I found out that Christopher Hitchens had passed away during my usual breakfast time sweep of the news feeds on Twitter, and my first (perhaps, rather selfish) thought was how sad I was that I’d no longer be able to read his regular contributions to Vanity Fair and Slate. His own sibling, journalist Peter Hitchens described, in a heart-breaking piece, how he’d heard about his brother’s death on a morning radio bulletin.
The famous author, journalist and polemicist finally succumbed to oesophageal cancer after being diagnosed in 2010 during a book tour to promote his autobiography, Hitch-22.
It wasn’t just his razor-sharp wit, his compelling and accessible writing style and his gift for oratory that set him apart from most modern-day scribes, it was his unflinching passion for tackling the most sensitive and complicated of subjects, with no target too sacred. Most writers wouldn’t dream of partaking in the kind of heresy that Hitchens displayed in his scathing attack on Mother Teresa, claiming that she opposed measures to end poverty, such as the provision of contraception, preferring to instead to encourage the poor to accept their poverty.
Hitchens (or Hitch) also penned The Trial of Henry Kissinger in which he argued that the National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford should be prosecuted for war crimes. Not one to rest on his laurels, Hitchens constantly pushed the boundaries, even agreeing to be waterboarded for a piece in Vanity Fair.
Impossibly well read on a vast variety of subjects, Hitchens was something of a polymath, not unlike one of his heroes, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. Hitchens was also an admirer of English radical Thomas Paine who, as the author of revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, was a heavy influence on Jefferson, playing a key role in shaping the political landscape that surrounded the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
Forming part of the so-called ‘Four Horsemen of New Atheism’ alongside non-believers Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris, Hitchens was an outspoken critic of religion. While Jefferson sought merely (but wisely) to keep the state and the church separate, Hitchens was more interested in abolishing organised religion altogether, earning him just as many critics as supporters. Famously, Hitchens was also a huge admirer of George Orwell, something which he put on record in his book-length essay on the subject named Why Orwell Matters (published as Orwell’s Victory in the UK).
Some of Hitchens’ views may have been somewhat questionable, none more so than his support for the invasion of Iraq, but it was impossible not to respect the extraordinary skill and eloquence with which he argued his point.
If more journalists possessed even a tenth of Hitchens’ impressive vocabulary and command of the English language, as well as his tenacious skepticism in the face of accepted opinion – not to mention his ability to meet deadlines with near-perfect prose after a night on the booze – the Fourth Estate would be far better for it.
The world’s greatest thinkers and writers have almost always been contrarians, heretics and, in some cases, outlaws (in the nonconformist sense, not the gunslinger sense). The writers that really make a difference to society are the ones who make us question, and that’s why Hitchens matters.