He was not the kind of guy youd want to emulate when it comes to self-care or social skills. Brusquely erudite as Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson, he didnt exactly set out to be the sweetheart of the rodeo.
Or last into old age.
But when the irascible author and all-around religion thumper Christopher Hitchens went over the rainbow in December, his adopted country was made the lesser. Because, like him or loathe him, the guy had that rare combination of informed skepticism, fire in the belly, linguistic chops and the onions to confront any and all dubious assumptions.
Dead at the age of 62, Hitch was one of the New Atheists that cadre of bright, bombastic thinkers and writers that for the last decade has been jauntily pumping out jeremiads against unexamined faith. (At their peak, Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet were wont to refer to themselves as The Four Horsemen, a spoof on the Book of Revelations and its apocalyptic predictions.)
While Hitchens put his own contrarian twists on New Atheist thought, he shared his compatriots modernist gospel of scorched-earth science: Creationism, Intelligent Design, supernatural deities and the efficacy of prayer are neither testable nor provable just antiquated, burdensome superstitions on par with walking under ladders and crossing paths with black cats.
These negations bound him with the other three thinkers. It may have been as close as he would come to lasting professional allies.
But while many on the theological Left hailed his religious polemics, we should remember that Hitchens was first and foremost a patriot-critic in the mold of his secularist spiritual guides, Paine, Orwell and Twain.
In a December 19, 2011 Newsweek article memorializing his friend, Simon Schama notes that Hitchens saw in Twain a kind of template for wry but intelligent social/political/economic scouring: It was Twains bravura in the face of the pompous and the banal that Hitch sought to perpetuate into the age of conservative radio ranter, the formless drivel of the ego-indulgent blog, the timorous decorum of high-minded liberalism.
Hitchens may or may not have possessed the bravura of Sam Clemens, but he most assuredly stacked up to his hero on at least one count: the art of useful provocation. From Kissinger to Palin to Michael Moore; from American foreign policy to sexual repression to waterboarding; Hitchens was the rare arbiter of his own political soul.
In the end, like Twain, no public entity trusted him for long no matter how often his opinion mirrored their own.
Every generation needs its critical mass of naysayers who see a dark cloud in every silver lining. And Hitch was one of our best.
In death, Hitchens remained the foreboding and unrepentant smoker, drinker and pedal-to-the-metal iconoclast that your parents, teachers and preachers warned you about.
But in life he was our eras first-string, socially-challenged, secular prophet with the blistering penmanship, sardonic wit and perennial chip on the shoulder.
The guy who made us think about how we think.
Don Rollins writes about cultural issues in Raleigh, N.C. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2012
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