Christopher Hitchens died aged 62 on December 15th.
I first came across him as one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism- the New Atheists being Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris, “New” because they were taking the fight to the religious and irrational, and refused to give the respect to irrational beliefs and religions that the apologists of such beliefs generally demanded. They actively advocated the critical examination of religious beliefs and lent authority and scholarship to atheism, giving us all permission as it were to speak out.
In his 2007 bestseller God is Not Great Hitchens eviscerates the religious in a way that only he can:
Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.There is one more charge to be added to the bill of indictment: With a necessary part of ts collective mind, religion looks forward to the destruction of the world. By this I don’t mean “looks forward” in the purely eschatological sense of anticipating the end. I mean, rather, that it openly or covertly wishes that end to occur.
Later in the book he points out that, while great intellectuals of the past had already “ripped away the disguise of idolatry and paganism” and even risked martyrdom,
a moment of history has now arrived when even a pygmy like myself can claim to know more- through no merit of my own- and see that the final ripping of the whole disguise is overdue.
He goes on to compare religious faith with his own beliefs as a young man in Marxism:
When I was a Marxist, I did not hold my opinions as a matter of faith but I did have the conviction that a sort of unified field theory might have been discovered. The concept of historical and dialectical materialism was not an absolute and it did not have any supernatural element, but it did have its messianic element in the idea that an ultimate moment might arrive, and it most certainly had its martyrs and and saints and doctrinaires and (after a while) its mutually excommunicating rival papacies.
Hitchens describes his remarkable conversion from the youthful Marxist zealot who spent time in Cuba in Castro’s camps for International Socialists a few years after the death of Che Guevara, to sympathies with the neo-liberals and support for the Iraq invasion in his riveting memoir Hitch-22, published last year.
On the morning of September 11th 2001 Hitchens was boarding a plant to Seattle to deliver an attack on Henry Kissenger at Whitman College, Wa.. He came to see 9-11 as an attack on the secular liberal and Enlightenment values embodied in his adopted America, perpetrated by the same, most primitive and backward religious ideologies of apocalyptic nihilism which he had dismantled in the earlier book.
The anti-war demonstrations and what he saw as the hypocrisy of the Left became a pivotal point in Hitchens’ shift of ideological allegiance:
I didnt have to wait long for my worst fears about the Left to prove correct. Comparing Al Quaeda’s use of stolen airplanes with President Clinton’s certainly atrocious use of cruise missiles against Sudan three years before…Noam Chomsky found the moral balance to be approximately even, with the United States at perhaps a slight disadvantage.
The difference between himself and Chomsky came down to the fact that Chomsky regarded “everything since Columbus as having been one continuous succession of genocides and land-thefts, [and] he did not really believe that the United States of America was a good idea in the first place.”
Hitchens likewise takes an excoriating view of Gore Vidal who deigned to suggest that Bush and the US government may have had a hand in the attacks, either by design or by neglect:
President Bush had evidently forewarned himself of the air piracy in order that he should seize the chance to look like a craven, whey-faced ignoramus on worldwide TV.
He goes onto explain
As the Iraq debate became more intense, it became suddenly obvious to me that I couldn’t any longer remain where I was on the political “spectrum”. Huge “anti-war” demonstrations were being organised by forces that actually exemplified what the CIA and others had naively maintained was impossible: a declared alliance between Ba’athist sympathizers and Islamic fundamentalists….
My old friend Nick Cohen wrote scornfully that on a certain date, “about a million liberal-minded people marched through London to oppose the overthrow f a fascist regime”. But what is “liberal-minded” about the Muslim Brotherhood and its clone-groups, or about the rump of British Stalinism, or about the purulent sect into which my former comrades of the International Socialists had mutated? To them- to the organizers and moving spirits of the march in other words- the very word “liberal” was a term of contempt.
Fascinatingly, Hitchens- who spent a lot of time reporting from Mesoptamia- claimed that he did indeed see evidence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, and points out that the WMD card was previously used as an excuse to leave Saddam in power lest he unleash them. Yet he was no fan of Bush- “I probably now know more about the impeachable incompetence of the Bush administration than do many of those who would have left Iraqi in the hands of Saddam” – and is fiercely critical of the failure of the US military to make a credible plan to put the lights back on in Baghdad or prevent looting.
It seems ironic as well as sad that today on which we see the last US troops withdraw from Iraq, we no longer have a Hitchens to comment, to elucidate and educate us on the significance of this most traumatic period of modern history, and he will be missed for his ability to raise the level of debate and for the license he gave for the contrarian.
Christopher Hitchens 13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011 R.I.P.