It has been a little over six years since the death of Christopher Hitchens. An avid drinker and smoker, his habits triggered esophageal cancer and brought about his premature end. Although his death was hardly a surprise given the public knowledge of his ailment, that spared his fans no pain, me in particular. The man had quite an impact on me. He is perhaps the first public intellectual that truly caught my attention, and he ended up being a critical character in my maturation.
I fondly remember a specific instance while on a service detail at Ft. Pickett during my years as an Army cadet. Given the 2000–0400 shift for three days, I spent my time reading some books that I had recently purchased, which included Hitchens’s bestseller God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. In the middle of reading it, I peeked up at the civilian clock on the wall. The hands indicated that it was 11:55. I returned to my reading again, before looking at the clock once more. It now read 12:05. A new day had begun, and I was no longer a teenager but now a man in his twenties. What better way to make the transition than by reading Hitchens, I thought?
Looking back, so much has changed since his final hours. When he died, Barack Obama was still in his first term as President. The New Atheist movement was still plugging along. ISIS was not yet a danger. No one imagined that Donald Trump would become our President, and I doubt Hitchens was any wiser to that eventuality. Now, political polarization has reached new heights. Identity politics has taken off, leading to countless, sometimes violent demonstrations on liberal university campuses. Fake news floods the ionosphere. North Korea, one of Hitchens’s favorite topics, has finally attained nuclear weapons. I could go on.
In this deluge of chaos, only Sam Harris remains as one his prominent contemporaries of the New Atheist movement, with Dawkins and Dennett fading from the public eye. Though other figures have emerged in this time, no one has quite filled the void that Hitchens left. He had an insight — and a style — that was all his own, one that is sorely missed. Students of his, such as myself, fantasize about the things he might have said and the positions he might have taken about our current matters. His objective analysis, coated in a delightful sense of irony, would probably prove useful in the heat of such bitterness — his own controversial nature aside.
I am sure most would want to know how he would have felt about the current President. Some who venture the question suspect that he would have been a supporter. While it is true that he and Trump would have agreed over criticism of Islam and that he may have concurred with some of Trump’s military actions in the Middle East, the truth is that Trump embodied so many of the qualities that Hitchens found contemptible. Trump is a chronic liar and a fraud, after all. Hitchens probably would have found little difference between the phoniness of the reality TV star in the White House and the likes of Jerry Falwell, another conman whom Hitchens derided for his manipulation of others to satisfy his greed, even in the wake of Falwell’s own death.
While I believe he would have been a vocal opponent of the President, I also believe that he would have found few friends in the political left. The mere utterance of “identity politics” would have produced a necrotic stench to the likes of Hitchens. One of his more famous quotes stands out: “Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others.” Indeed, the current trends of liberalism run counter to the values he celebrated: honest discussion, irony, and the responsibility of the individuals to transcend groupthink. One can imagine that the Southern Poverty Law Center might accuse him of being a racist and a misogynist for his pointed and accurate critiques of far-left ideology.
It may be fun to picture these things in our heads, but at the end of the day, this is only speculation. I find greater use in remembrance of the values he taught me. He taught me not to take for granted my religious certainties and to respect the doubters and the skeptics. I also learned from him the power of the English language, whether written or spoken, and its potential to guide mankind into the halls of knowledge. He showed me the importance of standing up for what is right and true, with endless resolve and not an ounce of reservation.
Ultimately, though, no lover of his is without options. Hitchens was a writer, that his words might have the permanence to educate and guide others in the years to come. If we remember the man and what he preached well, we can see exactly what he would have said or done on this day, through our own choices. Indeed, if he could come back, I believe that he would look us squarely in the eye and ask, “What would you do?”
Revision, 5/22: I appear to have neglected this classic line from the man himself, which seems to fit rather well with my thesis: “Finally, I think one must deny to anyone the right to ventriloquize the dead.”