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.