Reflections on the life of Christopher Hitchens

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A new book will shortly be released slating the late author and polemic Christopher Hitchens, which accuses him of effectively becoming a neoconservative in the decade before his death in December 2011. As a renowned socialist and former Trotskyist, this is potentially a massive blow to his reputation, and potentially undermines everything he ever argued for. If only it were true.

Before I sally forth, indulge me in a little reminiscing. I am a Hitch lover. I will not lie, I admire him greatly, and I feel that his abilities are too often ignored. Hitch was one of the great wordsmiths of his time. His writing had beauty, style, subtlety, humour and, of course, a lefty agenda. Polemic and witticist in equal parts, being dissed by the Hitch was hardly being ‘savaged by a dead sheep’. It was more like having your pants pulled down in front of an audience of several hundred, followed by being pushed out of a sixth floor window.

To his friends he was loyal, funny, and great company (he could drink enough to, in his own words, “kill or stun the average mule”). To his enemies (in this case George Galloway, MP, friend of Saddam Hussein and well-known Ba’athist apologist) he was a “drink-sodden, ex-Trotskyist popinjay”. Hitch responded, saying this was only partly correct: "He says that I am an ex-Trotskyist (true), a 'popinjay' (true enough, since the word's original Webster’s definition is a target for arrows and shots), and that I cannot hold a drink (here I must protest)."

Despite smoking Rothmans cigarettes like an Oxford-educated chimney and drinking Johnny Walker “like a Hemingway character: continually, and to no apparent effect,” Hitch could always hold his own. His death a little over a year ago means that he no longer can, with the unlikely result that I, though not worthy, must take up the flag of Hitch and return fire.

The case against Christopher (not Chris, never, ever Chris) is that he is a lefty apostate, betraying his background by supporting the Iraq war and defending George Bush on the subject. The wannabe firebrands, Richard Seymour among them, believe that they corner him with this accusation, and with the one that he became a neocon, or, as Seymour wrote, a “living and ignominious satire upon himself.” This claim, along with the one that he became a "neoconservative Marxist" (not a phrase I am familiar with, and additionally something of a contradiction), appears to be entirely based on the fact that he was "an advocate of America's invasion of Iraq filled with passionate intensity." The heart of any defence of Hitch should be that this point is where the similarity ends. Hitch defended the invasion on the grounds of humanitarian intervention for the Kurds, a people for whom he felt concerned (Saddam Hussein gassed tens, if not hundreds of thousands of them) and, arguably, a position in line with the values of socialism.

On all other matters, Hitch was no fan of Bush, let’s get that clear. As with so many politicians, foreign policy was a completely different policy environment, and did not necessarily reflect Bush’s neocon bible-bashing born again ideology, something up with which Hitch would not put. As to the man himself, Hitch didn’t much like him either, saying “[George W. Bush] is lucky to be governor of Texas. He is unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things.”

Let’s not be contrarian purely for the sake of proving a dead man wrong (and with a cynical ploy to sell books). Let’s remember what Hitch valued, and what he triumphed at. His attacks on Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa are lauded widely, and his wisdom loved across the Anglophone world. I leave you, future readers of “Unhitched” and closet Bollinger Bolsheviks, with a thought. Is not the contrarian to be praised for breaking the shadowy consensus in social norms and opinions, and for doing battle with the twin spectres of ignorance and stupidity? I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore. Life goes on. We can enjoy all its trendy treasures and pleasures.

Although, on that point, it is important to remember, as Christopher put it: “The four most overrated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics.”

What do you think about the work of Christopher Hitchens? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

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