Friday, December 16, 2011

Remembering Christopher Hitchens, Seriously

EDITORIAL (Bennington Vale Evening Transcript) -- Christopher Hitchens, a British born journalist and intellectual atheist, died Thursday of complications with esophageal cancer. He was 62. Of Hitchens, Vanity Fair wrote that he was an "incomparable critic, masterful rhetorician, fiery wit, and fearless bon vivant." Not only was Hitchens a passionate and acerbic journalist, he was a true war correspondent, often visiting the world's most dangerous places and not merely writing about them from the serenity of his office. He wasn't always accurate, he wasn't always agreeable, but his literary gifts and dedication to pointing out what he considered to be the truth were immeasurably important. Journalism for Hitchens wasn't a disguised marketing vehicle for corporations with deep ties to politics; he maintained the core values one often attributes to the art. Along the way, he carved out a reputation for barbed repartee, scathing critiques of public figures, and a fierce mind for reason.

In his 2007 book "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," Hitchens took on major religions with what Reuters called "his trenchant atheism." He argued that religion was the source of all tyranny, and that many of the world's evils had been executed in the name of religion.

Undoubtedly, Hitchens lived his final years in the center of a firestorm of vitriol from the conservative religious quarters of the world. But Hitchens counted among his many friends and admirers well-respected religious leaders across all faiths. They understood, despite his barbed words and sometimes infuriating invectives, that what Hitches was always advocating -- not railing against -- was the idea that human beings could harmonize. That the potential existed, unrealized. That our differences made us more powerful together. That conflicts erupting over arguments of status, as imposed by religious disagreements, never served the intent of the scriptures from which they were perverted. He despised institutionalized belief systems and "isms," along with those fallible mortals who pretended to serve as the interpreters of their gods.

For every young journalist who had the pleasure, nothing was more enlightening and formative than debating with Hitchens while trying to match his consumption of booze. His friend, Rabbi David Wolpe, wrote: "The poet Yeats once said that the worst thing about some people is that when they are not drunk they are sober. Hitchens was never sober, not in this lifeless, dry sense. He was drunk with passion, with words, with experience – with life. A grand spirit has left us and we should all feel his loss."

For me personally, Hitchens was not just one of the final forebears of true journalism, he was also a masterful satirist in the sense of Swift. As Robert C. Elliott observed, "In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement." Hitchens certainly held those he felt to be deserving of ridicule, mostly for their hypocrisy, at the very acute tip of his rapier wit. It never mattered what political persuasion or ideology they endorsed -- he could be incredibly judicious with this lampoons. What Hitchens cared about was the progress of the human condition, calling out all the misguided concepts and excesses and abuses visited upon that condition by way of the power-mad and myopic.

He was first and foremost a humanist.

To the relief of very conservative evangelicals, Mr. Hitchens will not be rising to Heaven. Nor will he find his soul descending to the depths of their Hell. His spirit, however one wishes to define it, will nonetheless persist in his timeless words. It will be carried through history on the tides of human will and the written record, not divine intercession. His legacy, I believe, validates the idea that immortality can truly be achieved through human means alone. And in that vein, everything brims with the potential to be accomplished -- our evolution, our peace, our prosperity, and even our destruction. Hitchens leaves us with a stark reminder of free will: choice, consequence, and accountability for our actions. He also dies a soldier in his own right, fighting a cause he refused to abandon, even toward the end. Hitchens was certainly disputatious, but never a contrarian.

I will raise a glass of warm bourbon tonight in honor of Hitchens. And I will not pray for him or ask pious friends to do so. In honor of his choices, in honor of mine. In honor of the notion that though others might disagree with me, this difference of opinion does not justify that I seek their destruction or subjugation or alienation. But also in honor of the commitment to not standing idly by while others do harm, rationalizing my inaction as not having a stake in the outcome. Because this world is our investment. It is our problem. Even though it's no longer Hitch's.

Now, one of my favorite moments with Hitchens.

(c) 2011.

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