Brexit, Syria, and (especially) Trump Vs Clinton – three of 2016’s biggest stories that have generated endless column inches as well as sparking debate after debate online, on TV and on the wireless. We’ve been exposed to some knowledgeable and intellectual opinions on all three as well as plenty ill-informed ignorance, but there has been a gaping hole in the middle of the words printed, published and spoken on the subjects that has been there for the last half-decade, waiting to be filled and simultaneously unable to be filled. Each constituent part of this year’s trio of top topics was tailor-made for a voice that would have illuminated and infuriated in equal measure (depending on which side of the argument had decided to take offence); but that voice was silenced five years ago today, when the death of Christopher Hitchens was announced.
When one considers how the climate has changed since the untimely passing of Hitch and the way in which questioning the consensus now provokes the kind of online ire that even surpasses the level of bile he himself received when he dared to aim his contrarian revolver at some of the world’s sacred cows, it’s tempting to imagine how he would have responded to the curbs on free speech and restriction of opinion that have contaminated debate since 2011. I have a strong feeling he would have relished the challenge.
Hitch never shied away from controversy or speaking out when he saw something his gut instinct told him was wrong, even if it upset and enraged those for whom the likes of Mother Theresa, Princess Diana, the Clintons, Kissinger and (particularly) organised religion were above and beyond criticism. His assaults on public figures and institutions were never nasty or done simply to shock ala Katie Hopkins; there was always a reasoned and articulate argument behind the undoubted enjoyment he derived from prodding these untouchables and he usually wiped the floor with anyone foolish enough to take him on whenever he dared to do so.
Like many of his generation (born 1949), Hitchens’ initial political leanings were formed by the Labour victory at the 1964 General Election and the prospect of a break with the Tory patrician past; however, Harold Wilson’s reticence to criticise US policy in Vietnam and the growth of the counter-cultural left on campus in the late 60s pushed him away from mainstream politics. Wearing his Trotsky T-shirt with pride, his first notable journalistic work was undertaken for the magazine ‘International Socialism’, mouthpiece of the International Socialists; he eventually progressed to become the in-house lefty for the New Statesman, reporting from early 70s trouble-spots such as Northern Ireland, Libya, Cyprus and Greece.
Although a long-time admirer of Orwell, the persona Hitch developed during his years at the New Statesman was closer to that of the decadent, hedonistic coterie of writers and artists that had congregated around the drinking dens of Soho in the 50s, forming enduring friendships with his fellow dissolute scribes Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. But it was his loan spell at American magazine The Nation in the early 80s that brought him to prominence on the other side of the pond and enabled him to flower as the transatlantic polemicist par excellence that was to be his public image for the rest of his life. He became a US citizen in 2007.
Keeping a close, cynical eye on US events, his mistrust and dislike of the Clintons at the height of their popularity struck some as opportunistic contrarianism, but throughout his tenure on Vanity Fair (which began in 1992), he continued to reject the ‘alternative’ consensus by rubbishing 9/11 conspiracy theories and then supporting the western invasion of Iraq. Whatever stance one expected he might take, Hitch often took the opposite, expanding his ideas and what many perceived as contentious views in a series of books that gave him a wider audience than his numerous magazine columns.
His meticulous dissections of the aforementioned public figures and the skeletons they preferred to be permanently in the closet brought him both praise and condemnation, but he was always prepared to meet his critics head-to-head and engaged in high-profile televised debates with them, especially when it came to the subject of religion. Hitch’s views on the latter topic also served to drive a wedge between him and his younger (though no less outspoken) brother, Peter.
In 2010, Hitch revealed he was receiving treatment for esophageal cancer, the same disease that had killed his father; he continued to write and to appear at public debates whenever well enough, though the illness claimed his life in December 2011, robbing the world of the kind of character prepared to say what he thought regardless of how many people didn’t want to hear it that few (if any) in the five years since have managed to do with such witty, incisive and intelligent artistry. You didn’t have to agree with every opinion he expressed, but he did so with such passionate conviction that you couldn’t help but admire his gall and guts for daring to say it.
The scope for debate has narrowed frighteningly since we lost Hitch, with every minor deviation from what can and can’t be said leading to manic demands for heads to roll and the gibbet to swing. The irony is that most of what is reacted to today with such vociferous frothing-at-the-mouth would have barely raised an eyebrow in Hitch’s heyday, which is yet another indication of our continuing retreat back to the timidity of church mice; few geese are greeted with a boo in 2016, for who would dare upset the goose community?
© The Editor