A Very, Very Fond Farewell
As everyone everywhere knows by now Christopher Hitchens passed away last night, finally succumbing to the oesophageal cancer he has been battling with this past year. I have known this press release would be coming since I first read about his diagnosis, of course. But somehow that doesn’t take away the slap-in-the-face sting I felt when I first read about it on The Dish this morning.
The eulogies will be coming all day. I expect that most of them, at least from those like myself that never had the opportunity to meet Hitchens, will follow a similar outline: “I rarely agreed with Hitchens; he was of course very wrong in his thoughts. But he was an honest and admirable adversary and a fine writer and essayist, and so it is with heavy heart…” And that is all well and good, and certainly no more of less than such a gadfly and curmudgeon might expect.
For me, however, Hitchens was more than a brilliant, well-read writer. For me, as a person who rejected religion, Hitchens was my champion. He was the person who gave a public voice – a witty, sharp-tongued and salty voice – to sentiments I had for years wanted to say myself but held back for fear of being ostracized. He was the man willing to fearlessly take it on the chin – repeatedly – so that those of us in the mainstream rat race didn’t have to.
Though I never, ever met Christopher Hitchens in person, I count him as a personal hero.
Even though I sometimes feel like my role here at the League is to be a “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” champion, this type of approach feels very un-Hitch-like. So, on a day when the blogoshere will collectively look to sing a hearty kumbaya, forgive me as I go a different and more personal route to celebrate this man I so admired.
Here, then, is what Christopher Hitchens meant to me:
Being a life-long non-believer, I had well learned over time the importance of never publicly giving voice to my inability to grasp the faith that those around me achieved so effortlessly. One of the things I learned in High School is that when the faithful learn you are not among the flock, everything you do is seen through a prism that assumes your lack of morality. You might have been part of a group that shared a beer after a Friday night football game, for example. But while the others agreed that having a taste of the forbidden was just a part of their own youthful spirit, it was agreed your imbibing was a direct result of having no system to tell you to abstain. As a young adult, I smiled outwardly as friends – friends who knew about my lack of faith – would nonchalantly explain to me why it was important that those who shared my (lack of) beliefs never be allowed to have political power, or be in charge of others in the workplace, or be allowed to teach children. (Even today here at the League, I have to periodically respond to other front-pagers and sub-bloggers who calmly explain to me that my lack of faith is a result of either my immoral nihilism, or my lack of intellectual capacity, or both. Worse, when I suggest to these writers that I find these declarations slightly offensive, they react with honest and well-intentioned confusion. “But, you’re like an atheist or agnostic, right? Don’t you already know this about yourself? I thought everybody knew this about you guys. It’s nothing personal; this inferiority is just a logistical fact – no offense meant!”)
And then in the midst of this lifetime of just smiling and gritting my teeth, along came Christopher Hitchens.
He was unapologetic about his atheism, and did not suffer fools lightly. When those that claimed moral and intellectual superiority challenged him to public debate, he would calmly and quietly eviscerate them. And I found myself cheering from the sidelines – at first quietly to myself, and later loudly and to the world in general.
My favorite quote from Hitchens is from a debate he had with talk-radio host Dennis Prager, which he retells in his book God Is Not Great. (For those not familiar with Prager, he is the same “conservative” radio host that would later gain notoriety by marshaling forces trying to stop Keith Ellison – a Muslim – from swearing on a Quran instead of a Bible after being duly elected to the US House of Representatives. So admittedly we’re not exactly talking about an intellectual fair fight here, but still…) In this exchange, Prager challenges Hitchens to publicly answer a “straight yes or no question,” and so… well actually, Hitchens tells it better than I do:
I was to imagine myself in a strange city as the evening was coming on. Toward me I was to imagine that I saw a large group of men approaching. Now – would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting? As the reader will see, this is not a question to which a yes/no answer can be given. But I was able to answer as if it were not hypothetical. “Just to stay within the letter ‘B,’ I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad. In each case I can say absolutely, and can give my reasons, why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.”
Such a small and quick rebuttal. But for those of us that Hitch championed that night, it spoke volumes. It quickly shown light on both the intellectual folly of casually dismissing the ethics of those without faith, and the intellectual folly of casually assuming good intentions toward those with it. All in just a sentence or two. I remember feeling empowered when I first read this story.
Mind you, there was much that I felt Hitchens got wrong as he served as my champion. As I have said before here, I have always believed that his outright hostility toward religion was misplaced. Where Hitchens believed that religion itself was the root cause of dangerous tribalism, I am of the belief that it is merely one vehicle in which the worst parts of tribalism can operate. Moreover, I have been witness to the beauty and grace that religious observance can bestow upon the faithful, and so choose to recognize both sides of that coin. Still, it was always hard not to cheer for Hitchens – even when I thought he had run the train a bit off the rails. I use this next metaphor for it’s symbolism rather than equivalency, but I often think my feelings toward Hitchens’ anti-religious rantings similar to what my feelings toward Malcolm X would have been were I a moderate black man circa 1960. Which is to say, even though I didn’t agree with everything he said to or about his opponents, it pleased me to no end that after all this time someone was saying it.
I will say right up front that this next thought is probably neither fair nor accurate. Nonetheless, I confess that in the past when I have heard people deride Hitchens as “one of the New Atheists,” (a phrase I always note is said with scorn), there is this tiny, evil voice in my head that translates “New Atheists” to “Atheists that won’t just lie down and take it like we want them to.” As I said, I know it’s an unfair voice – but there you have it. And acknowledging this thought in me makes me recognize Hitchens’s ultimate shortcomings as a personal hero:
Sometimes when I think of Hitchens, I can hear my dominant voice reminding me that there is a way to engage in dialogue that persuades our opponents, or at the very least creates better understanding. I don’t know that Hitchens was ever any good at all at that type of engagement. And truth be told, that is actually the type of engagement that I most value. Because of this, I find myself paradoxically wishing he was more like I might been had I possessed his courage and intellect, while at the same time thanking the God neither of us believed in that he was exactly who he was.
And I think this is exactly the right kind of hero-worship to have for Hitchens. One that acknowledges his strengths and shortcoming alike; one that embraces both the inspiration he fostered, along with a healthy dose of doubt about that very inspiration. Somehow these contradictions seem very Christopher Hitchens indeed.
When I first heard about the oesophageal cancer I had the thought of writing to Hitchens, to thank him for the positive impact his work has had on my life. I didn’t, sadly; nor did I do it any of the subsequent times the same idea occurred to me. And the fact that neither of us subscribed to the belief that he might look down and read this post in his transcended state makes me sorry to have have missed the chance to tell him. Still, I find that the sentiment must be said:
Thank you, Christopher Hitchens. For everything. I hope that if we were wrong and there is a God passing judgement on the living, that he grades on honesty, courage and the best parts of the human spirit; if this is the case, your eternity will surely be a thing to envy.
You will be sorely missed.