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Memories of a polemicist

Memories of a polemicist
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First Published: Wed, Dec 21 2011. 07 20 PM IST

A file photo of Christopher Hitchens
A file photo of Christopher Hitchens
Updated: Thu, Dec 22 2011. 10 41 AM IST
Christopher Hitchens was already ill when I wrote about his memoir, Hitch 22, in Lounge in July 2010. I had ended by saying that with modern medicine and his own spirit, in this battle, “cancer doesn’t stand a chance”. I knew his energy and humour, his appetite for conversation, and his encyclopedic knowledge of politics, literature, and other good things in life. He was a friend, and I consider it an honour to say so. And you called him Christopher or Hitch, but never Chris, as he’d say in his deep, admonishing tone to anyone who attempted faux-familiarity.
A file photo of Christopher Hitchens
He knew his time was running out, as it is for all of us. Once he saw the clock ticking at fast-forward speed, he ignored the illness that exhausted him, and wrote and talked at a furious pace, like that candle burning at both ends, which knows it won’t last the night, but gives such lovely light. He didn’t let death’s shadow overwhelm him; as Ian McEwan remembers in a moving obituary in The New York Times, when weakened, he paused momentarily, but then he saw that metaphorical clock, and keen to stay ahead of its relentless hands, he typed again, relying on his prodigious memory, completing his final essay.
He stayed active till his body permitted. He travelled not to market his books, but to express his ideas, to engage with audiences, and to challenge those who disagreed with him. At one such event, a man of religion got up and reminded Hitchens that he was dying. Hitch was an antitheist, with no time for religion or divinity. Without any hesitation, he responded: “Yes, I am dying, but so are you; I’m doing it quickly.” That was typically Hitch. For him, nothing was sacred, except perhaps freedom.
That defence of freedom explains his support for the war in Iraq. Some critics of that war, like Glenn Greenwald of Salon, have dismissed the eulogies that have followed Hitch’s death. Early in his piece, Greenwald says he didn’t think it was worth engaging with what Hitch wrote about the war, so it is curious why he does it now, when Hitch can’t respond. That is Greenwald’s choice, and mine is not a complaint—Hitch did the same, saying exactly what he thought about the famous, ridiculing the cloying sentimentality and public mourning of Diana’s death, attacking Teresa’s faith-based charity towards Kolkata (he wouldn’t call her “Mother”) given her positions, politics, and the allies she chose, rejoicing American televangelist Jerry Falwell’s death, because he wouldn’t be able to intervene politically any more, chiding Dixie Chicks, a Texan band, when its singers opposed the Iraq war, and relentlessly mocking the Clinton presidency. And yet, pieces like Greenwald’s preach to the choir that believes that the Left alone represents progressive ideals and freedoms.
Hitch would have courteously let his critics complete, and then he’d have sipped from that hip flask, and with merciless wit and withering eloquence, ended the debate. His critics have misread him substantially, if not entirely, in the way they have characterized him. Neoconservative warmonger? Hitch opposed Saddam before the US did. (He was a long-time supporter of Kurdish liberation, often wearing a pin with the Kurdish flag on his jacket, as he had when we met first.) Flouting international law? He called Henry Kissinger a war criminal. He regretted that he might not live long enough to write Kissinger’s obituary, but he wrote a book making just that point. Imperialist? Hitch wanted the so-called Elgin marbles returned to Greece and backed many liberation movements—not only anti-colonial struggles, but also movements against assorted generals. Islamophobe? He wanted the “international community” to get off that couch and stop Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic massacring Bosnian Muslims.
And what of his critics? Some of them disliked American hegemony so much that they failed to see, or chose to ignore, that they were siding with gay-bashing misogynists who thought nothing of sending young people on suicide missions. Others acquiesced with fundamentalists who backed the fatwa on his old friend Salman Rushdie and wanted his novel Satanic Verses banned. Hitch stood firm with Rushdie, naming and shaming those who failed to defend Rushdie. I know of several brave people whom he supported in writing or in private, as they defended civil liberties, free speech, women’s rights, or trade union rights. He understood how totalitarian states ruled by fear: he admired those who took risks and stood up to such regimes, and he had the courage to confront tyrants with his words.
And yet, he was far more than the sum of his words. He didn’t want to leave arguments half-finished. He resented that conversations will go on without him, and he isn’t there to pierce through the foggy logic of his opponents with his sabre-like retorts. Death is cruel and arbitrary, even if inevitable, and it often strikes mid-sentence, with so much left unsaid.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Dec 21 2011. 07 20 PM IST