“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
It saddened me to learn of the death of writer, journalist, atheist and professional agitator Christopher Hitchens, aged 62, after a long battle against cancer. ‘The Hitch’ was an inspirational character, being an astounding intellect, a devastating debater, a possessor of a wit sharper than a sword lined with piranha teeth, and, just to prove he was human, a roaring drunk.
His speeches resonate with me, and I can’t help but think of a legendary address from history. At Gettysburg, 1863, at the dedication of a cemetery to the fallen of the American Civil War battle, politician Edward Everett was giving a keynote speech. It lasted over two hours. After he had finished, Abraham Lincoln arose and spoke for a little under three minutes, beginning by intoning the immortal words “four score and seven years ago…” Which speech does history recall? That was the power of The Hitch: He had impact. You could argue intelligently for hours, with facts and figures in your support, but unleashing the Hitch on an opponent was like fighting cavemen with a tactical nuke.
His put-downs have become colloquially known as ‘Hitch slaps,’ for their sharpness and ferocity, and for leaving those on the receiving end feeling like they’ve been smacked in the face.
He argued from a position on the political left, pro the preeminence of science, not just as an atheist, but as an anti-theist. Where Professor Richard Dawkins – who lead the tributes to his friend – would avoid direct debate with Creationists, Hitchens would actively pursue confrontation with religious extremists, and had been very vocal on religious issues and figures, such as Mother Teresa.
His thoughts on alcohol are almost as well known, citing many writers that created their best works while drunk. Perhaps as a society we’re more willing to forgive a drinker over any other form of personal abuse, and accept characters like Oliver Reed and George Best in spite of their flaws. But he never saw his drinking as a flaw. When former MP George Galloway once described him as a “drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay,” Hitchens let it pass bar protesting at the suggestion he couldn’t hold a drink.
Later in life some of his opinions seemed at odds with his liberal leanings, including being actively outspoken in support for the Iraq war. At the time I too shared his opinion, but have come to think differently in the light of subsequent information about the misleading and demonstrably false intelligence given in justification. This isn’t flip-flopping, but a change of mind of which Hitch would have approved. He was a believer in the primacy of persuasion and a sucker for a well-constructed argument, supported by proofs. He would never stubbornly maintain a view when all the evidence was against him.
If how he lived his life was the model I aspire to, then how he faced death can be an inspiration to us all. He refused to be cowed by his illness, and continued to fight for his cause until he was no longer able to. He recently engaged in a high profile debate against former Prime Minister Tony Blair, arguing against the proposal that religion is a force for good, in Canada in 2010. The assembled audience voted at its conclusion in favour of Hitchens.
Towards the end some religious opponents, upon hearing of his illness, offered to pray for his salvation. He told them not to bother, as heaven is deaf.
I hope, when I go, that I can face my death with as much dignity and humour, and with his lack of fear.
Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011