Why Hitchens Matters

I must confess that up until last year I was largely unaware of Christopher Hitchens and his writing; something that seems absurd to me now. He was recommended to me by an acquaintance; I subsequently looked him up and was immediately enthralled by his rhetoric, use of language, commitment to fearless honesty and ability to debate without giving quarter while expecting none in return.

I feel, as do many people it seems, dulled and disinterested in much social commentary mainly due to its abject willingness to maintain the consensus. Perhaps this is not entirely the fault of those calling themselves journalists; they after all are reporting on a dull and dreary political landscape, where most of our plastic politicians have the dingy parlor and personalities, of a not to recently exhumed corpse.

Britain was recently in the arthritic grips of a general election; one couldn’t call it election fever, more an election sniffle, maybe a head cold. When watching and reading the coverage of this event I was reminded of the cartoon Charlie Brown. Anyone who knows it will remember the poor teacher. While Charlie and his pals sit fidgeting and talking in class, all that could be heard of the teacher a muffled “Whah whah whah whah, whah whah, whah”. Her whole presence is reduced to a monotone background noise, which did nothing to distract the children from their own, far more important, business.

So it is for our politicians – “Whah, whah, whah, whah, whah”. What is worse is that too many of the political press go willingly along with this. How cushy it must be to earn a living from regurgitating rubbish. It seems that too many lack the ability, or rather, the fortitude to ask difficult questions, not only of their subjects, but also of themselves.

This is where Hitchens was different. He took up the mantle – or followed in the footsteps – of George Orwell. In doing so he took it upon himself to speak the “truth”, his truth to be sure, but one derived from a great deal of research, experience, intellectual rigor and concerted introspection. As he was fond of saying: It is not what you think – but how you think that matters.

But why is it the case? In one word: authenticity. And with this the knowledge that any conclusion arrived at was done so with freely and with rigor. Free from influence, not of the inspirational variety but the insidious and destructive type that comes with intellectual and moral sloppiness and self-censorship. One only has to think of the recent story of News International writers being ordered by Rupert Murdock to hammer Ed Miliband.

Orwell states: Political writing in our time consists almost entirely of prefabricated phrases bolted together like pieces of a child’s Macanno set. It is the unavoidable result of self-censorship. To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. That was written in 1946. Has anything changed?

One thing is obvious to anyone who knows his work – Hitchens was far from politically orthodox. His was not the crass and provocative posturing for the sake of attention, but the deeply held opinion of someone who stood, at times, at odds with, the main stream. For much of his life he was a committed socialist (Trotskyist), but as the time passed and the immorality of the anti-Stalinist left became more apparent that committed political stance was found wanting:

…there came a time when I could not protect myself, and indeed did not wish to protect myself, from the onslaught of reality. Marxism, I conceded, had its intellectual and philosophical and ethical glories, but they were in the past. Something of the heroic period might perhaps be retained, but the fact had to be faced: there was no longer any longer any guide to the future.

It began with his disgust at the lack of support Salman Rushdie received from the left after a fatwa was issued against him by Ayatollah Khamenei and slow burned to his support of the removal of Saddam Hussein’s vile regime, by a Republican administration, of all things. His well aired break with the left put, to understate the point, put many comradely noses out of joint. This “treachery” led many of the old guard to act like nothing more than petulant children. In effect, because Hitchens dared to move away from leftist flock, because he dared to look past the dogma, and criticize their apparently antiwar stance, he was deemed by many to be a heretic.

However, he saw that Hussein was another in the long line of tyrants that leftists would look to placate simply because he was the opposite of their old and intertwined enemies: the USA and capitalism. It was a case in other words of the enemy of my enemy being my friend no matter what horrendous crimes Saddam’s regime had committed, but then the left we’re used to making excuses for Stalin, so it must have come easy.

By taking this line the leftist and so-called anti-war movement opposed Hitchens, on the grounds of the immorality of regime change. While vociferously doing so they failed to account for their own bilious and obvious hypocrisy. If the removal of the Hussein regime should not have taken place – what credible alternative was there to protect the people of Iraq? Why was it okay, by virtue of legally enshrined and guaranteed freedom of thought and expression, for the appeasement brigade in the west to debate ethics and morality, while through inaction, denying the same to the Iraqi people? By what measure is that fair and proper?

Hitchens was never a supporter of the manner in which the war was prosecuted; in fact he called for legal action to be brought against those who had acted criminally. For Hitchens the moral crux of the issue sat in concept of universal freedom – all else was subservient to this. Those who erroneously called him a turncoat or neo-con, have missed the point that he always opposed totalitarianism in all forms; it was something that lay at the heart of his beliefs.

What the arguments against Hitchens centre upon is actually the denial of freedom. As is the case with so many apparent intellectuals who blindly and dogmatically follow a particular doctrine, there is a need to deny others, even if they are in the same camp, the right to exercise free thought and free speech as and when they choose. To show that you are a committed member of the group one must maintain the established consensus; never think freely and never ever criticize the leadership. To act against doctrine, is the ultimate crime, for it denies any appearance of legitimacy it may posses.

It is ironic that Hitchens, a man who, I don’t believe, wished to be a leader actual became one, of sorts, to so many. That he may not have wanted it that way is one among many reasons why he was (and through his writing still is) a good one. Surely, it is better that a freethinking and anything but bland individual hold such a position, rather than those who actively seek it and then do nothing more than churn out the same old rubbish or those who blindly repeat it.

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