Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hitch Slapped

I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of journalist and author Christopher Hitchens. This insightful man had the ability to both inspire and anger me within the same article or lecture. Whether he was defending the Iraq War, explaining why women are not funny, or condemning religion, Hitchens pushed the conversation forward.[1] A former socialist, though still Marxist in his thinking, Hitchens was articulate, well-read, and heavily involved in the modern world. Writing for left-leaning publications such as The Nation and Slate or the largely conservative Hoover Institution, Hitchens was not afraid to cross ideological boundaries. His tirades against religion (including my own) brought down the wrath of the so-called Religious Right, while his advocacy for intervention in Iraq baffled many of those on the Left.[2]

I first came across Christopher Hitchens soon after my mission in 2007. As my wife can tell you, I had little interest in politics at the time. I was still in a kind of missionary mode, mainly reading gospel-related academic and apologetic material such as FARMS and FAIR with brief interludes for the news. Though I cannot recall if it was a video or article of his that I came across first, I nonetheless remember being struck by how articulate and intelligent the man was. Out of curiosity, I began to browse the work of Mr. Hitchens and found myself being challenged and impressed by many of his columns, debates, and interviews. A man-crush was born.

Of course, Hitchens was not immune to sloppy thinking. For example, his attacks on religion are best when presented in terms of modern religious and political extremism, but stumble greatly when judged within the context of history or philosophy. His importance in my own thinking, however, does not stem from anything in particular he has written or lectured about. Instead, his importance comes from what is manifested in his writing and persona: a hunger for knowledge, intellectual honesty, and a deep moral concern for real human beings.[3] Drawing on lessons from history, literature, recent events, and personal experience, Hitchens was a formidable public intellectual. Not a specialist by any means, but a well-informed, reasonable individual.

In other words, he was a Jerry Cantrell intellectual.

Cantrell, the guitarist and co-vocalist of Alice in Chains, had a similar influence on me in the realm of guitar playing. While my interest in playing was spawned by my love of pop-punk/indie bands such as Blink 182, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World, and the Ataris, I was soon taken in by the speed of metal, the groove of blues, and the epic, versatile sound of classic rock.[4] Unfortunately, I was too slow to keep up with Kirk Hammet, Dave Mustaine, or Dimebag Darrell; too stiff to match the feel of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Robben Ford, or Jimi Hendrix; and too limited in style to create the sound of Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, or Brian May. However, Jerry Cantrell (mainly in the form of Alice in Chains) provided a blues-based, melodic metal I could rock out to. More importantly, he provided a type of playing that seemed achievable: not because his playing was sub-par, but because it evidenced a moderate partaking of the best rock music had to offer. Cantrell was not a shredder, a blues master, or a progressive rock composer (he still isn't). But he was and is a fine guitar player, lyricist, and all-around musician. He instilled me with confidence and inspiration in my first few years of playing and remains influential even today. Likewise, Hitchens was not an economist, scientist, or historian. But he was a fine writer, thinker, and debater. More importantly, he made me take a closer look at virtually everything.

Though you may not have wanted our prayers, I will nonetheless say this: God bless you, Christopher Hitchens. I hope you are finding more of the happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom you always sought.[5]

1. See his books A Long-Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (New York: Plume, 2003), God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), and his article "Why Women Aren't Funny."

2. See Daniel Peterson's review of Hitchens' attacks on Mormonism and religion in general in "Editor's Introduction: God and Mr. Hitchens," FARMS Review 19:2 (2007). For Hitchens' post-invasion views on Iraq, see his "So, Mr. Hitchens, Weren't You Wrong About Iraq?" Slate (March 19, 2007).

3. Catholic philosopher Edward Feser writes, "Of the four horsemen of the New Atheism, Hitchens was the only one I found likable, and the only one possessed of a modicum of wisdom about the human condition, or at least as much wisdom about the human condition as one can have while remaining essentially a man of the Left. While there was rather too obviously something of the champagne socialist about him, I do not doubt that he had real concern for real human beings -- rather than merely for grotesque abstractions like “the working class” or “humanity” -- and that he showed real moral and even physical courage in defense of what he sincerely took to be the best interests of real human beings." This concern can be found in his personal reasons for defending the Iraq invasion, which often stressed the genocides under Hussein rather than the potential nuclear danger (though Hitchens certainly did not ignore the latter factor). For more on the genocidal nature and WMD potential of Iraq, see the following: Daniel Henninger, "If Saddam Had Stayed," The Wall Street Journal (Sept. 2, 2010); Susan Sachs, "A Grim Graveyard Window on Hussein's Iraq," The New York Times (June 1, 2003); John F. Burns, "Uncovering Iraq's Horrors in Desert Graves," The New York Times (June 5, 2006); Burns, "How Many People Has Hussein Killed?" The New York Times (Jan. 26, 2003); David E. Sanger, Thom Shanker "A Region Inflamed: Weapons; For the Iraqis, a Missile Deal That Went Sour; Files Tell of Talks With North Korea," The New York Times (Dec. 1, 2003); Sanger, "After the War: Weapons Programs; Iraqi Says Hussein Planned to Revive the Nuclear Program Dismantled in 1991," The New York Times (June 27, 2003); Jim Lacey, "Saddam: What We Now Know," National Review Online (Sept. 14, 2011); U.S. Agency for International Development, "Iraq's Legacy of Terror: Mass Graves":

4. A nod to my brother-in-law Juan for being a major player in this.

5. See Hitchens' moving final piece in Vanity Fair "Trial of the Will" along with Mark Judge's commentary. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat weighs in on the Christian attraction to Hitchens.