Why Hitchens Matters

(The Origin of Principles, 25 Mar 2013)

Ben Jones ·

I must make one thing clear: Christopher Hitchens is one of my childhood heroes.

My first encounter with “The Hitch” was via YouTube. As a disgruntled, unemployed, undirected 18 year old, I stumbled upon a short excerpt of a debate between him and one of his numerous opponents on the subject of religion. I was immediately impressed by his oratory skill and his use of the English language – it was sophisticated, yet clear and penetrable. This five minute clip led me to purchase his book “god is not great: How Religion Poisons Everything”, sparking my desire to continue reading, questioning and critiquing on a daily basis. I see his work and voice as an inspiration, which led me back into academia and my fortuitous position at Cambridge University today.

I come back to the term “childhood” hero, as this is a very important distinction. When I first came into contact with his work, I had the mind of a child. I was willing to take things at face value, not question or probe any deeper than what made me feel comfortable. An example would be my subscription to what is essentially his reductionist view on theism, something that I have since honed and interpreted into my own views on the eternal ontological debate.

The point here is that whilst I have since come to disagree with many of Hitchens views on a variety of matters, what I cannot question are his underlying principles.

Hence, his death on December 15th 2011 is a day I will always remember. I experienced that odd sorrow of having lost someone I felt I knew, yet never actually met. Since his death, as in life, Hitchens has become the target of criticism from a variety of fronts. Richard Seymour’s “Unhitched: The trial of Christopher Hitchens” is perhaps one of the more vile and contemptible attempts at vilifying and slandering one of the great public intellectuals of our generation. In his book, Seymour accuses Hitchens of plagiarism and opportunism. Whilst I do not have the scope here to review Seymour’s work, James Kirchik’s piece published in the Daily Beast achieves more than I ever could.

Hitchens was at his core, an anti-totalitarian. His mission was the defence of enlightenment values, freedom of speech, freedom of enquiry and the refusal to be subjected to the desires and whims of any undemocratically elected, dictatorial overlord. This core principle resonates throughout his work. At no point does he find compromise or favour with any scenario where these values are not strictly adhered. His deterministic style however often led him to reductionist conclusions.

The result was a redundant labelling of his place on the political spectrum, especially in the later years of his career, as a neo-conservative and as a mouthpiece for the Bush-Blair doctrine. His principles, however, meant that he didn’t have a place on the political spectrum. He was simply a contrarian that defended the rights of all peoples to advocate their wishes and opinions in a liberal-democratic fashion.

The fatwa, issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie for the publication of Midnights Children in 1989, and Hitchens’s response is one of the more notable examples of his principles in action. The idea that someone could be sentenced to death for the production of fiction is abhorrent, and Hitchens rightly condemned it as such. Let us not forget that others involved in its translation, publication and promotion were indeed killed. Hitchens, in a 2009 article, neatly summarises his position and reflects on the consequences of the weak response to the fatwa:

There is now a hidden partner in our cultural and academic and publishing and broadcasting world: a shadowy figure that has, uninvited, drawn up a chair to the table. He never speaks. He doesn’t have to. But he is very well understood.

The legacy of the attack on Rushdie has been that Anglo-American media and publishers are, without doubt, more wary or indeed fearful of causing offence.

Should we however be afraid of offending people?

Being offended does not stop anyone from protesting or forming a counter argument. But inciting violence? Or claiming someone should be killed? These acts are contemptible.

At the time of the declaration from the Ayatollah, Hitchens recalled a Muslim interviewer asking him “is nothing sacred?” to which he replied:

No, nothing is sacred…the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification is the right of free expression, because if that goes, then so do all other claims of right as well.

What is ironic about this claim is that it could be interpreted that free speech is in fact sacred. It is a clear example of Hitchens’ adherence to the principle of defending enlightenment values that causes him to reduce down what is obviously a complex issue (if placed in different circumstances to that of Rushdie’s).

We find this unwavering commitment to anti-totalitarian principles in his work and his opinions on religion. This field is where Hitchens arguably made his name in the wider public sphere.

What distinguished Hitchens’ criticism from the likes of Richard Dawkins for instance was that he did not necessarily belittle or patronise the beliefs or faiths of individuals. What he attacked were totalitarian institutions, which glorified an ever watching, ever-present authoritarian figurehead. This is why he deemed himself an “anti-theist”. It was not enough to say that religion follows a false mandate, but that it is alo in itself a frightening idea:

Even the most human and compassionate of the monotheisms and polytheisms are complicit in this quiet and irrational authoritarianism: they proclaim us in Fulke Greville’s unforgettable line, ‘Created sick – Commanded to be well’. And there are totalitarian insinuations to back this up if its appeal should fail. Christians, for example, declare me redeemed by a human sacrifice, which occurred thousands of years before I was born. I didn’t ask for it, and would willingly have foregone it, but there it is: I’m claimed and saved whether I like it or not. And if I refuse the unsolicited gift? Well, there are still some vague mutterings about an eternity of torment for my ingratitude. This is somewhat worse than a Big Brother state, because there could be no hope of its eventually passing away.”

Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001

The main gripe of Hitchens towards religion here then is not that he views it as necessarily barbaric or redundant, as others in the atheist camp would argue. In essence it condemns its followers to a life of servitude and subjugation. His anger or critique is directed towards those who willingly subscribe to this state of existence. As he states in Letters, “What matters about any individual is not what he thinks, but how he thinks”.

What must be considered however is that Letters was published in 2001, well before Hitchens public notoriety and YouTube following fully developed. His debates and voice clips are, indeed, what he is more regularly quoted on. Hitchens no doubt fell in love with the fame and adulation that the Internet brought him. These clips are Hitchens at his most honest or principle driven, as there is no filter or time to edit his responses. However, author Martin Amis attests to his ability to produce pieces with minimal editing or proofing time. His written work is what we should turn to if we really wish to understand how Hitchens’ mind truly worked.

We turn now to the Iraq war. This was the episode through which Hitchens lost many friends and allies and remained entrenched in his convictions until his death. Hitchens’ main target and justification for intervention in Iraq was Saddam Hussein and, to use Hitchens’s own words, his “theocratic crime family”. The atrocities committed by Hussein against the Kurdish minority and Shi’ite majority was something that he found inexcusable, and that these heinous acts validated direct action. The removal of a despot and totalitarian, regardless of the consequences, was the correct course of action. He accurately points out that involvement in Iraq has been on-going long before 2003, with the American CIA backing the coup that installed the Ba’ath party and Hussein in 1963. The creation of a monster required direct action to atone for past sins.

There is a plain motivation behind Hitchens’ response to Iraq. It stems from his revulsion of Jihadism and his experiences through the persecution of his close friend, Salman Rushdie by a similarly despotic figure. He developed an affinity for the Kurdish people in particular and their misery at the hands of Hussein troubled him deeply. We see however a reductionist outcome, similarly to his views on religion. The consequences of the Iraq war are far reaching and we are left in 2013 with a nation that is fractured and chaotic. The view that the removal of one despot justifies the social and economical upheaval of a nation is far too short sighted.</p>

Ultimately, Hitchens held convictions that were to him beyond critique or compromise. His belief in enlightenment values drove his desire to support any cause that promoted freedom of speech and enquiry. This also came at a cost. So staunch were his principles that it often led him to narrow and reductionist conclusions. As long as what he loved and cherished was defended and promoted, the consequences of the action used to achieve these aims were a necessary by-product. Hitchens should in one sense be praised for his consistency and honesty when it came to his principles. Conviction is something we no longer see from the majority of western politicians and it is a sad state of affairs. We instead have a meek political class who shift into whatever form they deem necessary to gain popular approval. If there is one sentiment that I take from all of Hitch’s work it is this: “Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way”.