Monday, December 19, 2011 at 6:49 AM

Christopher Hitchens, archetypal polemicist, is dead

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

[I]t is my pleasure to introduce you to my favorite columnist, Christopher Hitchens, a regular contributor to such prestigious publications as The Atlantic, The Nation, Vanity Fair, Slate, and World Affairs. For it is he who has written the definitive article that puts this latest Washington farce into proper perspective. (Although, truth be told, his overzealous support for Bush’s war on terror risks alienating my intellectual affection. But I digress…)

(Who outed Valerie Plame? The iPINIONS Journal, August 31, 2006)

I am tempted to assert that Christopher Hitchens was so great a polemicist (in books, commentaries and debates), he’s the only one I’ve ever expressed public admiration for. But, as entertaining as I find Hitchens, I have far greater admiration and affinity for writers like Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges.

There is no gainsaying though that he was so skilled in the art of persuasion that he could prosecute both sides of almost any argument with equal effectiveness. This skill was very much on display when Hitchens, a pugnacious atheist, debated former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a newly converted Catholic, on whether religion is a force for good in the world.

It happened last year (November 28) when thousands crowded into a modest venue in Toronto, Canada to watch what was billed more as a death match between two gladiators than as a philosophical debate between two intellectuals. The fact that Hitchens was already displaying the ravages of cancer – complete with his head made bald like a cue ball from chemotherapy – gave the impression of a contrived handicap to give his foe a fighting chance.

As soon as he gave his first retort, however, it became clear not only that his illness had not diminished his intellect one iota, but that Hitchens would be showing the hopelessly outwitted Blair no mercy at all. Indeed, so domineering was Hitchens in making his case that the only regard he showed Blair was to begin making the former prime minister’s arguments for him only to eviscerate them with a barrage of recitations from his book God Is Not Great – the cumulative effect of which made anyone who believed in God seem like a delusional misanthrope.

He may not have won any converts to Atheism, but the spectators left no doubt that Hitchens was the undisputed winner. Incidentally, true to his religion, Blair spent much of the debate just turning the other cheek.

But Hitchens wasn’t just anti-religious, he made a virtue out of what religious people consider vices. The way he made drinking and smoking seem as indispensable to his career as his computer is testament to this fact.

Of course, that he was such a great debater does not mean that Hitchens was always right. Nor was he always so intellectually superior that he never soiled his arguments with ad hominems. This was the case, in both respects, when he engaged British MP George Galloway in a public-spirited war of words over the war in Iraq.

Ironically, Hitchens was proselytizing like a holy warrior in support of Bush’s invasion; whereas, Galloway was criticizing it with the intellectual fortitude and persuasion that were usually Hitchens’s forte. More to the point, Hitchens became so bereft of facts and reason that he settled for dismissing the “unmitigated Galloway” with self-satisfying retorts like this:

Unkind nature, which could have made a perfectly good butt out of his face, has spoiled the whole effect by taking an asshole and studding it with ill-brushed fangs.

(George Galloway is Gruesome, Slate, September, 5, 2005)

It obviously did not matter to Hitchens that, when it came to looks, unkind nature made him and Galloway two peas in a pod.

But such momentary lapses never undermined his iconic (and iconoclastic) take on so many issues of his day. Most notable in this respect was the way he demonstrated that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword by writing commentaries challenging the rectitude of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwah against his friend, the novelist Salman Rushdie. Recall that Rushdie was accused of blaspheming against Allah in his book The Satanic Verses. The Ayatollah is dead. Rushdie is alive and thriving … openly.

But he was equally daring in his critique of everything from the charitable work of Mother Teresa to the political hijinks of Bill Clinton, and from the parasitic imperiousness of the British monarchy to the putative foreign-policy accomplishments of Henry Kissinger.

I personally want to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive … to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me.

(From his 2010 memoir, ‘Hitch-22’)

As it happened, reports are that Hitchens did death not in the active, but in the passive as he succumbed to smoke-related esophageal cancer at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas on Thursday. No doubt he remained a devoted atheist to the end. So I pray God will have mercy on his soul.

Hitchens is survived by his wife, American writer Carol Blue, and their daughter, Antonia. He was 62.

Farewell, Christopher.

Related commentaries:
Who outed Valarie Plame?

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