The Quotable Christopher Hitchens

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."