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A Toast to Christopher Hitchens
Of all the ironies in Christopher Hitchens’ life, one of the saddest is that he passed away before he could enjoy his success. He was by no means a poète maudit—he was beloved in journalistic and literary circles—but he only reached rockstar status in his last few years, sometime around the publication of his bestseller God Is Not Great and the emergence of YouTube.
YouTube worked well for Hitch because it captured his vibe: smart but disheveled, and charmingly bohemian, as if he were never more than a few hours away from his last drink or his next one. He was perfect in short soundbites, long debates, and interviews. He always stole the show when he was on a panel. YouTube was the perfect platform to expose his brilliance to a broad audience.
Nabokov wrote, “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” Martin Amis said the opposite of Hitchens, that he “thinks like a child, writes like a distinguished author, and speaks like a genius.” Hitch was a great writer, but he was more memorable on the pulpit than he was on the page. If Nabokov was like Beethoven, needing many scratchings out to reach the sublime, Hitchens was like Mozart, speaking extemporaneously in paragraphs, if not essays.
YouTube allowed people to take his old television appearances and repackage them as hitchslaps or, less luridly, Hitchens on Abortion, or Hitchens on the Clintons. YouTube’s indexed, searchable database makes it so that thousands of people can still easily view something as obscure as his C-SPAN appearances from the ‘90s. He is more funny than C-SPAN deserves—has anybody had to fend off more angry callers than a hungover Hitch on early morning TV?
Though YouTube made Hitchens an intellectual celebrity, he did not know anything about it. He called it MeTube because his only experience of it was others showing him his old videos. Perhaps this saved him from the platform’s corrupting influence. Hitchens was just living his life, and others were documenting it on YouTube. Because he was not making content for his audience, he was less likely to be captured by them.
Contrast that with someone like Milo Yiannopoulos, whose superficial resemblance to Hitchens has been commented upon by Bill Maher. Yiannopoulos, like Hitchens, is undoubtedly witty, dances with ideas, and feeds off the crowd’s negative energy. Unlike Hitchens, Yiannopoulos is an ideological black hole and an utter narcissist. It is not clear what, if anything, Yiannopoulos believes, but it is clear that he will say anything he needs to in order to advance himself. Hitchens understood something that the YouTube trolls do not: while it is a sin to be boring, if you really care about something, you have to be willing to be boring about it.
And some people do say he was boring about the Clintons, for example—though I disagree. He never got over liberals’ silence about the fact that Bill Clinton was a crook, very possibly a rapist, a “minor war criminal,” and that Hillary was his enabler. I am certain he would have similar things to say about Donald Trump, and would have continued to say them beyond the point that most people in today’s heterodox world would think is reasonable. Another thing Hitchens understood: the truth bears repeating, especially if nobody seems to be listening.
It is a cliché that Hitchens was a contrarian, and that you never knew what he would say about a given topic. I never found this to be true. He was only unpredictable if you did not understand his fundamental values, or if you were thinking in terms of petty political allegiances. His commitments to liberalism and anti-totalitarianism were ideological, and he never wavered from that. The accusation that he moved to the right is another untrue cliché; even his position on the Iraq War, which made many label him a Neoconservative, came from a place of liberal interventionism.
The Hitchens wing of YouTube now seems quaint. It is another irony that he had such a large audience on a platform which has since become a cesspool of cranks, crooks, and crackpots. The ever-prolific Hitch, who was made for internet publishing, would have been a valuable asset in the fight against unreason. In an age of misinformation, personality cults, and partisan hackery, who better to have around than someone who never saw a bubble reputation which he didn’t itch to prick? There are some who have held the line without losing their minds—Sam Harris comes to mind—but nobody has Hitch’s flair. Think of the debate in which he condensed the argument for gay marriage into a single line: “Homosexuality is not just a form of sex, it is a form of love, and it deserves our respect for that reason.” There are countless such moments. Hitch was simply the best poison-fanged belletrist in recent memory.
Though I can imagine what he might say about Donald Trump’s presidency, the attempted coup of 1/6/21, vaccine denialism, the clumsy pull-out from Afghanistan, or the Uighur genocide, I cannot imagine the brutally honest, witty way in which he would phrase his arguments. One thing is certain: if he had a podcast or a Substack, it would be a feast of reason and a flow of soul.