Sometime a Great Contrarian

The fact that we saw Christopher Hitchens’s death approaching with a crushing inevitability makes it no less sad its day has arrived.

Hitchens was an aberration; a popular public intellectual from a country that abhors intellectuals who moved to another Anglo Saxon country that abhors intellectuals.  And yet he thrived.

The man known to his friends as Hitch couldn’t stand cosy consensus.  He subjected every shibboleth to ruthless dissection.  No argument was ever settled in Hitchens’s mind, every debate was in flux and warranted review, no flummery was ever tolerated.  “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence,” is just one of many great Hitchens lines.

Many of us in the green movement will disagree with positions that he took.  He supported Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands War.  Many ‘progressives’ would find that a hard place to be, yet I cannot see how we can disagree with his point that a free democratic nation has no choice but too defend its citizens against subjugation by a brutal military dictatorship.

Likewise he supported the invasion of Iraq reasoning that a tyrant like Saddam could not be tolerated.  Indeed, though the West didn’t merely tolerate Saddam but encouraged him when it suited, just as it forged a rapprochement with Gaddafi when the possibility of doing business arose.

These are difficult issues for the left.  Hitchens asked the right questions though he often supplied no answers or the wrong ones.  But is there a right answer to dictators other than to remove them each and every one?  And if we cannot do that in such a way that causes less suffering than leaving them be are we not then corralled into a position where we’re making less than principled choices about which we depose and which we live with?

But he also supplied good answers.  To understand Hitchens it helps to understand the great figures of the Enlightenment that he was so drawn to; Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine.  He realised that America’s true power lay not in its military might but in the ideals that it embodied.  “In America, your internationalism can and should be your patriotism,” he wrote.  Sometimes he could have been harder on contemporary America for having left many of its founding principles so far behind.  Sometimes he simply put the boot in.  “How dismal it is to see present day Americans yearning for the very orthodoxy that their country was founded to escape,” he despaired.

Many saw his journey away from the left and apparently towards the right as a betrayal.  I think his own assessment of it is rather fairer.

“There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.”

Hitchens was a radical in the tradition of Lilburne, Wilkes, Paine, Jefferson and Cobbett.  They were all men of affairs, of business yet valued liberty, justice and had a profound sense of the equality that our shared humanity implies.

Hitchens poured his writing into that river of thought.  He never stopped challenging not just others beliefs but his own.  As he put it: “Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.”

I suspect his reputation will only grow with the passing of years.


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