Christopher Hitchens, who had been suffering from esophageal cancer for over a year, has died. I think I first came across his work around 1990, at the time his book Blood, Class, and Nostalgia appeared. (My copy is still around here somewhere.) I recall seeing him on television -- grilling some George H. W. Bush administration official, perhaps -- and being very impressed by his forceful and formidable intelligence. I have always been conservative and have usually disagreed with him, but I followed his work with interest from that point on, long before he started to please right-wingers with his well-argued criticisms of the Clintons and support for the Iraq war. He was almost always smart, funny, and interesting even when he was wrong.
Except on religion, where he was a complete bore and an insufferable hack. There is no use sugar-coating that fact now that he is gone, and Hitchens was not in any event a fan of the polite obituary. Religion is the last subject about which to have a tin ear or a closed mind, and Hitchens had both. Some Catholics seem to have gotten it into their heads over the last year that he might convert -- as if someone who is overtly so very hostile to Catholicism simply must be compensating for a secret longing for it, and is sure to be moved by the prospect of imminent death to let his inhibitions fall away. This struck me as romantic fantasy, born of too steady a diet of happy “crossing the Tiber” stories. Sometimes a man has mixed feelings about you, but will accentuate the negative, loath as he is to acknowledge the merits of an adversary. And sometimes he just hates your guts, and that’s that. As far as I know, Hitchens was no closer on his deathbed to becoming the next Malcolm Muggeridge than he had been when penning his decidedly un-Muggeridgean book about Mother Teresa. I very much hope I am wrong.
The Hitchens jokes in The Last Superstition are the only ones with any affection behind them -- well, some of them have it, anyway. (No one who knows me or my work could think I regard a crack about one’s affection for the sauce as a serious insult. Which makes it ironic that the one joke my publisher demanded I remove was a certain jibe about Hitchens’ boozing.) Of the four horsemen of the New Atheism, Hitchens was the only one I found likable, and the only one possessed of a modicum of wisdom about the human condition, or at least as much wisdom about the human condition as one can have while remaining essentially a man of the Left. While there was rather too obviously something of the champagne socialist about him, I do not doubt that he had real concern for real human beings -- rather than merely for grotesque abstractions like “the working class” or “humanity” -- and that he showed real moral and even physical courage in defense of what he sincerely took to be the best interests of real human beings. But love for one’s fellow man, however genuine, is only the second greatest commandment.
May God comfort his family, and may God have mercy on his soul.