Christopher Hitchens was about as likable as a growling groundhog. He was burned toast that you eat anyway because you don’t have the time or money to try again, and I suppose he would say that such mistakes would be better consumed with a quantity of scotch. He was intentionally abrasive. And like most adults, he was complicated–beloved by his friends, of whom there were many, but willing to lose friendships over dearly held principles. Among the stream of obituaries and remembrance pieces that came out upon Hitchens’s death yesterday–articles that have surely been waiting in the wings for their moment to be published–there was much reference to the controversies that he stoked. He took on Mother Teresa, the British royal family, the Vietnam War, anyone who believes in God, and many others. But it’s not enough to make mention of the television appearances to defend his stances on religion, the state, or someone’s cult of personality. Hitchens professionalized disagreeableness. Thank goodness for that.
When one looks at the last three decades in political argument in the United States, and the virtual stalemate of ideas and policies between liberals and conservatives, there was Hitch, sticking out of place. He was for the war in Iraq because he loathed despots like Saddam Hussein. He made atheism a topic of discussion in popular culture–sorry Bill Maher, Hitchens did it better–and then he stuck to his guns, even through his own cancer diagnosis. Cancer, people. It was so offensive to him to even suggest that he would find religion because of his illness that he remarked it would be a “hucksterish choice” to give up atheism this late in the game. He led with his intellect and finished with something at least 100 proof.
In dissecting public figures Hitchens became one himself, especially as his image was stoked at places like Vanity Fair. But more than his persona, his word craft and choice of targets to skewer took center stage. It was because a wall of resistance rose up against him that he became so well known; if writers tend to hide behind their computer screens, then defending oneself on television time and again gives no shield of defense. It says something about his strength of conviction that rather than avoid his detractors he would engage them.
Hitchens was a man of privilege and education who took such entitlements to countries around the world that were “less fortunate than his own,” and in so doing, he re-etched those lines of distinction. But he came back and told the stories of uprisings, systemic injustices, the consequences of dictators, and pressured fellow entitled people to notice. He was not made from the fabric of the 24-hour news cycle; he was not a polished talking head with bleached teeth, nor was he a pontificator, and looking back now, it seems that indeed, he was not caught dead making a reductive argument. Hitchens kept it principled.
We needed him, the smoker, the drinker, the person who didn’t care what instrument was on hand to record his latest article, be it laptop, typewriter, or pencil. More than ever, with a Democratic President ready to sign away habeus corpus and take the teeth out of the First Amendment under the guise of fighting terrorism, we need loud, unlikable dissenters.
And we just lost a notable one.