Presuming the news coming out of the oncologist’s office is as dire as Christopher Hitchens appears to say it is, we may not just lose a voice as unpredictable as it is erudite, but something perhaps even more precious. Isn’t Hitchens pretty much the last journalist/pundit/commentator/critic left in America whose work appears across the political spectrum? If there is another writer whose work can still be found (and welcomed) in such ideologically opposed publications as Slate, the Weekly Standard, the Atlantic Monthly, City Journal, Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal, etc., I can’t think of one. Nor can I think of anyone who has so often genially weaved his way from interviews with conservatives like Dennis Miller and Hugh Hewitt to liberals like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, not to mention all points in between.
Which may be one reason why news of his cancer has touched so many people: He is one of the few journalists in the country who still seem willing to talk to pretty much anyone. In particular, his well-advertised position as an atheist who has happily spent hours arguing his case with countless religious Americans (true, he likes the sound of his own voice and needs to sell books, but still …) in the full knowledge that he is doing so in an overwhelmingly religious country has made this very English-sounding American who only recently became a citizen appear more truly American than most of his fellow scribes. Could it be that that, as well as the horrible misfortune of the illness itself, is what people are mourning? Are they mourning the possible death of a type, knowing that once he is gone there will be no one to replace him, no one left who is able to venture forth from his assigned political box? (Or worse: no one who wants to.)
The novelist Alan Furst, who writes noir-ish historical thrillers set in the Europe of World War II, once told me how, beginning in the 1930s, more and more people, particularly intellectuals, were dragged, often unwillingly, into politics. Neutrality was no longer an option: They had to choose sides, often holding their noses as they did so. With barely a shot fired, Americans seem to be heading in the same direction. Almost every topic divides and inflames us, and as a consequence we become ever more rooted in our niches and divisions. One person turns to the Huffington Post, another to a site like this one. And there is almost no connection between the two whatsoever.