Christopher Hitchens has died. I never personally met the man, but I want to say a few words in tribute.
Of all the popular figures commonly styled as the New Atheists, he was the hardest to pin down. He could be caustic, crude, witty, and brilliant by turns. He was a dauntless defender of free speech who never hesitated to aim a dart at the powerful or smash a sacred idol. His book about Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position, was and is the trailblazer in debunking the myths that have become attached to that callous reactionary. (That a title like that would be attached to such a fearless work of journalism tells you all you need to know about him.) And of course, he attacked religious pretensions mercilessly in debates and books like God Is Not Great, a scathing polemic informed by a lifetime of globe-hopping journalistic experience in some of the world’s worst trouble spots.
I won’t deny that I found him infuriating sometimes, but even at his worst, he defied easy classification. He could be coarsely sexist, yet he was willing to have a thoughtful and serious conversation with a 8-year-old girl about great works of literature. He was a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq, a belligerently irrational stance which baffles and angers me to this day; and yet, when there was a debate as to whether waterboarding was torture, he personally volunteered to undergo it, and concluded that “if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.” No matter what I disagreed with him about, I can’t fault his courage.
Nor can he be convicted of inconsistency. When he was asked if he would have given up drinking and smoking if he’d known that they’d contribute to his getting cancer, he answered that he wouldn’t have. Whatever his faults, he clearly lived life with no regrets, and there’s something to be said for a person whose choices withstand reflective equilibrium in that way. And is it wrong to feel a fleeting moment of smugness that the believers who were salivating in the hope of a deathbed conversion were disappointed? That may well be why some of them lashed out so petulantly. Even in dying, Christopher Hitchens managed to enrage the believers one last time – and I have no doubt that he would have asked for no higher tribute.