Friday, August 13, 2010


I met Christopher Hitchens about five years ago when he spoke at my university. I was at dinner with him later that night, and was elated when at random he chose the seat next to me – I was there to meet him, after all, and not engage in the usual doldrums of conversation between academics, which usually involves griping about students.

I had been teaching earlier that day and had missed his talk, but knew his writing and his reputation. I admired his eloquence, the breadth of his learning, his consistent libertarianism, his revulsion for abuses of authority, and above all his abandonment of all political allegiances except one. Echoing Robert Conquest he had described himself as a member of the United Front Against Bullshit. Sacred cows of the left (Chomsky); the liberals (the Clintons); and the right (Reagan, for example, and more recently Sarah Palin) all have suffered under his incisive pen and tongue. And he has given so many years of service to this great and noble cause, that perhaps we should forgive him for having produced a reasonable measure of bullshit himself. He has been called arrogant and egotistical, and Alexander Cockburn went a step further and called him a “sack of shit”, as I recall. My first impressions, when I met him shortly before dinner, however, were very different. He seemed quiet and rather unassuming. We chatted for a bit about his recent volume on George Orwell, and over dinner I found that he was a generous conversationalist and a good listener. He went out of his way to include everyone at the table – I think there were seven or eight of us – and he had more than enough intellectual horsepower to keep us engaged on our home turf. He spoke with great authority on topics ranging from Thomas Jefferson to the politics of India and South Africa to the life and writings of John Buchan, and, for my benefit, the twenty-volume “Aubreyiad” of Patrick O’Brian.

But I reflected that, to this journalist who had traveled the world, witnessed wars and revolutions, wrestled with saints and presidents and dictators, who could count three of the greatest living novelists as close friends, we must have seemed an unimpressive bunch, and I, poorly traveled and depressingly monolingual, most unimpressive of all. He was outwardly convivial (we shared an appetizer, which he said was an essential part of “cementing a friendship”) but I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was bored. As the evening wore on, he made various efforts to start an argument, professing at one point his great relief that Bush had beaten Kerry the previous November. I knew that this was, at least in part, his contrarian streak emerging, for his own support for Bush in the week before the election had been so attenuated that his editors at Slate had initially marked him down as supporting Kerry. (He clarified that he had made no pick.) But there were no takers at all, no one up to the fight. “Everyone here is so nice,” he said, and I don’t think it was a compliment.

The reputed alcoholic, incidentally, did not show up. His intake that evening was decidedly moderate: a scotch and a couple of glasses of wine, I think. Several of us at the table did rather better than that. The enthusiastic and unapologetic smoker was present, however, and he excused him on several occasions to brave a very cold February night in Canada to go outside for a puff.

His defenses of this addiction were disappointingly ordinary: nobody likes a quitter, he said. I recall an older classmate who used to say the same thing, and who used to add for good measure that he’d rather die in his 60s from cancer than succumb to Alzheimer’s later. When, at age 63, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer (he survived just a few weeks), he professed that, given the opportunity, he’d roll the dice against Alzheimer’s now. Hitchens, I understand, did in fact quit smoking a few years back. Too late, apparently.
Earlier this month, in his regular column at Vanity Affair, he revealed that he has been diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer. The five-year survival rates are not good. On television, at least, he seems stoic, philosophical, and realistic.

No one would ever think of asking a serious Christian if he planned to abandon his belief merely because he was diagnosed with cancer – on the contrary, he would be urged by fellow believers to cling to his faith all the more tightly, and to be accepting of God’s mysterious “plan”. But almost immediately after Hitchens’s diagnosis had been made public, some people started to ask if a deathbed conversion weren’t imminent, as if the malignant mutation of cells was somehow evidence that, yes, there’s a God, and he wants you to change before it’s too late. This is unsurprising, perhaps; especially to those on the political right who thought, mistakenly, after 9/11, that Hitchens had become one of their own, his atheism has been observed not so much with anger as with disbelief, as if they want to say, “Come now, you supported the invasion of Iraq. How can you not accept Jesus?”

And it’s worth noting, too, that there are at this moment a good many people who are positively rubbing their hands with glee, that the bigmouth atheist, the foremost spokesperson for the most reviled minority in America, is getting his comeuppance. To Hitchens, of course, this will only serve to prove his larger point that among those who claim to be morally superior there are a great many bad people and, what’s worse, bad thinkers. The premature (if it comes to that) death of one atheist is no more evidence for the existence of God than the extreme longevity of another proves that there isn’t one. Yes, Hitchens has been unkind to the faithful. But he has never said that they deserved to be punished for their sincerely-held convictions, never said that what awaits them in the afterlife is a fate far worse than anything any terrestrial dictator could inflict in this life.

Well. There's no need for an obituary just yet. He is, as he once said of another famous contrarian, a useful citizen in ways that many of his detractors are not, so long may he live. Any oncologist will tell you that remarkable – I certainly won’t say “miraculous” – recoveries do occur, and that a 5%, five year survival rate means that thousands and thousands of people so afflicted do survive that long and much longer. Certainly there's a much, much better chance of that than a book entitled God is Not Great becoming a bestseller in a country where nearly half of the population believes that the Bible is literally true and inerrant.