This is a post I never wanted to write this soon.
I thought he could beat it. He’s beaten off a million and one enemies, numerous threats from foes great and small and survived everything from brutal chain smoking to simulated water boarding. He could beat this. I convinced myself he could do this.
Yet he couldn’t win this fight.
Learning that Christopher Hitchens, the last great writer standing in an age of instantaneous tweets and quickly forgotten status updates, died tonight at age 62 is hard news to bear.
For me personally, Hitchens was an inspiration. He was a contrarian of the highest order, a masterful provocateur that skewered anyone that preached ideological dogmatism. He was a prolific writer, producing astounding amounts of essays, books and articles on a considerably varied number of subjects. He had a genius ability to turn a phrase into a sharp, quick-witted shot across the bow of both the inane and the powerful. He refused to cave on his principles, no matter how much it cost him personally. He rightly savaged Henry Kissinger, wrote and spoke passionately on atheism and had the guts to call the extremism of Islamic terrorism for what it really is: ugly, twisted and a perversion.
Mostly though, I admired him for his courage.
Being a public intellectual in 2011 is tantamount to dancing alone in the middle of a bar; people generally look at you with a mixture of curiosity and disdain. We’re currently living in an age of action, not words. The West’s long and slow decline is starting to speed up now, and we’re actively scorning the worlds of ideas in favour of those who placate us with cheap and easy slogans.
Hitchens wasn’t like that. Sure, as a man, he was often loutish and a boor. He didn’t win any friends from shifting, in the outbreak of the Iraq War, from being a fierce opponent of the Right to chastising leftists for his belief they didn’t want to face the War on Terror with the conviction he had.
Yet Hitchens took to his beliefs – a determination to spread the gospel that good writing is still valuable and worth fighting for – with a kind of passion I’ve always admired.
Back in 1998 in my final month of residence at Queen’s, I discovered a cache of files online that contained links to a variety of Hitchens’ writings. Over one night, I read over 10 articles, soaking in the man’s words like a sponge. I was immediately hooked.
Years later, I’m still as huge a fan of Hitchens now as I was then. I may not have agreed with everything the man wrote about war, politics and the West since the dark days of 9/11, but there were few writers out there that made as huge a personal impact in me as Hitchens.
Losing him is a great loss for the world.