Christopher Hitchens and the Art of Persuasion

For those who believe in words as a medium not just of expression but of discovery, life is a journey made all the more fascinating by the prospect that one may occasionally hit upon a word or a sentence that reveals something profound, even to oneself.  Christopher Hitchens, a man of many words, was such a person.

For those who are unfamiliar with him, the gentleman was a British-American author and journalist.  A prodigious and eloquent writer, Hitchens is perhaps best known for his resolute atheism, ideological tergiversations (from confirmed Trotskyite to alleged neoconservative), and criticism of Islamic jihadism.

With his passing this month, journalism has lost another of the very small number of political commentators who combine the qualities of erudition, scholarship, and the ability to surprise with their take on things.

Not for Hitchens the kind of commentary that centers on campaign strategies, public opinion polls, or political horse races.  For Hitchens, as for William F. Buckley Jr., politics was the stuff of deeper meaning than the careers, or even the policies, of politicians.

The Hitchens-Buckley comparison is apt in another way, too.  Buckley’s Roman Catholicism was central to his political philosophy in much the same way that Hitchens’ atheism was to his.

Hitchens, of course, wasn’t the first person to condemn religion.  H.L. Mencken once defined an archbishop as “a Christian ecclesiastic of a rank superior to that attained by Christ.”  But as agitated atheists often do (because in a calmer state they’d be agnostics), Hitchens traveled way past such witty criticisms into the realm of the proselytizing anti-believer, a posture that, in its anger and simplicity, bears a striking resemblance to religious fundamentalism.

But never mind that.  The fetching aspect of Hitchens’ journalism, apart from the great writing, was its escape from the tiresome cant and clichés of contemporary liberalism – indeed, of all the “-isms.”  Though the man himself, early on and late, was a confirmed leftist, Hitchens’ catalog of the good and the bad gave left-wing ideologues migraines.  He was, for instance, a critic of the Vietnam War but a defender of the Iraqi invasion.  He wrote scathingly of Henry Kissinger and George H.W. Bush, but also of Hugo Chávez, about whom he said the following after a trip to Venezuela:

“After all [Chávez said] there is film of the Americans landing on the moon….  Does that mean the moon shot really happened?  In the film the Yanqui flag is flying straight out.  So, is there wind on the moon?  As Chavez beamed with triumph at this logic, an awkwardness descended on my comrades, and on the conversation.…

“Chávez, in other words, is very close to the climactic moment when he will announce that he is a poached egg and that he requires a large piece of buttered toast so that he can lie down and take a soothing nap.”

More evidence of Hitchens’ maverick ways can be seen in his earlier-mentioned crusade against what he called “fascism with an Islamic face.”  In 2008 he wrote a piece in Slate titled “To Hell With the Archbishop of Canterbury,” a criticism of the quaint suggestion by the archbishop that Britain should adopt a form of sharia law as an adjunct to British common law.  Hitchens’ criticism was greeted by much harrumphing by the politically correct, something that bothered him not at all.

As suggested at the outset, though, Hitchens has left something more than just the sum of his theological or political opinions.  He showed the way to greater readership and distinction for political commentators, editorialists, and columnists.

In a word, he demonstrated the virtue in not allowing oneself to become marginalized; to not write just for a tribe of people with similar beliefs; to be willing to tread even on the sensibilities of those who are often allies.

As seen by the wide and varied number of people who, since his passing, have written flatteringly of him, Christopher Hitchens, the man and the writer, enjoyed an appeal that went well beyond just those who agreed with him.  For one whose life involves the expression of strong opinions, it doesn’t get better than that.


First published in the Dallas Morning News, Dec. 26, 2011.  The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.


Orts and All

FCC’s "OpenInternet"

The FCC website, now in Beta, called OpenInternet.Gov is interesting.  It’s not great, but it’s better than you might expect and sort of refreshing.

Ostensibly given over to a public discussion of the “important issues facing the Internet,” the site’s primary focus is on one issue facing the Internet: Chairman Genachowski’s plans to extend and codify the FCC’s so-called Internet principles.

Unlike the FCC’s main site, which is as unreliable as it is difficult to navigate, OpenInternet actually works pretty well.  Much more importantly, it’s attracting, in addition to fans and the usual sycophants, a fair number of people who are critical of the Commission’s plans.

The public’s views are communicated in two ways, through the posting of opinions on the “Join the Discussion” page, and by posting comments there and on the “OpenInternet Blog” page.  Check it out.

Love That AMC

Close observers of this blog will remember an earlier piece written in appreciation of the impressive AMC series “Breaking Bad.”  Yesterday’s was the penultimate show this season of the other award-winning AMC series, “Mad Men.”  And coming to AMC on Nov. 15 is a miniseries remake of the classic 1960s series, “The Prisoner.”

All of which begs the question: What’s the deal with AMC?  Are they trying to make us love them?  If so, they’re succeeding.

Hugo Chavez and Friends

Many of the editors at a magazine I used to work for had “laws.”  One’s law was “never go west of Fifth Avenue unless you absolutely have to.”  Another’s was “the love of evil is the root of all money.”  But the one that I recall most often was “when you find a good thing run it into the ground.”  (The same person who authored that law once told me that in order to handle New York cabbies you need to have iron lungs, a nasty disposition, and a law degree, and he had all three.)

Anyhow, I’m reminded of the “good thing” law whenever I reflect on the endless joy it gives me to say something truly unkind about people who’ve earned it.  It’s in this spirit that I’m pleased to present this week’s Trousered Ape Award to Sean Penn, Danny Glover, and Oliver Stone (who also receives a Golden Homunculus), for their support of Hugo Chavez at precisely that moment when he’s cracking down on free speech, and every other human right, in Venezuela.  One can only wonder where we’d be, as a nation, without such people.