Hitchens’ Legacy of Never Budging (Not Necessarily Good)

by Mark Wilson

I literally can’t count the number of eulogies online for Christopher Hitchens, recently deceased of esophogeal cancer. Hitchens was well-known as a stubborn contrarian and an outspoken atheist. He was also a good writer.

What drew liberals to him is mysterious. Hitchens was definitely an independent thinker in the sense that he believed whatever he wanted, and to hell with what anyone else thought. This temperment attracts people who appreciate such a cavalier attitude toward what other people think, but fanboys can conveniently ignore the parts of their hero that they don’t like. With Ron Paul, it’s the same way: are his more liberal, Daily Show-watching supporters aware that he thinks same-sex marriage is detestable and wants it to be banned?

Hitchens held several points of view that are appalling to liberals, the most overt of which was a sense of Western — and more specifically, Anglo-American — triumphalism. As Glenn Greenwald points out, the biggest philosophical mistake of Hitch’s career, and one that I think his supporters casually overlook, is his superlative support for the Iraq War:

Hitchens was obviously more urbane and well-written than the average neoconfaux-warrior, but he was also often more vindictive and barbaric about his war cheerleading. One of the only writers with the courage to provide the full picture of Hitchens upon his death was Gawker‘s John Cook, who — in an extremely well-written and poignant obituary – detailed Hitchens’ vehement, unapologetic passion for the attack on Iraq and his dismissive indifference to the mass human suffering it caused, accompanied by petty contempt for those who objected (he denounced the Dixie Chicks as being “sluts” and “fucking fat slags” for the crime of mildly disparaging the Commander-in-Chief). As Cook put it: “it must not be forgotten in mourning him that he got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong”; indeed: “People make mistakes. What’s horrible about Hitchens’ ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made.”

He didn’t just support the war in a political sense, he thought it was a moral imperative. It’s cliched to compare such expressions — where the political stretches into the cultural — to Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” but I’ll do it anyway. 

A friend and I were talking about Hitchens, and he remarked that Hitchens was never apologetic: in a debate or discussion, Hitchens never said that the sides should agree to disagree or something like that. Hitchens was in it to win it, so to speak; he defended his opinion and refused to back down, which is something we don’t see very much of anymore. While that’s admirable (it does, as this friend pointed out, what debate is supposed to do: ferret out the poor arguments and destroy them, which is the point of the “marketplace of ideas”), it also lends itself to the type of hubris that brings down Greek kings who sleep with their moms: I’m right, and you’re wrong, you will always be wrong, and I will always be right, no matter what you say. He supported the Iraq War to the end, even after it became blitheringly clear to most reasoning people, which should have included Hitch, that the whole thing was a mess. It’s great to be able to defend your side, but it’s also important to know when you’re wrong and when to concede defeat. Otherwise, you end up looking silly, as he did whenever the Iraq War came up.

The invective toward Muslims in general was also troubling. But as I said, it seemed to reflect a greater Anglo-American triumphalism. Hitchens supported Margaret Thatcher because he believed the British should triumph in Argentina. A battle, perhaps, between the white people and the brown(ish) people. Just like Iraq. You probably won’t see that mentioned in a Hitchens obituary.