Is Christopher Hitchens Forgivable?

Remembering the controversial writer for more than his opinions

Christopher Hitchens never really shied from speaking ill of the dead. So it wasn’t really a surprise when—amidst all the hagiography following his own demise Friday—more than a few anti-war writers decided to rhetorically spit on Hitch’s still-warm body, not giving up the grudges created by his vituperative advocacy of the Iraq War.

“Unforgivable!” Gawker screamed.

“Hitchens’ glee over violence, bloodshed, and perpetual war dominated the last decade of his life,” Glenn Greenwald charged at Salon.

“The popular American mass media will make room for even a booze-swilling atheist Trotskyite if he’s shilling for the latest war,” added Alex Pareene.

As someone who vehemently disagreed with Hitchens on Iraq, but was nonetheless saddened by his passing, I feel compelled to add a “Yes, but…”

Understand: The Iraq War was a disaster—both for Iraq and for the United States. George W. Bush was possibly the worst president in American history. We never should have invaded, and even though the war is technically over we’ll be paying for it for decades. Hitchens supported the war long past its sell-by date—a mark against him, yes, along with his sexism and bullying. (And we won’t even count his dogmatic atheism, the relentlessness of which left even confirmed agnostics like myself somewhat alienated)

But there are two points that must be made. First: The Iraq War was going to happen whether or not Hitchens pounded the drum for it. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bill Kristol and a whole crew of officials and pundits were itching for an excuse to invade; Hitchens’ support was useful, but it wasn’t critical. The tone of some recent criticism makes it sound as though he was linchpin of public support for the war, and that he bears Goebbelslike responsibility for the results. No. (Why does Hitchens get a pass and not Kristol, a magazine editor? Because Hitchens was a mere writer; Kristol, it can be argued, helped orchestrate the war.)

Second: Hitchens was more than the sum of his many or most egregious faults.

When the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a death sentence against Salman Rushdie for writing “The Satanic Verses,” Hitchens led the defense of his friend and (quite properly) criticized other writers and officials who were going squishy on the topic.

When the Bush Administration and its allies tried to pretend that the waterboarding of terrorists wasn’t torture, Hitchens demonstrated their untruthfulness with a clarity unmatched by few journalists. “If waterboarding does not constitute torture,” he wrote, “then there is no such thing as torture.”

And of course, it was Hitchens—more than any other journalist—who hounded Henry Kissinger for his crimes against democracy and humanity, and helped cement the former secretary of state’s reputation as the semi-pariah he so richly deserves to be. Even taking into account his evangelistic atheism, Hitchens’ overall body of work is—aside from its striking style and slashing wit—properly understood as antitotalitarian.

It’s that impulse—twisted, perhaps—that allows us to understand Hitchenspost-9/11 glee for the crusade againstIslamofascism.” The attacks on the Twin Towers sprang from roughly the same theology and impulses as the death sentence against his friend, Rushdie. Of course it looked like a battle that needed to be joined! And though it was wrong, stupid, and (above all) incorrect to link Iraq to 9/11, Saddam Hussein was a bloodthirsty, vicious tyrant. Hitchens believed George W. Bush and his regime were morally superior, even in Iraq. If you’re inclined to disagree, consider this: It didn’t take an invasion to remove Bush from power.

Unlike the cynical neo-imperialists who saw Iraq as a place to plant the American flag, then, Hitchens seemed to really think he was rooting against people who threatened our liberal, Western way of life. Unfortunately, that blinded him to the very real consequences of the fight he urged.

That can’t be forgotten. But despite his mistakes, I can’t help but feel melancholy at his passing. Christopher Hitchens was infuriating, arrogant, and essential. Beyond the rightness or wrongness of his stances, it feels very much like the culture is poorer without him. Many of his rivals even agree—especially, if bewilderingly, the Christians he so routinely mocked and attacked.

A California friend of mine spent Friday filling his Twitter feed with a list of Hitchens’ sins. It was a tough list to defend, I acknowledged: Perhaps I liked the idea of Hitchens more than the man himself?

“He was a character,” my friend responded, perhaps grudgingly. “An epic polemicist. A firebrand and a gadfly. We need more of those.” Amen.

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  • phal0101

    I’m always amazed at the gall and arrogance of writers such as this nitwit who feel they know so much about the performance of all of the American Presidents to be able to judge who was the worst of them.

  • I made my case in a column for Scripps Howard at the end of Bush’s presidency. I wrote:

    Consider this record: Hurricane Katrina. The financial meltdown. An explosive national debt. No WMDs in Iraq. Warrantless wiretapping. Torture. The list goes on and on. In most democracies, such a litany of failure and abuse would’ve led to the resignation of the chief executive long before now.

    No doubt, Bush was dealt a bad hand; few presidents have ever absorbed twin body blows the likes of Katrina and 9/11. But it was Bush who responded to Katrina with a blithe “heckuva job” backslap for his overwhelmed crony while New Orleans drowned. And it was Bush who responded to 9/11 with the unnecessary invasion of Iraq and thus allowed the resurgence of the Taliban and its allies on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Characteristically, the administration’s most notable “success” — the surge in Iraq — came only after Bush stubbornly stuck with a losing and deadly strategy for nearly five years.

    Great presidents make their names by rising to the challenge of hard times; Bush instead revealed himself to be callow, cynical and misguided.

    Three years later, that’s still true—in my judgment. Of course, I’m merely judging Bush by his results. Whaddya got besides name-calling, phal?

  • phal0101

    The point was how learned are you of all of the other presidents to feel that Bush was the worst one. Let history judge these guys.

  • Natalie Hope McDonald

    Whether you agree with him or not, he was also among the most brilliant intellectuals and essayists who had the power to make us think. Hitchens, if anyone, believed wholeheartedly in questioning authority. I suspect he would have been disappointed if we didn’t do the same of his own work.

  • Hitchens’ courageous support of the war in Iraq, in the face of exactly the type of vituperative criticism described by the author here, is one of the things that made me admire him most. His savaging of people with whom he disagreed, on the flimsiest of grounds, like Mother Theresa, is one of the things that made me question whether he was genuine or simply a talented writer who trafficked in affectation and bluster. On the whole, Hitchens could write, and he could make others think. The fact that he could anger both anti-war activists and social conservatives (all the while clinging to his belief in non-belief) is a tribute to his skills.