Wheen on Hitchens

Friends of Hitchens are remembering him for our benefit.

Francis Wheen is. First there’s the unfathomably rude awakening –

Waking yesterday morning to the news of Christopher Hitchens’s death, I was gratified to hear it given second place in the Today programme’s 7am bulletin. The gratification ended moments later when the BBC reporter described him as a journalist, an atheist “and an alcoholic”.

“No he bloody wasn’t!” I yelled at the radio.

He also reported that stupidity at Facebook (and named the reporter). Nick Cohen said “I’ll do him.” I hope he does.

On to the better stuff.

He was a heavy drinker (“No argument about that,” he would say with a throaty chuckle on those rare occasions when we found something about which even he couldn’t take a contrarian view), but also a prodigiously energetic worker whose focus, as he observed the world and its follies, was never blurred. Even when he reached for another late-night whisky, his perception remained unerringly sober.

This is not an adjective that has often been applied to the Hitch. His sobriety was perhaps disguised by the frisky playfulness of his language,   the extravagance of his invective, the fearlessness of his risk-taking. Except for incest and folk-dancing, he’d try almost anything once, from being waterboarded to undergoing a Brazilian wax. Sometimes one felt that he had known everybody, read everything, been everywhere…

One did indeed; that’s almost exactly what I said about him nearly a decade ago:

…he seems to average three or four longish essays a day, along with reading everything ever written and remembering all of it, knowing everyone worth knowing on most continents, visiting war zones and trouble spots around the globe…

He wasn’t what you’d call excessively deferential, Wheen points out.

Unlike our own raucous and disputatious hacks, US commentators tend to be judicious pipe-suckers who take themselves (and   their “insider” status) exceedingly seriously: not for nothing is the New York Times known as the Gray Lady. Over breakfast every morning, Christopher would glance at the NYT’s front page to check that it still carried the smug motto “All the news that’s fit to print” – and to check that it still irritated him. “If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be,” he wrote, “then at least I know I still have a pulse.”

You can use that final phrase for a lot of things. What the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be?

Part of our inheritance, that is.


  1. says

    And to truly honor Hitchens, let’s remember to read Glenn Greenwald’s own recognition of Hitchens (at Salon,) who would no doubt appreciate the spirit of Greenwald’s post if not the substance

  2. says

    Fair enough. The truth is I didn’t read much of Hitchens on Iraq, because I mostly avoided the whole subject…and some of what Greenwald quotes him as saying is repellent. Calling the Dixie Chicks “fucking fat slags” for criticizing Bush, for example.

  3. Alecthar says

    Frankly, that Salon piece is probably my favorite assessment of Hitchens so far. I wish desperately I had his command of the English language, and no doubt he will be fondly remembered by many as one of “4 Horsemen,” but his stance on the war in Iraq, and the viciousness (and, at times, repulsiveness) of the rhetoric he used in defense of it, was what I most remember him for.

    I’ve heard “He was human, he made mistakes” thrown around a lot, and while that’s no doubt true, Hitchens himself didn’t take that as an excuse for poor conduct, and wouldn’t hesitate to lambast those guilty of such conduct, both before and after their demise. I agree with you, David Sucher, that Greenwald’s piece is quite appropriate in that light.

  4. Alecthar says

    And maybe to paraphrase Reverend Falwell, as to Hitchens we should condemn the sins and not the sinner.

    I suppose, but to me it smacks of dualism to condemn the positions he took while lionizing him. Hitchens, as we all are, is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of his actions, and his actions regarding Iraq were often, to steal Ms. Benson’s phrasing, “repellent.”

    Perhaps I’m merely trying to draw a (meaningless?) distinction between saying something like “Christopher Hitchens was a great man who said some stupid things.” and “Christopher Hitchens was alternately brilliant and repugnant, and sometimes both at the same time.” The first gives the impression that his positions were somehow separate from him as a being, which is the part we should (apparently) be lionizing. The latter acknowledges that he could be brilliant, but also terribly wrong, and he deserves to be remembered as both.

  5. davidsucher says

    I have to confess, Alecthar, that I was mostly taking delight in the idea of Falwell saying something conciliatory about Hitchens.

    In fact, I think you are correct: for the most part, we are what we do.

  6. says

    Nice tribute from Wheen. The Christian doctor who looked after him and became a friend was on the BBC this morning confirming that his atheism never wavered (which I wouldn’t expect anyway. even from less tough customers than Hitchens).

  7. says

    You might all enjoy the Michael Totten’s account of the time when Hitch got himself, along with Totten and Jonathan Foreman, into trouble in Beirut. It seems almost miraculous that they escaped with their lives. The man was certainly not one to shy away from conflict, even when the risk was great.

    Also, nice words from his brother Peter.

  8. John the Drunkard says

    Alcoholics everywhere are falling off their chairs at the notion that alcoholism is defined by ‘missing deadlines!’

    Who but an alcoholic could put away that much booze WITHOUT missing deadlines?

    Hitch seems to have been blessed with a consitition, a career, and the massive talent that made it possible for him to ride the tiger all the way to age 62. I cannot know what price he may have paid in private suffering, but he was the kind of drunk I wish I could have been.

    Alcoholism is not measured in litres or fluid ounces, and the condition comes with its positive sides. We tend to be smarter than average, to have good memories, to be, as they say, ‘brave as a drunken sailor.’

    On the downside we tend to form resentments and reach conclusions a bit too quickly. The occasions when Hitch was ‘wrong,’ at least in my judgment, tended to be in the justification of decisions already made.

    Excessive optimism about military adventures in Iraq does not have to lead to believing in the wisdom of Gee Dubya.

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