Farewell, dear Hitchens

By Eric Mathison

Of the handful of living people who have significantly shaped my view of the world, Hitchens is the first to die. Like many of my contemporaries, I was swept up in the great wave of de-conversion led by Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. It’s a pity that most people haven’t made it past Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, which reads more like a collection of debate transcripts thrown together too quickly. (One has to sympathize: after a career of taking on God’s servants, he was surely keen to wage direct war on ‘the dear leader’.)

Although he made his career as a print journalist, Hitchens was an adept orator and debater. Perhaps his book-length attack on God fails to impress because he was so skilled at dispatching any reason to entertain faith in an hour-long debate.

Taking on the divine certainly made him so famous, but Hitchens was keen to expose stupidity and groupthink at every turn. In The Missionary Position he convincingly argues that Mother Theresa was a friend of poverty, not of the poor, and that her support of the Duvalier regime in Haiti was disgusting. He makes a convincing case that Henry Kissinger committed crimes against humanity in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, and he eagerly attacked the celebrity cult of Princess Diana in numerous essays.

Hitchens never lacked confidence when making arguments, although his reversal on some positions should deflect accusations of zealotry and absolutism. Hitchens loved stories where justice, rather than one of the so-called “greater goods,” takes precedence.

To my mind, when his collections of essays aren’t contenders, Hitchens’s best book is Letters to a Young Contrarian, which embodies two of his most consistent calls to arms: that we ought never fail to think for ourselves; and that failing to stand up for what we believe in is to commit the double transgression of complicity and cowardice. Perhaps his love of intellectual confrontation — indeed, valuing it for its own sake — will not resonate with everyone. But his claim that “conflict may be painful, but the painless solution does not exist in any case and the pursuit of it leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness” is worth heedingt.

For Hitchens, the conflict was something to be enjoyed. He attacked the notion of Utopia, where people sit around in idyll bliss, as something to be reviled.

That was his greatest strength. He had respectable opinions on a number of issues, but his devotion to the process of seeking truth — and his unwavering defence of standing up for it — made him so great. Pouring a drink, sitting around a table and arguing until morning is time well spent after all.

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