Why They Wept for Hitchens

In the new issue of Commentary, Andrew Ferguson does a great job of deconstructing the Princess Di-level of mourning that Christopher Hitchens received upon his demise from some quarters — many of whom should have known better:


Most unexpected of all, at least by me, was the overpraise for Hitchens’s habits of mind, and for his politics, which supposedly placed him courageously at odds with the establishment. “He offered a model of how to think,” wrote one grief-stricken acquaintance. The PBS historian Simon Schama mourned the “unfillable space where his prose rocked and rolled in face of the demure, the hypocritical, and the ignorantly self-important.” [Which is a nice description of your average NPR staffer — Ed]

Such excess obscures the most obvious conclusion we can draw from Hitchens’s politics, which is that he was a crank. In the early 1980s he was convinced that the Reagan administration had colluded in the Soviet Union’s downing of the airliner KAL 007. A few years later he was a vigorous promoter of the “Secret Team” theory that fit the Iran-contra scandal into a world-girding conspiracy of international bankers and private militias. A handful of memorialists dismissed his hatred of Bill Clinton as a lapse in judgment, but maybe you had to be there to see how unhinged it was: He really did believe that Clinton had been an accessory to the murder of a pair of hillbillies back in Arkansas. And the Queen, that “whore,” was almost as evil as the Albanian dwarf.

There were lots more opinions where these came from, and any combination of two or three of them, expressed with Hitchens’s ardor and bloody-minded indifference to fact, would have got any one else run out of polite society. In media circles—not to be confused with polite society, I know—even the whole package couldn’t disqualify Hitchens. Where his polemics failed as models of logic or casemaking, they excelled as attention-getters. Only his later embrace of Republican foreign policy threatened his hallowed place among media people, but the threat was temporary and finally inconsequential.

After his death, I puzzled over the universal praise and its intensity. I thought of his charm, his learning, the preternatural fluency of his writing. But surely mere talent and amiability weren’t enough to indemnify him so thoroughly among the journalistic class that memorialized him so excessively. No, that required fame, the ultimate inoculation.

And then I remembered the Dreyfuss story. Hitchens might not have been famous back then, but he wanted to be, and he worked hard at it, and in the end, as he knew, he could reap fame’s rewards from a class of people for whom mere fame is the ultimate intoxication—far more impressive than learning or talent or rigorous argument. The scurrilous opinions might bring him fame, but the fame would guarantee that the opinions wouldn’t matter.

It’s maybe not the best fate for a man who once might have hoped that his ideas would be taken seriously, but it’s the fate Hitchens chose. At least that’s my theory. And I knew the man for more than a quarter of a century. Did I mention that?


Exit quote: “Andrew Sullivan, a well-known blogger, reprinted a New York magazine story about his arrival at a Hitchens party: Sullivan, the magazine reported, greeted [the host] with a hug and a kiss. ‘I want tongue. Give me tongue,’ Hitchens implored, to no avail.”


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