Christopher Hitchens

The Christopher Hitchens Vacuum: Ten years of no hitch reviewed.

I remember being a teenager, alone, spooling through YouTube watching Christopher Hitchens clips, interviews, and debates. Back then, I had ambitions of becoming a writer, though I spent far too much time (and, admittedly, still do) watching things online and far too little actually reading books.

The internet changed things. It changed the mechanics of discourse in the public sphere. Hitchens was a man who came from an earlier and, perhaps, more vibrant time when men and women of letters would conduct discourse via magazines, journals, and on television. The internet forum, social media, and all the rest of it, would have — I’m sure — seemed quite alien to the late, great Mr Hitchens. The fact of his demise led to a number of figures emerging to replace him. For better or worse, their success has been tempered in the populism of the online world.

Ten years and six days ago, Christopher Hitchens passed away from oesophageal cancer. Since then, there have been a plethora of public figures purporting to take his place (or merely taking his audience), they’re on the political right, and they’re on the internet. Perhaps his passing signalled to them that, like poisonous plants, they could emerge from the dank crevices of the online world to take somewhat prominent positions in the vacuum left in Hitchens’ absence.

I’m talking about the likes of YouTuber’s Thunderf00t (Philip E. Mason) and Sargon of Akkad (Carl Benjamin) as well as more recent phenomena such as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro. There seems to have been something of a pot-boiling reaction to the generally leftist New Atheist paradigm (of which Hitchens was a prominent component). A reaction to New Atheism has formed underpinned by neoconservative and right-libertarian attitudes seeking to destabilise the liberal, atheist paradigm. The politics are old but, as ever, they’re being framed as something new. The big threat now (and then) is, of course, the so- called ‘radical’ left.

The reaction is characterised by a deep commitment to religion and traditional values. Those are the base principles. Then, on the surface, we have the same age-old right-wing fatigue with leftists and leftist ideas whose most recent iteration comes in the form of irateness with so-called SJW’s (social justice warriors), third-wave feminists, and quibblings over freedom of speech in the freest and most prosperous nations on the planet. These pundits really espouse nothing new.

Then again, perhaps, as a member of the anti-totalitarian left, he would have seen; as many of the above thinkers seem to; a society falling irreparably into decline and the ostensible fascism of anti-fascism. Perhaps he would have agreed with that monied, oiled scaremonger Jordan Peterson. I doubt it. Given that Peterson claims expert knowledge of totalitarianism and asserted that most people in Germany in the 1930s were nazis, Hitchens might have pointed out that the nazis had only 38 per cent of the total vote in 1932, and that the Nazi party, at its height, counted only about 8.5 million members (about 10 per cent of the population).

By no means, therefore, were most Germans nazis. I believe Hitchens would, therefore, have considered Peterson a contemptible scoundrel, one ignorant of history and politics, and one committed to glib casuistry. Contemptibly also, Stephen Fry, a man who once shared a stage with Hitchens, now more recently shared a stage with Peterson; I’m led to consider by what twisted logic Fry could contemplate sharing a stage with the likes of someone who suggests we all become “monsters”. Peterson’s reckless advocacy of the monstrous comes in tandem with alt-right, incel figures worming their ways into public consciousness by attempting to, for instance, mow down women on the street with their vehicles.

The backlash against political correctness has been occurring since the advent of the term and reactionaries have been stewing over it since the mid-nineteen-seventies. To an extent, I’m at a loss in considering where Hitchens would stand on this issue, what he would have to say, and the subtleties this great man may have brought to the arguments of the Twitter age. Would he, as I’m tempted to, invoke the rule of law in seeking balanced and compromised positions between free expression and the need to not discriminate? Perhaps.

The notion that we should absolutely not become monsters seems to lie at the core of Hitchens’ thinking. It seemed to me also that it lay at the heart of Fry’s thinking. I’m quite certain, were he alive today, Hitchens would have, in characteristic form, accused Peterson of charlatanry on the basis of his feigned historical (and legal) knowledge, and of huckstering in light of his seemingly implacable instinct for flogging cheap self-help volumes.

I see much in Hitchens, I used to see more in Fry; what I see in Hitchens doesn’t lie at parity with the monstrous; in him, I see urbanity, gentleness, intellectual cultivation, wit, and charm. We might do better to follow his example than cave to the awkward, squawking, prudish, fear-dominated mentality seemingly advocated by Peterson. Peterson plays off a desire in young men to achieve the nebulous, American-imported notion of success. He greedily, vainly, and lazily, dresses the Protestant work ethic in contemporary self-help clothing as a vehicle to fuel his own insatiable desires for money and public renown.

Hitchens might be quick to remark that the likes of Peterson would as soon turn on a sixpence and undo their every apparent commitment to free expression if they were libelled. Peterson seems to value an absoluteness in freedom of expression underpinned by the exigent, and merciful, reliance we have on, in certain cases (such as in perjury, libel, and so on), reigning in that freedom.

Given that Hitchens is a great hero of mine, I think I’ll carry on in a Hitchensian vein at this point in openly decrying Peterson, and the rest of them, as a pack of charlatans and hucksters. Where once stood the magnificent figure of Hitchens now seems to lie an ignominious puddle of greasy pretenders. Shamefully, what once passed for serious discourse in the public sphere has now been upstaged by the glib, the morally and intellectually shallow, the fear-mongering, the casuistic, and— crucially — the profit-driven suppositories of apparent public intellectual output.

Again, it seems to me, part of the problem is that we no longer write in ink; we write in some bizarre form of meta-ink in cyberspace. Words have lost their potency. The internet screed is written in some strange pencil that we may delete if we choose. Yet metadata live on. Everything we write herein may be resuscitated by some future analyst and brought back at a cursor’s stroke to shame us in the future. We become careless.

More than that, however, we have, all of us, been granted the immense powers of the publishing house, the editor, and the publicist. Few of us wield those powers with any semblance of due responsibility. We still read, yet what do life, and letters, now mean to us in this age of the instantly fabricable, instantly disposable, instantly publishable piece of online exposition?

I suspect redaction has become fundamental to the current trend. We’ve come to seek the quick, the easy, the glib, and the superficial in the discourse we consume. Unlike Hitchens, we’re not now graced with time we could use to be curled up comfortably reading books. Everything must hit its mark, and it must do so quickly. It must be viral.

In my opinion, probably the worst thing to happen to public discourse was the invention of Twitter. With the dubious aim of condensing discourse, Twitter fostered a culture wherein the trite is expected of us. We’ve come to think in terms of flashes of verbiage, soundbites, gobbets. Likewise, the most popular content on YouTube also happens to be the shortest. We’re no longer interested in depth and nuance; we’re interested in having quick injections of rhetoric as a means of momentarily placating that truth-seeking part of our brains. Peterson, and the rest of them, feed on this culture.

Not coincidentally, it seems the so-called culture war has been allowed to flourish in the absence of speakers brave enough to take on adversaries such as these in the manner Hitchens would have done. Given another ten years of life, I can only surmise Hitchens would have been taking aim (in caustic style) at Peterson, Benjamin, Shapiro, all of whom would have stood shrinking from the prospect of debate with him. He’d have seen the parties of god align in these newer shapes seeking, in that age-old style, to hector us with the talk of the implied fire and brimstone we see in the verbiage of Peterson.

Christopher Hitchens’ career was characterised by the courage to take aim at big targets. Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger were among the many Hitchens loathed and sought to expose in his luminous, acerbic writing. By contrast, Peterson, and the rest take aim at far more pedestrian figures; students and activist communities comprising their fear-tinged impressions of the so-called radical left.

Having been a student activist himself, and a member of a post-Trotskyist Luxembergist sect while studying at Oxford, a young Christopher Hitchens today would undoubtedly form part of this enemy cabal of radical young leftists. Our generation’s Hitchens; if he, she, or indeed they, are out there; would undoubtedly have committed ties to current left-wing activist movements.

It’s possible they’re a member of Antifa. It’s unlikely they’ve bought Jordan Peterson’s books. And, if they have, It would have been for the purpose of writing excoriating critiques of them on some blog somewhere. I had a pop at Maps of Meaning myself, and might have another attempt, but I consider myself far too politically and literarily disengaged to really contend for the title of new-Hitchens. Maybe it’s Owen Jones. It’s unlikely to be Milo Yiannopoulos.

Peterson presents post-modern philosophy in the form of Maps of Meaning while attacking the so-called postmodern neo-Marxists of the universities. Again, relatively pedestrian targets. Christopher Hitchens never penned philosophy as such, rather he penned exquisite and excoriating character assassinations of some of the most evil men (and women) of the 20th century.

He cared less for the mundanities pervading dusty academic life on university campuses, he was a man of the larger world, he recognised that true power lies in chaotic distributions all over the planet. He would have recognised the complexities of power and sought to undermine the scare tactics and inane gulling of mediocre political hecklers like Peterson.

A more serious literary adept than Peterson, I suspect Hitchens would have heaped scorn on Peterson for his glibness and transparent hypocrisy. Then again, if Hitchens were alive today, I suspect Peterson wouldn’t have risen to prominence in the first place. Christopher Hitchens’ unfortunate early death correlated with the rise of austerity in the West; conjoined with that austerity, we find the rise of populism and these reactionary scare-pundits on the right of the political spectrum.

There’s nothing new here. It’s history repeating itself. It’s merely the latest iteration of a politics against progress. It has happened before, and undoubtedly it will happen again. Whenever some group of idealistic, usually young, people come together to campaign for, say, the advancement of civil liberties, an end to racism, or to promote greater environmental awareness, we always find the creaking, old naysayers who wish to dampen their efforts to ensure that the world remains the same.

This effort is as deadly as the putative dangers of the so-called radicals; with climate change, for instance, we may only have a few years left to put in place reforms to our economies that guide us away from oblivion. With issues of social justice, we must constantly seek to unite disparate groups that have been attacked historically to prevent further reiteration of past atrocities.

As an idealist, Christopher Hitchens would have recognised the importance of social justice movements; he would have recognised the abiding importance of dissent, of holding the powerful to account, and of subverting the influence of anyone seeking to foster division and hatred within society.

Ten years into a world without Christopher Hitchens

Now that we’re ten years into a world without Christopher Hitchens, perhaps we should take stock of what’s happened during that time. We’ve witnessed an Arab Spring succeeded by the bloodiest civil war in the history of the Middle East. We’ve seen the rise of populism and austerity; we voted to leave the European Union in the UK, and the people of the United States elected Donald Trump their president.

Correlated with these momentous events we’ve seen Proud Boys at war with Antifa on US soil, we’ve watched Milo Yiannopoulos make a fool of himself on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, we’ve endured the rise of Jordan Peterson, and we’ve had to undergo a bizarre and divisive culture war with no Hitchens leading us through it. The internet has made our rhetoric shabbier and our words less potent.

I feel what we need from the future is a mass turning away from not necessarily the internet but certainly from social media (Twitter especially), and, like Christopher Hitchens, I feel we need a renewed flourishing of literature, philosophy and progressive politics; we need a New Enlightenment.