Since discovering the writings of Christopher Hitchens in the pages of The Nation (before he had a post 9/11 hissyfit and stomped off its pages) many years ago, I’ve had an odd relationship with him as a reader, mixed with admiration and disappointment.
Given his passing, I’ve found myself revisiting these feelings, and offer the following thoughts for whatever they might be worth . . .
First, cancer can suck it.
Second, seriously, cancer can suck it. Hard.
Third, my ambivalent feelings about Hitchens come in part from the mixed bag of his political positions. Yes, Kissinger did criminal things. But the man who made the case against Kissinger turns around and supports an illegal and immoral war in Iraq? Yes, waterboarding is obviously torture. But Bush deserved reelection?
That, however, is garden-variety differences in opinion on specific issues. I feel a bit more conflicted about Hitchens because (I think) of a deeper disconnect. On one hand, I admire his rhetorical skill greatly, as well as his willingness to take on conventional wisdom. But on the other, I found myself turned off by what I felt was too often a boorish and bullying style when he turned his sites on targets that, while perhaps in need of criticism, also called for a more nuanced approach than Hitchens was willing or able to deliver.
Take, for example, his infamous skewering of Mother Teresa. On one hand, it’s probably good to cast a skeptical eye on figures in society who seem beyond reproach and ask if our unqualified praise is merited. Is it possible that, in celebrating the alleged virtues of poverty and championing policies of the Catholic Church (e.g. no contraception), Mother Theresa at times did and said things that might have run counter to her professed mission to help the poor? I don’t know, but it’s a question worth asking. On the other hand, to lambaste the woman as a “fanatic, fundamentalist, and a fraud” is like lighting a candle with a flamethrower: obscene overkill lacking any careful use of that quality Hitchens professed be committed to—reason.
It was that needlessly bombastic, pugilistic rhetorical style that made me feel a bit uncomfortable even when I found myself in general agreement with him. It’s also what made his career, so I can’t say that he would have been better off taking a more nuanced approach to his topics, but I felt he sometimes gave “reason” and “intellect” a bad name by wielding them like a Bowie knife rather than a scalpel.