Christopher Hitchens died ten years ago, December 15, 2011. Maybe you knew him. Maybe you didn’t. A man of the left, Hitchens rose to fame skewering conservatism, the Clinton Administration, and then spent the last decade of his life advocating the necessity of the War on Terror. He was, as anyone familiar with his work and life knows, a committed anti-fascist. Hitchens found his war against fascism in the War on Terror, which, for him, was a war against Islamo-fascism.
The charge that Hitchens became an intolerable Islamophobe is the usual, lazy, slandering of the contemporary Thought Police and their doublespeak ideology. Many of the people who criticized Hitchens’s views on Islam were probably cheering his attacks on Judaism and Christianity before the War on Terror (and possibly even during it whenever Hitchens had the tenacity to ridicule Christianity or debate some of its leading apologists). Hitchens, instead, saw the terroristic spirit of Islamic Jihadism as an abhorrent manifestation of fascism—something that he had long wished to confront to make his bones as an anti-fascist. As Hitchens said in 1995, he hoped the time would come that he (and his anti-fascist comrades) would have the opportunity to earn the “great title and honor” of being an anti-fascist. In his mind, he found it at the end of his life.
My encounter with Hitchens began in high school. Although I played varsity sports, I was also an honors student and something of a budding writing and intellectual. The Surge in Iraq was drawing to a close and the 2008 election was occurring. Caught up in the frenzied emotions and turbulence of the time, just as the modern iteration of the internet with YouTube, podcasts, and freely accessible interviews from a bygone era were emerging, Christopher Hitchens entered my life (notwithstanding some appearances on CNN and Fox News). Hitchens’s commitment to the War on Terror and why it mattered, as well as his critique of religion, entered into my life. Later, my AP English teacher would loan me several of her books she had of his: Why Orwell Matters and The Parthenon Marbles.
I didn’t consider myself a disciple of Hitchens, but I did borrow many of his arguments and adopted many of his views during those impressionable and formative years. Having grown older, hopefully wiser, and also more educated, I realize now that the dazzling intellect that mesmerized me in my middle teens was more polemical and rhetorical than intellectual and educated. This is not to say that Hitchens wasn’t an intellectual or educated. Among serious columnists and critics, he was certainly better than most. But as I recently have gone through graduate school on some of the topics he often wrote and spoke on—religion, politics, philosophy—I can look back and see through his linguistic grace and dine at a table with a man who paved the way for our contemporary social media stars.
In this age of social media, polemics, not a deep intellect, is what matters. In an appropriate touch of irony, something that Hitchens was fond of, polemics sells in our consumeristic age. And he certainly pioneered the art of polemics right as the earliest iterations of social media were emerging which captured my mind.
I gravitated to Hitchens for three reasons. First, I grew up in a family that broadly supported the American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the Surge. Like many young boys, I was raised on John Wayne, the History Channel, and a masculine impulse for war. It didn’t help that I also played football and was a tournament champion wrestler. Though many films I had watched depict the horror of war, they also depicted the romance of war. Far away from such struggles, there was something alluring about the great conflict that had begun on September 11. Supporting the War on Terror was the closest a fifteen-year-old contrarian could do, and Hitchens was also a contrarian. And even though I supported Barack Obama over John McCain (as Hitchens did too), I needed someone who was “taken seriously” who supported the War. I found Hitchens to be that person.
Second, I had the desire to be a writer since middle school. It’s ironic how that turned out. Despite being the seventh grade Science student of the year, English and literature held more of my heart than the subjects that I was honored in and received near perfect grades in. Hitchens was my first real exposure to a living writer who was a master of his craft with a wit and style that made him distinctive right at an age when all aspiring writers want to have a rhetorical grace and style that makes them unique as well. Dead writers didn’t interest me as someone to emulate. Living writers did. And Hitchens was that living writer I wanted to emulate.
Third, while raised in an evangelical-ish household (non-denominational), I was beginning my own theological journey. While I sunk myself in the study of Reformed theology to the extent that an internet using and beginning book collecting high school student could, Hitchens’s critique of religion was also appealing during this period of religious curiosity. He drove me to reconsider my suppositions and beliefs. His critiques and witty retorts drove me to further investigation and study, to the extent that I could in my spare time juggling sports and school work among other things as an overly ambitious teen.
It is here, however, now graduated with a master’s degree in religious studies (historical theology and Bible) from Yale, I really can look back on those captivating moments of Hitchens and realize there was little historical or intellectual basis to them. For instance, his witticism that an intelligent God would make the choice to come to earth in the backwaters of desert Palestine instead of the cultured and educated parts of Asia or Europe was something quite shocking and almost persuasive. But the backwater Palestine Hitchens slapped in making fun of God’s incarnation was nothing but bloviated rhetoric. First century Palestine was a cultured and educated place. Jerusalem was a place of high learning. As were neighboring Alexandria and Antioch. The Near East that Jesus was born into wasn’t some backward hellhole as Hitchens claimed on stage, it was, in fact, one of the more vibrant and cultured and cultural places in the world at the time. As the Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote of Jerusalem, it was “the most celebrated city in the East.” Hitchens’s rhetorical brilliance masked his general historical ignorance.
When I was an undergraduate, studying history among other disciplines, Islamic history was a focus of my historical studies. It made sense to want to study Islam for me. The War on Terror was still ongoing. Fascination with antiquity had grown since my high school graduation. Islam was the other great Abrahamic faith. Hitchens, of course, had also been highly critical of Islam as part of his support for the War and Terror and as I entered my first Islamic studies class (an introduction to the religion), Hitchens was near death, and I procured copies of some of his literary writings for myself.
As with those witty retorts I found captivating in high school, my studies in Islamic history also revealed a polemical stance toward the religion than anything educated or deep. The Islam of the sword that Hitchens constantly lambasted was, to say the least, a bit more complicated than that. True, Islam spread primarily through conquest in its infancy, conquering Christian and Zoroastrian lands, but the depiction of Muhammad as a warlord is sketchy at best. The notion of Muhammad as a simpleton (punning on his illiteracy) also didn’t stand weight. Even if we accept Muhammad as illiterate and not receiving any special angelic visitation, the historical Muhammad is generally accepted as having been involved in conversation with the great theological debates of the seventh century on the periphery of the Christian world. The knowledge of the Old Testament, New Testament, and comments regarding, for instance, the Crucifixion of Jesus, reveal—according to historians—a Muhammad that was intimately involved in religious and theological debates in some fashion. Hardly that simpleton that Hitchens made him out to be.
As a student of philosophy (who now also holds a master’s degree in the subject), the Hitchens razor argument is more evidence of his florid rhetorical style. Hitchens’s presupposition is that there is no evidence for God. Therefore, any argument for God’s existence can be dismissed prima facie. In reality, Hitchens was lazy and didn’t want to consider the evidence for God’s existence so created his witty remark that anything advocated without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. It is actually a deeply anti-intellectual position to take even if that witticism lives on and is now used by a new generation of writers still indebted to him. No amount of proof provided could change his mind, and rather than deal with the proof, he could dismiss it out of hand with his rhetorical grace. And he certainly had much of that.
I eventually outgrew my infatuation with Hitchens. But, from time to time, I still do think about him and the influence he had on my life.
As a young, emerging, intellectual—if I can claim that term for myself—Hitchens was the first major figure who entered my life to spur my intellectual journey. As all intellectuals are wannabe contrarians, the contrarian Hitchens was also something a, pardon the irony, a godsend. Here was a man with the very gift of language I aspired to master for himself, and a man who challenged me to go deeper (even if he didn’t always go deeper himself) and gave me much ammunition for my own emerging beliefs. He will always have the place in my life.
Furthermore, my continued conflicted views on American power and the global order shepherded by the United States finds both friend and foe in Hitchens. Hitchens was, pre-2001, often a critic of American power. Post-2001, Hitchens became a defender of American power. Where American power threatened democracy, Hitchens was critical. Where American power could be used to throw back anti-democratic fascistic movements (Islamic Terrorism), Hitchens became supportive of the use of American power. As we move into the heart of the 21st century, it is clear that the unipolar moment is over. It is also clear that the absence of American power in the world, despite its recent overreaches and failures in Afghanistan and the Middle East, would permit dark forces to grow abroad. Like Hitchens, I too wrestle with the legitimate uses of American power while being wedded to the ideals of democratic republicanism (though of a more bourgeoise variation than Hitchens would like). Some people say Hitchens abandoned his principles later in life. I disagree.
This returns us to Hitchens’s anti-fascism which, in my view, he never abandoned. The focus of what Hitchens saw as the most dangerous manifestation of fascism did. His colleagues who shared his view that the most dangerous spirit of fascism emanated from forces within the United States couldn’t bring themselves to see the threat of Islamism posed to the very emergent multicultural democracies they comfortably lived in.
Before the September 11 Attacks, Hitchens saw the threat to cosmopolitan democracy emanating out of dissident elements of the American security complex. As such, he saw a quasi-fascistic ghost in the machine. Seeking to earn that badge of honor, anti-fascism, he took up arms against the supposed militancy of the United States from Vietnam to Kuwait. Yet he also recognized the debt democratic republicanism owed to the United States (and broader Western World that also birthed fascism), something that many of his fellow travelers come 2021 and beyond have seem to abandon entirely. He wasn’t necessarily anti-American. He was pro-American insofar that he wanted a more democratic and egalitarian America. The forces within America that threatened that possibility were to be fought as forces of quasi-fascism.
Then September 11 happened. Hitchens found his moment to earn that honorable badge of anti-fascism. Islamism, for Hitchens, was the real and dangerous manifestation of fascism he had long been crusading against: the use of physical violence and power and the redemptive notion of conflict to crush cosmopolitan democracy and women’s rights. Cosmopolitan democracy and women’s rights may not be perfect in the United States, but it exists in the United States and is now being directly threatened by Islamic fascists overseas (and potentially at home) and must be fought. The fight he had long wanted arrived—in his mind at the very least. In Hitchens’s mind, he was consistent to the end. After all, the war against fascism from 1939-1945 wasn’t victorious by diplomatic means. It took states and forces of arms and blood shed on the battlefield to defeat it. So too, now, Islamism. (If Hitchens was still alive, he would undoubtedly be highly critical of Trump and white nationalism as spirits of fascism too.)
Like a crude comedian one likes as a teen, I too liked Hitchens as a teen. Like that same crude comedian that a teen grows away from as his tastes change and grows tired of the same antics just directed at different targets, so too did I gravitate away from Hitchens as my education increased and values changed. But like that comedian who was formative on your early years, so too was Hitchens formative in my early years as an emerging critical thinker and aspiring writer. Hitchens no longer occupies that place in my pantheon as he did when I was younger, but his bust is still inside the opening halls of the journey that is still ongoing. I might now be far removed from that beginning place, but one never forgets where one began the journey. As such, I will never forget Christopher Hitchens—even if I mostly disagree with him now and realize he was more polemicist than serious intellectual.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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