I was particularly saddened to hear that Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the preeminent contrarian writer in the English-speaking world, was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. The sheer volume of Hitchens’ work amazes—I have tried several times to figure out where he gets the time to write so lucidly and live as hard as he does, but there are only a few truly great ones. Besides, what other intellectual can break off a line like this: “Glenn Beck’s rally was large, vague, moist, and undirected—the Waterworld of white self-pity.” More importantly, at a time when the American mind is closing into camps of ideological groupthink, we’re losing one of the true independent and unabashedly intellectual voices of the modern era.
Hitchens once wrote me a lengthy response to my review of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Actually, the piece was a review of Hitchens’ review of the film, and I tried to let both of them have it. Hitchens called F 9/11 “sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness” and “a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of ‘dissenting’ bravery.” I wholeheartedly agree, but then I went after Hitchens’ blind-spot in his pro-war arguments, mostly revolving around his dismissal and ignoring of key facts about the conduct of the Bush Administration that, in themselves, made the prosecution of the war an empire-toppling fool’s errand.
More than that, I tried to pull a Hitchens on Hitchens by hitting him in the hypocrisy. Hitchens claims not to be the heir to Orwell’s legacy, but I think it’s hard to get away from. Hitch even wrote a tough-minded essay Why Orwell Matters and an introduction to a recent edition of 1984 and Animal Farm. So I did the natural thing: Accuse Hitchens of Doublethink in his defense of the Iraq War. And quoted Why Orwell Matters to accuse Hitchens of “betraying his craft.” And accused Hitchens of being ignorant to the kind of permanent state of war that Orwell warned of in 1984.
This is the kind of stuff you can get away with on the internet when you think your targets aren’t listening. Who’s going to call you out, other than message-board trolling political geeks—and who cares about them anyway? Writing online to relatively small audiences can be liberating and frustrating—if your blog is updated in the digital forest, does it make a sound? Though our hit count at Flak Magazine was really high, and Jim Norton and crew put out years of great writing, I never really thought any of my criticism or praise reached the source (other than Louie C.K., who once wrote me to say that I was the only critic to understand Pootie Tang). Mostly, this was self-entertainment.
Then one morning I opened my email, and there’s a letter from…wait for it…Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens had just returned from Afghanistan and had my article sent to him by Telluride co-founder Tom Luddy. Hitchens wrote me a nearly thousand word response to my article, thanking me for the “high and rare seriousness” of the article and wishing that “yours was the standard by which debate was conducted these days.”
I won’t go through the rest of the letter because that’s not the point (and besides, Hitchens hammered me a bit). But the point is that such a brilliant and prolific writer took time to write a lengthy response to a blogger —simply because he thrilled to the fight. Hitchens discovered a worthy adversary in this article, and he engaged it seriously. To Hitchens, sloppy thinking, wherever it may be, is the enemy. Or, as Hitchens wrote in Why Orwell Matters: “It’s not what you think, but how you think—‘views’ don’t really count, but principles do.” He is the opposite of what most plagues us today: The epistemic closure that has closed off debate between the right and the left. Why else take the time to write such a well-considered response to unpaid internet essayist?
To that point, Hitchens completely pegged the weakest part of my thinking: “the great fault of attempted even-handedness.” Hitchens advised, “in my curmudgeonly way that you can’t hope to make the best use of your obvious talent if you spend so much time splitting the difference and trying to accomodate everyone.”
Hitchens is absolutely right. Too many smart people—especially center-leftists like me—spend too much time trying not to be “crazy.” We try to combat Limbaughism with a kind of polite post-modernism in which everybody’s wrong. But, Lefties need to learn to take firm stands without sounding like Ed Schultz. The only way you do that is by knowing the facts, sharpening your arguments, and most importantly, thrilling to the fight. When we don’t do that, we leave a vacuum that gets filled by Death Panels, 9/11 Mosques, Socialism, and all the rest. As Chief Justice Roberts might say, the only way to fight epistemic closure is to fight epistemic closure.
Hitchens’ advice is also the most important critical thinking skill I try to teach my students: You have to take a stand. This doesn’t mean the world is made up of either/or fallacies, but the process of critical thinking involves marshalling the facts, sorting out the ideas, evaluating the options, and coming to your own conclusions. So, Hitch, if this somehow makes it to you, know that when you’re gone, in the very least your example will continue to guide about one hundred high school Catholic school students every day. I’m not quite sure what you’d think of that, but I’ll bet you think it’s worth more than prayers.