Misremembering Christopher Hitchens

Last month, I attended a memorial service for the late Christopher Hitchens, a member of this humble journal’s editorial board, who died last December after a struggle with esophageal cancer. In addition to being a world famous polemicist and author, he was a friend and mentor.

Which is why it pains me to report that the service did neither Christopher nor his career justice. Hosted by Vanity Fair (one of the many publications for which Christopher wrote), it was geared toward the left-wing, Manhattan literary elite whose pieties Christopher worked to shred over the last decade of his career. Far be it from me to speak for the dead, but I think Christopher would have been more than slightly perturbed by the program, or, more precisely, what was left off it.

The service began with an opening speech by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who set the tone for the event when he mentioned, in passing, Christopher’s “curious prowar stance before the invasion of Iraq.” We would hear next to nothing about Iraq for the rest of the 90-minute service, a glaring omission considering that the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, second only perhaps to his crusade against religion, was the defining topic of the last decade of Christopher’s life. An impressive array of people performed readings of Christopher’s best work; some of which—Tom Stoppard from a Nation piece on the Prague Spring, Tom Mallon from a Vanity Fair dispatch about North Korea, Christopher Buckley from the memoir Hitch 22—were deeply moving.

But not a single one of the readings was about Iraq, never mind the looming threat of Iran or the hypocrisies of the antiwar movement, topics that consumed Christopher and gradually drove him away from the Nation (which, he concluded, had become “the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden”) and the left in general. One of his most memorable polemics, the absence of which at the memorial was surely attributable to the fact that it would have offended most of the people in the room, was his evisceration of filmmaker Michael Moore and his Fahrenheit 9/11. This “silly and shady man,” Christopher wrote, had produced a film which represented “a possible fusion between the turgid routines of MoveOn.org and the filmic standards, if not exactly the filmic skills, of Sergei Eisenstein or Leni Riefenstahl.”

Christopher never apologized for his support of the war, or expressed the slightest doubt that he had been wrong in backing it, but the memorial service tried to whitewash this episode as if it were akin to an embarrassing crime he had committed. The only other mention of Iraq was by eulogist Martin Amis, who said that Iraq had put Christopher in “a world of pain.” Tailored to the Christopher its hosts wanted to remember—the one who hated America’s adventure in Vietnam and was a scourge of organized religion—the memorial failed to capture his actual self by ignoring a major part of his legacy.

This oversight was also visible in the speaker selection. One friend of Christopher’s, a writer from a country with a vicious authoritarian government, told me how saddened she was that a Kurd—whose national aspirations Christopher committed himself to more than any other writer in the Western world—had not been invited to deliver a reading. “Christopher was a hero to the dissidents,” she told me. Instead, we got Sean Penn.

Following the service, standing on the steps outside the Cooper Union Great Hall, I overheard a well-known liberal journalist and editor remark something to the effect that “the right-wing Hitch wasn’t represented at this event,” which was all for the better anyway because he “didn’t really like those people anyway.” This was precisely the sort of liberal smugness Christopher loathed—right down to the tribal invocation of “those people”—and I dare say that were he still with us, he would have mercilessly ridiculed this dweeb.

Christopher perplexed, if not irrevocably enraged, many of his liberal acquaintances when he came out in support of the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s foreign policy more generally. Some stopped talking to him. Others, honorable to the essential nature of friendship, loved him in spite of it. For those who disagreed with Christopher (and that’s everyone; it was impossible to agree with him on all things), the proper way to memorialize him is captured by his childhood friend Patrick Cockburn: continue arguing. While disagreeing vehemently with Christopher about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cockburn, writing in the Independent, nevertheless concedes that, “it would be a pity if Christopher’s words and writing on Anglo-American military interventions should be ignored,” because he was “the most intelligent and eloquent defender of these interventions as a means of removing dictators or preventing massacres.”

My friend Michael Weiss observed that, “friendship was Hitch’s only real ideology.” Christopher didn’t sacrifice friendship over politics, but neither did he sacrifice politics over friendship. It would have been nice if his liberal friends granted him the same respect.


Photo Credit: ensceptico 



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