On one cold afternoon in Washington, DC some years ago, in the heat of the political and cultural struggles over the events following 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq War, I sat with Christopher Hitchens in his sparsely furnished apartment around his shabby little round table drinking a glass of fine scotch. We shared our thoughts and perplexities about the weaknesses and irrationality of much of the public discourse in America and abroad about these transformative events. Both of us agreed that we were amenable to being persuaded that radical Islam was really not a threat, that the U.S. had brought 9-11 upon itself, that the Iraq war was entirely unjustified and wrong, and that perhaps even after years of churning out “sinister ideological piffle” (Hitchens’ favorite term of derision), Noam Chomsky still might be able to think.
But we never were persuaded powerfully enough to change our minds on these central matters and it was our common understandings and worldviews on them that became the basis for us becoming “comrades,” the term that Christopher often used for the friendships that resulted from shared intellectual and political positions. What was striking about the meeting was its quiet gentleness, in which the minimalism of the surroundings was completely disproportionate to the powerful knowledge that I took away that day. It was on that day that I understood that, despite his formidable and even terrifying ability to lay waste to an intellectual opponent, Christopher was a very kind and gentle man.
I had discovered this seemingly incongruous gentleness when he came to Wellesley College in 2003 to present the keynote address at the George Orwell Centenary Conference that I organized with my colleague and friend, John Rodden. In the early morning hours after the main event, in the drinking room set up for the after-hours celebrations of the conference, Christopher sat down next to me and said that what had happened at Wellesley was a very important event and that he was honored to be a part of it. There was no question that he believed this deeply and that the expression of solidarity was completely genuine. In a cynical world where distinguishing between sincerity and authenticity is virtually impossible, I always felt in my personal interactions with him that he was sincere, because, first and foremost, he was a painstakingly honest man. And life is always hard for the man that dares to tell people his truths.
It was unlikely that someone like me should ever come to know a person like Christopher Hitchens. Like most academics, I hid from “real” politics in the safe sinecures of academe and more or less conformed to the ideological orthodoxies of that environment. The attack on America in 9/11, however, engendered a transformation of my political consciousness, an almost complete revision of my orientations to the world, and a deep sense of estrangement from the left-liberal consensus on my rather orthodox campus and in America more generally. I became concerned about the dire consequences of appeasement of totalitarian groups and states, impatient with reliance on the ideological reductionisms of the left and the ways in which these resisted rational debate, and frustrated with the cheap anti-Americanisms convulsively expressed at home and abroad.
Within academe there were virtually no figures to whom I could share my new political awakening and it was in Christopher’s writings and interactions with him that I found a model and source of solidarity. I had never understood the meaning of that term before in the context of the heated political battles in which I had involved myself. It was Christopher who taught me most what it meant: bonding together on the points of agreement in an argument and agreeing to disagree civilly in case of disagreements. The central guiding principle is that the fundamental solidarity of intellectual and political comradeship should never erode under the pressures of disagreement.
My British friend and colleague, Simon Cottee, had shared comments on Christopher’s work and thought it would be a nice idea to collect his writings into a volume, but with a twist: instead of simply offering a tribute to Christopher’s thinking, we would pair these writings up with the voices of some his most vociferous critics. This is unusual in modern edited volumes that celebrate an author’s work, and we felt that it would add to the value of the book for debates on these contentious issues, especially for students.
Christopher readily and generously agreed to let us use any and all of his writings, free of charge, and to write an afterward. The book was published by NYU Press, but only after our advance contract with another press was cancelled due to overt ideological pressure from Hitchens’ political and ideological enemies. NYU was very brave to publish the book, given Hitchens’ status as the intellectual apostate incarnate among his former comrades on the left. Now is a good time to revisit the volume and one should do it in conjunction with reading the “back story” of the nefarious and sinister censorship unleashed on the book by supposed prominent left-wing defenders of free speech (the article published in the magazine, Society, and can be found here).
There will be many different kinds of laments that will be expressed in the wake of Christopher’s death. Mine are too complex to elaborate fully. I would say, though, that for me he represented one of the few modern examples of a truly dialectical, critical intellectual who was always willing to express the voice of his conscience without regard for the political consequences. Unlike most of the people who pass for intellectuals these days, he actively sought out debate and disagreement as the source for the advancement of knowledge. That type of intellectual is sorely lacking in the hyper-conformist ideological atmosphere of academia and probably more generally among the class of public intellectuals in America these days, who tend to flock together in the safety of their respective ideological herds rather than brave the unpredictability and risk of the free marketplace of ideas.
At the risk of hyperbole, I’ve often seen Christopher as a kind of modern Socrates. Plato uses various metaphors to describe Socrates’ intellectual role: midwife, gadfly, stingray. Hitchens was all three: the midwife who supervised the painful birth of new ideas, the gadfly who buzzed about the heads of the orthodox and closed-minded, and the stingray who numbed the bad thinking of others. In all of these invaluable intellectual roles, as a writer of breathtaking originality, and as a person, he shall be sorely missed.
Thomas Cushman is co-editor of Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left.