The Ambiguous Legacy of Christopher Hitchens
If you haven’t read Tod’s rumination on what Christopher Hitchens meant to him and how he will be remembered, I recommend you do so now. As is always the case with Tod’s front-page work, it’s thoughtful, honest, and very human. I think it can be fairly said that Tod is one of hundreds and thousands — maybe even millions — who looked up to the recently departed polemicist for his fearless and unapologetic secular supremacism; and that no journalist could ever dream of a greater honor than to be so much to so many as that.
I’ll always respect Hitchens for his righteous crusade against the person and reputation of Henry Kissinger; but I came to drift away from a prior enthusiasm for his brand of atheism, ultimately finding myself in broad agreement with Chris Hedges’ critique (one that I imagine Tod, too, would find significantly, if not entirely, persuasive) of the British ex-pat’s militancy, I’ll always respect not only much of what Hitchens said, but when and where he chose to say it. God Is Not Great was released in the first half of 2007, when the high-tide of the American Christian Right, 2004’s reelection of George W. Bush, was more than two years gone in the rear-view mirror. So it’s not quite the case that Hitchens unleashed his primal scream at the very moment when it was most likely to shatter a silent voting booth prayer for some tens of millions of Americans.
But the book was not an introduction so much as a culmination of the man’s thoughts on organized religion, thoughts that he was no less hesitant to share when talk of America as “Jesusland” was prevalent. (I should note, of course, that for reasons much different than those animating Bush’s fundamentalist supporters, Hitchens himself was a vocal supporter of the 43rd President.) As Tod’s post makes clear, Hitchens represented something not unlike an intellectual light house for many people, on the Left and the Right, who increasingly felt themselves marginalized and unwanted in America’s mainstream culture.
Whether or not it’s true that Hitchens was really so alone in his contrarian secularism is debatable — but in this context it’s not especially important. This is how many people felt, and in estimating his legacy for his admirers, that’s all that matters.
But if only that were his only legacy! If only it didn’t feel so wrong to let the memory of the man rest there, as a prickly but principled gadfly who asked that people think for themselves and maybe, in the process, treat one another with a little more decency. If only. Were that the case, I’d not feel so compelled to add to the record that other indelible mark of Hitchens’ legacy over the past 10 years, when his fame and infamy grew to their largest proportions: his relentless, maximalist, remorseless, and often shameless cheerleading for the Iraq War.
This ground had been well-trod in the nearly 9 years encompassing the war and Hitchens’ final years — but, inevitably, the ugliness and the meanness of this chapter of the man’s life has gone largely ignored in the hours following his expiration. Indeed, there’s a kind of mystical synergy between the Iraq War ending — officially, at least and for whatever that’s worth — and Hitchens dying because, in both cases, it appears that many elements of polite society would rather not speak too much about a misadventure that, until only recently, was perhaps the defining fault line of 21st century Western politics.
Corey Robin, Glenn Greenwald, and John Cook have all done thorough and skillful enough jobs in reminding the world of Hitchens’ foray into jingoism and bloodlust that I don’t think that, on this score, I’ve much to add. I’ll simply quote my favorite paragraph between the three pieces:
In the months and years since Hitchens publicly proclaimed his pride in the invasion of Iraq for Murdoch’s ideological crib-sheet, 78,708 Iraqi civilians and 2,548 U.S. troops have been killed. He did immense good in his life, and unforgivable harm.
And wonder again at the sad mystery of the human being.