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Christopher Hitchens dies: Praise pours in for controversial writer

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Eloquent and intemperate, bawdy and urbane, Hitchens was an acknowledged contrarian and contradiction — half-Christian, half-Jewish and fully non-believing; a native of England who settled in America; a former Trotskyite who backed the Iraq war and supported George W. Bush. But his passions remained constant and targets of his youth, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa, remained hated.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

He was a militant humanist who believed in pluralism and racial justice and freedom of speech, big cities and fine art and the willingness to stand the consequences. He was smacked in the rear by then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and beaten up in Beirut. He once submitted to waterboarding to prove that it was indeed torture.

Hitchens was a committed sensualist who abstained from clean living as if it were just another kind of church. In 2005, he would recall a trip to Aspen, Colo., and a brief encounter after stepping off a ski lift.

"I was met by immaculate specimens of young American womanhood, holding silver trays and flashing perfect dentition," he wrote. "What would I like? I thought a gin and tonic would meet the case. 'Sir, that would be inappropriate.' In what respect? 'At this altitude gin would be very much more toxic than at ground level.' In that case, I said, make it a double."

An emphatic ally and inspired foe, he stood by friends in trouble ("Satanic Verses" novelist Salman Rushdie) and against enemies in power (Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini). His heroes included George Orwell, Thomas Paine and Gore Vidal (pre-Sept. 11). Among those on the Hitchens list of shame: Michael Moore, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, Sarah Palin, Gore Vidal (post Sept. 11) and Prince Charles.

"We have known for a long time that Prince Charles' empty sails are so rigged as to be swelled by any passing waft or breeze of crankiness and cant," Hitchens wrote in Slate in 2010 after the heir to the British throne gave a speech criticizing Galileo for the scientist's focus on "the material aspect of reality."

"He fell for the fake anthropologist Laurens van der Post. He was bowled over by the charms of homeopathic medicine. He has been believably reported as saying that plants do better if you talk to them in a soothing and encouraging way. But this latest departure promotes him from an advocate of harmless nonsense to positively sinister nonsense."

Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1949. His father, Eric, was a "purse-lipped" Navy veteran known as "The Commander"; his mother, Yvonne, a romantic who later killed herself during an extra-marital rendezvous in Greece. Young Christopher would have rather read a book. He was "a mere weed and weakling and kick-bag" who discovered that "words could function as weapons" and so stockpiled them.

In college, Oxford, he made such longtime friends as authors Martin Amis and Ian McEwan and claimed to be nearby when visiting Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton did or did not inhale marijuana. Radicalized by the 1960s, Hitchens was often arrested at political rallies, was kicked out of Britain's Labour Party over his opposition to the Vietnam War and became a correspondent for the radical magazine International Socialiam. His reputation broadened in the 1970s through his writings for the New Statesman.

Wavy-haired and brooding and aflame with wit and righteous anger, he was a star of the left on paper and on camera, a popular television guest and a columnist for one of the world's oldest liberal publications, The Nation. In friendlier times, Vidal was quoted as citing Hitchens as a worthy heir to his satirical throne.

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