There’s Only One Hitch

Christopher Hitchens didn’t take many prisoners. The day after the Rev. Jerry Falwell died he went on Fox news to declare, “If you gave Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox.”

Hitchens himself was buried, probably in something larger than a matchbox, in 2011 at age 62, the victim of cancer. He left behind several books and hundreds of thousands of words of commentary, criticism and some straight ahead reporting.

What I like about him most is that he never stopped thinking and changing. That’s rare in a writer, which may seem odd because when your job is to learn stuff and then synthesize it you’d figure to come up against ideas you find persuasive, change your mind and then maybe change it again to something else entirely.

But that’s not what most writers do, at least not successful ones. Instead, what tends to happen is that you find a niche and a following and then, just like a politician, the last thing you want to do is write anything that would upset the fan base. You keep your window open and your ears tuned for the sound of a parade and when you think you hear one you rush down to the street so that you can race to the front of it.

Christopher Hitchens

Not Christopher Hitchens. If he stumbled upon a liberal parade he’d rain on it. He started out a socialist, wrote for The Nation and then moved to the right, going so far as to endorse George W. Bush in 2004.

But one way to look at Hitchens is that he really didn’t move at all in terms of his core beliefs. He always believed in classical liberal values — free speech and the separation of church and state, chief among them. So, when Islamic terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, Hitchens thought it was honest to call them just that — Islamic terrorists — while most of his friends on the left couldn’t bring themselves to say what was simply true.

Hitchens came to see the U.S. (his adopted homeland, he also maintained his British citizenship) as the world’s leading defender of Enlightenment values and he didn’t hesitate to call out the left for being apologists for fascism.

So, I’m looking forward to a new book on Hitchens to be released next month, How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment, The book is by Matt Johnson, a journalist and author, who previewed his book with an interesting piece in Persuasion last week.

Here’s the gist of Johnson’s argument:

(Hitchens) opposed identity politics, because he didn’t think our social and civic lives should be reduced to rigid categories based on melanin, X chromosomes, and sexuality. He recognized that the Enlightenment values of individual rights, freedom of expression and conscience, humanism, pluralism, and democracy are universal—they provide the most stable, just, and rational foundation for any civil society, whether they’re observed in America or Europe or Iraq.

And yes, he argued that these values are for export. Hitchens believed in universal human rights. This is why, at a time when his comrades were still manning the barricades against the “imperial” West after the Cold War, he argued that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should intervene to stop a genocidal assault on Bosnia. It’s why he argued that American power could be used to defend human rights and promote democracy. As many on the Western left built their politics around incessant condemnations of their own societies as racist, exploitative, oligarchic, and imperialistic, Hitchens recognized the difference between self-criticism and self-flagellation.

That pretty well sums up our point of view around here at YSDA, We’re just like Christopher Hitchens minus a bit of intellectual firepower and several million readers. It’s one thing to be appropriately self-aware, but quite another to be reflexively self-loathing, which is what college-educated urban liberals have become — maybe what they always were, only more so now. The guilty white liberal was always a thing, but now he’s the poster child of the Democratic Party and the left in general.

Hitchens has been dead for over a decade and there are living writers who have picked up that mantle. I like Steven Pinker, Andrew Sullivan and Ruy Teixiera as just three examples. But none of them has Hitchens’ bite as a writer.

Hitchens was an outspoken atheist who didn’t believe in an afterlife. But, sure enough, his ideas are outliving him despite himself while the likes of Jerry Falwell are dead, dead, dead.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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