My esteemed colleague Christopher Hitchens died 12 days ago of esophagal cancer at the age of 62. He was a colossus in our letters, one of the most informed and honest voices in the discourse, one of the great intellects and most important public intellectuals of our time. No one can replace him.Incredibly prolific, always provocative, Hitch had a huge knowledge base to draw on from rigorous classical liberal arts education at Cambridge and his voracious reading. He grasp of the human condition, and what is going on the world, what this is all about, were unmatched by anyone writing regularly that I am aware of.
it’s hard to imagine that this brilliant mind, so alive to what was going on, has been extinguished. Maybe it hasn’t, maybe Hitch is in heaven, though not if he had anything to say about it. A staunch atheist, he would have become apoplectic at the suggestion., Heaven, that there was a judgment day and an afterlife, being another fantasy of institutionalized religion, the Christian addition actually traceable to the ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs like amanita muscaria, Moses’ burning bush, and ayahuasca, which gives some people including my wife, who in l988 after taking daimi, the ayahuasca sacrament of the Amazon rubber tappers, spent four hours up in the sky with these people who were all wearing white robes– the classic heaven experience. Still it’s hard to imagine a mind so hard-headed and engaged simply stopping to be.
Hitch documented his final decline in detail in his Vanity Fair column– real class– and tackled other subjects that arouse his ire or tickled his fancy right up to the end
But even Hitch had limitations, a ceiling, as we all do, and with his abomination of hagiography, it seems only appropriate to point this out. A formidable erudite transplanted British urban intellectual, he never transcended his cultural world view, and this limited his ability to penetrate other cultures, limited his reportage from Zaire, say, or his ability to understand how other species see the world. He didn’t have much sensitivity to the natural world or to traditional people or to how mankind is destroying the world or what is being lost.
Hitch was a contrarian, and like a prosecutor he tried to make his position as unassailable and strong as possible, glossing over the facts that don’t fit into the pciture he is trying to paint. He tended to be too black and white. In his zeal to debunk the hypocrisy and Machiavellian politics of institutionalized religion, for instance, he portrayed Mother Teresa as major corrupto, up there with the mafia, which I thought was over the top. Mother Teresa was a simple selfless humble Italian woman a pious nun who devoted her life to trying to alleviate the suffering of India’s poor. True that charities attract all sorts of people, including people who exploit them and milk them and divert their funds for their own ends, and not all donors are people you really want anything to do with, but you have to if you want the money, so the mission can be compromised. Some humanitarians and do gooders even have a venal kinky dark side. Look at Roger Casement, whose journals revealed, after he was knighted for his contribution to ending slavery and was executed for being a spy for Irish independence movement, proved to have been sodomizing the young men and boys on the rubber gangs on the Putumayo whose atrocities he was exposing. Nothing is really black and white, the more you look into it.
The problem with being a polemicist is that you go for the jugular. I had no problem with Hitch’s demolishing of Henry Kissinger, whose course on the realpolitik of Bismarck and Metternich I took at Harvard before he entered the political arena himself. A lot of the Germanic militarism of our floundering imperium in the last quarter of the 20th century can be attributed to him.
I met Hitch once, had dinner with him at his sprawling, booklined apartment in Washington. We got into an argument about the reality of global warming, his latest bete noir. Hitch referred me to an article in Counterpoint where Alexander Cockburn subjected the global warming narrative to close scrutiny and found places where it didn’t hold up. I referred him to the IPCC’s Web site which had a 30 page discussion of the frequently raised questions about the greenhouse hypothesis, which I was beginning to see wasn’t so black and white myself, there being 104 cyclical astronomical phenomena that are also in play, as I had just learned from veteran glaciologists at the Russian Academy of Science, one of whom told me that the entire Russian arctic coast from Murmanks to the Behring Strait was ice-free in the thirties, which it still isn’t in the thirties, and global warming hadn’t kicked in yet. I had been a long-time believer in global warming, ever since I saw a fire supposedly bigger than Belgium on the Volkswagen cattle ranch in the Amazon in l975 pouring thick black smoke into the eye as far as I could see. You knew this had to be having an effect. It would be astonishing if we didn’t have a heavy hand in the clearly warming global temperature and the dramatic increase in extreme weather events and natural disasters. But the truth is, nobody knows how much of a hand.
But I surprised myself, reacting to Hitch’s reservations defensively, like a devout Christian becoming exercised by some blasphemy. It is true that global warming has become a sort of cult, like Darwinism, that scientists have to be in step with to get funded these days. But this doesn’t mean that, also like Darwinism, it isn’t basically true. It is just that other things are going on. I had swallowed the greenhouse theory hook line and sinker, without ever examining it with the skepticism of a true reporter or scientist, because it made perfect sense and fit into my first-hand observations how modern civilization is destroying the world, and Hitch had unmasked me. The skeptical contrarian, the rigorous independent thinker questioning our pat assumptions– how important that is for a healthy society. We’ve lost a major reality check, one of our worldclass shit-disturbers.