Mad awake about Christopher Hitchens

It has been said that any profile of Christopher Hitchens contains the

It has been said that any profile of Christopher Hitchens contains the “obligatory picture of him smoking with his shirt off,” a practice to which I’ve adhered. (Source: Photo from Smile Politely blog post by Andrew Voris; quote from a comment by Oh Brother.)

Wander randomly around the Internet—especially at YouTube—and you’ll soon bump into Christopher Hitchens. Or maybe a blog called Random Wander, which spells Internet with a lowercase i (as will the whole world, I predict, probably sooner than later, as happened with nylon, jacuzzi, bubble wrap, etc.). I recall a news report when Hitchens died a few years ago. I recognized both his name and his voice, and heard the newscaster call him a “well-known contrarian.” At the time my understanding of the word contrarian did not include any sense of intellectual heft; I imagined a scowly group of individuals such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who currently does not have a book on the New York Times bestseller list. Cruz’s most notable act of contrarianism—although not his only one—is to deny climate change (as do the majority of his fellow Republicans in Congress). Speaking of the Times, Hitchens’ obituary therein promoted him from a lowly contrarian to an exalted polemicist. I didn’t read this obituary, though, until the events of the other evening, which I will presently describe. At the time of his death, I somehow had managed for the whole of my life—nearly as long as his—to avoid almost all available knowledge about Christopher Hitchens, and on the occasion of his death learned only that he was known as a contrarian. Incidentally (and inaccurately, it seems), in addition to its dictionary definition, the word contrarian for me also connoted a lightweight sense such as intimated by the word gadabout. Had I known that Hitchens was also considered a polemicist, I may have made a point to find out more about him—or at least to look up the meaning of the word polemicist.

A group of scowly contrarians, consisting only of Ted Cruz, who insists on denying the existence of human-made climate change together with almost all of his fellow party members. Cruz is also known for not having a book on the New York Times bestseller list.

A group of scowly contrarians, consisting only of Ted Cruz, who insists on denying the existence of human-made climate change together with most of his fellow party members. Cruz is also known for not having a book on the New York Times bestseller list. Although certainly a lightweight, he may or may not be a gadabout, a characteristic not included in the dictionary definition of contrarian.

My unfortunate procession of sustained ignorance about Christopher Hitchens can be summed up by noting that I knew little about him at his death in 2011 and continued to know little about him afterward. I plead guilty to any charge that this blind spot signals my own lack of intellectual heft, but would quickly add that I’ve never claimed to have any. And so it was with a blithe, sketchy image of Hitchens as a contrarian gadabout—albeit one with a deep voice and erudite-sounding accent—that I clicked on a YouTube link to this: what appeared to be a press conference around and about 9/11.

It was electrifying. For several hours afterward, I made a hasty occupation of immersing myself in Christopher Hitchens, an activity that proceeded in a flurry of browser tabs. Anyone reading this can do likewise, so there’s little point in a biographical recap. I then tried to sleep. No luck. I was mad awake.

As with any controversial public figure, Hitchens has proponents and detractors, about whom until the other night I knew almost nothing. One would think, after listening to him for a time, that his intellect at least would be unassailable, if not the common character deficits he shared with most ordinary human beings. Perhaps appropriately for Hitchens, even his intellect was open to debate, as debate—at least based on my furious research—appeared to be one of his favorite pastimes, along with smoking and drinking. Wrote Alexander Cockburn in December 2011: “I found the Hitchens cult of recent years entirely mystifying.” Famously atheistic, Hitchens might have entertained a pleasant twinge of revenge when Cockburn ceased to exist 7 months later (likewise earning a nice Times obit)—though of course if Hitchens was correct about the absence of a supreme being, both he and Cockburn at that point ceased to exist. Further evidence of the controversy fulminated by Hitchens during his lifetime: The version history of his Wikipedia bio comprises hundreds of pages and thousands of notations. Although not obsessed enough with the subject of Hitchens to conduct a detailed analysis, I’m willing to bet that a significant percentage of these notations represent the work of trolls and countertrolls, hoping to scratch their tiny agendas into the digital history of Hitchens’ existence. For them, it truly is an internet with a lowercase i.

My point, I suppose, is that Hitchens’ contributions are worth a review—even a quick one. Listen first to his reading of an excerpt from his book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” There’s also an hour-long video from Google Talks, if you have the time.

Like me, you may find that Hitchens has plenty of intellectual heft; that he is in fact intellectually hefty. And a particularly swell polemicist. Anyone who disagrees is a lightweight gadabout.

KJC dingbat-thumbnail

Postscript 21 Sept 2016: Here’s a link to a review of Larry Taunton’s book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, which appears to demonstrate a betrayal of Hitchens’ legacy.

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About Keith Croes

Nice to meet you. Thanks for dropping by.

Posted on July 16, 2015, in Atheism, Biographical, Criticism, culture, Debate, Philosophy, Polemics, Politics, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. An excerpt from Hitchens’ commentary on Hillary Clinton is currently making the rounds in Bernie Sanders groups on Facebook. Here’s a link: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10208194253686372&set=gm.1706964629575190&type=3&theater

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  2. The link to the press conference I refer to in this post is no longer available, and I haven’t been able to find another source. There is another press conference where similar issues are raised, and here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKLnM2pjkX8

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