Writer and critic Christopher Hitchens is dead – as everyone who “opened” the internets this morning knows. I’ve seen a bunch of tributes that seem a bit ill-fitting though certainly kind and highlighting the many positives of his career. But wouldn’t a Hitchens-style tribute look at things a bit more honestly – and even be critical and contrarian to a fault? This is the man who wrote a scathing critique of Mother Theresa! So in honor of Hitchens, a few criticisms to go along with all of the positive things others have said:
1. It is hard for me to criticize someone too heavily for a life honestly chosen in which the person accepts all of the responsibility and costs of his/her behavior. But let’s face it, Hitchens was indulgent to a fault who may even have brought about his own premature annihilation through excessive drinking and smoking (assuming he had the squamous cell carcinoma form of esophageal cancer which is strongly linked with such indulgences – though to be fair his father also died of the disease and thus I assume genetics could be involved). Self-destructive behavior is hard to praise even if freely chosen.
2. Hitchens supported the Iraq War. Indeed, he was a cheerleader for liberal interventionism and spent a great deal of time post-9/11 defending what can only properly be called a form of imperialism. Although he was right to hammer some of the sloppy-thinking anti-interventionists, Hitchens displayed a bit too much casualness about the costs of breaking eggs to make an omelette in Iraq and elsewhere. This shouldn’t be surprising for someone who was a Socialist, Marxist, and Trotskyite – only disavowing the first late in his life. Christopher Hitchens - if he was talking about his opponents rather than his allies – might say something over the top about his active support for a war that led to the death of over 4,000 American troops and well over 100,000 Iraqi deaths (many of whom were innocent civilians) like: “Hitchens has blood on his hands.”
3. Hitchens had a dogmatic faith in atheism that was a bit too intellectually certain for any true skeptic or Socratic thinker. It was also illiberal as Damon Linker masterfully discussed here in the New Republic (and see here for more on the subject). As Linker put it in one passage: “the atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens is a brutally intolerant, proselytizing faith, out to rack up conversions.”
4. One can learn a lot about a man by knowing his heroes. Unfortunately for Hitch, they were often people like Che Guevara – whom he considered “a role model” of sorts and whom he cut a lot more slack (even into adulthood) than he did much better human beings like Mother Theresa. Intellectually, Marx and Trotsky were key. Enough said there?
5. Hitchens has been praised greatly for his erudite literary criticism. And yes, he wrote a lot of wonderful pieces in that realm. However, his batting average might have been only a bit over the Mendoza line. Even when relatively healthy, some of his Atlantic pieces were unreadable and suggested a need for serious editorial intervention. Moreover - and I suppose this is only a point about style – I disliked the personal nature of some of these pieces; I simply prefer reviews and opinion pieces to be more formal though editors more and more seem to want a personal touch and so we all cave a bit. Nonetheless, it seemed, like his drinking and smoking, to be a bit self-indulgent.