Christopher Hitchens: A political enigma

Someone who constantly drinks hard liquor to bear the company of others is likely to be a bore, and a boor.

 Christopher Hitchens continued to support the invasion of Iraq up until his death on December 15, 2011 [EPA]

I knew Christopher Hitchens casually, envied his rhetorical fluency, abhorred his interventionist cheerleading, and was offended by his arrogantly dismissive manner toward those he deemed his inferiors in debate or discussion, which included most of the human race. Perhaps, his sociopathic arrogance is epitomised by the kind of explanation he often gave of why he was such an unrepentant heavy drinker, as for instance, “…because it makes other people less boring. I have a great terror of being bored”. I confess that someone who needs constantly to drink hard liquor to bear the company of others is likely to be a bore, and certain to be a boor! Presumably as result of this profligate lifestyle, Hitchens graduated from Oxford with rather paltry third class honours. If some non-academic institution of appraisal were available to offset Hitchens’ undeniable gifts of the mind with his deficiencies of character and heart, the Oxford grade would seem deserved even if we could have repackaged Hitchens as a dutiful student living up to his intellectual potential.

I was particularly appalled one time when we were on a panel together by the way he insulted a member of the audience for putting a question awkwardly. There was something so chilling about this reversion to the demeaning debate style of the Oxford Union as to cancel out for me on that occasion his brilliance of expression reinforced by an astonishing erudition. Such behaviour coheres with his willingness to forgo second thoughts about his advocacy of launching an unlawful aggressive war against Iraq, despite the false pretences and bloody ordeal that the Iraqi people endured, and continue to endure.

There is no doubt that Hitchens faced his own difficult death bravely, without succumbing to deathbed retreats, whether from stubbornness or authenticity, it is hard to say. In his last years, he apparently made many people happy with his dogmatic embrace of atheism during a time of religious revival in this country and elsewhere. Hitchens always had a willingness to express these harsh anti-religious opinions, but never softened by a tone of empathy, and certainly without humility, for those many among us who take religion and spirituality seriously. 

For reasons never made transparent, Hitchens, as disappointed Trotskyites often do, lurched to the right in the early 1990s, and for a while was an ardent presence on the neoconservative dancefloor. He resigned in 2002 as a columnist for The Nation on ideological grounds, and clearly became more comfortable in the slicker, sicker world of Vanity Fair, and also a venue where his writings were far more acclaimed.

Hitchens is for me a hard case when it comes to deciding what to remember and what to forget. As indicated, I found his demeanour generally unpleasant in that Oxonian highbrow sense and his late politics reactionary and essentially mindlessly condescending with respect to the relevance of law, truth, justice and, most of all, the rights of others to shape their own destinies in the spirit of self-determination. At the same time, someone who unabashedly depicted the criminality of Kissinger’s embrace of Pinochet‘s torture and crimes against humanity, deserves some sort of post-mortem salute. As well, like Hitchens, I voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 elections, and although it did not contribute to the Bush victory, I came to reconsider my belief at the time that the choice between Bush and Gore was of little consequence for the issues that I cared most about. I do retain the view that Nader discussed some of the issues that needed to be confronted, especially relating to the excesses of finance and global corporate capitalism that neither party has faced, and only recently, thanks to the Occupy Movement, have such questions started to light the political sky. In the end, it is Hitchens’ erudite and often illuminating essays and articles on political literature, past and present, which will continue to merit attentive reading and will be gratefully cherished for a long time to come, although even here where his core strength lies, the absence of any generosity of spirit takes its inevitable toll.

In the end, we need to suspend moral and political judgment, and celebrate those rare human beings whose life and ideas exhibited memorable vividness. Hitchens was one of those: Christopher Hitchens RIP.  

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).

He is currently serving his third year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. 

Follow him on Twitter: @rfalk13

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

More from Author
Most Read