Christopher Hitchens’s Contradictory Legacy


It seems entirely possible that Christopher Hitchens will be primarily remembered in America for his public atheism. I suspect Hitchens himself was surprised at how wildly popular God Is Not Great became, giving much-needed voice and ammunition to thousands of godless heathens in the land of the drive-through church.

Yet it’s an inadequate way to remember the man, and not because Hitchens did little more in that book than to lay some tracing paper on the Enlightenment’s best thinkers and draw giddily (though with acidic and often very funny ink), or because—this is not an exaggeration—the American public regards atheists on about the same level as rapists.

The problem is that splitting the atheism away from the body of Hitchens’s work debases it into a kind of rascally parlor trick—”Uncle Christopher, say the mean thing about Mother Teresa again!“—and distracts from the thorny paradox at the heart of Hitchens’s thinking. Which is: While certainly an enemy of superstition and an eager chronicler of the sins and idiocies of the world’s religions, Hitchens was actually a lifelong believer, if strictly in man-made gods. It is impossible to contemplate his prodigious and passionate writing without recognizing that it was always animated by crusades, holy men, and devils.

Indeed, the Hitchens universe was long populated by notions of absolute good and evil, stretching back to his days as a student Trotskyite. This tendency was tempered by a love of literature and the cocoon of irony that writers wrap around themselves. But Hitchens himself spoke of the struggle between the literal and ironic minds, and it is an aptly Hitchensian contradiction that the episode, I think, that created his own brand of fundamentalist was in defense of the ironic mind—in 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for the supposed blasphemy of The Satanic Verses.

The importance of the Rushdie saga on Hitchens’s thinking cannot be overstated. “I felt at once that here was something that completely committed me,” he wrote in his splendid memoir, Hitch-22. “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved.” This is of course a functional definition of evil and good. And there were obviously implications for the future, once Hitchens learned that among the Western left, it is entirely possible for well-meaning people, in the name of multicultural “understanding” or “tolerance” of non-Western societies, to overlook and even excuse atrocities and barbarism that would never be acceptable if perpetrated, say, by the Republican Party and its allies.

Few today would find fault with Hitchens’s stance or actions on behalf of Rushdie. But he began to apply the moral purity he derived from it to situations where the good-versus-evil ledger was not so neatly visible. From the mid- to late-’90s on, when the books on Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, and Henry Kissinger were published, the absolutism had pretty much taken over his work.

The fervent animosity of Crusader Hitchens could produce searing and hilarious prose. Of Bill Clinton he wrote: “His prolixity remains stubborn and incurable, yet it remains a fact that in all his decades of logorrhea Clinton has failed to make a single remark (absent some lame catch phrases like ‘New Covenant’ and of course the imperishable ‘It all depends on what the meaning of “is” is’) that could possibly adhere to the cortex of a thinking human being.”

But the crusading mind-set also created a moral measuring tape that could trip or even strangle Hitchens’s later views. The most obvious example is that the war in Iraq produced crimes and tragedies at least as venal as those that make up Hitchens’s persuasive indictment of Henry Kissinger. And yet on such subjects—Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Haditha, etc.—Hitchens was either silent or tortuously defensive. Double standards are hardly unique to him, but perhaps they sting more because the strength of his rhetoric provided such succor to those who wanted to believe he was right.

Including himself. Writing about Iraq in Vanity Fair in 2003, Hitchens predicted that “it will emerge that Saddam always intended to reconstitute his WMD program.” That this prediction did not come true does not mean that Hitchens was wrong, exactly. But then in the memoir published last year, he wrote: “If I was ever naïve about anything having to do with Iraqi WMD, it was in believing that the production of evidence like that, or indeed any other kind of evidence, would make even the most limited impression on the heavily armored certainties of the faithful.” By “the faithful,” he meant supporters of radical Islam. But when Hitchens was in holy-warrior mode, belief in the absence of evidence was a trait he shared with his sworn foes.