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If you read his stuff, as many have noted, you felt you knew him. I think this is because there was a big, clear intellect there to know, a real, complete person. He didn’t curry favor with tribe mates, didn’t put lipstick on the pig of his own persona. He was his own tribe; he represented the world he saw unflinchingly, his obvious passion focused by his clear eye. He “spoke truth to power” – a hackneyed phrase he almost certainly never would have used – but this was rescued from mere “raging against the machine” – another one – by his unique wit and perception; he was always entertaining, speaking or writing, and he always left you with a better view of things.
And you didn’t have to agree with him, as many more have noted, to enjoy and admire what he wrote. Indeed, in most cases if you merely enjoyed the English language, that was probably enough. He exemplified the intertwined nature of language and thought. Much like the good whiskey he, unfortunately, loved too well, his writing was bracing and complex; you could like it or loathe it, but you could not ignore it. Even where my responses to his conclusions were negative and visceral, most notably regarding his support of Bush and his advocacy for Bush’s Iraq war, the rationality of his journey to those conclusions inspired my admiration.
When you were able to take his journey with some emotional neutrality, the destination could literally give you a different view. Before reading his The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, I accepted the pop culture image of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu without thought or evidence: she was the world’s archetype of virtue and selflessness. Afterwards, I saw her indelibly as an opportunistic, deceptive little Albanian woman who funded her creepy and malignant poverty-is-beautiful view of the world by using the supernaturalism and cynicism, and the attendant guilt, of the rich and famous, and who was in turn used by them for their own, sometimes malignant, ends. Even here, when piercing this Catholic veil of hypocrisy and righteousness and slogging through this mush of cultural ignorance, Hitchens’ wit and good humor did not leave him. When questioned about the sexual double entendre of the title, he said, “It was either that or Sacred Cow, and I thought Sacred Cow would be in bad taste.”*
This is, I think, the main reason for my feeling of loss today: he was a rational man, an intellectual person; he personified the quality that defines our humanity. This intellect is what distinguishes us from the other life forms on our planet, his presence seemed to say; this is who we are.
Had he been conscious at the time, he would have appreciated the desperate spectacle of last night’s Republican debate, in the dark hours just before his death, with its featured front-running “intellectual” Newt Gingrich, the professor, “the smartest guy on the stage.” That such a shallow, ignorant, cynical little man impresses half the electorate as “a big thinker” would surely have fired up the Hitchens word processor. Hitchens, the newly-minted American citizen, understood the factual basis of American exceptionalism in ways that Gingrich evidently cannot. Last night Gingrich, to the appreciative roars of the Republican crowd, supported his position that judges should be subpoenaed and removed for “wrong” (i.e., ideologically unpopular) decisions by citing the 9th Circuit’s Newdow holding that “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment. Whether such Gingrichian gibberish results from pure cynicism or historical ignorance by this “historian” or is a symptom of his recent conversion to Catholicism, or is a mash-up of all three, today we all suffer from the absence of Hitchens’ response to it.
I’m supposed to be writing a piece on Newt, but this sudden and grievous loss in the human family intervened and demands much more than I am able to give it. My defaults here arise from my difficulty typing with a fractured left clavicle and ribs, the result of last week’s mountain bike crash. And this is the sort of whine we did not hear from Christopher Hitchens during those months while esophageal cancer was slowly/quickly killing him.
We will, unfortunately, miss him more in the coming years and I will try to remember the intellectual discipline and rigor in his approach to life at least each December 15.
ARC – 12/16/11