In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens, 2010 Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecturer
The New York Times relates the life and work of Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011.
Polemicist Who Slashed All, Freely, With Wit
By William Grimes
Published: December 16, 2011
Christopher Hitchens, a slashing polemicist in the tradition of Thomas Paine and George Orwell who trained his sights on targets as various as Henry Kissinger, the British monarchy and Mother Teresa, wrote a best-seller attacking religious belief, and dismayed his former comrades on the left by enthusiastically supporting the American-led war in Iraq, died on Thursday in Houston. He was 62.
The cause was pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer, Vanity Fair magazine said in announcing the death, at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Mr. Hitchens, who lived in Washington, learned he had cancer while on a publicity tour in 2010 for his memoir, “Hitch-22,” and began writing and, on television, speaking about his illness frequently.
“In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist,” Mr. Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair, for which he was a contributing editor.
He took pains to emphasize that he had not revised his position on atheism, articulated in his best-selling 2007 book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” although he did express amused appreciation at the hope, among some concerned Christians, that he might undergo a late-life conversion.
He also professed to have no regrets for a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking. “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that — or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation — is worth it to me,” he told Charlie Rose in a television interview in 2010, adding that it was “impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights, without that second bottle.”
Armed with a quick wit and a keen appetite for combat, Mr. Hitchens was in constant demand as a speaker on television, radio and the debating platform, where he held forth in a sonorous, plummily accented voice that seemed at odds with his disheveled appearance. He was a master of the extended peroration, peppered with literary allusions, and of the bright, off-the-cuff remark.
In 2007, when the interviewer Sean Hannity tried to make the case for an all-seeing God, Mr. Hitchens dismissed the idea with contempt. “It would be like living in North Korea,” he said.
Mr. Hitchens, a British Trotskyite who had lost faith in the Socialist movement, spent much of his life wandering the globe and reporting on the world’s trouble spots for The Nation magazine, the British newsmagazine The New Statesman and other publications.
His work took him to Northern Ireland, Greece, Cyprus, Portugal, Spain and Argentina in the 1970s, generally to shine a light on the evil practices of entrenched dictators or the imperial machinations of the great powers.
After moving to the United States in 1981, he added American politics to his beat, writing a bimonthly Minority Report for The Nation. He wrote a monthly review-essay for The Atlantic and, as a carte-blanche columnist at Vanity Fair, filed essays on topics as various as getting a Brazilian bikini wax and the experience of being waterboarded, a volunteer assignment that he called “very much more frightening though less painful than the bikini wax.” He was also a columnist for the online magazine Slate.
His support for the Iraq war sprang from a growing conviction that radical elements in the Islamic world posed a mortal danger to Western principles of political liberty and freedom of conscience. The first stirrings of that view came in 1989 with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwah against the novelist Salman Rushdie for his supposedly blasphemous words in “The Satanic Verses.” To Mr. Hitchens, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, confirmed the threat.
In a political shift that shocked many of his friends and readers, he cut his ties to The Nation and became an outspoken advocate of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a ferocious critic of what he called “Islamofascism.” Although he denied coining the word, he popularized it.
He remained unapologetic about the war. In 2006 he told the British newspaper The Guardian: “There are a lot of people who will not be happy, it seems to me, until I am compelled to write a letter to these comrades in Iraq and say: ‘Look, guys, it’s been real, but I’m going to have to drop you now. The political cost to me is just too high.’ Do I see myself doing this? No, I do not!”
Christopher Eric Hitchens was born on April 13, 1949, in Portsmouth, England. His father was a career officer in the Royal Navy and later earned a modest living as a bookkeeper.
Though it strained the family budget, Christopher was sent to private schools in Tavistock and Cambridge, at the insistence of his mother. “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it,” he overheard his mother saying to his father, clinching a spirited argument.
He was politically attuned even as a 7-year-old. “I was precocious enough to watch the news and read the papers, and I can remember October 1956, the simultaneous crisis in Hungary and Suez, very well,” he told the magazine The Progressive in 1997. “And getting a sense that the world was dangerous, a sense that the game was up, that the Empire was over.”
Even before arriving at Balliol College, Oxford, Mr. Hitchens had been drawn into left-wing politics, primarily out of opposition to the Vietnam War. After heckling a Maoist speaker at a political meeting, he was invited to join the International Socialists, a Trotskyite party. Thus began a dual career as political agitator and upper-crust sybarite. He arranged a packed schedule of antiwar demonstrations by day and Champagne-flooded parties with Oxford’s elite at night. Spare time was devoted to the study of philosophy, politics and economics.
After graduating from Oxford in 1970, he spent a year traveling across the United States. He then tried his luck as a journalist in London, where he contributed reviews, columns and editorials to The New Statesman, The Daily Express and The Evening Standard.
“I would do my day jobs at various mainstream papers and magazines and TV stations, where my title was ‘Christopher Hitchens,’ ” he wrote in “Hitch-22,” “and then sneak down to the East End, where I was variously features editor of Socialist Worker and book review editor of the theoretical monthly International Socialism.”
He became a staff writer and editor for The New Statesman in the late 1970s and fell in with a literary clique that included Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Clive James and Ian McEwan. The group liked to play a game in which members came up with the sentence least likely to be uttered by one of their number. Mr. Hitchens’s was “I don’t care how rich you are, I’m not coming to your party.”
After collaborating on a 1976 biography of James Callaghan, the Labour leader, he published his first book, “Cyprus,” in 1984 to commemorate Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus a decade earlier. A longer version was published in 1989 as “Hostage to History: Cyprus From the Ottomans to Kissinger.”
His interest in the region led to another book, “Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles” (1987), in which he argued that Britain should return the Elgin marbles to Greece.
In 1981 he married a Greek Cypriot, Eleni Meleagrou. The marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by their two children, Alexander and Sophia; his wife, Carol Blue, and their daughter, Antonia; and his brother, Peter.
Mr. Hitchens’s reporting on Greece came through unusual circumstances. He was summoned to Athens in 1973 because his mother, after leaving his father, had committed suicide there with her new partner. After his father’s death in 1987, he learned that his mother was Jewish, a fact she had concealed from her husband and her children.
After moving to the United States, where he eventually became a citizen, Mr. Hitchens became a fixture on television, in print and at the lectern. Many of his essays for The Nation and other magazines were collected in “Prepared for the Worst” (1988).
He also threw himself into the defense of his friend Mr. Rushdie. “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved,” he wrote in his memoir. “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression.”
To help rally public support, Mr. Hitchens arranged for Mr. Rushdie to be received at the White House by President Bill Clinton, one of Mr. Hitchens’s least favorite politicians and the subject of his book “No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton” (1999).
He regarded the response of left-wing intellectuals to Mr. Rushdie’s predicament as feeble, and he soon began to question many of his cherished political assumptions. He had already broken with the International Socialists when, in 1982, he astonished some of his brethren by supporting Britain’s invasion of the Falkland Islands.
The drift was reflected in books devoted to heroes like George Orwell (“Why Orwell Matters,” 2002), Thomas Paine (“Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography,” 2006) and Thomas Jefferson (“Thomas Jefferson: Author of America,” 2005).
His polemical urges found other outlets. In 2001 he excoriated Mr. Kissinger, the secretary of state in the Nixon administration, as a war criminal in the book “The Trial of Henry Kissinger.” He helped write a 2002 documentary film by the same title based on the book.
Mr. Hitchens became a campaigner against religious belief, most notably in his screed against Mother Teresa, “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” (1995), and “God Is Not Great.” He regarded Mother Teresa as a proselytizer for a retrograde version of Roman Catholicism rather than as a saintly charity worker.
“I don’t quite see Christopher as a ‘man of action,’ ” the writer Ian Buruma told The New Yorker in 2006, “but he’s always looking for the defining moment — as it were, our Spanish Civil War, where you put yourself on the right side, and stand up to the enemy.”
One stand distressed many of his friends. In 1999, Sidney Blumenthal, an aide to Mr. Clinton and a friend of Mr. Hitchens’s, testified before a grand jury that he was not the source of damaging comments made to reporters about Monica Lewinsky, whose supposed affair with the president was under investigation by the House of Representatives.
Contacted by House investigators, Mr. Hitchens supplied information in an affidavit that, in effect, accused Mr. Blumenthal of perjury and put him in danger of being indicted.
At a lunch in 1998, Mr. Hitchens wrote, Mr. Blumenthal had characterized Ms. Lewinsky as “a stalker” and said the president was the victim of a predatory and unstable woman. Overnight, Mr. Hitchens — now called “Hitch the Snitch” by Blumenthal partisans — became persona non grata in living rooms all over Washington. In a review of “Hitch-22” in The New York Review of Books, Mr. Buruma criticized Mr. Hitchens for making politics personal.
To Mr. Hitchens, he wrote, “politics is essentially a matter of character.”
“Politicians do bad things,” Mr. Buruma continued, “because they are bad men. The idea that good men can do terrible things (even for good reasons), and bad men good things, does not enter into this particular moral universe.” Mr. Hitchens’s latest collection of writings, “Arguably: Essays,” published this year, has been a best-seller and ranked among the top 10 books of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review.
Mr. Hitchens discussed the possibility of a deathbed conversion, insisting that the odds were slim that he would admit the existence of God.
“The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain,” he told The Times in August 2010. “I can’t guarantee that such an entity wouldn’t make such a ridiculous remark, but no one recognizable as myself would ever make such a remark.”
Readers of “Hitch-22” already knew his feelings about the end. “I personally want to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive,” he wrote, “and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me.”
Published: Friday, December 16, 2011