I DISLIKED CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS. I’m fairly sure of this. So why did the news of his death affect me as it did? Even though many of my friends knew him personally, I knew him only through his writing, where he came across always as amiable, literate, shallow, and wrong. That made him a better man than most pundits — by two adjectives — but I never understood the adulation.
I suspect the reason that his death came as a blow was my growing sense that I was at least partially mistaken. He was not shallow.
They say there were no atheists in the trenches. Well, clearly there was at least one. Even though he stood to lose everything, or worse, Hitchens never ceased to rage against the idea of a God: an idea that went contrary to what he considered justice. I suppose it’s hard not to find that battle inspiring. It’s in fact hard to imagine a God — one that exists and is good — remaining unimpressed by the depth of the man’s outrage. Hitchens may not have succeeded in his efforts to become a second Orwell. He was, however, something of an atheist Job.
Why did I dislike him? Not for the usual reasons. Yes, his decision to embrace the Iraq War was juvenile. Yes, he clung to that untenable position far longer than most intelligent people. It was particularly hard to watch him stand by George Bush, knowing how he’d casually tossed Bill Clinton under a bus.
I disliked him long before that, however. I never forgave his even more juvenile decision to lend credibility to David Irving, the world’s most dangerous Holocaust denier. I should not have been surprised — it was the nasty obverse of an already nasty tendency: gleeful saint-bashing. If you get a kick out of trashing the good, sooner or later you’re going to test out whether it’s fun to cheerlead for evil.
It annoyed me. It still does.
Although I never met Hitchens, I did have the opportunity to explain to Martin Amis, at some length, that his best friend was an asshole. Hitch probably would have approved — I was drunk. My audience was captive: Random House had arranged that Amis and I do a reading together in Toronto (probably because we were both shilling the worst novels we’d ever write) and the publisher took us to a restaurant afterward, for a celebratory dinner.
Martin Amis was unusually polite, as I sat across from him and dismembered his friend. Perhaps he was recalling a similar excruciating incident: he’d invited Hitchens to meet Saul Bellow — and had begged him to behave, as Bellow was his hero — but Hitchens had insisted upon using the occasion to deliver a drunken soliloquy about the evils of Israel. So, no: I don’t feel bad about my own sodden rant.
I went so far as to call his best friend a “champagne socialist.” It was the closest Amis came to bridling, although it was the least of my insults — in fact, it was not an insult. I like champagne socialists. I almost always prefer them to real socialists. Hitchens, to his moral credit, was much truer to booze than he was to Trotsky.
At any rate, thanks to Hitchens and his favorite substance, I managed to alienate one of our greatest living writers. I’m quite certain that Martin Amis, if he remembers me at all, doesn’t remember me fondly.
No great matter. I can’t bring myself to regret what I said: it was as true then as it is now. Nevertheless, my attitude towards Hitchens has, apparently, changed.
I think I can pinpoint the moment I began to come around. When Christopher Hitchens had himself waterboarded, in order to determine whether it was indeed torture, I began to realize that he was — if nothing else — fearless. And when he reported, unequivocally, that it was torture — despite knowing that this labelled many of his new friends war criminals — I began to realize that he was honest.
Blaise Pascal famously suggested that you might as well live religiously: if in the end God proves not to exist, the worst you can be is wrong. And wrong is better than damned. Christopher Hitchens’ version of atheism is called “hard atheism” for a reason: it offers two possibilities — if you’re right, and there is no God, you’ll simply cease to be; if you’re wrong, you’re in serious trouble. Hitchens’ wager was this: he bet everything on the former, less grim possibility.
Of course, Hitchens made it clear that he did not consider damnation anything more than a fiction — torture porn — but he knew that his stance left only one alternative to oblivion. On the very off chance that he was wrong. A very unpleasant alternative. And still he raged against a God that — to him — was nothing more than an excuse for and an image of tyranny. He did not go gentle.
Whatever you may think of his principles, he had them.