Renowned author and journalist Christopher Hitchens, died yesterday, after a year long struggle with cancer. Left behind are a modern legacy of articles and essay collections projecting his solemn passion for Enlightenment values of reason and human rights. It is a passion keenly felt and shared here at iModernReview. In reading his works it would be difficult to find a more eloquent spokesman or fiercer champion of its values in contemporary journalism.
‘Contradiction’ was a term that often followed in his wake. His bestselling memoir Hitch 22 , and Letters to a Young Contrarian focus on his much remarked shift from any easy labels of left and right-wing, liberal and conservative in his analysis of world events. His fierce critiques fix on an array of targets, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Theresa. Taken as a whole however, it is consistency that encapsulates his allegiance to the reasoning mind. Through his own, there lies its proof in the tremendous output of his journalistic career, where his decisive commentary is more the hard-won result of first embracing his doubt over easy certainty.
The modern Enlightenment, with its corollary values of scientific inquiry and individual rights he argued, are a sustained outcome of continuous criticism. So long as a society embraced free speech, it would continue to seek the best explanations and correct its mistaken paths. It’s darkest errors were never more apparent than his discomfortingly close analysis of the war zones he witnessed.
We lose something important if we forget Kosovo and the harrowing events that finally led to the self-determination of its nearly 2 million inhabitants. Long deprived of even vestigial national and human rights, then forced to retreat at gunpoint onto deportation trains and threatened with the believable threat of mass murder, these people were belatedly rescued by an intervention that said, fairly simply, there is a limit beyond which law cannot be further broken down and conscience further outraged.
(‘Why Kosovo Still Matters, 2010)
A self-described Trotskyist, he denounced any totalitarian regimes’ – be they Left or Right – crackdown on dissent.
Spare me the letters that remind us all that Cuba has a good healthcare system and has abolished illiteracy. A healthy literate people do not need to be told what they can read.
(‘Minority Report’, 1989)
A journalist for liberal publications such as Slate and The Nation, he decried the Left’s pacifism and instead championed the US conservative government’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. He visited for himself the chemical storehouses and the Kurdish mass-graves of the Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. He also won an equal share of enemies on the Right. While many liberal publications including The New York Times would euphemistically adopt along with conservatives new coinages like ‘enhanced interrogation‘ Hitchens condemned water-boarding as torture, underwent waterboarding – himself as victim – so that he might objectively describe its horrors for readers of Vanity Fair.
Hitchens’ notoriety and fame rose in 2007 with god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Here again, Hitchens argued for Enlightenment values of doubt and continuous criticism. In embracing the ‘certainties’ of faith, he argued, people disarm themselves from a lifeline of continuous re-evaluation and reasoning thought. In the concluding chapter ‘The Need for a New Enlightenment’ he writes,
Of course it is better for the mind to “choose” the path of skepticism and inquiry in any case, because only by continual exercise of these faculties can we hope to achieve anything.
Therein lies both the virtue of an Enlightenment project and of Hitchens’ writing, identifying the ‘enemy’ of the modern as the uncritical and totalitarian mindset (See also his interview with Richard Dawkins for The New Statesman). The Enlightenment, were it to hold any fixed element, would be to codify the freedom to doubt, change, think, alter, criticise and pursue. Hitchens found his enlightened place on Earth, fiercely expressing himself through this consistency.
Imagine a state of bliss and perpetual happiness and harmony, and you have summoned a vision of tedium and pointlessness and predictability, such as Huxley with all his gifts was only able to sketch. Only one other sacred text mentions “happiness” without embarrassment. But even in 1776, this concept was thought to be mentionable only in the consequence of a bitter struggle, just then being embarked upon. The beautiful word “pursuit,” however we construe it, would be vacuous in any other context.
(Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001)
‘Pursuit’ finds worthy and serious meaning in the life of Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant thinker, eloquent writer, and humanist who found his permanence in the Enlightenment search ♦
Hitchens’ essays are also found in collected works, including For the Sake of Argument (1994) Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays (2004), and most recently Arguably (2011). iModernReview had previously reviewed his editor role for Best American Essays 2010.