Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

Tonight, we have lost one of the very few people in this world who could rightly be called a legend.

Christopher Hitchens, the reporter, the raconteur, master of the written world, passed away after fighting esophageal cancer for a year and a half. Since the very first time I encountered his writing with his expose on Mother Teresa, he has been one of the strongest presences in my mind whenever I write, whether for blogs or in my own prose; vigorous, unbowing, doggedly seeking the truth no matter how deeply it may have been buried. He never stood back from controversial subjects, instead meeting them head on in order to make sense of them for his readers.

Born in the aftermath of World War II and the subsequent dissolution of the British Empire, he could not have had better timing for which to witness some of the most tumultuous decades in world history. At Oxford, he was deeply involved with the protest movements of the 1960s, and began his writing career in student publications as a result of his activism, in which he excorciated the military-industrial complex and "the unaccountable corporation," issues we still deal with today. He later moved to the United States in order to work for the New Statesman and The Nation amongst other illustrious independent outlets, during which time he traveled across the globe in search of the truth. War zones were no issue for him; the military junta in Greece, the Six Day War in Israel, various U.S. incursions into Central and South America, and the Bosnian conflicts were just a few of the issues that he went directly to the sources to cover.

As far as his political beliefs go, we can only see Hitchens as a consummate leftist, with some errancies: his support of the Iraq War at its start being the most major blip, but his support was not single-minded: he strongly condemned U.S. conduct at Abu Ghraib and at Guantanamo, going so far as to undergo waterboarding himself in order to verify it as a torture technique, despite denials by the Bush administration. He criticized the two party system of American politics, argued against the War on Drugs (against William F. Buckley, no less), and was a strong anti-Zionist, saying at one point "one must not insult or degrade or humiliate people... [I] would be opposed to this maltreatment of the Palestinians if it took place on a remote island with no geopolitical implications." Indeed, one of his favorite pieces of mine was one of his last, a brilliant analysis of Wisconsin's history of progressivism.

Other writers can speak to his famously acerbic writing style, or his prodigious intake of cigarettes and alcohol, but I don't really want to do that. I instead would like to raise my own glass of scotch, the last of the bottle, to one of the last greats of an institution that is dying, that being journalism. Certainly, I do not defend Hitchens on everything, as some other atheists might: he was human, perhaps incredibly so, and as such I disagree with him strongly on several issues. But without his writings, in particular Letters to a Young Contrarian, I would not have discovered the likes of Emile Zola, W.H. Auden, or Evelyn Waugh, all of whom I have since read and fallen in love with. I would not have half the knowledge or interest I currently have in world affairs, for it was he who brought them to life in such vivid detail for me. He, among others, made me wake up to the realities of the world and take notice, and as such I do what I can to address and fight against the injustices of it.

He was not the last of his kind though: others follow in his path, like Jeremy Scahill, Naomi Klein, Allison Kilkenny, Matt Taibbi, writers and journalists who forego the easy mainstream media path in order to discover what isn't being covered and bring voice to the voiceless. All is not lost with his passing; his legacy must live on with us, or not at all.

So here I sit, glass of scotch in hand, mind at the ready. The best way we can remember Christopher Hitchens is by doing our damnedest to make the world a better, more just place. We can do that not by valorizing him, but by analyzing his work and giving credit and criticism where it is due. Such is the way of the world; unfortunately, it shall never be fully positive, at least not in our lifetimes. But we can sure as hell give it a kick on its way.