That Clever Bastard: Why You Should Read Christopher Hitchens

That Clever Bastard: Why You Should Read Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens is in my mind 'that clever bastard'. He backed causes I despised and yet, when I read his arguments, I find myself challenged

I’m a sucker for a good rhetorician, which is partly why I deeply admire Christopher Hitchens. You need only dip into his formidable bibliography to find a man with a tremendous grasp of language. While recovering from a mental breakdown last year, I read Hitchens “Mortality”. It was the first book I found which considered the author’s own death with humour, insight and humanity. In my mind, when Hitchens passed away in 2011, we lost one of the two greatest orators in the English language; the other was Tony Benn in 2014.

With that in minds, a bookshelf near my desk now houses many volumes by Hitchens and Benn, a reminder of men who always remind us of the humanity at the core of politics. This causes confusion among my leftist friends, but I would argue that leftists should read and enjoy Christopher Hitchens’ work.

Hitchens is frequently labelled as a ‘neo-conservative‘ – a result of the name-calling all sides of the political spectrum revert to when someone does something unorthodox.

In my view, Hitchens was nothing of the sort. A former Marxist, he always maintained his leftist credentials and took a dialectical, materialist view on most political matters. His supposed neo-conservatism followed his support for the 2003 war in Iraq.

Hitchens’ support for the war stemmed in part from his antipathy to Saddam Hussein. Hitchens had long called for the removal of Hussein as a way to support Kurdish self-determination (as Hussein repressed Iraq’s Kurds with infamous brutality). Hitchens never retracted any of his extensive writings supporting the war. One wonders what he would make of the situation now following the rise of Daesh, but to give Hitchens due credit, his thoughtful arguments and nuanced rationale still stand up: I say that as someone who considers the Iraq War one of the greatest mistakes of the last generation.

There’s an excellent clip of Hitchens debating Jon Stewart on the Daily Show which shows off some of his arguments on the subject. He may have been wrong, but his reasoned perspective is (to my mind) far more valid than the jingoistic, imperialist nonsense then peddled by the Bush/Blair administrations.

Hitchens was a great example of never shying away from reasoned principles despite the unpopularity they brought him. The best example of this is his reaction to Salman Rushdie’s well-deserved knighthood in 2007.

Rushdie had feared for his life since 1989, when a fatwa was issued against him by Ayatollah Khomeini for writing ‘The Satanic Verses’. Rushdie’s 2007 knighthood for services to literature sparked protests and a reaffirmation of Khomeini’s fatwa. Some British public figures queued up to condemn the knighthood, effectively blaming Rushdie for the violence. Conservative MP Stewart Jackson went so far as to say that Rushdie might even cause Britain to lose the ‘war on terror’, “gratuitously offending our allies in the fight against terror.” I recall watching discussion of this on Question Time, where Baroness Shirley Williams in particular emphasised offence caused by the Satanic Verses. Of the panellists, only Hitchens made the point that what the stakes of this argument were in essence simple.

People like Khomeini wanted Rushdie, a British Citizen, dead.

He went onto to say:

“If you say that Muslims are being offended by this, and you lump them all together, you immediately grant that they are in fact represented by the most extreme, homicidal, fanatical, illiterate, intolerant people who not only haven’t read this book but couldn’t read it – and that’s an insult to Islam.”

I remember watching the discussion, and being struck by the nuance of this analysis. While others lined up to condemn Rushdie, Hitchens stood firm and reminded us of the essential truth that this wasn’t just a matter of political theory but life and death.

For someone who attacked injustice wherever he saw it, Hitchens did so with a certain eloquence and consideration, especially when his targets were those who had been overlooked by other commentators. His excellent excoriation of Mother Teresa serves as a timely reminder of the darkness at the core of the Catholic Church, no matter how admired its spokespeople might be. His book on Bill Clinton is one of the best pieces of political analysis I’ve yet read, and it informs my own deep suspicion of Hillary’s presidential run.

This is not to say that Hitchens did not, occasionally, come up with nonsense.

Most notable to my mind is his Vanity Fair article “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Whilst perhaps intended to be tongue in cheek, the article really does buy into a kind of baseless essentialist gender politics, and I can tell you as a PhD Gender Studies student that this really doesn’t suffice.

Perhaps suspicion of Hitchens can be linked to the left’s suspicion of liberalism in general. Ironically, liberalism is approached by radicals in the same way as radicalism is approached by liberals: a nice idea in theory which doesn’t work in practise. Liberalism is in my view something of a hollow philosophy, prioritising free speech, human rights and freedom of expression (all of which are tremendously important) whilst assuming that we all live on a level playing field with equal access to these rights.

In current society, the cruel reality is that some voices will always be subaltern. Leftists tend to baulk at these idealistic liberal rights when socio-economic justice isn’t also on the table. Perhaps one day we’ll reconcile these two sides as Hitchens would not have been afraid of doing.

Ultimately, Hitchens is in my mind ‘that clever bastard’. He backed causes I despised and yet, when I read his arguments, I find myself challenged. My knee-jerk response to lump him in with the bigots and imperialists he often (inadvertently) shared a platform with never came to much. The point of this is that Hitchens earned his place on my bookshelf and in my esteem by using his prose and voice to remind us that the core of every political event is a collection of tiny, fragile human beings.

Chris Waugh
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