Renowned author and journalist Christopher Hitchens, died yesterday, after a year long struggle with cancer. He leaves behind a modern legacy of articles and essay collections that project his solemn passion for Enlightenment values of reason and human rights. It is a passion keenly felt and shared here at iModernReview. In reading his works it would be difficult to find a more eloquent spokesman or fiercer champion of these issues in contemporary journalism.
‘Contradiction’ was a term that often followed in his wake. His bestselling memoir Hitch 22 and book Letters to a Young Contrarian focus on the much remarked shift from any easy labels of left and right-wing, liberal and conservative in his writing. His fierce critiques fix on an array of targets, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Theresa. Yet throughout his life, consistency is a term which encapsulates his allegiance to the reasoning mind and through his own, the tremendous output of his journalistic career. Oddly his decisive commentary is more the hard-won result of first embracing his doubt over easy certainty.
The modern Enlightenment, with its corollaries of science and individual rights he argued, are an outcome of continuous criticism. So long as a society embraced free speech, it would continue to seek the best explanations and correct its mistaken paths. Those darkest errors were never more apparent than his discomforting close analysis of the war zones he reported from.
We lose something important if we forget Kosovo and the harrowing events that finally led to the self-determination of its nearly 2 million inhabitants. Long deprived of even vestigial national and human rights, then forced to retreat at gunpoint onto deportation trains and threatened with the believable threat of mass murder, these people were belatedly rescued by an intervention that said, fairly simply, there is a limit beyond which law cannot be further broken down and conscience further outraged.
(‘Why Kosovo Still Matters, 2010)
A self-described Trotskyist, he denounced any totalitarian regimes’ – be they Left or Right – crackdown on dissent.
Spare me the letters that remind us all that Cuba has a good healthcare system and has abolished illiteracy. A healthy literate people do not need to be told what they can read.
(‘Minority Report’, 1989)
A journalist for liberal publications such as Slate and The Nation, he decried the Left’s pacifism and championed the US conservative government’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, visiting for himself Saddam Hussein’s chemical storehouses and the Kurdish mass-graves of the Iraqi regime. Yet he won an equal share of enemies on the Right. While many liberal publications including The New York Times would euphemistically adopt along with conservatives new coinages like ‘enhanced interrogation‘ Hitchens condemned water-boarding as torture, underwent waterboarding – himself as victim – so that he might objectively describe its horrors for readers of Vanity Fair.
Hitchens’ notoriety and fame rose in 2007 with god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Here again, Hitchens argued for Enlightenment values of doubt and continuous criticism. In embracing the ‘certainties’ of faith, he argued, people disarm themselves from their lifeline of continuous re-evaluation and reasoning thought. In the concluding chapter ‘The Need for a New Enlightenment’ he writes,
Of course it is better for the mind to “choose” the path of skepticism and inquiry in any case, because only by continual exercise of these faculties can we hope to achieve anything.
Herein lies both the virtue of an Enlightenment project and of Hitchens’ writing, that the ‘enemy’ of the modern has always been the uncritical and totalitarian mindset, as said again recently in his interview with Richard Dawkins for The New Statesman. The Enlightenment, if it is to have any fixed element, lies in codifying the freedom to doubt, change, think, alter, criticise and pursue. Hitchens found his enlightened place on Earth, fiercely expressing himself through these consistencies.
Imagine a state of bliss and perpetual happiness and harmony, and you have summoned a vision of tedium and pointlessness and predictability, such as Huxley with all his gifts was only able to sketch. Only one other sacred text mentions “happiness” without embarrassment. But even in 1776, this concept was thought to be mentionable only in the consequence of a bitter struggle, just then being embarked upon. The beautiful word “pursuit,” however we construe it, would be vacuous in any other context.
(Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001)
‘Pursuit’ also finds worthy and serious meaning however in the life of Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant thinker, eloquent writer, and humanist finding permanence in the Enlightenment search ♦
Hitchens’ essays are also found in collected works, including For the Sake of Argument (1994) Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays (2004), and most recently Arguably (2011). iModernReview had previously reviewed his editor role for Best American Essays 2010.