Christopher Hitchins – a difficult hero?

I have once again been reading Christopher Hitchins, an Anglo-American author, journalist and literary critic. He caused a stir with publications on Henry Kissinger, among others, in which he massively criticised what he saw as the aggressive, interventionist US foreign policy of the 1970s and called for the former US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to be prosecuted as a war criminal.

I quite enjoy reading him, especially with his impressive use of adjectives, which he often spits out in an aggressive manner. But he is often spiteful towards people he doesn’t like – who, in his opinion, are usually not exactly what they claim to be. But who is? Was Hitchins as he wanted to appear? I think he worked hard at it, and his sincerity as a journalist is to be commended. He is mischievous when he uses expressions that are suggestively false, such as „Barack Hussein Obama“, suggesting that the president has Islamic connections when he has clearly taken a Christian position. Of course, Hitchins could truthfully claim that this was Obama’s name, but the insinuation was wallowing. Apparently, he didn’t like Obama because he was too „light on his feet“, which is a questionable statement given how dangerous American politics can be. However, being a Christian would not have been a qualification for Hitchins either, who was among the personalities who launched a scathing attack on the church, calling it in practice inhumane and its teachings riddled with cruelty. His abhorrence of the principle of „scapegoating“, which he called reconciliation through the cross, was well known. He famously said, „After 98,000 years and the failure of 99.9% of his designs, the Designer decided that the best way to end this suffering and make things better was to pick a Middle Eastern man and torture him.“ It was unthinkable to him, even as a myth, that this could be the basis for a world church that would bring peace. It was rather the basis of a church, he said, that persecuted all dissenters when it could.

Perhaps Hitchins was spiteful in all the right places. It may hurt from time to time, but he certainly brought home a point. But doesn’t it matter that he never formulated his utopia, or an idea of how things could be better? He said, „The search for nirvana, like the search for utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous search. It involves, if not necessitates, the sleep of reason. There is no escape from fear and struggle.“ This explains why he was not opposed to war as a means of ridding the world of despotic villains, or initially to torture for that purpose. He changed his tone after going through waterboarding, but he remained deeply sceptical of the idea of utopia, much like his brother, Peter Hitchins, who said, „The trouble with utopia is that you can only approach it across a sea of blood, and you never get there.“ However, I could not help feeling that Christopher Hitchins words about the building of the Parthenon in 450 BC were sentimental and hopeful, that democratic ideals prevailed at the time and that the craftsmen were free men.

He was a great Orwell advocate, and „… in his widely acclaimed biographical essay [Why Orwell Matters], the masterful polemicist Christopher Hitchens assesses the life, achievements and myth of the great political writer and participant George Orwell. True to his controversial style, Hitchens is both admiring and attacking, sympathetic yet critical, correctly assessing his subject as both hero and problem. In response to the detractors and the false claims, Hitchens tears down the facade of sanctity erected by the hagiographers and refutes the critics point by point. He examines Orwell and his views on fascism, empire, feminism and Anglicanism, as well as his view of America, a country and a culture to which he showed much ambivalence. Whether reflecting on empires or dictators, race or class, nationalism or popular culture, Orwell’s moral outlook remains indispensable in a world that has changed greatly in the seven decades since his death. Combining the best of Hitchens’s polemical punch and intellectual elegance in a densely woven and subtle argument, this book addresses not only why Orwell matters today, but how he will continue to matter in a future, uncertain world.“ (Amazon)

Reading Hitchins makes you question your own thoughts and ideas, which is exactly why it is worth doing. If you can get past the nastiness in places, you actually start to question your own position. Especially if, like me, you’ve led a sheltered life and avoided the really bad things in life. Of course, we’ve all brushed against perverted or vicious personalities, and had experiences that can scare you, but many of us have no idea what some people have to go through. I think Hitchins has tried to speak for these people and shock us into the realisation that in some place’s things are worse than we can imagine. Isn’t it the case that we in the West have other issues at the moment and don’t necessarily want to listen to a Hitchins? It is sometimes depressing when you watch a foreign report. It’s as if the hands of the needy are reaching out to you. The grievances make us ask, „Why doesn’t someone do something?“ We thought for a long time that our governments were working for good, but then a Hitchins et al came along and burst the bubble we were living in.

The question remains, what to do when reality sets in? It is interesting that in the English-speaking world one increasingly hears that topics are not wanted in universities and should be removed from the curriculum. The so-called „cancel culture“ is spreading. Unpleasant topics, even if they are only unpleasant for individuals, are viewed critically. Even „classical“ literature from antiquity is suspected and questioned. The culture of debate is also questioned in prominent schools like Eton where it is part of the tradition. I think Hitchins would have had a strong opinion on this and would probably no longer be invited to debate.

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