Did Christopher Hitchens have a Big Idea?

Lunching with an agreeable friend last Friday -and what better way to mark Hitchens’ death? – I was momentarily stumped by my companion’s confession. He didn’t believe Hitchens had left any particular idea that helped illuminate the world in a clearer way and he challenged me to prove otherwise.

David Frum’s summary of Hitchens indirectly endorses my friend’s view.

“Christopher did not offer a model of what to think. He offered a model of how to think – and how to live. Fully. Fearlessly. Joyously.

But come on. Hitchens offered more than a great read and enthralling, merciless oratory. Amid the collapsing scenery of a once great movement built on calls for international solidarity in defense of universal values, his consistency of principle (if not politics) offered a moral compass of sorts.

Reacting to his death, Norm Geras rightly celebrated the telling thread of Hitchens’ work and life:

“I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously.”

After 9/11 Hitchens towered as one of the few writers a disillusioned lefty
like me could grasp for moorings. The values that originally attracted me to the left – particularly the non-negotiable demand for the universality of human rights –were being buried beneath a relativist fog and a decadent, ignorant contempt for liberal democracy. Christopher Hitchens saw through that fog and consistently pilloried those who spread it– and stylistically, his attacks were worth the admission fee.

At a Georgetown University Iraq War debate with Tariq Ali, Hitchens reputedly opened by referring to Ali as “my former friend”, before reading aloud an Ali quote only to abruptly stop, pause, look up and scoff, “You’ll
have to excuse the grammar, it is not my own”.

Or on progressives:

“The majority of those “progressives” who take comfort from Stone and Chomsky are not committed, militant anti-imperialists or anti-capitalists. Nothing so muscular. They are of the sort who, discovering a viper in the bed of their child, would place the first call to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”

Some, like Cameron and Obama, later implied that the liberal interventionism Hitchens championed was a Big Idea, a relatively new one – and a disastrous one.

Overthrowing a tyrant is a fine ideal and Hitchens was peerless when making historical and counterfactual justifications for toppling Saddam Hussein but he owed us more focus on how the invasion was likely to unfold. An objective is only ever as justifiable as its strategy is credible.

Debating liberal interventionism will continue – especially considering the contrasts, for now, between Libya and Afghanistan – but that doctrine only offered Hitchens a means for advancing free speech; this, I believe, was his public life’s purpose.

As John Rodwan has shown, Hitchens’ work dating from decades before the invasion of Iraq to the present is thematically unified in defence and celebration of free speech – something he called “civilization’s essential principal”.  While free speech is obviously not a new idea, in Hitchens we all benefited and will continute to benefit from as robust, reliable and eloquent a defender as any ever to write in the English language.

Despite sharing Hitchens’ street here in Kalorama, I will forever regret
not having exercised that right with a thinker and a drinker of such legendary bravado.  But on a brisk 2006 February afternoon a small band of us defied the unhelpful weatherman to congress outside Washington’s Danish embassy.

Inevitably, Hitchens had sounded the call to demonstrate, in international solidarity, in defense of the First Amendment, and in opposition to theocratic fascism and those whose sense of being “offended” is regularly wielded in attempt to censor.

Picture the scenes of angry and raging men gathered outside an embassy, burning flags and issuing threats. Led by a jovial Hitchens, our scene was as opposite as could be – but our conviction was and remains at least as determined.

So to my friend’s challenge, here’s my answer.

Hitchens’ incessant and frequently ferocious free speech advocacy offered an addictive anecdote to the bland, safe, technocratic ‘expertize’ that generally characterize Washington’s operators and debates.

In a town where the obnoxious joke about offering only moderate opinion about any country you haven’t at least flown over doubles as career advice, Hitchens’ raised the bar.

His polemics were infused with the flavor, gravitas and insight of a man whose tireless global reporting was dwarfed only by his insatiable and erudite reading.

His public legacy?

We enjoy discussing ideas old and new, or literature, or sex, or religion, or any other topic free from fear thanks to people like Christopher Hitchens.

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