Locating the foundational principles in Christopher Hitchens can be a challenge: He denounced the 1991 Persian Gulf War as vociferously as he supported the 2003 invasion and once memorably castigated Bill Maher on the latter’s television show for making the same kinds of cheap jokes about George W. Bush’s intelligence that Hitchens himself had made many times. Moreover, on some subjects in which Hitchens is consistent he is unwaveringly mistaken: To this day, he backs the economic reasoning of Karl Marx. If there is ever a Jeopardy category titled “Marxist Backers of George W. Bush,” you’ll be ready.
Hitchens’ best friend of more than 30 years, Martin Amis, may have summed up the legendary thinker/debater/provocateur better than anyone to date when he wrote, in the foreword to the jazzy and scintillating new book of quotations The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism, that the subject at hand may be a distinguished author who “speaks like a genius.” But Hitchens, says Amis, “thinks like a child (that is to say, his judgments are far more instinctive and moral-visceral than they seem, and are animated by a child’s eager apprehension of what feels just and true).”
Hitchens evidently sees himself as a sort of superhero of the intellect. The Bat Signal goes off in his head, “Injustice!” he cries, and there he is, swooping in with all of his considerable mental weapons at the ready to right the wrong of the moment. Such is the panache with which he battles that you may not even notice that he may be flexible about such details as whose side to be on.
This book contains Hitchens’ 2003 comment about John Edwards: “Some people do come into politics for serious and honorable reasons. He’s the first for a long time.” Edwards, a vile, sanctimonious ambulance chaser who famously suckered a jury pretending to be a sort of courtroom medium channeling the voice of a dead child, eventually earned his place in sleaze Hall of Fame. He did not, as should have been obvious to Hitchens even then, get into politics for any reason other than the pursuit of fame and power, which was why he found it so easy to morph from Southern moderate to populist class war depending on the circumstances. But you’ll find no apology from the writer for his long support of the North Carolina senator in his recent Edwards-mocking column. You’d think someone with Hitchens’ famous distaste for those who claim access to the supernatural world would have been especially sensitive to Edwards’ hocus-pocus charlatanism.
In 2007, Hitchens offered praise for Tunisia and largely forgiving words for its dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (“a guiding but not tyrannical hand”) for keeping radical Islam at bay. The dictator looked to him like the underdog against Islamism. This year it became clear that it was the people of Tunisia who were the real victims of Ben Ali’s oppression, and in 2011 Hitchens wrote of the “Peron-style tawdriness of the Ben Ali regime.”
Some will be surprised to learn of the disgust that Hitchens, that famous atheist, harbors for abortion: “I have always been convinced that the term ‘unborn child’ is a genuine description of material reality. Obviously, the fetus is alive, so that disputation about whether or not it counts as ‘life’ is casuistry. The same applies, from a materialist point of view, to the question of whether or not this ‘life’ is human. What other kind could it be?” Yet if you agree with all of this, and are willing to make an issue of it, you incur equal Hitchensian wrath: “The whole case for extending protection to the unborn, and to expressing a bias in favor of life, has been wrecked by those who use unborn children as well as born ones, as mere manipulable objects of their doctrine.” So trying to save lives counts as sinister manipulation, amounts to treating people as “objects”?
Never mind. The book is arranged by subject, and if you flip to “consistency” you will learn that Hitchens has said, “Consistency is not a virtue in itself” and that “nobody human is ever consistent.” So that’s settled.
Think of Hitchens the way Amis apparently does — as the world’s cleverest child — and you’ll have a delightful time thumbing through the quips, bons mots, and takedowns. The section on Bill Clinton alone is worth the price of the book. Take this pithy dismissal of Clinton’s defenders in the Lewinsky affair: “‘It’s a private matter.’ Well, then, who claims the Oval Office as private space? ‘Why all this fuss about sex?’ But the president says it wasn’t sex. ‘Let’s get on with the agenda.’ Excuse me — what f***ing agenda?” Swatting down husband and wife in a single sentence, Hitchens writes, “One feels almost laughably heavy-footed in pointing out that Mrs. Clinton’s prim little book, ‘It Takes a Village,’ proposes sexual abstinence for the young, and that the president was earnestly seconding this very proposal while using an impressionable young intern as the physical rather than moral equivalent of a blow-up doll.” Hitchens also has choice words for Al Gore: “Where he isn’t robotically normal, he is abnormal in an abnormal way.” On hatred? “A terrific way of getting you out of bed in the morning.” Identity politics? “People who think with their epidermis or their genitalia or their clan are the problem to begin with.” On insults? “In this country and culture, invective and repartee have almost no place at all. On any given day you may read an account of destabilizing ‘mudslinging’ that consists of ‘“This behavior is inappropriate,” he thundered,’ or “‘I’ll need to see the full text,” he shot back.’” Hitchens livens up the day, starts the argument, stirs the drink. He’s a tireless gladiator who asks us all, “Are you not entertained?” Always, Christopher, always.
PJM FLASHBACK: Christopher Hitchens’ Example to America