The Lights Are On The Dunes, Comrade.
Christopher Hitchens was not lonely when death came to him and he is being mourned aloud and well. "No ululations, no wailing, no shooting in the air, no tossing of the coffin on the shoulders of a mob, no hoarse and brutal cries for revenge and suicide and murder," as he once put it, in a lecture in memory of his friend, the murdered Daniel Pearl. "No, we won't have that." Instead, an astonishing chorus of tributes is being offered up.
I've lent my voice here, in the Ottawa Citizen. I've tried to be cheery, noticing that Hitchens appeared to delight in the calumny the American liberal nomenklatura piled on him in the weeks and months after September 11. It was too early in the day for me to notice the shallow bitterness and churlishness in those same voices in the hours after his death. But I won't pay that any mind now, except to point of that all the Hitchens' critics I've come across today rely on the lowest tone, and all depend on deliberate distortion or outright lie. That should tell you something.
But Hitchens relished his enemies, which made him all the more galling. A couple of things I had to say:
When the wildly popular demagogue and so-called “anti-war” figure George Galloway called Hitchens “a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay,” Hitchens noted the insult, “some of which was unfair.” In the weeks following September 11, reporting from Pakistan’s borderlands while American bombers were raining guided missiles down on Taliban strongholds, Hitchens learned that at least two American F-16 pilots were women, and that he could barely contain the urge to proceed immediately to the Taliban embassy with the news: "It's your worst nightmare, you bastards. She's pissed,she's packing, and she's headed for you.”
I didn't want to draw George Orwell into it too deeply, settling for the case that Orwell's hopes that political writing might be made an art are fulfilled in Hitchens' work, but there's serendipity involved that bears some mention.
I happen to be spending most of my time these days wrapping up the lecture course I've been teaching at the University of Victoria, Orwell and Everything After. The one textbook for the course was Hitchens' Why Orwell Matters.
One of my guest lecturers this fall was Sohrab Ahmari, who writes a moving tribute to Hitchens today in Huffington Post, explaining how he came to be hooked on Hitch: "Here was an Anglo-American journalist drinking Persian moonshine and trading verses from the 11th-century poet Omar Khayyam with his local fixer - all while walking the streets of Neyshabur!"
Another guest lecturer I brought in (also by Skype; technology is our friend) was Michael Weiss, and here's his warm and funny tribute in today's Telegraph, Friendship was Hitch's only real ideology. Mike also wins hands down for best lede of all the tributes and obituaries I've come across: "Well, that’s another Christmas he’ll have enjoyed ruining."
This is funny: Back in the day, Conrad Black considered Hitchens' work "the demented ravings of an unspeakable poseur." This one, from our pal Fred Litwin, is quite sweet, a good point he makes about the necessity of rehabilitating the virtues of male companionship. But funniest is this remembrance from David Frum:
. . .A friend of theirs once took Christopher Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue to dinner at Palm Beach’s Everglades Club, notorious for its exclusion of Jews. “You will behave, won’t you?” Carol anxiously asked Christopher on the way into the club. No dice. When the headwaiter approached, Christopher demanded: “Do you have a kosher menu?”
. . . He especially liked gallows humor. When the nurses asked him, in that insinuatingly cheerful way they have, how he was feeling, he’d answer, “I seem to have a little touch of cancer.” If he was late to emerge from his living room to see you because of the exhaustion and nausea of chemotherapy, he’d excuse himself with, “I’m sorry to keep you waiting. I was brushing my hair”– of which of course there were only a few wisps left. . .
The lovely tribute from the Iranian-American poet Roya Hakakian that I mentioned in passing in my Ottawa Citizen piece can be read in full here. I would have cited more of it but for space, and there was lot more I would like to have covered but for space, and time. There's never enough time. But I have some space here. So here goes the home stretch.
In 2007, during a question and answer session following his address to a 2007 Freedom From Religion Foundation conference, a self-proclaimed atheist and Marxist upbraided Hitchens for his argument for “the need to stand up and fight this Muslim jihad.” That jihad was “the response to US and European imperialism,” the questioner insisted. The response that poured out of Hitchens was a withering, crushing and unscripted rebuke.
“Well, there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. There you have it," he began. "You see how far the termites have spread and how long and well they’ve dined.” Nearly five minutes later, Hitchens concluded with what can be considered a succinct précis of his personal rebellions against the intellectual slovenliness of the Anglo-American liberal-left intelligentsia: “You surrender in your own name. Leave me out of it. I’m going to fight these people and every other theocrat all the way.”
Hitchens' summary serves as a kind of manifesto of the principles that had come to animate his life and work, and stands as a testament to the moral clarity that distinguished him from that shabby thing that had come to thrive in all the places where the the "left" used to be:
“For free expression, for women’s rights, for self-determination of small peoples, for the right of Iraqis to federate and have their own show, for the right of the Lebanese not to be bullied by Hezbollah and to have a multicultural democracy, yes, I’ll fight for this, and I think the 82nd Airborne Division is brave to be fighting for it too. And I think you should be ashamed, sneering at people who guard you while you sleep. Thanks.”
No. Thank you, Christopher. Your life's work lives on. Marg Bar Diktator. Death to Tyrants the World Round.