The British journalist and author Christopher Hitchens managed to rile people from the Right and the Left, and across the religious spectrum. Erudite and eloquent he honed those skills to call out foreign despots and take on some of the most powerful figures in the US — he was truly a modern Cato.
The first time I saw Christopher Hitchens was nine years ago smoking a cigarette outside The Commonwealth Club in downtown San Francisco where he was due to speak later that evening.
I pretty sure it was Hitchens even though I had never seen a photo of him. A middle aged man, slightly disheveled in an academic style, and with a pale pallor that suggested a preference for late nights and late conversations. He looked very much in need of a glass of Mr Walker’s wonderful restorative. He looked hungover.
However, when it came time for his talk, he was in excellent form. His oratory was extraordinary, I loved it. His effortless narration and the twists and turns of his phrasing was a pure delight. I had forgotten the pleasure of hearing things well said.
He spoke about his recently published book, a biography of George Orwell, and Orwell’s huge influence on his life and work.
Orwell became a harsh critic of both capitalism and communism, a similar journey for Hitchens, and his several decades-long transition from Trotskyist activist to Iraq war supporter.
But Hitchens’ political transitions were not the cliche of a revolutionary intellectual turned right wing zealot. He views fit best with Libertarianism — a perfect place from where Hitchens’ skillful iconoclasm could range freely and unrestrained by any political loyalties to Republicans or Democrats.
What impressed me the most about Hitchens was his fearlessness in calling out some of the most powerful people around. He did not mince words, he stood by his convictions even if they were unpopular at the time. His remarkable integrity drove him relentlessly, and sometimes that meant changing his views on key issues when faced with evidence from his own eyes, as a journalist and his extensive travels and meetings with foreign leaders and underground activists.
I’m inspired by his muckraking journalism, his unflinching willingness to take on the rich and the powerful when needed. Muckraking journalism used be far more common in the US as newspapers investigated graft in city hall, or uncovered hosts of nefarious activities by politicians and business leaders. Muckraking meant standing up for the public good, pointing out the corrupt and the criminal, campaigning against exploitative industries and organizations, etc.
We need more muckrakers like Hitchens in times like these. But now we have one less.
Here’s a quote from a wonderful piece on Hitchens in Slate, written by his friend Jacob Weisberg:
For young D.C. journalists, nothing was headier than Hitchens’ boozy instruction in radical politics and literature…
…I learned better than to try to drink like the Hitch. But his example was in every other way an inspiring one.
Like all of us, he was often wrong, but never in the way everyone else was wrong. His originality was a constant, his independence an unstoppable engine.
He loved to argue and debate, not because he was a bully but because he thought it pointed in the direction of truth. And possibly because he was better at it than anyone else. It was moving to see Christopher applying his integrity to the experience of dying. He went out on his own terms, with no sentimentality or regret, telling it straighter than anyone else would dare.