The Course of Reason

Death of a Horseman

December 17, 2011

We all have those moments, the ones in which we find ourselves unsurprised by the news we have just received, but are shocked and saddened nonetheless.  I speak, of course, about the death of Christopher Hitchens.  Everyone knew it was coming, that it was only a matter of time.  Still, you could feel the sadness flowing in the words that were coming up on my Facebook news-feed.

There is no arguing that Hitchens’ influence on the atheist movement has been (some may wish to add the phrase “for better or for worse” here) enormous.  His name has come up in many conversations I have had during my years with AAFW and I suspect that this will continue to be the case throughout my time as the topic of belief and non-belief comes up.  But before I type more words of praise for this man, I must stop and delve into the negative.

Now traditionally, going on the attack against the newly dead is viewed as being in poor taste.  Mercy for someone who can no longer defend themselves seems to be not only courteous but the absolute right.  Though anyone who has paid attention to Hitchens over the years should know that the man would be most likely to protest against the insistence that we only shower his memory with praise over the next few weeks and months.  Go read the words he wrote in the immediate wake of Jerry Falwell’s death and his appearance on Sean Hannity’s show shortly thereafter if you have any doubts as to whether or not Hitchens felt the dead should receive any mercy.  If you wish to write a piece expressing only joy for the prospect that Hitchens is now just a rotting corpse, feel free to do so.

Hitchens support for the Iraq War was appalling.  Appallingly stupid.  Although he was able to deliver his arguments for the war with the same wonderful prose he utilizes for every other argument he makes, it still came off has being completely wrong.  Nearly a decade later, with Iraq in shambles, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, and no bright future for the people in sight, Hitchens was still defending his position, even going as far to insist there was evidence for weapons of mass destruction (Hitch-22).  If I ever find myself writing a piece entitled “Smart People Who Believe Stupid Things”, I’m going to be obliged to include Hitchens in that list.

I think back to when I first read God is not Great.  I was enthralled by this man’s brilliance.  I was captivated not only because I agreed with him, but because he delivered his message in such a way that made you admire him simply as a writer.  There are very few people who can entice me into reading what they have to say simply on the basis that their writing is so damn good.  But then I got to the section on the Iraq War and the Bush Administration.  I was absolutely stunned.  There it was.  A brilliant and gifted man wasting his talents in defending an unjustifiable act of aggression.  What’s more is that he appeared to be backing the Bush Administration.  An administration that I would easily label as public enemy number one to the atheist/secular humanism cause.  I felt a sense of betrayal by a man I didn’t even know.

His final decade was marked by taking the position of what can only be described as, “cheerleader for American Imperialism”.  His support for Obama in the 2008 election was driven largely by Obama’s plans to step up the acts of aggression along the Afghanistan/Pakistan in order to root out terrorists in the region.  Libya?  Either you were with us or against us.  Now where have I heard that before?  He seemed to have bought into the view that America is at war with evil-doers hellbent on destroying everything he as an American held dear.  It is, of course, nonsensical and idiotic to believe America can bomb its way to peace or that they are in no way responsible for the death and destruction brought upon them.  And yet, Hitchens had a way of arguing in support of this stupid idea and actually making it sound somewhat intelligent.

Hitchens support for the American war machine is all the more baffling given his formative years as a vocal critic of the Vietnam war.  In writing Hitch-22 he attempts to explain how he could go from war protester to war monger without it appearing as a hypocritical transformation.  I must have missed the fine details because I failed to notice a justifiable reason other than he became obsessed with riding “evil” from the world and protecting the Western way of life.  At times this would make his anti-religious stance more of a backing for his pro-imperialism than anything else.

I am sure there are many more critiques of Hitchens to be made here.  Though this is the most prominent one, in my mind, and I can’t think of any other ones that I can write about in any detail.  Remember, do not hesitate to speak critically of this man even though he has recently died.  Hitchens would be the last man to beg for mercy.

One more thing.  I find it absolutely absurd that he insists on being called “Christopher” (Hitch-22), I have never met a Christopher, myself included, who preferred the long version over the short.  It’s just silly.  Though the hilarity of a prominent atheist being named Christopher is evident when the meaning of the name is examined.  Christ-like indeed!

I have already touched on this point, but it needs to be restated again and again as I think it is the reason Hitchens will be remembered by many, he was a brilliant writer.  He had this way of making the words flow and dance.  I have been inspired to by him to the point that I think to myself as I write, “Would this be worthy of a Hitchens article?”  I have no qualms in saying that I fall terribly short of that benchmark.  But one should always aim high.

Backed by his incredible talent to write was his powerful ability to speak.  He delivered the wit through spoken word just as well as the written.  Watching a Hitchens debate is always a delight, something about his presentation draws the listener in, captivates them.  It doesn’t seem to matter if he is spewing nonsense (i.e. his support for the Iraq War), it remains enticing either way.

I propose that the following be deemed a new rule: Anyone who writes about Hitchens must acknowledge his notorious drinking habits.  What’s more, if you do drink, you better find yourself intoxicated today.  (I’ll allow non-drinkers to be exempt from this rule).  I’m going to share Hitchens drinking advice, which he lays out in Hitch-22:

“Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain”

Hitchens was the drunken author.  Drinks and the written word were a combo that had to be.  I have no doubt that the fact that a glass of scotch sits next to me as I write was influenced by Hitchens.  Indeed a number of pieces for this blog have been written while I was completely inebriated.  A good drink also tends to be my companion when reading a good book.  Literature, so it would seem, will never be separated from the bottle.

Hitchens is dead.  He will soon be buried and his corpse will rot and decompose.  He isn’t going anywhere, he won’t be in the clouds amongst the company of other dead, great writers, getting drunk without any repercussions.  No, based on what we know, he is done.  Dead.  Gone.  There’s no coming back.  He won’t be watching over his loved ones and he won’t be guiding us in spirit.  Now every atheist should agree with this statement, and so it shouldn’t be a shock to see it put as such.  But it needs to be stated.  In the coming weeks and months we can be sure that many on the religious side will start telling the tale of a Hitchens death-bed conversion.  Others will rejoice at the thought that he is roasting in Hell.  We must speak up against such people.  Not only for the defense of Hitchens, but for the defense of atheists everywhere, alive or dead.

Those in AAFW may fondly remember his “appearance” (he appeared via video link as his illness made travel too difficult.  This was back in June of this year) at the University of Waterloo.  He was to debate professor Barry Brummett.  While Brummett was indeed a man worthy of attention and respect, the event may as well have been entitled: “HITCHENS”.  I cannot recall having witnessed before that moment, such a powerful standing ovation for an individual.  It was incredible.  The debate was rather insignificant, the topic not being very conducive to argument.  But even as the details of the discussion slip away from me, I will never forget the sound of the audience and the look of pure joy on Hitchens face.  He was mere months away from death at this point, but he was still in love with life.

Take time today to remember Christopher Hitchens.  Whether you loved him, hated him, or stand on a middle-ground in your feelings towards him, recognize that the world has lost a genius.  Someone who stood out from the rest.

Goodbye Hitchens, you will be missed.

This post originally appeared on the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo.


About the Author: Chris Burke

Chris Burke's photo
Chris Burke holds a Bachelors in Environmental Studies: Honours Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. Next he will be working towards a Masters of Environmental Studies in Sustainability Management. He's an active member of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo student group. In his spare time he enjoys reading and playing music.


#1 Cory Brunson on Saturday December 17, 2011 at 3:58pm

Atheists tend to parade Hitchens around as the token prominent atheist they disagree with, as though that lends the movement some cred toward diversity or imperfection, yet when it comes to the Iraq War (among other topics) they never seem to address his arguments, but rather to brush them off as obviously flawed (or "nonsense"), and seem particularly disinclined to respond to his counterarguments to much of what the anti-war movement said — proudly — in the lead-up to and early years of the invasion.

When we acknowledge that someone's position is worth understanding on one issue (religion) but claim that it is not on another (Iraq), we sell ourselves short. When religious scientists stick their necks out to claim that no conflict exists between (their) religion and science, for instance, rebuttals tend to and should engage their arguments thoughtfully and in detail. (Consider Dawkins versus Lennox. The latter's arguments fail, but they are interesting and raise worthwhile issues.)

Hitchens doesn't have to convince us to become interventionists to bring important questions to our awareness. Is Iraq worse off now, not than it was in 2003, but than it would be now following nine more years of rule by the Hussein family? (How much of a "bright future" would Iraqis have had under Uday and/or Qusay Hussein?) Are we obligated to respect the sovereignty of a regime with a track record of violating others'? Were we complicit in the Hussein regime and, if so, were we partly obligated to help overthrow it? How important is UN endorsement to military intervention? Does complicity in the training or supplying of al-Qaeda disqualify the United States from tracking them down? Should anti-war progressives have been more skeptical of the conspiracy theories of Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan? Was the overthrow of Hussein inspirational to the Arab Spring and consequent global uprisings, including Occupy Wall Street (a far more serious and meaningful set of protests than against the Iraq War, by my estimation)?

Was the Bush Administration, in all seriousness, a graver threat to secular and humanist values than the Hussein regime or militant Islam? or even, for that matter, than the notion widespread among progressives that all religions are equally valid?

If one reads "Love, Poverty, and War" or "Christopher Hitchens and His Critics" without being convinced to side with Hitchens on any issue, one has not necessarily wasted one's time. If, however, one fails to recognize the relevance of the questions asked and critiques made, and to extract something worthwhile from the experience, then one has wasted not only one's time but an opportunity to think and grow.




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