The popular British expat journalist Christopher Hitchens died last Thursday at 62 of pneumonia brought on by esophageal cancer. One might say “passed away” but Hitchens’s writerly ghost won’t stand for it. In life, Hitchens was not sentimental about death, anyone else’s or his own impending anticipated oblivion. When Ronald Reagan died in 2004, Hitchens called the former president a “phony and a loon” and judged him “as dumb as a stump” in an obituary for Slate.
The Hitchens of 1994 would have stopped there but his more mature self needed to go further. “However,” he wrote, “there came a day when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Washington” and the world changed forever. Hitchens had huddled at the Marriott Hotel “from dawn to dusk with friends, wondering if it could be real.”
Many of those friends were very smart Democrats who had “all deeply wanted either Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale to be… the president instead of Reagan.” Their cars would soon sport Dukakis-Bentsen bumper stickers. “No doubt,” he wrote, “they wish that Mondale had been in the White House when the U.S.S.R. threw in the towel, just as they presumably yearn to have had Dukakis on watch when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.”
Hitchens continued, “I have been wondering ever since not just about the stupidity of American politics, but about the need of so many American intellectuals to prove themselves clever by showing that they are smarter than the latest idiot in power, or the latest Republican at any rate.”
“Ever since” was not quite right. As a columnist for the left-liberal Nation magazine, Hitchens had raged against George H.W. Bush and the first Gulf War in 1991. He first embraced American intervention with the Kosovo war in 1999. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, he had his name stricken from the Nation‘s masthead over the left’s putative pacifism. His final column there cheered on war in Iraq.
Many conservatives admired what Hitchens had to say in the pages of the Nation, Slate, Vanity Fair and so many other places, yet, like his hero George Orwell, he stubbornly considered himself a man of the left. He was correct in one respect. National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. held that you didn’t have to believe in God to be a conservative, but you could not be an outright mocker of religion. Hitchens hated the Almighty, even as he professed not to believe in Him, and he hated the overtly religious “God botherers.”
Though he denounced many aspects of the Soviet Union, Hitchens always praised its creation of a “secular Russia” — a development made possible by persecuting the Russian Orthodox Church. When Rev. Jerry Falwell died, Hitchens lamented it was a “shame that there is no hell for Falwell to go to.” He thought militant Islam worse than conservative Christianity by degree only, which created some logical problems with his support for the George W. Bush administration.
His anti-God thoughts found their fullest expression in the 2007 runaway bestselling book [G]od Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. It was not a good book. Its arguments were flawed and it was riddled with errors. The reviewer for the Washington Post concluded, “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject.”
The book brought Hitchens increased fame, fortune, infamy and a few surprises. After he announced that he had late stage 4 esophageal cancer — a condition encouraged by his nearly lifelong habit of heavy smoking — Christians organized “Everybody Pray for Christopher Hitchens Day.” His brief response in the Washington Post ran under the immortal headline, “Pray for me? Christopher Hitchens?”
Ironists in the British press noted that Dr. Francis Collins, former head of the human genome project who was overseeing Hitchens’s treatment, was a deeply committed evangelical Christian. Dr. Collins seems to have had some success slowing the disease’s progress. The fact that Hitchens lasted more than 18 months from the diagnosis of a rapidly spreading cancer attests to that. But alas, some miracles remain stubbornly beyond the reach of modern medicine.