I normally don’t do obituaries – not because I have something against them, but because I’m not very good at eulogizing someone – especially if it’s a public figure I didn’t know.
But I feel I have to do one today.
Christopher Hitchens was one of the most infuriating, perplexing and upsetting writers I’ve ever read. And yet he was one of my favorite.
His work on atheism, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything became one of the most influential books I’ve ever read. In it, he argued against the concept of organized religion, but more importantly, he took the mantle of the damage religion has inflicted on the world, and argued that the negative effect of religion far overtakes the positive.
Along with his work on atheism, he also disturbed Catholics with his scathing The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice in which he cast a critical eye on the Nobel Peace Prize winning nun who worked her whole life in aiding the poor; he questioned her motives, found her practices often abhorrent and also second-guessed her effectiveness.
Even though I embraced much of his work, he offended even me. His infamous treatise on why women aren’t funny is legend by now, almost overtaking Jerry Lewis’ famous dig at female comics. He was also positively churlish upon the death of Princess Diana, insisting that she was nothing more than a spoiled, spendthrift bimbo. So, Hitchens had a problem with misogyny. I get it.
His support of President George W. Bush and the Iraq War also found me at odds with him; his insistence that the slow progress in reconstruction, the high civilian casualty population and the high cost of the war was all worth it, because Saddam Hussein was disposed. Hussein was evil, no doubt about it, but I’m not sure if the slaughter of hundreds of thousands (if not millions), can ever be properly contextualized.
When he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, religious zealots who were angered by his writings were thrilled. To them this was the pinnacle of poetic justice and irony: the man who perennially thumbed his nose at God, will finally come face-to-face with his maker. Others who aligned themselves more with the true spirit of Christianity, prayed for him (he found these prayers kind, but futile). It’s a testament to his influence that something as personal as his illness would inspire such spirited and impassioned responses from strangers.
What I come away with when thinking about Hitchens is that he was unapologetic about his views and positions – he didn’t care about hurting feelings and he didn’t worry about smashing taboos; sometimes he got himself in trouble, but he maintained his positions even if they were sometimes misguided. He wasn’t always right, but he always made people think. And for that, he deserves a collective tip of the hat.