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.
No doubt there is a quality of slipperiness and evasion in Hitchens, both as a person and as a writer, that has recently made him suited to the role of the man who talks to one and all, right, left, and center. (And if there is someone he won’t actually talk to in the normal sense, then he’ll publicly debate them.) It’s an odd paradox that such a deeply politicized man, moreover one known for his vituperative and sometimes nasty wit, may be the only pundit remaining who seems willing to put political differences aside even while talking politics. One day he’s on assignment in Lebanon with a patriotic war blogger like PJM’s own Michael Totten, the next day he’s with a swank liberal Manhattanite like Graydon Carter in the designer suites of Condé Nast.
Admittedly, there are other journalists, writers, and pundits who would surely be eager to talk to more varied audiences. But for the most part, they simply aren’t invited. (Or if they are, they’re heckled and booed — especially by the left — the sort of behavior Hitchens once engaged in himself, as he admits in his memoir.) Hitchens has managed to escape this trap, in part because of his foreignness, personal charm, and obvious brilliance, but also because even if the left has disavowed him on some issues, it still values his views on others. Thus he has been inoculated from all-out assault. Other journalists — Mark Steyn would be a good example — are not so fortunate.
Time may well prove Hitchens overrated as a writer, but that’s true of almost everyone who makes a living with a pen. (And he does in fact still write with a pen.) In the here and now, it is “Hitch” — a man who loves argument for argument’s sake — who has reminded Americans that they used to be much more open to each others’ opinions, and more willing to forgive or reason with those they disagreed with, than they are today. In an odd twist, he seems to have become more American as Americans themselves have become less so. Those who rue this state of affairs are among those who most regret his current difficulties.