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Goodbye, Mr. Hitchens
Memories of an unusual and rewarding acquaintanceship

Christopher Hitchens

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Victor Davis Hanson

As we walked around town, I noticed that, aside from the fact that he seemed to the eye and ear to be in atrocious physical shape, he had a confidence in his own presence that meant that even though he knew nothing about the American poor in the sense of ever having lived among or worked beside them, that fact could be easily trumped by his immediate aura of friendliness and mannered politeness. In the best tradition of Horace, he believed that his character was fully formed and need not change despite his constantly changing surroundings; if, when out of his milieu — and he surely was that day in Selma — he seemed ridiculous to others, he never seemed so to himself. And he was not oblivious.

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Dining with Christopher, as some who knew him far better have attested, was like eating beside a coiled cobra who might turn and bite at any moment, given his venom as the contrarian and a certain sense that he should be the great leveler of those too taken with their own table talk. His dinners reminded me a lot of what one reads in Athenaeus, silly sophisticated chat on almost any conceivable topic mingled with polite putdowns and outrageous, often lurid commentary. He was not a historian who had advanced some novel thesis about the ancient or modern world. Nor was he a literary doyen of the classical sort who had established a particular school of criticism, or authored masterful reviews of contemporary classics. Rather, he was a relentless polymath who reminded his associates that he knew at least something about almost everything. Drinking, talking, dining — these were his creative genres, inseparable from his writing. And from hundreds of his admirers no doubt another Boswell would emerge to confirm his wit and learning for the ages with a Life of Christopher Hitchens.

Introspection and remorse Mr. Hitchens was not much interested in. Once he took a position, whether in print or in conversation, he rarely regretted it, even as new information came to light. But I don’t think that he was thereby not self-critical, but rather more worried about charges of fickleness and hypocrisy than of appearing dogmatic. The trimmers and flip-floppers were his banes, especially in the dark years of Iraq. In some sense, he was harder on left-wing campus charlatans than on right-wing zealots, seeing in the former a sort of lazy and pretentious groupthink, in the latter the sort of blinkered minds who at least sincerely believed in their dogmas.

Though he had a regrettable mean streak that I think led him into time-consuming and dead-end invectives, I never found him cruel to others present, as he so often was in print; and even as he said quite unkind things about third parties that could logically be applicable to myself, most of those at the table — and Christopher Hitchens himself. He got very angry at me only once, when I suggested that his appetites and the title of his proposed book, God Is Not Great (I thought from his description over dinner that it would be focused more on radical Islam than on Christianity), might make things difficult for his daughter, whether through his own unforeseen illness or a needless provocation to terrorists. “You too — Brutus!” he snapped, a line that I think he had used similarly on others.

Most of the time we discussed Iraq, Greece, the European Union, Churchill, Tolkien (I thought him a scholarly and fictive genius, Hitchens thought  him a mediocrity), and 19th-century Britain. His prejudices were often my own — whether on Pakistan or Hillary Clinton. Some of his conclusions, if not original, at least were unusual — e.g., that we should have let the Russians in 1979 do away with the pre-Taliban, since their unworkable fix for Afghanistan would have evaporated more quickly than Islam’s and in the process would have been kinder to women, homosexuals, and those in the professions. His fierce loyalty to persecuted small nations — Armenia, Kurdistan, Greece, Cyprus — that for centuries had suffered terribly from Islamic aggression and Western indifference did not in the least extend to contemporary Israel. He felt that ultraorthodox Jewry was comparable to radical Islam, mutatis mutandis — which I felt was as unsound as saying Timothy McVeigh was comparable to Osama bin Laden and his epigones. I bothered him on another occasion by noting that Henry Kissinger’s memoirs at least were well written, informative, and witty in ironic fashion, and in short comparable to Acheson’s. He countered with (precise) examples of all sorts of monsters who left behind lively accounts. In regard to Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger, I do not think it was so much their supposedly dastardly acts that had enraged him, or even that they had become wrongly esteemed because of them; rather he assumed that the general regard in which they were held had fooled us all into thinking they were near flawless — without any concession that most of us simply had added up their pluses and minuses and found both mostly better than the alternatives.



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