Christopher Hitchens and Conviction

by Ryan Sanford Smith

It seems a more than a little apropos the the first real post on this blog would be a reflection and celebration on Christopher Hitchens, the person who, I can say with zero exaggeration, has had more impact on me as an adult both intellectually as well is in the various facets of my broader character than any other person. Hitchens was in large part the inspiration for my wanting to begin this blog, and while created quite a while ago I have until now let it fall by the wayside as the various and utterly banal distractions of life take their small but accumulating toll. As Hitchens grew further ill, some part of me saw this day coming; with the seemingly superhuman intellect and resilient conviction he’s become so legendary for, it can be perhaps too tempting for some of us to become complacent. In what battle against tyranny or stupidity could one not be seduced towards the sidelines, not comfortable only that the thunderous and myriad Hitchslaps would reign against any foe, but be so entertaining to we lowly spectators?

It is, truly, on us, now. One of the saddest elements to me of Christopher’s passing this past Thursday was loss of his pristine memory and vicious wit as weaponry not only against the oppression of the theocratic, anti-reason hordes, but against the forces of tyranny as a whole. While his rhetoric war against religion will probably be the larger part of his legacy, it should always also be recognized as only the most recent and inflammatory. It would be an unenviable and I believe impossible task to find any bit of his career–I should say his life, actually, and without any cringe of the sentimental, knowing he prided himself, in his own words, of having had a life over having a career–that was not rooted firmly in the convictions of freedom of speech, expression, and in all ways living a life unhindered by the petty, humorless, and often ancient worldviews of would-be detractors. His presence in these debates will be felt, I think, for as long as the debates go on. But it is now on many more of us to ensure that they in fact do go on, and that no inch be given to those same detractors. Often when someone dies the inevitable cliche arrives of their shoes being filled. Christopher’s life and personality were perhaps the only things that could match the size of his intellect, and indeed the hole he has left is impossible to fill by any one person; this should be a motivation and inspiration to many, as perhaps enough of us might offer a modest attempt at the job. I say it again: it is on us, now. Christopher has shown us what can be done, and at least one bold way it might be put forth.

Just as fellow Horseman Sam Harris has brilliantly, correctly, and controversially argued that we’re better to bear the standard of skepticism and reason for their own sake rather than the specific cause or title of New Atheism, I think it’s vastly important to look to Christopher’s life and work not only for the memorable causes and attacks, but rather to really come to grasp his core conviction of accepting nothing less than destruction of the various enemies of civilization and freedom. Holding this idea close will show no end of worthy and imminent debates to have and battles to fight.

Contemplating this is also the fastest and most appropriate way perhaps to work through what has caused many to stumble, that being Christopher’s support of the intervention in Iraq. Seen as some obscene betrayal or defection to the right by those embarrassingly uncomfortable with interacting with the nuanced elements of his justifications, one quickly finds it (at least, I always have) increasingly difficult to argue his principle in the matter, and I also find that in the end Christopher was as heartbroken over the Mesopotamian mire that resulted as anyone else. Reading his essays on Iraq and Kurdistan, it is clear how genuine his hope was for what might come out of the invasion that ended a few short hours after he himself did. Most importantly, I dare anyone to argue that Christopher’s support was anything even slightly out of sync with the rest of his life or work. Reconciling it with any other moment of his various crusades is, unsurprising to me, stupendously easy. I can say honestly one of the most moving and invigorating moments of my adult life was watching Christopher passionately laying out his love and defense of the idea of free expression. When he says he could not imagine life lived in a place without such a centering virtue, I could feel the very strength of that conviction through his very voice.

The real legacy of Christopher Hitchens then, as I’ve thought on it these past few days, is that matters will always be far more complicated and uncomfortable than the towing of simplistic party lines will ever allow for. In thinking on just how bravely Christopher refused any stance but the one that was truly his despite the ramifications to his career or social sphere, I can resolve his only braver episode was his final one. Refusing once again the seduction of solipsism or complacency, Christopher faced death as himself–nothing less. He debated as long as physically possible. He wrote, it seems now literally so, on his deathbed. Not to prove a point, not to get in some last and paltry jab, but because it was all he could do, all that he was.

Considering my own inspiration of Christopher’s passing as a motivating force to begin my own battles and debates with greater discipline and vigor, it feels fitting to end this with Christopher’s parting advice in his short but priceless book, Letters to a Young Contrarian:

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.

As he says, comrades, friends, brothers, sisters–keep your powder dry. The battles were already upon us yesterday. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence.