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article imageOp-Ed: Christopher Hitchens remembered three years on

By Glen Olives     Dec 9, 2014 in Politics
December 15 will mark the third anniversary of Christopher Hitchens' death, arguably the greatest polemecist, essayist, contrarian, provocateur, orator, and public intellectual of his generation.
He was a polymath with a complicated life, both intellectually and personally: he eschewed dogmatism, promoted antitheism, and publicly accused Henry Kissinger of being a war criminal. He called Bill Clinton a serial rapist, and Mother Teresa a "thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf." He was a self-admitted British Marxist who enthusiastically supported George W. Bush’s Iraq War, eventually becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was nothing if not a man of contradictions. He collected enemies like people collect refrigerator magnets. And he loved every minute of it.
A notorious drinker, he was open about his alcoholism. He chain-smoked Rothmans. He often said that he burned the candle at both ends, "and it gave a lovely light." He wrote 25 books and countless essays and articles for Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic, among many other of the most influential and widely read magazines in print.
Hitchens succumbed to esophageal cancer on December 15, 2011 at the too-young age of 62 and was eulogized in the U.S. Congress the very next day.
Hitchens said so much about so many things in so many ways, it would be impossible to summarize his prolific intellectual output except in a book-length work. For this author, his legacy lies mostly in bringing, almost single-handedly, the public debate back into the realm of entertainment, even art (a territory it once comfortably occupied before the advent of television). He could debate any topic, but the combination of his polemic style, encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s religious texts, passion for secular humanism, and unconcealed hatred for organized religion, made him unbeatable when put up against Christian and other religious apologists.
His debating style came across as sometimes cavalier, often arrogant, but always brutally effective. Normally debaters attack their opponents’ weakest arguments first, taking the low-hanging fruit. Hitchens didn’t do that. Like Karl Popper, he would first improve his enemy’s argument, often building it up to an impressive level of plausibility, before kicking the legs out from under it, to devastating effect.
Watching a Hitchens debate was like watching a great play or concert — it was art while at the same time being intellectual discourse. Hitchens’ debate with Frank Turek, while not the best known, and not even the best, is a beautiful example of this. Hitchens appears slightly inebriated. He repeatedly loses his microphone. As the debate proceeds Hitchens casually and confidently swats away Turek’s attacks with a perfectly modulated voice-made-for-radio and forwards his own assaults which Turek can’t seem to fully grasp. As Hitchens’ confidence grows (he at times even seems to become bored) Turek gets shrill and frustrated, almost hysterical at points. It is a beautiful thing to watch. And of course as the British philosopher Bryan Magee has famously noted, describing art can never be the same experiencing it: some things can be shown but not said. You just have to experience it for yourself.
His written works too, are every bit as powerful as his debating prowess. He wrote as eloquently about the art of the blowjob as about catholic epistemology and modern cosmology.
Christopher Hitchens exhibited an uncommonly rare trait among public figures: he seemed to care only, and almost exclusively, about what was true. If what he believed led him into a direction which impinged on his liberal political predilections, he did not falter, did not equivocate, and did not change his mind for want of comfort or love or convenience. Thus, he confounded his otherwise left-leaning compatriots by endorsing Bush’s Iraq War, brutally criticizing Bill Clinton and the late Princess Diana, and confounding liberals by universally condemning Islam as a religion. Political conservatives could take no comfort either. He berated, to the point of bullying, cultural conservatives. He famously and repeatedly said in various interviews on American talk shows that if the notorious and rotund reverend Jerry Falwell (on the very day of his funeral) were to have been given an enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox. Ouch. He fulminated against Michele Bachman, Sarah Palin and Al Gore, all in the same article for Slate.
A graduate of Oxford’s Balliol College, Hitchens was no stranger to robust debate, and his lucidity was matched only by his verve. Sam Harris, a fellow-traveler on the debate and lecture circuit said of Hitchens, “The man had more wit and style and substance than a few civilizations I could name.”
Even for his enemies, it would be hard to disagree.
His last words are reported to have been, "Capitalism, downfall." What I wouldn't give to know what he was thinking at that moment, what was gnawing at his beautiful mind, what grand polemic would come next. Of course we shall never know. And it makes me sad.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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