Hitch

Alas, poor Hitchens. I knew him. We all knew him, in a way we rarely come to know other journalists and pundits. I’d also met him, but that doesn’t give me special standing.* He met thousands of people, and they will all lay claim to a piece of Hitchens.

Even when he went off the rails about the existential threat from a homicidal sliver of Islam, or when he pointlessly betrayed a comrade in the service of his boundless animus toward the Clintons, he was interesting to read and even more fascinating to listen to—those long, sinuous sentences that came rumbling out of his belly. Anyone who has as many strong opinions as he had is bound to be wrong a certain percentage of the time. That wasn’t a problem.

The problem, I think, was that he was, first and foremost, a debater, with a debater’s ability to store up phrases and facts as potential weapons, marshall them smartly at the appropriate time, and destroy one’s interlocutor; not just best them—turn them into a spluttering mass of pathetic jelly. This tended to manicheanize his thinking, which made for a bracing spectacle, but could leave one hungering for gray shades, and lots of them.

The funny thing was, he seemed genuinely to like people, and the people he tussled with most ferociously seemed to like him back. He was a boozer with a boozer’s bonhomie, but I think it went beyond than that. Many commentators have noted his increasing tendency to personalize the big issues of the day, and there is likely a deep psychology of personal loss and a need to belong-without-belonging that helps explain this. While he was not the ideal poster boy for atheism (but then, who is?), he certainly went at it with gusto and élan.

For better or worse, Hitch was a man of words, and his death had unleashed a good-sized torrent of them. Slate, in particular, has put out a veritable flood of encomia and remembrances. He comes off very well, indeed, in his last journalistic home (why am I leaving out Vanity Fair? says something about me …). Gary Kamiya at Salon is more balanced; Dave Zirin in The Nation has a rather shocking tale to tell. I think the assessment that best reflects my own feelings is Katha Pollitt’s. At the end, she asks the same question my wife and I had mulled over together: will he be read in fifty years? We three think it unlikely. But he certainly affected us, now.

Okay, that’s enough about old Christopher. Time to read Glenn Greenwald’s latest.

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*Nor does our exchange of letters back in 1989—his charming, mine jejune. I had shared a letter I sent to the New York Times defending him against a dumb attack by A.M. Rosenthal that, unsurprisingly, went unpublished.

Extract from a Hitchens letter

Addendum 2011.12.22: Hitchens would have had a good snort over this. Not sure what he would have thought about dying on the very day the Iraq invasion is declared over. Maybe another snort. (“Over? Riiight.”) Also, I hadn’t noticed that Greenwald had written a long piece about Hitchens on the 17th. Sobering stuff.

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  • Proverbs for Paranoids, 3: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.
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    ‘Is it about a bicycle?’ he asked.
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