Remembering Christopher Hitchens


The Tuning Fork

The writer Christopher Eric Hitchens, affectionately known as “Hitch” to those who knew him or his works, passed away from esophageal cancer on Dec. 15, 2011. I was in Atlantic City at the time, unwinding from a night of poker and blackjack and sitting on the bed of my Harrah’s hotel room sipping Johnnie Walker Black Label, Hitchens’ favorite drink. I remember distinctly — despite the Black Label coursing its rich flavor into my liver — the sinking feeling in my stomach as I let out a small sigh. In an instant, I went from unbridled joy, drinking and gambling in one of America’s dens of iniquity, to a feeling of personal loss for a man I had never met, nor even seen in person. And except for in online atheist communities, his death was but a passing note in obituaries and on television. Hitchens wasn’t exactly an appeaser of the public. Some of his best-known works include a scathing account of Mother Teresa’s work in India and a little book titled “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” However, the man’s legacy is far greater than was accounted for.

Hitchens started his life in American journalism writing for the weekly magazine The Nation in the early 1980s, where he immediately stirred controversy for his hatred for former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., as well as many of Reagan’s policies and their effects in Central and South America. He was among the first to report on atrocities in Africa, especially in the Darfur region of Sudan. Gore Vidal named Hitchens his heir — a title that Hitchens refused, considering Vidal’s support for Sept. 11 conspiracy theories. He was named one of the top 100 intellectuals by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines, and he won multiple awards for his journalism. While most of his journalistic efforts were finished by the 2000s, Hitchens still managed to make headlines.

Though he was a socialist throughout much of his youth, Christopher Hitchens supported the American invasion of Iraq and interventionist American policies in Middle Eastern regions. Many liberals were aghast to hear this from a man who was seemingly liberal, but Hitchens made no compromises in his political views. Despite supporting former President George Bush Jr. in his foreign policy, he detested Bush’s advocacy for intelligent design, capital punishment, and the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique. Hitchens was one of the few to actually undergo waterboarding, which was recorded by the magazine Vanity Fair, where he was a contributing editor. The demonstration ended in seconds, after which his verdict was clear.

Far and away, Hitchens’ popularity exploded in the mid-2000s with the dawn of websites like YouTube and Reddit, which allowed videos of atheist-theist debates to be available to any individual with Internet access and enabled communities to come together around certain topics, respectively. Hitchens’ debate skills were unrivaled, and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins summed them up well with the warning, “If you are a religious apologist invited into a debate with Christopher Hitchens, decline.” Hitchens debated a number of Christian, Muslim and Jewish apologists, rarely declining, and almost always “won” the debate. In an Intelligence Squared debate, he and writer Stephen Fry demolished two Christian adversaries by a massive margin, convincing most of the audience that the Catholic Church was not a “force for good.” It was through this medium of social commentary and debate that Hitchens became a hero in the atheist and secular communities.

This is how I encountered Hitchens, one of the “Four Horsemen” of atheism — Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett being the other three. By most accounts, Hitchens shouldn’t have been a visionary. He wasn’t a philosopher like Dennett, a neuroscientist like Harris, or a biologist like Dawkins. Instead, Hitchens was armed with only his sharp mind — and sharper tongue — to reach the minds of millions. And that is exactly what Hitchens did. I remember that, as a high school student, watching Hitchens win debate after debate made me secure with my own lack of faith and confident to explore more to make sure my logic was, in my mind, correct.

His death was not unnoticed. The atheist community expressed their sorrows and gratitude online, tweeting at Hitchens with the hashtag “GodisNotGreat.” The hashtag reached the top trends on Twitter’s main site until pressure from religious users forced Twitter to take down the trend. Ironically, this was the exact sort of event Hitch would have loved, smirking with impunity at a majority’s attempt to marginalize a small but vocal minority’s voice. I’m sure he would have smiled and raised his glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label, much like I intend to every time I pour a glass, to honor one of the greatest — but unappreciated — thinkers of our time.

   

Cody Gorman is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and Middle Eastern studies with a minor in history. His column, “The Tuning Fork,” normally runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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