Not Another Christopher Hitchens piece: his part in my Salvation
Permanent Revolution with the Hitch
It’s become a bit de riguer to mock fans of Christopher Hitchens and I can completely understand why. As Tomiwa Owolade puts it in his memoriam piece to the journalist, the devotional tendencies of his online ummah often seem “profoundly un-Hitchian”.
I am, however, never one to be embarrassed out of earnest declarations of loyalty to people I never knew: I loved, and love, ‘the Hitch’. When he died ten years ago, I spent a good hour publicly mourning, which even then meant drunkenly spamming my social media with my favourite ‘Hitchslaps’. I was aware of the irony.
But then I had always valued him for different reasons than did the typical fan. For me, Hitchens was above all others the thinker who rescued me from the moribund leftism of my youth (where many I know still languish); I would say he carried me as his saintly namesake carried the infant Jesus across a river, were that not ill-fitting for so atheistic a thinker.
The revolution is dead. Long live the revolution
Hitchens stated plainly the funeral rites of the Marxist revolutions he had once advocated, and I had misspent time attempting to resuscitate. He instead asserted the one, remaining revolutionary show in town: the American.
“the one that says build your republic on individual rights, not group rights; have a Bill of Rights that inscribes these, and makes them available and legible to everybody; separate the Church and the state; separate the executive, the judicial and political branch; do all these things…it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s really a very revolutionary idea. There’s hardly a country in the world that wouldn’t benefit from adopting those principles”
That he did not simply enjoy going on the offensive; that he was fervently and unapologetically for something, made the irascible, aloof Hitchens seem a more positive figure than the stolidly empirical Richard Dawkins. Furthermore, it opened the door to a revolutionary narrative that stretched well beyond 18th century Eastern Seaboard, and into self-governing regions of Kurdistan, girls’ schoolrooms in Kabul and farcical punch-ups with Syrian fascists in Beirut. And it had a poetry all of its own, a Whiggish mysticism that took boyish delight in, among other things, some remarkable natal coincidences: did you know that the two ‘Great Emancipators’ Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the exact same day? (The latter liberator was the most important, Hitchens informed us, somehow combining mischief with schoolmarmish authority). Hitchens himself had the honour of sharing a birthday with none other than the ‘Author of America’, Thomas Jefferson (more on him later).
It was all rather intoxicating. Yes, I’m afraid that, aptly enough, Hitchens was my ‘gateway drug’ into the cause of defending Western civilisation. Suddenly all the red flags and Che Guevara stencils seemed passé.
“I’ve tried atheism…I keep having doubts.” (h/t Ian Hislop)
But it was Hitchens’ compelling storytelling that contained the seeds of later doubts about the Hitchens worldview, notably when it ventured pre-1776. It had no room for older, mysterious rivals. Consider the Hitchens treatment of a certain Jewish story: in god is Not Great, he laments a “vapid and annoying holiday” commemorating a pogrom in Jerusalem in 165 BC by the reactionary “votaries of the old Temple” against the unsuspecting Hellenised Jews, “true early multiculturalists” who only wanted to peacefully study and work out down at the gymnasium, free of “the stark fear and superstition mandated by the Pentateuch”, and didn’t see the issue with one, tiny, baby new Temple to Zeus at the holiest site in Judaism (pp273–4).
Even if, like me, you skipped the Rugrats episode on Hanukkah as a kid, you may well consider this an unorthodox take on the Maccabean revolt. Surely one could retain one’s natural affinity for Hellenistic culture — and pay respects to those largely unmourned Jews who embraced it — while at least mentioning the brutal Seleucid double invasion of Jerusalem, prohibition on circumcision and desecration of the Holy of Holies? Yes, one could. But not the Hitch. The innocent, light-filled festival of Hanukkah obviously had no place in Hitchens’ tale of humanity’s gradual Exodus from obscurantism toward enlightenment and rationality.
And then of course, there was the narrative through which I had first come to know Hitchens (back when I had been much more Team Galloway on such matters). George W Bush had demonstrated about the same degree of strategic nous in Iraq as had Antiochus IV in Israel, and Hitchens had deployed similar creativity defending him, albeit in real time. Had the Americans been half as competent in executing Operation Iraqi Freedom as Hitchens had been at talking about it, things might have been very different.
So you could say there was always a definite ceiling on my fondness for Hitchens. My appreciation of his impassioned defence of Western values deepened, while knowing what a flaming Gehenna awaited if those values were imposed in the abstract.
Get your stories straight
But the Hitchens take on 165 BC troubled me just as much as the Hitchens take on 2003, if not more. Why had Hitchens felt the need to distort the treasured tale of the Maccabees? Was the Holiday Armadillo really such a threat? For a figurehead of a movement (New Atheism, quite big at the time) that made such claims to be motivated by truth, why such a cartoonishly partial take on the causes of the Revolt?
Most striking had been my own readiness to swallow it hook, line and sinker, and not just because in my early ‘20s I was a devout ‘None’. The concept of Athens as the true cornerstone of the West — and Jerusalem an overrated, superstitious backwater — had appealed as much as an ego boost to my Greek heritage (father’s side) as a validation of my impetuous decision to ditch Catholicism (mother’s side). Stories matter on a subrational level: the reason I’d switched off that Rugrats episode perhaps 15 years before was that I hadn’t wanted to watch a cartoon where the Greeks were the baddies.
Yet, once I realised that Hanukkah According to Hitch was so flagrantly un-kosher, dropping it was no great wrench. For one thing, I must’ve known the traditional telling was more crucial to the Jewish identity than the Hitchens rationalist remix might be to my Greek one. More universally, New Atheism had held itself up to the highest standard of veracity, and if it felt the need to make up stories, then it was not only failing to meet that standard, but vindicating its opponents, those for whom story plays a central, unashamed role. I came to consider the synthesis of values represented by Athens and Jerusalem to be the wellspring of Western civilisation, and became suspicious of attempts to jettison one or the other.
Wish you were here
Hitchens has since left us, and much else has happened of course. Despite coming to quite a different worldview, I still wish he were around to comment on the tumultuous decade that has passed. Those of us who came to agree with him that Afghanistan was a ‘good war’ might’ve have taken a little catharsis from a dry Hitchenite putdown of President Biden’s cold, unforgiveable bungling of the withdrawal.
But it’s events in his adopted nation which I would most like to hear Hitchens’ reaction to. Seeing the depressing, wanton attacks on statues of his Virginian hero last year and the even more depressing decision of NYC council this year to remove one, I’d want to see what he thought it all meant for his assessment of the world’s remaining revolutions. Was he too quick to bury the destructive Marxist-Leninist revolutions of his political coming-of-age, or the perpetual ‘Year Zero’ Jacobinism of the French? Or does wokery or identitarianism lurk somewhere in the DNA of the American Revolution itself? If so, it is surely in the Jeffersonian side of the family, not the Hamiltonian. The revolution may well devour its children, but not before castrating its father.
I still have time for the American Revolution, even if a certain polemical anti-monarchy pamphlet failed to convince me it should be imported here. The main intellectual impact Hitchens left on me was the freedom to be excited by, rather than ashamed of the Western tradition, namely through Athens and Philadelphia. But, despite efforts to the contrary, he led the way toward Jerusalem too.
Like many Christians, I will always give thanks for Christopher Hitchens, and the brilliance with which he bore ideas that, however unintentionally, ultimately pointed toward a revolution more radical and influential than any other.
St Christopher didn’t know he was carrying Christ either.