It is a sad day for American intellectualism. The political writer and polemicist Christopher Hitchens has died of pneumonia. His views on most topics ranged from literally communist (human rights – he would often address audiences as “comrades”) to neoconservative (the War in Iraq), and his well-formed arguments skewered and crushed many opponents live on TV. His exposés on Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa beamed bright, sharply focused sunlight on two forms of power that are infected with corruption. One challenged him to a debate at one’s peril.
His views on the Iraq War were motivated by freedom of speech and the need to protect the intellectual gains humans have made since the Enlightenment. I disagreed heavily with his views on this topic, but he was the only pro-war person whose argument was sound enough that it made me really think hard about my own anti-war views. That is a stark contrast to the apish, crayon-scrawled views that propagated through the neoconservative movement at the time.
Always challenging authority, as he aged he began expressing his views on atheism, or as he called it: Anti-theism. There is a significant difference and it highlights the way in which he often charged headlong into a debate. His esophageal cancer was not helped by his penchant for smoking and his replacement of alcohol for water. As he famously said himself, “I drink enough in the average day to kill or stun the average mule.” Yet even as he neared death, he redoubled his efforts to promote anti-theism, along with the other “Four Horsemen” (Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins). His performance along with Stephen Fry at an Intelligence Squared debate on the question of whether the Catholic Church is a source for good in the world is not to be missed. They argued that it was not and won the debate by a very large margin, convincing even initial supporters of the motion.
There are very few public voices in the US that are capable of simultaneously maintaining two or more thoughts in their head, and even fewer who can mold those thoughts into elegant prose. In these days of journalistic yes-men and corporatized intellectual poverty, the country is going to miss this sharp and articulate firebrand. He had a lot more to say.