Hitchens is gone. And the phrase that echoes in my mind is Nehru’s at the death of Gandhi: “The light has gone out of our lives.” For every young writer – and every victim and opponent of authoritarianism – there is now darkness.
To Hitchens, there was no difference between the two: he rejected the line that separates the observer from the doer. The master stylist of the English language was also the Western world’s most forceful opponent of authoritarianism. He savaged intellectuals who, obsessed with playing the thinker, refused to engage with reality and often became apologists for tyranny.
“The usual duty of the intellectual is to argue for complexity and to insist that phenomena in the world of ideas should not be sloganized or reduced to easily repeated formulae,” he wrote in his memoir, Hitch-22. “But there is another responsibility: to say that some things are simple and ought not to be obfuscated…”
This clarity was not limited to thought. We must remember Hitchens also for the remarkable lack of gulf between his beliefs and his conduct.
Strolling through Beirut after an evening of drinking in 2009, Hitchens spotted a poster for the fascist Syrian Social Nationalist Party. He walked over to it, got his pen out, and scrolled a compliment that all Nazi sympathisers deserve to hear: fuck you. For this he was physically assaulted on the street by the SSNP’s thugs. Did Hitchens flee? Far from it: The next morning he delivered a lecture at the American University in Beirut. Its title: “Who are the revolutionaries in today’s Middle East.”
In his own lifetime, Hitchens inspired and shaped movements that displaced oppressors. His life – his tremendous body of work – is an indispensable spot of light in the darkness that presently engulfs us.