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14 December 2021

James Bloodworth

Christopher Hitchens couldn’t survive in today’s world

A decade on from Hitchens’ death, digital life discourages the free thinking and nonconformity that made him so compelling.

If a week is a long time in politics then ten years is an eternity. This feels especially true of the decade that has just passed. Looking back to 2011 it is possible to detect the beginnings of the tumultuous political events that would follow. The financial crash of 2008 – and the rapacious model of capitalism that produced the crisis – unleashed the discontent that paved the way for Brexit and other populist revolts. Liberal interventionist overreach in Iraq had laid the foundations for American retreat – and consequently for Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria

The world that the journalist and author Christopher Hitchens left behind a decade ago this week is, on the surface, strikingly different from our own. Yet it is also recognisably the same. To slip into tautology, the positions that Hitchens and others staked out in the years following the 9/11 attacks produced the world we live in today. The era of US hegemony and free markets was undone by its own ideological hubris – a hubris that has become posthumously associated with the bombast of polemicists such as Christopher Hitchens.  

If Hitchens’s death from oesophageal cancer on 15 December 2011 represented in some small way the passing of that era, it also corresponded with a transformation of intellectual life facilitated by technology. The 2010s were the decade in which social media finally took over. And as James Marriott writes for the Times: “Hitchens stood between two worlds: the old world in which serious political and cultural debate was conducted at length and in print, and our new world in which it is conducted glibly and furiously on screens.”

Unusually for a deceased journalist Hitchens is still discussed and written about, especially by his enemies. Speculation abounds as to what Hitchens would have made of Donald Trump and “woke” identity politics. Much of this is pointless because Hitchens did write about these things while alive: Trump was a “ludicrous figure” and identity politics resembled “the narcissism of the small difference“.

While Hitchens’ critics like to pejoratively dub his crusades against luminaries such as Henry Kissinger, Princess Diana and the Clintons as “contrarianism”, in reality all were products of Hitchens’ fealty to his hero George Orwell. Orwell was adamant that a writer should tell the truth – regardless of whether it might “give ammunition to the enemy“. As Orwell put it, Soviet atrocities were still atrocities even if the Daily Telegraph said so. And as Hitchens ventriloquised it, Saddam Hussein was still a monster even if George W Bush believed so (in another context Hitchens once described Bush as “unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent and amazingly inarticulate”). 

This is why I was never persuaded by the argument that Hitchens underwent a metamorphosis from left to right – or “from a butterfly back into a slug”: as George Galloway disobligingly phrased it when the two men debated in New York in 2005. If anything, Galloway’s own political trajectory over recent decades – from former Labour MP to windy apologist for dictators – validates Hitchens’ concerns about a contemporary left that “cannot discern the essential night-and-day difference” between fascism and liberal democracy. Michael Moore’s anti-Bush film Fahrenheit 9/11 depicted Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a happy paradise. This “anti-war” narrative – ubiquitous during the George W Bush presidency – was “not even seriously wrong, but frivolously wrong”, as Hitchens rightly pointed out.

Of course, the official “left” long ago disavowed Hitchens over his support for the invasion of Iraq. I too opposed that war (if it matters); and yet I still find immense value in Hitchens’ writings. You can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons, as Arthur Koestler once put it. And I believe that Hitchens was sometimes wrong for the right reasons. The Americans wanted to overthrow Saddam, and Hitchens believed that revolution from above was better than no revolution at all.

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And yet I am far from unique among writers when I say that I have “grown out” of Hitchens somewhat in the years since his passing. The qualities in Hitchens’ work that I (mostly) recoil from nowadays are the prevailing sense of certainty. This was a feature of his boorish rants about Islam as well as his portentous dismissal of the welfare state as “little more than Christian charity”. And the less said about columns featuring triumphalist bromides such as “Ha ha ha to the pacifists”, the better.

Today I find such belligerence off-putting, perhaps because there is so much of it about. Online at least, we are practically downing in bellicosity. I would wager that it is this stridency that makes YouTube “Hitchslap” videos so appealing to teenage atheists. Certainty tickles the juvenile urge. But at some point you grow out of that; or at least you ought to. 

And yet I do miss Hitchens, not least because the technologies that took off just as he was departing the scene have furnished us with only pale imitations. Today’s “free thinkers” are slaves to the algorithm. Whereas Hitchens – even when he was wrong – derived his positions from first principles such as internationalism and universalism, today’s contrarians seem to adopt subversive positions purely for the sake of clicks. Audience capture is the order of the day. Which perhaps explains why “contrarianism” tends to be increasingly synonymous with the promotion of quack Covid cures and the anti-vaxx agenda.

Hitchens was the enemy of self-satisfied politicians, received wisdom and hypocrisy. And yet contemporary online life is anathema to the combination of indignation and intellect that made him so compelling. We have an abundance of indignation. Yet in a world where the boundaries of acceptable opinion are assiduously policed by competing internet tribes, to go dramatically “off-brand” à la Hitchens is career suicide. 

In the social media age, ideological conformity – being relentlessly “on-brand” – is the difference between prominence and obscurity. In the years since Christopher Hitchens left us, the romance of genuine marginality – to think for yourself and live with the consequences – has lost its allure.

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