17 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens R.I.P.

I discovered Graydon Carter through Spy Magazine. It was the first publication in English that I thought was consistently funny and clever. None of that Alfred E. Neuman hit and miss silliness. The reason I gave a huge credit to Craydon Carter for the tone of the magazine was because after his departure, despite co founder Kurt Andersen's continued presence, the magazine became a lot less intelligent and trenchant and funny.

So when I heard that Graydon Carter took over from Tina Brown as Editor-in-Chief of Vanity Fair, I began reading the publication. That's how I discovered Christopher Hitchens as Carter hired him siz months into his tenure. The guy was incredible. His prose was exceptionally clear and evocative. His tone was erudite without being pedantic. His knowledge of world events and history seemed endless.

I remember reading his first piece for Vanity Fair and marveling how this atheist and Marxist guy managed to get this job in them US of A. And I remember silently thanking Graydon Carter for having the guts to give that guy a forum.

Over the years, I had many reactions to Hitchens. Some positive, some negative. On the good side, I never stopped appreciating his command of the English language and his immense knowledge. Unlike darlings of the intelligentsia (e.g. luminaries like Slavoj Zizek) he never showed off just for the sake of letting the reader know how great he could be and he always explained openly and clearly where he was coming from and why he was advancing whatever thesis he was advancing.

On the other hand, I thought his hatred of Bill Clinton was excessive and mostly misplaced. I was dismayed by his post 9/11 admiration of George W Bush. Neocons claiming him in that context made me deeply uncomfortable. I felt his late night cable TV (Dennis Miller) appearances with a large glass of whisky and glassy eyes were not becoming of him.

But overall, I always admired him for defending controversial -dare I say it- contrarian views, like Mother Teresa not exactly being a saint or God not being that great. Moreover, I had nothing but praise for him for standing up for the oppressed and the minorities.

I once saw him give a talk about the Bosnian war at Graydon Carter's Alma mater (Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada). He spoke seemingly with no preparation and looked at no notes during the whole hour. Yet his talk had a clear structure, a coherent message and a powerful ending. Afterwards, several Serbian and Croatian nationalists in the audience tried to refute his points with arcane questions. I remember vividly how he deftly turned the situation around by answering every single one of them with superior knowledge of local events and history of the region.

Not having the courage to invite him for a couple of drinks after his talk is one of my enduring regrets in life.

Speaking of courage, he had that in abundance. When he was diagnosed with cancer he wrote a few pieces in Vanity Fair about his illness (here and here). They are remarkable in being utterly devoid of self pity. And to me, his brave attitude towards his imminent death (he was diagnosed too late) and his unflinching look at his options were deeply poignant.

So, I am saddened that I will never get to be amazed by his incredible erudition and his stubborn defense of really contrarian positions.

Like all of us, he was a flawed man. Unlike most of us he was brilliant even when he was wrong.

Thank you Graydon Carter for giving him that job and allowing me to discover Christopher Hitchens.

Thank you Christopher Hitchens.

Like Hitchens, I am not a believer in after life; but I do hope there is one just for the possibility of running into him in a heavenly bar run by Mother Teresa.

UPDATE: I respect Greenwald's opinions and I read his blog regularly. He writes passionately (at times furiously) about the hypocrisy of our elite discourse and the fundamentally unjust and unequal American system. He brought that fury to his obituary for Hitchens. I understand his point (and those of the others he quotes) that Hitchens' about face after 9/11 and his cheerleading for Iraq's invasion are unforgivable. I was very disappointed at the time and stopped reading him for several years.

However, when I look back, unlike younger authors Greenwald cites, I remember both the early, radical Hitchens who was up in arms about the Halepce incident when nobody else could give a damn; and the later older and a lot more conservative Hitchens.  His later conservatism remained informed by his earlier radicalism. For instance, I am pretty sure that he defended the Iraq war largely because he thought the elimination of Saddam would be a good thing for the Kurds.

He also took political positions and made specific choices for personal reasons. In the case of Iraq war, he hated Saddam for what he did to Kurds for decades.

Similarly, his hatred for Islam (like coining the stupid term Islamofascism) has its roots in his friend Salman Rushdie's death fatwa. He hated all religions and I am pretty sure he would not have thought of singling out Islam if it wasn't for Rushdie's predicament after the publication of Satanic Verses.

Finally, I always sensed in him a stubborn boy who relished the idea of defending indefensible positions in the most infuriating manner. Like an adolescent getting a rise out of his parents. I could tell that he just liked to piss people off. And I imagined that he picked at least some positions not because he believed in them but he thought they would piss more people off.

So, I disagree with Greenwald that Hitchens had blood on his hand. That is too harsh for someone who just wrote his opinion. He might have been wrong (as I said that he was) but to claim that he was responsible for the Iraq war is just criminalizing the defense of wrong ideas.

In my eyes, he was not in the same category as neocons, who did have blood on their hands because they actually engineered the whole thing. They would have done so regardless of whatever position Hitchens chose to defend at the time.

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