Yes, I know I’m late to the party when it comes to Christopher Hitchens tributes and recollections, but give me a break; no one pays me (a lot) of money to come up with tribute pieces on a moment’s notice (although the trick of the writers’ trade is to have these things lying around for that eventual occurrence, particularly in this case where it was just a matter of when). And while I could have done the same, I guess part of me held off writing this in advance because I hoped that it would mean he would live a little longer and write a little more.
And, you know, finals.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to see Christopher Hitchens in Los Angeles at the REDCAT Theater. He was in town to debate the justification on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, five or so years later. The debate itself was stimulating and interesting; above all, however, it was a debate and not just two diametrically opposed antagonists shouting at each other in order to win points from their respective constituencies.
This wasn’t the only thing that was refreshing about the debate. For a topic that inspires strong emotions (to say the least), Hitchens remained passionate and yet always based his arguments on what he thought and what he reasoned over what he felt. Anyone who has taught writing (or received a paper from a student or, even read a blog) knows that “I feel” has become the proxy justification for any answer, opinion, reason, or position. He very clearly felt strongly about the issue but had also thought very deeply about his arguments, allowing him to remain, infuriatingly enough to many, unflappable.
Hitchens was also one of the few supporters of the invasion of Iraq who couldn’t easily be dismissed as simply an ignorant racist/colonialist/capitalist/neo-liberal/idiot. When he presented his arguments, you had to engage them rather than ignore them. I was particularly struck by the fact that Christopher Hitchens challenges the easy caricatures we so often perpetuate, if only because it makes our own position secure. I had been confronted with my own ignorance when I went to a French university just after the 1995 Referendum in Quebec; we (the Federalists) were quick to assume that anyone who was in favor of a sovereign Quebec was a xenophobic, anglo-hating, close-minded fool.
And then, I actually met some.
Supporting the war in Iraq may have been Hitchens biggest mistake, but I disagree with the author that he was unwilling to listen to the counter arguments. He proudly stated he would debate any and all comers when it came to his position on the war (and, really, any other topic, more recently his views about God and religion). As he pointed out to a group of us after the talk, over many drinks, his address was clearly listed in the D.C. phonebook/directory. He welcomed people to write to him and engaged often in responding to those letters. That he was willing to go for drinks with a bunch of graduate students after his talk was, for me, a testament to his willingness to engage with just about anybody.
Ah, yes, the drinks afterwards. A group of us where able to get together with Hitchens to just hang out and talk (and drink and smoke, of course). The talk was about all things, including his and my shared admiration of George Orwell and the dystopian traditions. He told me about letters he had found between Orwell and Huxley, discussing their two respective (and overlapping in some ways) nightmare visions of the future. He talked with us, never lecturing, never talking down to us, and he also listened to us (as opposed to just simply waiting for his turn to talk again). I appreciated that as well; too often in academia, the celebrity public intellectual/academic simply views the informal gathering as yet another opportunity to lecture.
I’ll always treasure that night. It was intellectually challenging, as well as eloquent and fun. I don’t always agree with Hitchens but he always said things in such a way that inspired admiration in me, a fellow writer. I can only hope to write half as well as he did. But I also will always remember his intellectual generosity that night, his willingness to talk with, rather than at, us. It’s a lesson I try to remember.