest person, but as to the question of what he would face when his eyes closed for the last time, he remained constant. His defiance in the face of death was evident just weeks before it took him. Looking nothing like himself in that moment, he sounded every bit himself and sought no quarter from heaven and its dictator, one of his favorite analogies for God as depicted by most religion.
I do not agree with everything Christopher Hitchens said or wrote, which is an obvious and probably unnecessary thing to say. I only do say it by way of leaving you with something to read that will offend almost no one. It is an essay Hitchens wrote about the death of an American soldier. It is beautifully written but more importantly I think it serves as a somewhat precise portrait of the writer. If you are familiar with him already, it is a fine read on the anniversary of his death. If you are not yet acquainted with Hitch, it is a sneaky way of enticing you to read more.
I close with the final words of his book, Letters To A Young Contrarian: “… may you keep your powder dry for the battles ahead, and know when and how to recognize them.”