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Sunday, December 18, 2011

What Hitchens Taught Me...

Dec 18th, 2011
by. F. Grey Parker

Although I find it unlikely I will add much to the discussion of how the late Christopher Hitchens impacted contemporary critical thinking, I am compelled to thank him publicly for a few things.

I initially encountered his work when I was a decidedly more strident leftist. On my 17th birthday, I received my first subscription to The Nation magazine from my grandmother, a gift which was to become an annual tradition for the remainder of her life. The magazine had many great writers at the time. I was particularly hopeful to find some new and eloquently-raked muck by Alexander Cockburn in each issue. But, it was Hitchens' essays which began to impact me more than those of others.

It is rare to read political works which routinely accept and address inconvenient truths. With Hitchens, this was not only common, it was the rule. His devotion to inclusion was annoying to me as a hot-headed, adolescent partisan. Why help them make their arguments?

As I entered my early twenties, I became increasingly disappointed with most political critique. More often than not, the essays and op-eds I was reading contained obvious omissions of fact central to the debate. Even those endorsing my positions began to bother me. I grew fond of referring to a number of left-leaning writers and activists as those whom "I would prefer not to have on my side."

I am not sure at what point I credited Hitchens, almost exclusively, with this change of outlook. I didn't know when he had become something of a hero to me, but he had. For Hitchens, facts were not malleable. Empiricism, historicism and adherence to rational argument superseded his passions. For too many, the same cannot be said.

His work has changed the way I interpret information and how I defend a position. Were it not for him, I might not have the nerve to fight so hard when I know the truth is on my side.I would be less likely to read and listen to those with whom I disagree. More importantly, I doubt I would be as capable of admitting when it's time to change my mind.

A couple of years ago, I e-mailed him a draft of one of my first posts here at The Hand. I was extremely proud of it. He was gracious enough to reply a few weeks later and he let me know that it was a "start" and to "send it along when it's finished." I believe that I blushed. It hadn't occurred to me that it wasn't finished. I revisit that particular piece from time to time.

There's something incredibly important to me about that lone exchange. It would have been easy to react emotionally and take it personally. Coming from a lot of other established writers, it probably would have been a kind of insult. But it wasn't. Hitchens wanted everyone to think harder and become better at thinking.

Except in those moments where I let my passions overtake me, I am a better writer for it.

When I heard the news earlier in the year that he had cancer, my first reaction was, "He's Hitch." I simply assumed he'd beat it. How could anything possibly take him down? I suppose, not having had a genuine personal relationship with him, I had thoroughly intellectualized his life. I regarded him as something perennial; Something that would always be there.

Perhaps that is why so many of his readers and admirers have been devastated. It just seems harder to believe that this man is no longer with us. It's not easy to reconcile mortality with a man who was that much larger than life.

At the end, and no one should be surprised by this, he still had a lesson for everyone. Hitchens showed us all how to die well. He did not rush to make peace with a God in whom he didn't believe. In spite of what some have wishfully projected, there was no wave of second guessing his own long-held opinions. There were no maudlin pleas for forgiveness.

He was who he was and he wasn't about begin being someone else, dammit.

Goodbye, Hitch. And I thought your example was hard to live up to before.

1 comment:

  1. nice. it is one of life's great gifts to find those who challenge us to think honestly and clearly, and to express ourselves with the same integrity. i won't say he is smiling down on you ;)

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