Today would have been Christopher Hitchens’ 63rd birthday. He died young. A few more years would have certainly produced more than a fair share of good debates and provocatively enlightening reactions that were characteristic of Hitchens; youtube is full of many such.
There are somewhat short remembrances by the usual suspects. Vanity fair, where he was a contributing editor has a very short introduction to him with a link to an “extensive archive of his works”. The richard dawkins foundation may have forgotten or something may be forthcoming on their site. But, certainly unnecessary fanfare about a rather unpredictable outcome of a process of procreation, a chance event as he would have described, would have been no reason for sycophancy anyway.
So, rather better to re-read (rather glance through again) his seminal work (in my opinion) “Letters to a young contrarian“. What an amazing introduction to anybody looking to make sense of their struggles within, on taking sides in societal struggles and showing how deep a rational approach to philosophy can go. Here are some celebratable excerpts:
“In an average day, you may well be confronted with some species of bullying or bigotry, or some ill-phrased appeal to the general will, or some petty abuse of authority. If you have a political loyalty, you may be offered a shady reason for agreeing to a lie or a half-truth that serves some short-term purpose. Everybody devises tactics for getting through such moments; try behaving “as if” they need not be tolerated and are not inevitable.”
And his writing was rich in anecdotes and side-track stories, as were his monologues which had a literary character, intellectual depth and a precision unmatched outside of mathematics…
The literal mind is baffled by the ironic one, demanding explanations that only intensify the joke. A vintage example, and one that really did occur, is that of P.G. Wodehouse, captured by accident during the German invasion of France in 1940. Josef Goebbels’s propaganda bureaucrats asked him to broadcast on Berlin radio, which he incautiously agreed to do, and his first transmission began:
Young men starting out in life often ask me—“How do you become an internee?” Well, there are various ways. My own method was to acquire a villa in northern France and wait for the German army to come along. This is probably the simplest plan. You buy the villa and the German army does the rest.
Somebody—it would be nice to know who, I hope it was Goebbels—must have vetted this and decided to let it go out as a good advertisement for German broad-mindedness. The “funny” thing is that the broadcast landed Wodehouse in an infinity of trouble with the British authorities, representing a nation that prides itself above all on a sense of humor
And his favourite takes on faith, nation and such divisive human tendencies…
The unspooling of the skein of the genome has effectively abolished racism and creationism, and the amazing findings of Hubble and Hawking have allowed us to guess at the origins of the cosmos. But how much more addictive is the familiar old garbage about tribe and nation and faith.
Anyway, for those already introduced to the rich works of Christopher Hitchens, here is a reminder. And if you want a quick introduction to his life and times, I would much recommend my own short obit, Hitchhiking reason. For a fuller one, this New York Times obit starting off with often seen comparisons of Hitchens with George Orwell and Thomas Paine is much more recommended. And lastly, here is another excerpt from Letters to a young contrarian on his “irritation with the NY Times”, somewhat reminiscent of his generally skeptic view of most mainstream trends…..a contrarian indeed.
Every day, the New York Times carries a motto in a box on its front page. “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” it says. It’s been saying it for decades, day in and day out. I imagine most readers of the canonical sheet have long ceased to notice this bannered and flaunted symbol of its mental furniture. I myself check every day to make sure that the bright, smug, pompous, idiotic claim is still there. Then I check to make sure that it still irritates me. If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be, then at least I know I still have a pulse. You may wish to choose a more rigorous mental workout but I credit this daily infusion of annoyance with extending my lifespan