Ethics Hero Emeritus: Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

Too many excellent writers are writing about Christopher Hitchens in the wake of his premature death from cancer for me to add much of value. I disagreed with Hitchens frequently, but then, so did everyone. What I appreciated was his integrity, which was unshakable. What I admired, and will always try to emulate, was his refusal to be seduced by convention, ideology, political agendas and partisan bias. Hitchens looked at the world with clear and piercing eyes, and dissected what he observed with a mind that was curious, rigorous, and forever open. Thus he was never a comfortable ally for liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, because he would never hesitate to arrive at conclusions that shocked his friends and cheered his friend’s enemies. He was fearless and principled.

Most of all, however, Christopher Hitchens wrote like an angel, a simile the committed atheist would have hated. It is a measure of the depths to which popular taste and intellect have fallen that the Mark Train Prize was awarded in recent years to the pedestrian likes of Will Farrell and Tina Fey when Hitchens routinely churned out prose wittier than their best efforts on the most inspired days of their creative lives. He was truly the spiritual and literary descendant of Mark Twain, as well as Swift, Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw, W.S. Gilbert, Dorothy Parker, Gore Vidal and the rest of the select crew of social critics blessed with the ability to infuriate, illuminate and amuse simultaneously. When he focused all of his passion, intellect and rhetorical skills on a topic he cared about, Hitchens was as close to an irresistible force as a writer can be. Yet his mission was always noble. His constant goals were truth, justice, fairness, and wisdom. Of him it could be fairly stated, as of few others, that while Christopher Hitchens was around, bullshit was never safe.

I’ll close with four links about Hitchens: the New York Times obituary, the Washington Post obituary, a collection of comments and other links about Hitchens, a collection of his essays, an appreciation from a friend, and a collection of some of his best quotes.

If you can only read one, choose the last. The list is heavily tilted toward Hitchens’ attacks on religion, and he wrote about so many other things, but it is representative of his skill and style. One quote on the list  in particular I remember well, and it makes me laugh every time I read it:

“If you gave [Jerry] Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox.

Ah, we’ll miss you, Hitch!

14 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

  1. Great post! I have had a hard time trying to describe exactly how I feel about the passing of this man. He was one of the most interesting individuals of the past few decades. I appreciate his honesty and satire. He truly was brilliant.

    • It’s not even criticism. The writer presumes the decision to go into Iraq was indefensible (he is absolutely wrong, which is not to say that it was a good decision, all things considered) and condemns Hitchens for defending it, while just making the usual bumper-sticker arguments.
      Then again, it’s Gawker.

    • It’s just a combination of presumptuousness, timing and the sense that Hitchens would have dismantled this like an M-16 if he were still here.

      While Hitchens surely would have enjoyed shredding it, I think he would have been upset if nobody used his silence to attack him.

      • You’re so right. Hitch LIKED being attacked. I wish I did. His situation made much more sense than mine—if you like being attacked, then it’s understandable why you would publicize unpopular or controversial positions, I hate it, and I still do the latter. Go figure.

  2. “[O]wners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.”
    I didn’t know this was Hitchens’? I really don’t know anything about him other than he was atheist and had cancer. I look forward to reading more of his quotes.

  3. “ ‘What is it you most dislike?’ Stupidity, especially in its nastiest forms of racism and superstition.”

    If only I could write like Hitch. At times, my ideas are similar, but my words are always more muddled. As always, his words were best:

    “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”

  4. I suppose one of life’s supreme ironies is in the first name that his parents gave him. “Christopher” means “Christ-Bearer”.

    A real LOL.

  5. “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that is where it should stay.” — (Hitchens) reminds me of “A gentleman is one who can play the accordion, but does not.” (Tom Waits, the “Re-Phraser”).

  6. Daily Beast had a collection of the best of Hitchens’s wit. Among his witty sayings: “She’s got no charisma of any kind [but] I can imagine her being mildly useful to a low-rank porn director.”

    Very witty. A shade above bill Maher’s wit.

  7. I am so grateful to Hitchens for supplying this one, which I make use of constantly in discussions on Religion and Politics:

    “Anyything that can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

    Also, this, which may or may not have been Hitchens:

    The problem is that when we ASSUME something without evidence, it makes an ASS of U and ME.

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