I know I’ll take flack for this, but honestly, the reason the left reviled Hitchens as strongly as it did was because it realized that it had a formidable opponent. For the most part, the left argues with the likes of Grover Norquist, whose influence is undeniable but whose skills are very much comparable.
Hitchens' proper and, I might add, honorable legacy will be his detestation of conformity of thought, an unintellectual malady nearly as pandemic throughout the progressive community as it is on the right.
As a writer, he made intuitive leaps that occasionally got him into serious trouble. In Hitchens's evidentiary arithmetic, 2 + 2 might equal 4 or it might equal 573. But he was never dull, and he never failed to teach you something you didn't know, even on topics you thought you knew fairly well. He was astonishingly well-read, so much so that when I heard him confide, in the early 1990s, that he had never read any novels by the Nobel prizewinner Toni Morrison (she was sitting in his living room at the time; somebody famous was always sitting in his living room) I had difficulty absorbing the news that there was anything Christopher hadn't read.
Obviously, I didn’t agree with Hitchens on much, especially his atheism and his perplexing defense of the war in Iraq. But in a country where the public discourse grows more stupid by the day – where stupidity is even counted as a qualification for high office in some quarters - Hitchens was a reminder that there is great value in intelligence, clear articulation and the honest search for truth. Hitchens found the claims of the Christian faith wanting, even perverse. But he took them seriously, in a way even many Christians do not. He challenged Christians to defend the often contradictory practice of our faith, and to reconcile the seeming absurdity of its assumptions with the hard truths of the world around us. I never viewed Hitchens as an enemy of Christianity, but he was one of its most severe critics. And thank God for that. The honest critic is always a friend of those who seek the truth.
Hitch lived so large, and so beyond the rules, that his mortality seems especially hard to accept. I remember the day some eighteen months ago when he told me that he was mortally ill. He had missed a few stops on his book tour, which wasn’t like him, so I called to see if he was all right. “No,” he said frankly. “I’m not. I have cancer.” I was so stricken for the next few days that I couldn’t get much work done. Then I noticed that during the time that I was using his illness as an excuse to procrastinate, he had himself authored a handful of brilliant pieces. I couldn’t work, but he couldn’t stop working. He was a born writer, whose irrepressible talent and verve put most of the rest of us journeymen to shame.
I’ve also long admired Hitchens’ willingness to trample on the tradition of venerating the recently dead. Some people don’t deserve veneration. (Though I didn’t always agree with his assessments.) I imagine we’ll see some of Hitchens’ detractors attempt to out-Hitchens him on that front in the coming days. And I imagine he’d have appreciated a well-executed corpse-prodding as much as the glowing tributes.
Christopher never resisted attacking his chosen enemies, but he would assail friends as well. As Christopher Buckley recalls on the New Yorker website, in a touching reminiscence of their friendship, he unleashed several thousand words in the Atlantic against his closest friend, Martin Amis, on the subject of Stalin. He also criticised another friend Edward Said, who was himself dying of leukaemia at the time, in the same magazine. It was the only time Christopher and I had a falling out. I thought it was bad form, but he reminded me that Edward was too honest a man to expect a free ride because he was ill. (I see that Edward's daughter, the actress Najla Said, forgave Christopher and now laments his passing.) Yet most of Christopher's friendships survived, including the one with me. It did not matter that he hated my Catholicism and I was indifferent to his atheism. Each of us believed the other was wrong about the American invasion of Iraq and said so. Life would be duller than it is if friends agreed on everything.
He shouldn’t be sentimentalized. Hitch could be a real shit if you fell on the wrong side of his favor. Among our mutual friends, he had fallings-out, in some cases multiple ones, with almost every one of them. And yet, at some point, they always fell back in. He was too irresistible and, in a pinch, too good a friend.
The image above comes from Buzzfeed's round up of Hitch quotes.