Remembering Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011


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As the 8-1/2 year murderous slog known as “Operation Iraqi Fiefdom” finally stumbles to a close, so does the life of one of its most strident liberal supporters.  Brilliant, provocative, hilarious, and often infuriating, writer and polemicist Christopher Hitchens passed on yesterday after a long bout with esophageal cancer.  From the New York Times‘ short obituary:

Polemicist Who Slashed All, Freely, With Wit

Christopher Hitchens, a slashing polemicist in the tradition of Thomas Paine and George Orwell who trained his sights on targets as various as Henry Kissinger, the British monarchy and Mother Teresa, wrote a best-seller attacking religious belief, and dismayed his former comrades on the left by enthusiastically supporting the American-led war in Iraq, died on Thursday in Houston. He was 62…

That’s right, they’re referring to

  • his 2002 masterpiece “The Trial of Henry Kissinger”, which thoroughly made the prosecution’s case that the old creep was guilty of numerous war crimes across the globe if a court could ever take the case on; along with Christopher’s essays at The Nation this made him a hero to us leftists … until his apostasy on Iraq;
  • his incendiary 1996 tract “Missionary Position:  Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” which makes the case that the sainted nun was a “fraud and fanatic” and “political opportunist who adopted the guise of a saint in order to raise money and spread an extreme religious ideology …  used contributions to open convents in 150 countries rather than establishing the teaching hospital toward which her donors expected her to apply their gifts… and opposed structural measures to end poverty, particularly those that would raise the status of women.”
  • and his most famous book, his passionate 2007 plea for atheism, “God is Not Great:  How Religion Poisions Everything.”

I went to hear him speak two or three times, probably shook his hand but couldn’t think of much to say.  But the most memorable was the first time, in Manhattan, 1988, on a panel with Robert Scheer and Jessica Mitford.  Many vital and timely issues were discussed, but the liberal audience was clearly agitated over the probability of our weak Democratic candidate Dukakis dooming us to another four years of Republican misrule.  Finally one guy in the audience (perhaps a plant?) raised his hand and asked the panel, “Isn’t there some kind of scandal, any kind of personal scandal, that we could tie to Bush?   You know they would use something like that against us if they could.”

Scheer, ever the proper journalist, bristled at the suggestion, saying “No, that’s just wrong, we don’t have to play dirty like the other side does…” and indeed went on at length in that manner.  When he was done, Christopher leaned forward and asked, “Is this being broadcast?”  Answered yes, he continued, “Well, let’s see if they broadcast this:  HER NAME IS JENNIFER FITZGERALD…” and went on to tell chapter and verse of Bush’s alleged longtime mistress from his Chinese ambassador days, as Scheer proteted, “No, Christopher, don’t.”  It was a riotous moment that the crowd loved, although it didn’t change the disastrous 1988 election.

So…  I never got to speak much to the guy, but I knew a guy in the Army who got to spend a lot of time with him, as he was assigned to pick Christopher up at the airport.  Looking over he was amazed to see Christopher take a big swig from a thermos that turned out to be full of vodka … and then go on to speak extemporaneously and debate with brilliance in between more swigs.  Later they went out and belted out “Proud Mary” in a karaoke bar while never ceasing to drink heavily.

That fellow was only one of many observers to remark on how brilliantly Chris could talk, debate and think while seeming to spend his life perpetually drunk.   Damn.  I’m a drinker and a thinker, but I can’t think like that when I drink like that.  Hats off.

Dead Wrong On Iraq

A passionate humanist and opposer of tyrannies everywhere, and a longtime friend to oppressed Iraqi Kurds and Shiites, he salivated at the looming possibility of using US might to eliminate the torturing, murdering dictator Saddam Hussein.  And he could sound quite convincing, as one of the few liberal hawks to back this doomed and criminal endeavor, eventually losing most of his leftwing friends, and quitting his post at The Nation.  (Which I thought was a lame-ass thing for him to do, as his column was already entitled “Minority Report.”)

But knowledgeable as he was, there were obviously many important factors he stubbornly overlooked, obvious not only in retrospect, but to MANY of us thinking folks far in advance:

  1. The Nature of the People who would be leading the war (the Bush Administration)
  2. Their Motives (not so much humanitarian as:  OIL, NEW PERMANENT MILITARY BASES, and keeping Israeli hawks happy
  3. Their Competence (along the lines of the Keystone Kops)
  4. Their Dishonesty (Weapons of Mass Destruction, Nuclear Program, “He gassed his own people” – yeah, 25 years before when he was our ally
  5. The illegality, unprecedentedness, and dangerous precedent, of America launching an aggressive unprovoked war;
  6. The high, high probability that this would turn into a years-long sectarian bloodbath, strengthen Iran and Al Qaeda, kill thousands of us and hundreds of thousands of them, and cost trillions.  Check, check, check, check, and check.

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As you’ve gathered by now, Christopher was a FERVENT and proselytizing atheist, which some have speculated may have been a result of his mother committing suicide when he was young after being caught having an affair with a clergyman.

(I also note the savage irony of his having helped turn Iraq from a secular dictatorship with equal rights for women, into a land filled with repressive religious fanaticism.)

When he became acquainted with the pain and horror of the throat cancer that killed him, he once said something on the lines of, “Down the road, if you ever hear me say there is a God, it won’t be me talking, but some hollowed out, terrified shell of who I used to be.”

But he didn’t go down like that.  Here are some quotes from his final days:

“I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient.”

“A friend and I were musing that there would come a day when the newspapers would come out and they wouldn’t be there to read them.  And on that day, I’ve realised recently, I’ll probably be in the newspapers, or quite a lot of them. And etiquette being what it is, generally speaking, rather nice things being said about me.   Just typical that will be the edition I miss.”

“I wish I had done more of everything.”

Well, he was one of  a kind, and he will be missed and remembered.  Here, enjoy a video:

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About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.