Hitchens Is Not Great

The love conservatives are giving Hitchens is baffling. As you may have heard, columnist, author, and professional firebrand Christopher Hitchens died two days ago at the age of 62 of esophagal cancer. His many friends and journalistic acquaintances have lost no time in exalting his memory. Dartmouth’s own Peter Robinson over at Ricochet writes of his hope that Hitchens anti-theism will be proven wrong when he has the pleasant surprise of meeting God face to face.

I do not share this enthusiasm for the irascible Englishman. I, of course, never met Hitchens and thus had no chance to be charmed by him or to experience his friendship as so many others apparently did. As such, I can only analyze him in the context of his writing, his thousands of pages of monologue to the world at large.

While standard decorum dictates that one not speak ill of the recently deceased, I can respect Hitchens enough to know that he would hate such a gesture. The man who called Ronald Reagan “a cruel and stupid lizard” two days after his death would have little patience for mincing words merely to be nice. Therefore, I will not.

The world would be better if Christopher Hitchens had never written a word.

Doubtless, a great many in the journalistic set would profoundly disagree, or at least call me uncharitable. Hitchens, it is often repeated, was an immensely talented writer, spectacularly well-read and possessed a nearly Buckleyan vocabulary. His wit and erudition made him a pleasure to read at his best and made him formidable in public debates. None of this can be denied. The wiser sort, however, might point out that skill with a pen is a just that, a skill, and is only worthy of praise when used for just, moral, or otherwise worthy ends. In this task, Hitchens routinely and predictably failed. 









Those eulogizing Hitchens, at least on the right, have typically focused their praise on whatever part of his vast body of work they happen to agree with (conservatives can look to his support for the Iraq War or his acquired patriotism for America), while papering over their disagreements by choosing to emphasize his personal friendliness or his strident intellectual honesty. One may be forgiven for being unimpressed. Friendliness in daily life to those one disagrees with is an accomplishment made by billions of people every day without much fanfare, and intellectual honesty is not an accomplishment for an opinion writer, but rather a basic requirement. That these are emphasized over any of Hitchens’s particular ideas is telling.

When one bothers to skip past personal anecdotes and generalizations and instead bothers to read what Hitchens has to say, it becomes harder to see what all the fuss is about. First of all, Hitchens is remarkably hateful as a writer. For all his vocabulary, he may use the word “stupid” to describe his adversaries more than any writer in English, and his willingness to allude to the alleged fascism of anybody he disliked could serve as the Platonic form of absurd political hyperbole. Pointing out an error was never enough, as Hitchens typically would follow it up with simple character assassination. Rick Warren is a “half-witted dupe” and “cowardly liar,” Benedict XVI is a “grisly little man” who deliberately facilitated the molestation of children simply to be a sadistic control freak, and Henry Kissinger can be proven a “vile creature” by virtue of a single private statement, context be damned. His routine exaggerations and name-calling could perhaps be excused as attempts at wit, but coupled with calls for people to be arrested or at least exiled from public life, they were also irresponsible.

More damaging, though, is that in addition to his hatefulness Hitchens was often a quite superficial writer. His exceptional literacy and biting wit could dazzle and several obituaries have commented on his apparent knowledge about nearly everything. This facade could be well-maintained if the reader was largely ignorant of Hitchens’s subject. Once he ventured into a philosophical, religious, or historical topic one had intimate knowledge of, the edifice would crumble. To use just one example, Hitchens has exploited the subject of the Crusades to make numerous potshots at Christianity, and yet he relies on Steven Runciman’s biased and woefully outdated History of the Crusades (in this article he refers to it as the “best source” right after a gross factual error) to present a caricature of the period that any historian could shoot apart in seconds. Perhaps it is merely an unlucky coincidence that Hitchens is most prone to error on subjects I happen to be intimately familiar with, but I find this possibility unconvincing.

If many of these criticisms seem to involve religious issues, it is hardly surprising. Hitchens’s undying hatred for organized religion was his most salient intellectual trait, and was the center of countless essays as well as his best-known book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. While the toxicity of religion is up for debate, it is hard to deny that anti-religion poisoned Christopher Hitchens. God is Not Great is a destructive book, in which Hitchens exploits his ability to construct readable sentences to disguise gross generalizations and faulty logic. It should distress believers like myself that the work has created new atheists, while to the extent it has encouraged a certain style of argument it should distress all mankind. Hitchens’s hatred of religion even jeopardized his admirable traits. For a man with a “genuine, generous, longstanding hatred of oppression” as George Scialabba put it, he had a remarkably easy time admiring Lenin for creating a “secular Russia,” while the millions killed and oppressed to achieve secularization scarcely merit a mention. 

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for Christopher Hitchens is that he was not what he cavalierly accused so many others of being. He was not a liar, a fraud, a coward, a fascist, or a war criminal. He was, however, a tragic case of wasted potential, of an adept mind polluted by bile and arrogance.