What would Christopher Hitchens do?

A new radio doc made me wonder (for the millionth time) what Hitchens might say about this era.

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An hour devoted to Christopher Hitchens (13 April, 8pm), broadcast in the week of both Julian Assange’s arrest and the launch of Nigel Farage’s new party, made me wonder (for the millionth time) what Hitchens might say about this era of wannabe demagogues and rotters. The era of social media, of peer pressure and conformity. Consider how brutal he was, as the show reminds us, about the Catholic church: “a clutch of hysterical, sinister virgins”; or Bill Clinton, accused of being “a rapist, war criminal and pathological liar”. It was as if, in Clinton, Hitchens saw only a small-time politician who had escaped an early Coen brothers movie and made it to the White House. (And isn’t that nearly always who gets to the White House? The kind of guy who’d be a pretty corrupt mayor of a small town?)

The narration tells us that at the time of his death in 2011, aged 62, Hitchens (formerly of the New Statesman) was “the most famous journalist in the world” who had “started as a Trotskyist pamphleteer and ended as the most eloquent propagandist for the Iraq War”. You would have thought, given the shattering fallout from the latter, that Hitchens’s reputation might have soured more than it has. But it seems his beautiful use of language, and general – yes – civility in debate has prevailed.

It’s maddeningly true that some second-rate alt-righters – the sort of callow young men who consider Jacob Rees-Mogg “articulate” – tend to think Hitchens is the greatest speaker of all time. Still – he was. And, in this documentary’s words, a “gadfly” too. A “terrific whipper-upper of a crowd” who lived openly with a male lover in Oxford. (I don’t think I’d heard this before, not that Hitchens ever hid his bisexuality.) And he was – crucially – never-endingly interested in music, books, art and conversation. Perhaps more than anything, Christopher Hitchens reminded us that if you love politics then you really ought to love other things too. It’ll make you a better political thinker. People used to talk so mockingly of Thatcher as a stranger to novels. No imagination, see? Looking around the House of Commons right now, one thing (to our doom) is for sure: everybody is like that. 

Archive on Four: Remembering Christopher Hitchens
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special