I first came across Christopher Hitchens back in the early 1990’s, when he was a regular panel guest on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” show. What’s interesting about my first impression of someone who eventually became a hero to me, was that he was nothing less than an obnoxious asshole. He was on one of his tirades about Bill Clinton, whom by all accounts he hated vehemently, and spared no words.
As a relative fan of the president of the time, I found myself wondering how anyone could take this loose-cannon limey seriously enough to get him on a national talk-show. Who the hell was this chain-smoking, ranting lunatic? I found myself motivated to find out more about this guy. I was going to find out what he was really all about.
This led me to start reading up on magazine articles and commentaries of his that were published in Vanity Fair, among others. The more I read of him, the more intrigued I became.
What fascinated me most about Hitchens’ writing was his absolute unwillingness to be typecast or categorized in any real way. In many of his commentaries, his view would be clearly left. In others, they would be ambiguous, conservative, and sometimes even contradictory to what he may have been defending or arguing in favor of just one issue before. At first glance, I thought that this was his way of showing off some slant of modern-day contrarianism.
To my surprise, however, the more I read, the more I realized how wrong I was about him. Whether or not you agreed with him, it was impossible not to concede a fundamental truth. That being his ability to argue his viewpoint and/or state his case was rather remarkable. While he always had his clearly defined if not passionate view about a particular topic or matter, he also ensured that he was educated enough to back it up. Even if a most furious debate ensued. Within a very short time of my original introduction to Hitchens, I was irretrievably hooked.
Over the last decade, particularly during my cruising years, I read several of Hitchens’ books. Including his acclaimed atheism manifesto, “God is not Great”, as well as his engaging biography of Thomas Jefferson. His take on Mother Teresa, and his expose of Henry Kissinger were groundbreaking literary journalism to say the least. His online column on Slate was never to be missed. His Vanity Fair features were always spot on and controversial. Surprisingly, watching Hitchens in action over the years, whether on TV or on numerous Youtube clips featuring his debating prowess really sealed my loyalty. His ability to debate anyone in most any setting, particularly regarding religion, became a de facto standard. His ability to cite facts, quotes and other anecdotal citations without any visible preparation, left even his most arrogant debating opponents stunned. In short, he was a powerhouse of genius on the dais.
Though there were MANY times I disagreed with Hitchens’ editorial views or conclusions. For one, his disturbingly bizarre support of the Bush administration and the Iraq war, left more than one of his fans wondering his relative sanity. Nonetheless, I also found myself learning from those questionable views. In a day and age where ideological dissent is considered tantamount to hostility, Hitchens retained the uncanny ability to disarm even the most ardent dissident enough to at least listen. The best part of watching him upset the proverbial ideological applecarts, was that he made no apologies, and always stuck to his guns. No matter the blowback or the fallout from his peers.
As someone meekly venturing into the writing world, I find myself in sincere gratitude to Christopher Hitchens and his life’s work. Most certainly, I have learned some incredibly important lessons. The first, being that honesty and courage are integral to the message. Second, it is incumbent on the writer to view all perspectives of the topic at hand before dispensing commentary. Also, you may need to accept, that your own view may not necessarily be the best to rely on. And finally, to understand that a writer’s true wisdom comes from continuously learning about the world and its people.
There is a particularly difficult thing I’ve had to come to accept about the death of my literary hero. There simply is no one else that can possibly fill his shoes. No one can possibly replace him in the role he has carved out for himself, as an accessible intellectual and a clear voice of reason.
The world will be a much different place without the commentary and revelations of Christopher Hitchens. It will most certainly be much duller.