Troy Media – by Glenn R. Wilkinson
While Ralph Waldo Emerson has been famously quoted as having a hatred for them, Winston Churchill got it right when he said that quotations ‘make you anxious to read the authors and look for more’. This is precisely the effect created by Windsor Mann’s collection of discourses, diatribes, and distillations from the works and speeches of Christopher Hitchens.
Each entry in The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism is fully referenced to facilitate this very desire. The selections themselves span Hitchens’ career from his earliest writings to his most recent offering, though as he’s such a remarkably prolific writer for Slate, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and The Guardian among others, you begin to feel that another volume will soon be necessary to include his more recent material. He has, for example, written 14 thoughtful and provocative articles between September 9th and November 13th of this year.
This current collection is also a miscellany of his wide-ranging interests and deserving targets, both serious and less so, though even his most flippant of comments encourages thoughtful engagement.
Christopher Hitchens is one of those people who illustrate the complexity of human existence. He cannot, and will not, be easily labelled as either ‘Left’ or ‘Right’, ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’, or indeed ‘Capitalist’ or ‘Communist’. The fact that he annoys all groups equally, particularly those who feel he should be a fellow traveller, is enough to indicate that this is a man who will not be caught in a party-political corner, defending the indefensible. His views on abortion (with which the book begins, rather than ‘alcohol’ as the title suggests, though I suspect Hitchens would charmingly approve of beginning just about anything with alcohol), capitalism, anti-Americanism, humanism, anti-Semitism and Zionism all illustrate this complexity.
Yet, there are ways to encapsulate elements of his thinking. He is an anti-totalitarian, in all its guises, from the political (indicated by his relentless attacks on fascism as well as Stalinism) to the religious (‘The urge to ban and censor books, silence dissenters, condemn outsiders, invade the private sphere, and invoke an exclusive salvation is the very essence of the totalitarian.’), where he attacks all theisms equally, a particular focus throughout his writings.
He is also a staunch defender of freedom, particularly freedom of speech, and supporter of those who symbolize its importance, from Thomas Jefferson (‘The real symptom of a PC bore, by the way, is a tendency to stress the fact that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder.’) to Salman Rushdie (‘It seems that many respectable people are prepared to be more critical of a novel written by a private individual than they are about a murder threat issued so boldly by a man with state power.’) to Robert Conquest (‘. . . ,the most distinguished and authoritative anti-Communist (and ex-Communist) writing in English.’).
Hitchens delights in exposing charlatans and mountebanks, particularly the god-fearing, such as Joseph Smith (‘Like Muhammad, Smith could produce divine revelations at short notice and often simply to suit himself . . .’), Billy Graham (‘ . . .a gaping and mendacious anti-Jewish peasant.’), and Jerry Falwell (‘ . . .a vulgar fraud and crook . . .’).
But his purest venom is reserved for those in power who he denounces as war criminals (Henry Kissenger), liars (Bill Clinton), or jihadist apologists (George Galloway). Yet, even here, Hitchens demonstrates his ability to recognize a world beyond the party parochial. His views on George W. Bush range from the predictable (‘I have never met anybody, even among the dimmest of my students, who wouldn’t in some ways be better qualified to be president of the United States.’) to the confrontational (‘Pound for pound of brain power, Karl Rove and Paul Wolfowitz can blow most liberals straight out of the water. Fact.’).
Writes with a light, but deadly, touch
There is lightness here too, though even these points are expressed with a conviction that can raise the hackles of the unsuspecting. He’s views on cricket, for example, (‘as a game and as an entertainment, inherently democratic. And it teaches the values of equality and fairness.’) are sublime, particularly for someone who claims no interest or knowledge of sport and a hatred of sporting metaphors in politics (‘. . . an infallible sign of an exhausted hack.’). He has views on humour, which he says is a ‘saving grace of the human condition’, academia (‘. . .wised up, ambitious, more interested in deals and endowments, and the invention of lucrative new subdisciplines.’), drinking (‘The plain fact is that it makes other people, and indeed life itself, a good deal less boring.’), and wit (‘Wit, after all, is the unfailing symptom of intelligence.’).
The main idea coming out of these quotations is not that we must agree with Christopher Hitchens on everything (though his erudition and exquisite English make it rather difficult not to do so), but to think: think for ourselves and to think critically, with forethought, evidence, and courage, particularly in the face of bullies, cheats, and liars. That, in my view, is not such a bad thing to stand for.
Glenn R. Wilkinson is an adjunct assistant professor in the History Department at the University of Calgary.
The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism: The Very Best of Christopher Hitchens, edited by Windsor Mann, foreword by Martin Amis (Da Capo Press, 2011 Cambridge, MA), 332 pp. $17.00 US; £12.99; $19.95 CDN
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