In his 2002 book, Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens comments on George Orwell’s repudiation of his father’s “meal ticket,” the unthinking imperialism of the British Empire. While some saw such rejection as Oedipal, mused Hitchens, “It was very thoroughgoing, and for its time, very advanced. It also coloured everything he subsequently wrote.”
Not surprisingly, much the same could be said of Hitchens himself, the late 20th century and early 21st century’s best polemicist, who passed away just before Christmas at age 62. When Hitchens describes Orwell as “sensitive to intellectual hypocrisy and was well-tuned to pick up the invariably creepy noises which it gives off,” the same lucidity applies in exact measure to Hitchens. The British-born journalist who moved to the United States since 1981, and thus was in the centre of a superpower’s belly, was unafraid to take on all double-dealing comers.
That included Henry Kissinger ,who for all his attachment to political realism lacked any vision that could take America’s politicians beyond pure power politics vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. (That achievement instead belonged to Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who combined realism with a belief that moral rhetoric, democracy promotion, and active support for dissidents could in fact push back the Soviet empire until it collapsed, as it eventually did. That was not a belief, nor a strategy that Kissinger initially shared.)
Hitchens’ targets also included extreme fundamentalism (as well as attacks on faith itself). Hitchens understood the danger of taking an early belief and then spending one’s life trying to justify every ancient theological and narrative plank beneath it. Instead, he obviously preferred to let life and concern for humanity modify one’s initial views.
Hitchens’s willingness to revisit his own views thus displayed again this similarity to Orwell, the ability to change tack. Hitchens, a reflexive leftist earlier in life, a Trotskyite, turned on his colleagues at The Nation and elsewhere, especially when he supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. For some, it was curious that the writer who pummeled Kissinger and others over Vietnam would support the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein. It was not so perplexing when one understood that what drove Hitchens was an unflinching opposition to concentrated power, exemplified most obviously by authoritarians, tyrants and dictators.
In that sense, there was some irony that while Hitchens would have disliked the comparison to Kissinger, whose views and policies helped shape Richard Nixon’s strategies in Vietnam, Hitchens, by the end of his life, adopted some of Kissinger’s foreign policy realism. That included an acceptance of war as an occasional nasty means to a desired end (i.e., fewer problematic dictators). But such a willingness to attack narrowly-held power and its inevitable abuses was precisely why he could critique Islamic clerics who justified terror and the repression of women, hypocritical Catholic priests who preached charity and yet abused children, and tyrants who battered everyone.
His flaws: Hitchens attack on every aspect of religious belief and life, this as if faith could only produce bad ends, was as dogmatic as those he targeted. His polemic against Mother Teresa was particularly odious and mistaken. To argue, as he did, that Mother Teresa was a parasite on poverty was unworthy of Hitchens’ intellect. It was a bizarre diatribe, something one would expect in an undergraduate student newspaper from a young writer trying to shock for that end alone.
On why he mattered: Hitchens displayed the great value of a classical education and a deep knowledge of history. Too many people trapped in their own small stream—most often journalists and politicians who too often become consumed by today’s events and thus make hasty, flawed interpretations of the same—thus miss the wider river of history and its grand lessons. Hitchens made no such mistake.
Mark Milke is the editorial board chair of Canada’s Journal of Ideas, C2C Journal.ca, where this article first appeared.