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#BornThisDay: Provocateur, Christopher Hitchens

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April 12, 1949Christopher Hitchens:

“Donald Trump manages to cover 90% of his head with 30% of his hair, so that’s an achievement.”

Writer, orator, religious, social and literary critic, journalist, Hitchens claimed that while attending Oxford University he slept with two men who went on to become prominent members of Margaret Thatcher‘s conservative government.

He said the encounters were a “mildly enjoyable to white-hot relapse” into gayness that had begun for him at his all-male boys’ school, an experience seemingly shared by everyone at these British boys’ schools. In his Hitch-22: A Memoir (2010), Hitchens writes that he did have a seemingly deep, romantic relationship with a boy named Guy, and that whenever he heard the name, he would “twitch a little”.

Hitchens was nearly kicked out over their affair. He wrote:

“We were allowed to stay on but forbidden to speak to each other. At the time, I vaguely but quite worriedly thought that this might have the effect of killing me.”

He eventually became a dedicated straight man because, he said, his good-looks deteriorated to the point where no man would have him.

For most of his career, Hitchens, was one of leftists’ biggest stars, writing and broadcasting his opinions with wit, style and originality during an era when those qualities were missing in political pundits. He wrote and spoke with confidence and passion for what Americans call “Liberalism” and Hitchens called “Socialism”. He felt that the term “liberal” as too evasive.

He targeted the abusers of power. He took on Henry Kissinger, whom he tried to bring to trial for his role in bombing Cambodia. He labeled Bill Clinton a liar and a rapist. He dared to criticize and satirize the Royal Family and Mother Teresa (“a thieving fanatical Albanian dwarf“); He was unrelenting in his support for the Palestinian cause and his criticism of the flexing of the USA’s power in Asia and Latin America.

He enjoyed a dual career as a political agitator and a high society bon vivant, participating in antiwar demonstrations by day and cocktail parties with elite at night.

After university, Hitchens travelled, at his own expense, to places such as Poland, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Argentina at crucial moments in their anti-totalitarian struggles. He rarely wrote about any country without visiting it, sometimes at risk of arrest or worse. He loathed of tyranny, and he grew suspicious of the left’s selective tolerance for totalitarian regimes. In 1983, he lost some of his “comrades” by supporting Thatcher’s war against Argentina.

After 9/11, Hitchens announced he was no longer on the left, at the same time denying he had become any sort of conservative. He was convinced that radical elements in the Islamic world posed a mortal danger to Western principles of political liberty and freedom of speech. His position began in 1988 with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwah against writer Salman Rushdie for his supposedly blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses.

To the dismay of his fans, he accepted invitations by George W. Bush to the White House; and resigned from The Nation, the foremost American leftwing magazine. In 2007, after living in the USA for more than 25 years, he became an American citizen in a ceremony presided over by Michael Chertoff, Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security. He lost many longtime friendships with members of the British and American left. Yet, Gore Vidal named Hitchens as his intellectual heir.

Hitchens grew up in Portsmouth, England. His father was a career officer in the Royal Navy. He described his family as lower-upper-class, and though it put a strain on the family budget, he was sent to private schools at the insistence of his mother. He once overheard her tell his father: “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it”. He did not like being called “Chris”, and found “Hitch”, which most friends used, more acceptable.

After Oxford, he found work at The New Statesman. Hitchens:

“I would do my day jobs at various mainstream papers and magazines and television stations, and then sneak down to the East End, where I was variously features editor of Socialist Worker and book review editor at The International Socialist.”

In Hitch-22, he writes that the worst moment in his life was 1973 when he was summoned to Greece with the news of the death of his mother in a suicide pact with her lover, a lapsed priest. Years later, he learned that she came from a family of east European Jews, a fact no one had bothered to tell him. His brother, who first discovered their mother’s geneology, said this made them only one-32nd Jewish, Hitchens declared himself a Jew.

In the 1970s, Hitchens hung out in bars and restaurants with the British literary set that included Martin Amis, among others. The group liked to play a game in which they came up with the sentence least likely to be uttered by one of their members. Hitchens’ was:

”I don’t care how rich you are, I’ m not coming to your party.”

His work from The Nation was the making of his career. Americans have always had a weakness for plummy English accents from raffish gentlemen who pepper their writing and conversation with literary and historical allusions.

Hitchens became a contributing editor at Vanity Fair from 1982, literary critic for Atlantic Monthly, a frequent contributor to the New York Review Of Books and a pundit cable news shows. He wrote 11 books, co-authored six more, and had five collections of essays published. His favorite subjects were George Orwell, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. His most successful book is God Is Not Great : How Religion Poisons Everything (2007).

Hitchens was a Liberal Studies professor at the New School in NYC, and at UC Berkeley, as well as a regular on the lecture and debate circuit. He loved what he called “disputation”, and there was not much difference between his public and private personas.

Hitchens did not deny he had changed. He ruefully remarked that he sometimes felt he should carry “some sort of rectal thermometer, with which to test the rate at which I am becoming an old fart”.

Yet, he insisted, he did make a complete philosophical U-turn. No longer a socialist, he remained committed to Civil Liberties, including LGBTQ Rights and Marriage Equality. After voluntarily undergoing waterboarding, he denounced it as torture, and he was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against W’s domestic spying program. And, he never let up on his “cold, steady hatred, as sustaining to me as any love, of all religions”.

Hitchens’s love affairs with booze and cigarettes were unwavering. He smoked heavily, even on public occasions, even on television, long after the habit became unacceptable. He drank daily, enough he said: “to kill or stun the average mule”. He was probably an alcoholic but, he pointed out, he never missed deadlines or appointments. He wrote fast and fluently. Drinking never seemed to make him a bore, blunt his wit or cloud his arguments. People who knew him said that drunk or sober, he was utterly charming.

In the summer of 2010, during a promotional tour for Hitch-22, Hitchens was diagnosed with terminal oesophageal cancer, the same disease that had killed his father. He lived in what he called “Tumourville” with rueful humor and without self-pity. He wrote in Vanity Fair:

“In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have abruptly become a finalist. I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me”.

He continued to take his beloved whisky, having received no medical instructions not to. Hitchens discussed the possibility of a deathbed conversion, insisting that the odds were slim that he would admit the existence of God:

“The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain. I can’t guarantee that such an entity wouldn’t make such a ridiculous remark, but no one recognizable as myself would ever make such a remark.”

He was as tough on the clichés of cancer as he was, throughout his life, with any other form of convention. He wrote:

“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’, the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply, ‘Why not?'”

In October 2013, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma. In spring of 2014, it looked as if I might not make it. But, make it I did , and my husband, knowing I was a fan, gave me a copy of Hitchens’ trenchant, tragically posthumous slim black book Mortality (2012), a collection of essays about his cancer which now sits on my “death books” shelf, along with Joan Didion‘s The Year Of Magical Thinking (2005), Wild (2012) by Cheryl Strayed and Death Be Not Proud (1949) by John Gunther.

 


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