December 16, 2011 – I first met Christopher Hitchens in the early 2000s at the Americans for Tax Reform’s weekly meeting of conservative and limited-government activists, which Hillary Clinton deemed the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Sitting next to him, I introduced myself as with the Objectivist Center (as our organization was then known).
Hitchens was at the meeting to talk about the case of Orlando Letelier, who had been the ambassador to the U.S. for Chilean Marxist President Salvador Allende. Allende died in a coup d’état in 1973 and Letelier was assassinated, along with an American assistant, in Washington, D.C., in 1976, no doubt by the Chilean right-wing military government’s secret police. Hitchens believed that conservatives should be concerned about such unlawful acts, committed at the behest of a foreign government on American soil. But it was more than this narrow issue that brought him into the halls of the ideological right.
Moving From the Left
Hitchens, who passed away December 15 after a year-and-a-half battle with cancer, was an author, intellectual, polymath, and journalist who traveled to the worst war zones and trouble spots of the world to see things for himself. The subjects of his books spanned the spectrum from Thomas Jefferson to George Orwell to Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa to the Clintons to the fallacies of religion.
He started as a Marxist but later abandoned dialectical materialism as the key for understanding the world and spurring revolution. He was too honest to treat Marxism as dogma: “There came a time when I could not protect myself, and indeed did not wish to protect myself, from the onslaught of reality.”
Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on America as well as later attacks in London, Madrid, Bombay, and elsewhere, Hitchens expected his colleagues to see the dangers that Islamists posed to the values of liberty and an open society. But many on the left, rather than defending those values, offered knee-jerk denunciations of the West, epitomized by the malicious rantings of Noam Chomsky. Hitchens found himself being welcomed in right-wing circles.
In 2004 Hitchens accepted an invitation to speak at our Objectivist Center Capitol Hill conference on “What Are Western Values and Should We Return to Them?” While never glossing over the errors and crimes of any government or of imperialism, Hitchens spoke of the benefits of the British Raj in India, bringing railroads and technology to the subcontinent, for example, and abolishing wife-burning and other morally abhorrent practices. He didn’t ask for a speaking fee, only cab fare to return home.
David Kelley, our organization’s founder, asked Hitchens what he considered himself politically since he was now alienated from much of the left. A libertarian? Sort of, he replied. But his uncertainty was not simply a matter of not embracing laissez-faire capitalism. Hitchens was always seeking truth and perhaps he thought that labels might tie him to beliefs that he did not accept
Hitchens is perhaps best known as one of the New Atheists. Indeed, he famously took on religious icon Mother Teresa. In his book The Missionary Position he showed that her goal was not to alleviate the suffering of the poor; rather, she saw suffering as something to be welcomed and wallowed in as part of God’s will.
The title of Hitchens’s book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything certainly summarized his thinking, but it does not say it all. Hitchens argued that even without religion one can have fundamental moral values that are not simply a matter of your whim versus mine.
He was not a systematic moral theorist, falling instead into what might be called the “moral sentiments” school. He argued, for example, that the Children of Israel knew very well before God supposedly gave them the Ten Commandments that killing and stealing were wrong.
Evolutionary psychology today suggests that individuals indeed have hardwired “sentiments” or propensities. But these vary from one individual to another. So are all equally right? Aren’t such differences the root of conflicts?
Hitchens was not an Ayn Rand fan, yet he would have benefited from better understanding her fundamental insights. Hitchens argued that we need not urge individuals to be “selfish” à la Rand since most individuals are inclined to such behavior anyway. But Rand understood that the path that will best lead to one’s survival and flourishing must be discovered by rational inquiry and reflection, which were both favored by Hitchens.
Hitchens, by the way, did like Rand’s essay “Requiem for Man,” which denounced Pope Paul VI’s stand on birth control. Hitchens wanted to include it in one of his compilations and complained to me that the Estate of Ayn Rand would not give him permission to republish the piece.
In spite of a lack of philosophical rigor, Hitchens did offer and defend positive values. He argued that what atheists, agnostics, and humanists “respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.” That, he would argue, is how we attune ourselves to moral sentiments and, indeed, to all that is good in life. He stated that we “find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul.”
Hitchens fought against religious ideas that fostered so much war and bloodshed throughout human history: “To … the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth and beauty.”
Hitchens also denounced mindless desecration of those things of beauty produced by the religious, for example, the blowing up by the Taliban in Afghanistan “of one the world’s greatest cultural artifacts—the twin Buddha statues at Bamiyan.” When I saw Hitchens the week before he was diagonosed with cancer—he did not look well—he was discussing his autobiography Hitch 22 in the historic 6th Street synagogue in Washington, D.C.
And one-to-one, in keeping with his own values, Hitchens could be civil with those he disagreed with but whom he considered on some level to be honest and decent; I’ve seen him in such conversations at parties with members of the religious right.
The Continual Conversation
And no doubt part of this sentiment was because when one reads a book, especially by an interesting and engaging writer like Hitchens, one is in a kind of conversation with a friend. One is attending to the writer’s thoughts and insights and has a dialogue in one’s own mind about the ideas expressed in those pages. And Hitchens expressed himself beautifully.
Machiavelli wrote of going to his study to read in the evening: “At the threshold, I take off my work-day clothes, filled with dust and mud, and don royal and curial garments. Worthily dressed, I enter into the ancient courts of the men of antiquity, where, warmly received, I feed on that which is my only food and which was meant for me.”
Hitchens loved inquiry, learning, and an intellectual exchange. He was a man of the mind. He continued to produce his weekly columns until shortly before his passing. In his final piece for Vanity Fair he stated that “writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life.” His life is over and we’ll have no new writings on politics and cultural trends to come. I will truly miss these. But he left us with thoughts and reflections that can continue to give us joy and enlighten us.
"Toward a Secular Moral Landscape" Edward Hudgins, The New Individualist, Summer, 2011.