Christopher Hitchens: The Most Provincial Spirit of All

On the announcement of his death, I think it’s fair to allow Christopher Hitchens to do the things he loved to do most.

Speak for himself:

[On the use of cluster bombs by the US in Afghanistan] If you’re actually certain that you’re hitting only a concentration of enemy troops…then it’s pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too. So they won’t be able to say, “Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.” No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.

Speak about himself:

I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last, once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy–theocratic barbarism–in plain view….I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.

Hitchens had a reputation for being an internationalist. Yet someone who gets excited by mass murder—and then invokes that excitement, to a waiting audience, as an explanation of his support for mass murder—is not an internationalist.  He is a narcissist, the most provincial spirit of all.

Only a writer of Hitchens’s talents could do justice to the culture that now so shamefully mourns him.

Update (11:45 am)

Many seem to view Hitchens’s undeniable talent as a writer as a mitigating factor in their assessment of his legacy. Such arguments have a long history. On this question, I take my cues from one of our finest critics:

The simple yet appalling fact is that we have very little solid evidence that literary studies do very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception, that they humanize. We have little proof that a tradition of literary studies in fact makes a man more humane. What is worse — a certain body of evidence points the other way. When barbarism came to twentieth-century Europe, the arts faculties in more than one university offered very little moral resistance, and this is not a trivial or local accident. In a disturbing number of cases the literary imagination gave servile or ecstatic welcome to political bestiality. That bestiality was at times enforced and refined by individuals educated in the culture of traditional humanism. Knowledge of Goethe, a delight in the poetry of Rilke, seemed no bar to personal and institutionalized sadism. Literary values and the most utmost of hideous inhumanity could coexist in the same community, in the same individual sensibility….

…I find myself unable to assert confidently that the humanities humanize. Indeed, I would go further: it is at least conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text which is the substance of our training and pursuit diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, to the condition of spirit we gather from a poem, we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world, to take the world of actual experience to heart…The capacity for imaginative reflex, for moral risk in any human being is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fictions, and thus the cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room. Thus there may be a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential of personal inhumanity.

—George Steiner, “To Civilize Our Gentlemen,” in Language and Silence

Update (December 18, 3:15 pm)

I’ve written a follow-up post to this one.  Punchline: “Last, that people can so quickly pivot from Hitchens’s position on the war to his other virtues…tells us something about the culture he helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, that sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.”


  1. Bill Stouffer December 16, 2011 at 10:42 am | #

    Thank you. Everyone else I have been reading this morning is falling over themselves to praise his talent and ignoring the macho and bloodthirsty posturing. Not just in the Iraq war either. There was his celebration of the extermination of Native America, and less serious (but it really pissed me off) attacks on Chomsky after 9/11 for, as far as I was ever able to determine, a lack of emotional correctness.

    • adbs23m August 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm | #

      um, he attached Chomsky because Chomsky believes in crackpot conspiracy theories about 9/11 being an inside job.

      • red black August 9, 2012 at 12:57 am | #

        Chomsky does NOT believe in “crackpot conspiracy theories about 9/11 being an inside job.”

      • Bill Stouffer August 9, 2012 at 12:18 pm | #

        In fact, Chomsky has repeatedly spoken out against conspiracy theories of all kinds. Further, the “debate” in question was published in the Nation and has nothing to do with conspiracy theories. Google Chomsky Hitchens for details.

    • adbs23 August 8, 2012 at 6:37 pm | #

      um, he attacked Chomsky because Chomsky believes in crackpot conspiracy theories about 9/11 being an inside job.

  2. Alan Koenig December 16, 2011 at 11:00 am | #

    In remarking on the narcissism at the heart of Hitchens’s political engagement, David Runciman drew an intriguing analogy last year to Carl Scmitt’s “Political Romanticism.”

    From LRB:

    “The blustering, obscene, insatiable, limitlessly restless author of Hitch-22 doesn’t come across as much of a priest manqué, not even a whisky priest. What he most resembles, to an almost uncanny degree, is a particular kind of political romantic, as described by Carl Schmitt in his 1919 book Political Romanticism. . . . For Schmitt, political romantics are driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls ‘the occasion’. They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things.As a result, political romantics often lead complicated double lives, moving between different versions of themselves, experimenting with alternative personae. ‘Reversing one’s position between several realities and playing them off against one another belongs to the nature of the romantic situation,’ Schmitt writes.”

  3. obviously unintelligent person who thinks there's plenty of coldbloodedness going around December 16, 2011 at 12:04 pm | #

    I dunno, Corey. How public a forum do you consider this blog? “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” – at least when the body isn’t yet cold – isn’t some prudish conservative motto. It’s compassionate, ESPECIALLY when dealing with people whose views you find appalling. Do I really have to argue that Gandhi had a better take on this than George Steiner, or even Hitchens himself? Remind me never to allow you within ten miles of the wake of someone whom you disagreed with politically.

    • Colin MacLeod December 16, 2011 at 2:18 pm | #

      Could be, but Hitch himself – to say the absolute very least – hardly hewed to the “de mortuis…” rule. Consider his well-recalled comments on the deaths of Falwell and Mother Theresa, for example.

      Doesn’t justify following Hitchens’ model, but maybe doing so is, if “honor” is possible in a rigorously atheistic worldview (something I doubt), to honor Hitchens’ memory – in the precise way that it deserves to be honored.

  4. Tom Elrod December 16, 2011 at 12:19 pm | #

    “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” is, pardon me, rather intellectually lazy. You don’t give up your critical faculties just because somebody dies. Everybody dies. It absolves you of nothing.

    • Mayo Adams January 21, 2012 at 12:13 pm | #

      It is idiotic to conflate giving up one’s intellectual faculties with the decorous act of temprorarily restraining their expression.

  5. Brahmsky December 16, 2011 at 12:21 pm | #

    God bless Christopher Hitchens! He was a great man, a brilliant writer and one of the few public intellectuals who matter in our day. I’m surprised to read something so ungenerous from you on this occasion. I don’t interpret the selected quotes the way you do (was that the worst you could find?). But beyond that, need one agree with someone to mourn their passing, or to allow that others may? For example, in response to Bill Stouffer, I would say that were Chomsky to exit permanently (someone I disagree with I guess roughly the way you guys do the Hitch) I’d not protest people feeling sad about it. I might even feel a twinge of nostalgia myself. And narcissism, by the way is not such an uncommon failing. With some large personalities it can even be seen as earned. My contrasting assessment of Hitchens’s worth (from a few years back) can be found on the Dissent website,

    • Joey Giraud December 17, 2011 at 2:53 pm | #

      The phrase “God bless Christopher Hitchens” is quite amusing. It drains your polemic of such gravitas as it might have possessed.

      And God bless Bhudda.

    • Alister S December 18, 2011 at 12:55 pm | #

      God bless?!? Seriously, that flies in the face of what Hitch believed and commented so scathing on. There’s much I disagreed with in what he said and wrote over the years, but on this subject I side with him absolutely.

      • Brahmsky December 18, 2011 at 1:20 pm | #

        You CR far-leftists are so humorless. I almost hate to reveal the intentional irony behind the “god bless”‘comment. So I’ll leave it at this: do you think god doesn’t bless the Hitch merely because he didn’t believe in Him?

      • Scott K. April 4, 2013 at 4:51 am | #

        Not really. While he was dying, Hitch welcomed and thanked people who said they were praying for him. He didn’t feel there was any point obviously, but he did appreciate the gesture.

    • Cay Borduin December 18, 2011 at 5:40 pm | #

      Maybe you saw the irony in using “God bless”, but did you see the insult to Hitchen’s memory (which you are attempting to defend) in “do you think god doesn’t bless the Hitch merely because he didn’t believe in Him?

      • Brahmsky December 18, 2011 at 6:06 pm | #

        No, Cay, I didn’t. Why don’t you go back to reading Noam Chomsky and Occupying Wall Street and stuff, because your not making any sense.

    • Robert January 21, 2012 at 2:06 am | #

      There’s no interpretation necessary; 911 gave Hitchens (perhaps for different reasons) the casus belli for war against “Islamofascism”; it also underscores why he could not tolerate any arguments or evidence of the 911 truth movement. Well, in that intolerance, he had much company of the establishment left and right.

  6. A.K. December 16, 2011 at 1:02 pm | #

    George Scialabba had a piece on him in American Conservative back in November with a pretty balanced take:

    “More damagingly, his politics have always been a little too first-person. Some memorable portraits and descriptions have resulted from his many extensively reported trips to the world’s trouble spots, but not much insight. The tendency of one’s first-hand experience—the testimony one has heard, the suffering one has witnessed, the bonds one has formed—to crowd other people’s arguments to the margins of judgment is hard to resist. To hope for drama and analysis, passion and wisdom, from the same writer, at any rate on the same occasion, is usually vain. Hitchens’s genuine, generous, longstanding hatred of oppression—a rare quantity among proponents of America’s wars on Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq—has nevertheless had disastrous results over the last dozen years.”

  7. Masha Alexander December 16, 2011 at 1:07 pm | #

    Denouncing a person on the day he dies, on the other hand, is surely a sign of an enlightened mind and a humane heart. Thanks for leading by example!

    • A.K. December 16, 2011 at 1:12 pm | #

      Hitchens would have been the first to criticize a dead man. Remember when Jerry Fallwell died?

    • Bill William December 17, 2011 at 2:11 pm | #

      A.K. has it exactly right. A public figure is not subject to the same rules of etiquette, especially when they have done and said plenty of things worth criticizing.

  8. Scott McLemee December 16, 2011 at 2:02 pm | #

    If Hitchens had written only the kinds of things you quote, Corey, then I would be pissing on his grave, too. He didn’t. He ended badly. But people disinclined to piss on his grave — or to pretend that he never had any virtues or made a contribution of any sort — are hardly “falling over themselves to praise his talent and ignoring the macho and bloodthirsty posturing. Since I happen to know that Bill has seen my own remarks on the man, it’s puzzling to see him say that “Everyone else I have been reading this morning” is doing so.

    The following piece is not exactly kind to the man:

    I don’t have much to add to it. But the guy who wrote the passages you quote also wrote a book about Henry Kissinger (to give only one of many examples) that is still worth reading. And far preferable to having to listen to, say, Chomsky giving The Speech for the millionth time.

    It is to nobody’s credit to pretend otherwise. Some of us have mixed feelings at his passing. Treating that as indifference to what he became takes an almost late- Hitchens level of self-righteous dogmatism and meanness of spirit.

    • Corey Robin December 16, 2011 at 2:30 pm | #

      Scott, my post makes three points. First, Hitchens was not an internationalist; he was a narcissist. Second, I’m shocked by the outpouring of mourning over a man who was not only a warmonger, but whose warmongering was driven by the kind of motivations he himself confessed to. Third, the talent does not mitigate the warmongering. If anything, as I suggest, it may be intimately related to it.

      I read your article and thought it was unbelievably powerful and moving and was in the midst of writing you a personal email to that effect; next to Peter Hitchens’ own memoir of his brother that came out today, I haven’t read anything that affecting. I don’t associate your article with the culture of mourning I’m talking about.

      But I just don’t have or can’t quite find the abacus that helps me measure the crimes which he celebrated, and worked so tirelessly for — and spoke such ugly words for — against the loveliness of the prose or the worthiness of his other work.

      To say that Hitchens is a better writer than Chomsky — a fact I’d never dispute — is to say just that and no more.

      • Scott McLemee December 16, 2011 at 2:57 pm | #

        Nobody is talking — well, I’m not, anyway — about moral monstrosity versus loveliness of phrasing. The most admirable thing about his Kissinger book was not its prose.

        Nor does it make sense to reduce his internationalism (which had various forms, some creditable and some full of shit) to narcissism. Dismissing his writings against the first Gulf War — or in support of the Kurds back before they were of interest to many people in the US outside the State Department — with a psychoanalytic label would be something worthy of a Commentary assassin.

    • CK MacLeod (@CK_MacLeod) December 17, 2011 at 2:36 pm | #

      Interesting article, by the way. I think you may do yourself some disservice when you describe it as unkind. There’s a sense of rebuffed compassion in your observations, or maybe the discovery of an unbridgeable distance related to the familiar tragedy of the famous man whose success seems to come at peculiar personal cost – in Hitchens’ case a macho version of useless beauty, the pathos of the prom queen. It’s quite sad in its way, even if, as I’m confident you’ll acknowledge, it can only be one perspective on Citizen Hitchens. The final image of him speaking to someone who isn’t really present is quite haunting, and lends itself to a range of interpretations.

      I’m reluctant to reduce anyone to his worst ideas, worst impulses, worst moments, as I’ve had plenty of each of those in a life lived much more lightly or quietly than Hitchens chose to live his (to whatever extent any of us choose how the world uses us). I see you as trying to say, on his behalf but not uncritically, that, however wrong he may have been to see in the American army a latter-day version of the Lincoln Brigades, fighting to free his beloved Kurds and the Marsh Arabs from genocidal tyranny (and so on, and so on), it’s too easy, too Hitchens-y to speak and write as though “everyone” knows how disqualifyingly and totally uncontroversially bad a choice that was and could only ever have been, and likewise too Hitch-ish and possibly even narcissistic or at least self-congratulatory to view his choice-that-everyone-knows-was-wrong as explicable by reference to psychological or moral defect alone, thus to wipe away the entirety of a life, in effect to de-humanize the deceased retroactively (one might even say redundantly!), in service of whatever larger, presumably more important cause.

      If we’re going to fault Hitchens for a lack of human sympathy, especially at this moment, maybe we should begin first by extending it, even at risk of being rejected. I think you attempt that, both in the article and in your comments here.


    • mattlove1 (@mattlove1) December 17, 2011 at 4:44 pm | #

      I’ve never heard Chomsky give the same speech twice. Maybe if he put the clown nose on, like Hitchens, he’d have wider appeal? Alexander Cockburn, nother amusing stylist who just about has something worthwhile to say (in contrast to the recently departed) marked the occasion this way:

  9. Scott McLemee December 16, 2011 at 2:07 pm | #

    Sorry, closequote after “posturing.”

  10. Brahmsky December 16, 2011 at 2:54 pm | #

    Hitchens was a genius. Everybody knows that. This carping little snarky misquotation anti-tribute only lends credence to your detractors’ view of you as the Sean Hannity of the left. (And I love you, so don’t take this the wrong way.) The “excitement” Hitchens confesses to on 9/11 was, as he said and I’m sure you know, the thrill of realizing that he would live through a confrontation of epic proportions, and have the chance to test his courage on the side of good against evil on a planetary scale. He did. He passed the test, too. As to ordnance that kills enemy soldiers quicker rather than slower, that seems humane to me. No? Would you rather people get blasted by weapons that leave them to suffer, or that enemies not be killed in battle, or what? But none of this is really what it’s about is it. What’s it about? You don’t even have a real criticism of him to offer–except the absurd bluster that those who disagree with you on foreign policy are “criminals.” And people who are narcissistic are narcissists. No effing kidding. I’m sure there are some narcissists on the Left you like.

    • Joe December 17, 2011 at 1:48 am | #

      Are you deranged? Have you ever served in the Military? Only an idiot believes ordinance that kills quicker is humane. Thousands of children have been murdered through out the Middle East by the Imperial Power of the United States and NATO. Wake up!

      • Brahmsky December 17, 2011 at 9:18 am | #

        Well it’s more efficient at least. In war the object, sadly, is to kill the enemy, if I’m not mistaken.

      • Grovel December 18, 2011 at 9:04 am | #

        Well, you are mistaken. In war, the object certainly shouldn’t be to kill the enemy. The aim should be to establish a fair order that replaces the inhuman, and to do this as humanely as possible.
        While I consider Joe’s appeal to killed children pathetic, your response whereby you subsume innocent victims under the name of enemies that need to be killed, shows that your views of this subject are truly deranged indeed.

        • Brahmsky December 18, 2011 at 10:29 am | #

          I was referring to killing enemy combatants, obviously. No one–besides the sort of terrorists Hitchens denounced–advocates targeting civilians. I may be, as you insist, misinformed, but I do believe that in war killing the enemy (so defined) is, lamentably, a part of it. And I also assume that civilized discussants (unlike terrorists) always restrict their use of the word enemy to such combatants.

    • Joey Giraud December 17, 2011 at 3:03 pm | #

      I do not know that Christopher Hitchens was a genius. He was a skilled and clever polemicist, and an entertainer who managed to keep himself in the public limelight for several decades. He made himself relevant to the chattering classes, which is why we’re talking about him.

      Famous and glib. That’s about all we really know.

    • mattlove1 (@mattlove1) December 17, 2011 at 4:47 pm | #

      Yes, I too thrilled to Captain Hitch’s exploits on the battlefield, leaping, tumbling, throwing his shield at the enemy, striking them down with his bare hands – what an awesome display of raw courage and manhood. He passed up on the test, for sure.

      • Brahmsky December 17, 2011 at 5:24 pm | #

        Of course, the threat of Islamist (fascist) terrorism is a joke. Much better to stand around and let people be mass-murdered.

    • voltayre December 19, 2011 at 2:48 am | #

      Please look up “ad hominem” in Logic 101. This might facilitate resisting the impulse to use it.

  11. Corey Robin December 16, 2011 at 3:18 pm | #

    Scott, Hitchens discussed and defended the war on terror in the terms I quote above not once but several times. Those are not my claims about him; they are his claims about himself. If allowing a writer to speak for himself and his own internal experience of a political phenomenon is the current house style of a Commentary assassin — it’s been some time since I’ve read the magazine — I stand guilty as charged. Though I’m surprised you of all people would resort to that kind of rhetoric.

    • Scott McLemee December 16, 2011 at 3:35 pm | #

      My point is not that you are in the Commentary camp, but that dismissing the man’s internationalism tout court as narcissism involves treating his left-wing work as pathological. Which after all was the house style for some neocon publications.

      Anyway, I think we are talking past each other at this point.

      • Seth Edenbaum December 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm | #

        He was less an internationalist than a Modernist. Modernism had pretensions to universalism and to internationalism only through that.

        Hitchens’ loyalty was to a failed model, and he came to it late in the day, but he was loyal to it even as it became perverted by anger. Actual internationalism requires a humility and an awareness of particulars that modernists lacked.

        You can call him a tragic figure without calling him a great one. Call it damning and faint praise.

  12. Marcus December 16, 2011 at 3:47 pm | #

    Thank you for this post. Corey is entirely correct about Hitchens and Brahmsky is like so many others totally unaware of Hitchens’ reprehensible positions and comments – like expressing sorrow that the casualty count at Fallujah wasn’t higher.

    His treatment of his great friend Edward Said while Said was on his deathbed was reprehensible. Hitchens became a court intellectual and laptop bombardier. He was feted as the darling of the beltway thinktanks and salons-a self-regarding elitist world in which his wit & accent garnered him fans. He wrote like an armchair soldier cheering on bombing and killing thousands. Post-9/11 he provided his intellect to the service of the imperial state in Washington.

    He was a man totally embraced by the establishment in the beltway–the heart of imperialism. He did not challenge the centers of power at all. He just trashed people for their religious beliefs, supported Chalabi and cheered endless bombing.

    • Brahmsky December 16, 2011 at 4:09 pm | #

      I can assure you, Marcus, that I’m hardly unaware of Hitchens’s long-overdue break with the execrable Professor Said. Now where was Corey with a blog denouncing all the drek that guy put out the day he died? Nor am I ignorant of–who could be?–Hitchens’s admirable contributions to fighting the war on terror. Have you not seen my article on this? The link is posted with my initial reply this morning. I mourn Hitchens’s passing. This seems natural to me. If you folks don’t–well, so what?

      • Scott McLemee December 16, 2011 at 4:57 pm | #

        At least in his break with Said he did not lose sight of some basic, important things:

        “If I could re-wind the tape I would stop Herzl from telling the initial demagogic lie (actually two lies) that a land without people needs a people without a land. And, if Palestine had been uninhabited, I would still have said that Jews have no business seeking Messianic or Biblical ghettoes. That’s the way I think, and I am simply disgusted by the lunatic propaganda which even now argues that to make the Jews ‘safer’ there should be settlements built on stolen land in the middle of the Gaza strip, for example…. I think it an urgent task of the United States to dissociate entirely from this enterprise, and for the Supreme Court to rule that no American funds be used for the illegal establishment of religion in the occupied territories.” (interview, 2003)

  13. Brahmsky December 16, 2011 at 5:05 pm | #

    @Scott, whatever.

    • Scott McLemee December 17, 2011 at 1:53 pm | #

      How incisive.

  14. terry epton December 16, 2011 at 6:14 pm | #

    Kind of a bitter obit, and so unwarranted. For all his limitations, Hitchens followed his conscience, even when it led him to break with friends and cross party lines. Maybe its his independence that so offends.

    • Stephen Zielinski December 17, 2011 at 11:54 am | #

      “Maybe its his independence that so offends.”

      Or his support for war crimes.

    • Joey Giraud December 17, 2011 at 3:07 pm | #

      Conscience is a set of principles to guide you through your ephemeral emotions. But Hitchens wallowed in his emotions, and let them direct his polemic.

  15. Senescent December 16, 2011 at 6:55 pm | #

    Yes, the man didn’t venerate peace above all else, didn’t understand all humans to be his kin or as one with himself, was indifferent to the ravages wrought upon the innocent and the pitiful, etc., etc. Though this doesn’t make him so much a poor internationalist as a poor christian, an accusation so obviously true and freely yielded as to be completely pointless to make.

    The man was a pagan, with pagan appetites and pagan virtues, and likewise his internationalism was pagan – striking out across borders against conservatism, Christianity, and Islam as forces that stood against human glory. His mixed respect for Thatcher and Thatcherism, as a glorious force dismantling a glorious system, is telling in this regard.

    And all the christians, however mythless, who say that for all that, his writing! I don’t think they’re offering it in the name of christian redemption but as an acknowledgement that in his intensity they were made to see and respect the pagan virtues of confidence, competence, and glory, even if they themselves could not follow as far as to exhilarate in war and deadly triumph.

    • CK MacLeod (@CK_MacLeod) December 17, 2011 at 1:36 am | #

      Among the faithful there are also those who respond to the religiosity of his atheism, and look to the god they see him to be addressing without acknowledging. They detect in his work a familiar refusal of the verbal fetish or false idol, conduct which they are prone to identify with a truer piety, and which they cannot help but suspect he also saw that way, even if it also prevented him from ever saying so aloud, and perhaps even to himself.

      I’m not familiar enough with Hitchens’ writing to know if he ever engaged on philosophical or theological questions on any even minimally sophisticated level. On TV and in the popular press, he and his “New Atheist” allies seem to confine themselves to attacking the most trite and simplistic religious expressions.

      There may be an internal connection between this refusal of philosophy or at any rate of complexity in spiritual matters and this susceptibility to “political romanticism” of the sort that Alan Koenig mentions.

  16. Minkah Makalani December 16, 2011 at 8:58 pm | #

    I would just add, as someone who admires Christopher Hitchens’s writing, his prose, the artistry of it, and has virtually no compassion for what he generally says (with a slight exception on his anti-religious views, a confounding mush of refreshing critique and rationalist-scientific ethnocentrism), that genius is too generous a description of Hitchens. Quick witted, an encyclopedic recall, elegant prose, a seemingly unflappable (if occasionally disingenuous) debater, and true to his convictions (it was a joy watching him, drunk on his ass, eviscerate Falwell and Sean Hannity and Alan Combs in that famous clip), no doubt, but I could only make it to about page 120 of Hitch-22 when I realized there was virtually no original thought, apart from his own life experiences, and that wasn’t too exciting.

  17. a man December 17, 2011 at 12:05 am | #

    Hitchens was like a brilliant architect and a sculptor building a concentration camp and beautiful tombs for the mass graves . For years he parroted Bush policy and the worst kind of warmongers with his great use of language. He was a famous author and the more he parroted the warmonger line, the more “respectable” and “influential” he became. His horrible opinions basically fanned the flames of war and in my opinion he was guilty of being a war propagandist and a contributor to the destabilization, hostility and barbarity that ensued.

    Marvel at the sculptures all you want, we are only disgusted by his work.

  18. Neil December 17, 2011 at 5:12 am | #

    This article reminds me of an Indian proverb…if you spit at the moon, it doesn’t affect the moon but the spittle comes back to your face

    • Joey Giraud December 17, 2011 at 3:13 pm | #

      Quite the metaphor you present, Hitchens as the moon. A heavenly body, aloof and eternal, more cosmic then human.

      Or more in the sense of lunacy? Hysteria? Moonbats perhaps?

      I wouldn’t call Hitchens a lunatic, perhaps a bit mad. But fundamentally sane.

  19. Erstwhile Anthropologist December 17, 2011 at 7:55 am | #

    When I read this post I remembered why I enjoyed going to Yale. Yes, Hitchens was brilliant, and a brilliant writer. And this, for me, only made his profound and fundamental lack of empathy and compassion for others all the more disappointing and dangerous. Yes, dangerous.
    Given my anthropological education/proclivity, and the fact that I am neither white nor male, I can’t help but observe how much of Hitchens’s writing was from a white and male perspective and about a white and male experience of being in the world; and the extent to which he really did not consider the limitations of such a perspective–of all embodied experience as situated and perspectival, and therefor limited–such that he really made an effort to consider, and reconsider, the world from perspectives other than his own. And such ‘anthropological’ consideration demands a kind of radical, profound, and subjective empathy that is both antithetical and inimical to the kind of (abusive) narcissism that Cory Robin quite accurately points out Hitchens reveled in. I can’t help but *consider* the extent to which Christopher Hitchens would have embraced his own views had he not had the privilege of experiencing them from a white and male body/social location: the daily implications for many of his political positions have profoundly different effects, implications, and ramifications for those without such embodied privilege/social location.

    No, his body is not yet cold, but given how much his body figured/figures in to the public, political, and literary figure that Christopher Hitchens was (and will continue to be), I don’t think it is at all a sign of disrespect for Cory Robin, or others, to remember (to re-member) Hitchens’s lack of empathy and consideration (of and for so many others, and so many Others).

  20. Erstwhile Anthropologist December 17, 2011 at 9:09 am | #

    Addendum to my previous comment: for me Hitchens has always been the anti-Rawls, a person never writing/speaking or prescribing/proscribing (one might shorthand all four as ‘scribing’, but I’ll bracket this observation for now) from the Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’. And given the racial dimensions of the reactionary mind in relation to racism and the creation of whites as an aristocratic class solely by virtue of being white, this is not surprising. This is a relational ontology rooted in embodiment, the body: and thus the phenomenological experience of the world and the circumscribed (circus-scribed), perspectival knowledge (and lack of knowledge: yes, ignorance) it brings, produces. It is also a relational epistemology: an epistemology produced and constituted from relational ontology. I think this is worth thinking about in relation to the radicalized–and racist–dimensions of the reactionary mind, especially as making whites an aristocracy is a relational ontology, rooted in embodiment, which demands a lack of consideration an abjected racial Other (much less the most abjected racial other) and thus, fundamentally, demands a rejection of ‘the veil of ignorance’ and the Rawlsian theory of justice it brings. (As such, can there ever really be a ‘compassionate conservatism’ when racially hierarchy itself is not being rejected, exept as a rhetorical strategy?)

    Bodies are social locations. One knows the world through one’s body, and what one knows of and how one can know the world is limited by how one’s body is socially located in the world, such that ways of knowing are also ways of not knowing. Knowledge and ignorance together. And this is what troubled me most about Christopher Hitchen’s inconsiderate certainty and its concomitant narcissism: he did not truly acknowledge how embodied his knowledge and perspective was, he did not really make an effort to understand the world through the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. Even as a committed atheist he should have been more agnostic. (Yes, literally ‘without knowledge’–ignorant, in the Rawlsian sense–so as to always be asking the anti-narcissistic and ver anthropological question succinctly embodied by Laura Nader’s “as compared to what?)

    • Corey Robin December 17, 2011 at 12:27 pm | #

      These are some excellent points. You also nicely show — though I don’t know if this was your intention — how radical Rawls’s argument can sometimes be. The veil of ignorance is often criticized as the “view from nowhere.” But if I’m reading you correctly, it can also force an awareness of one’s own embodiment, and thus spur a kind of perspectivalism and self-reflexivity that is more often associated with Rawls’s post-structuralist critics than with Rawls himself.

  21. Jonas Kyratzes December 17, 2011 at 11:10 am | #

    Thank you for writing this. So few voices in the media are willing to speak up, to state the facts about this warmongering fanatic who is mostly worshipped out of some kind of misguided sense of “atheist identity.” He was the opposite of Reason and Enlightenment, and though he was undeniably talented, that excuses nothing – if anything, it makes his support for propaganda and outright lies even sadder.

  22. Stephen Zielinski December 17, 2011 at 11:45 am | #

    What is sadism but the aestheticization of aggression (violence)?

    One would expect an educated man, which Hitchens was, to know that noble war-making died at the Somme or thereabouts. It seems the great contrarian believed he could ignore history’s lessons.

    It is fitting that Hitchens died when the official occupation of Iraq came to an ignoble end.

  23. John Emerson December 17, 2011 at 11:50 am | #

    “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” always reminds me of Paul Wellstone’s funeral, which bore the brunt of a nationally-organized, industrial-grade media attack.

  24. Erstwhile Anthropologist December 17, 2011 at 11:57 am | #

    Can you please delete the second of my three comments ( the one with the “(pan-)white” reference)? I thought it had been deleted and so I re-wrote it. I didn’t realize I’d accidentally sent it, mid-composition.

    Thank you.

    • Corey Robin December 17, 2011 at 12:04 pm | #


      • Erstwhile Anthropologist December 17, 2011 at 12:38 pm | #

        Thank you, and apologies for repeatedly misspelling your name! Typing messages on my phone poses some editing challenges, as you can see.

        And yes, you are definitely reading my comment on Rawls and embodiment as I intended.

  25. Wannabe Speechwriter December 17, 2011 at 5:39 pm | #

    The first time I was introduced to Hitchens work was his 2005 appearance on The Daily Show-

    What ever one thinks of Jon Stewart, he tries to have a dialogue with his guests. However, what I saw with Hitch was a man who not only held outrageous views but as an arrogant prick who looked down on anyone who held different beliefs. It was a bit ironic given he kept talking about the need for democracy and free society.

    When he later pointed his guns at religion and the religious right, I shook my head when my friends would sing his praises. I know how corrosive a force the religious right has been in America and rarely go to mass myself but I knew you weren’t going to get a serious dialogue on the role of faith in our society-only petty name calling. How this does anyone’s cause any good is beyond me.

  26. Anon December 17, 2011 at 8:49 pm | #

    Leaving the matter of Hitchens aside, I’m side-eyeing the quote from Steiner. To me it stinks of joyless leftist disdain for aesthetic pleasures. “It doesn’t improve us morally, so out with it!” A reminder that the political spectrum is not a line but a circle.

    • richsw December 18, 2011 at 1:27 am | #

      Anon – you’ll have to explain that a little further. The political spectrum’s a circle, not a line? The Steiner quote stinks? Joyless leftists? Is there no cliche to which you won’t resort in order to obfuscate an eminently clear point?

      • Anon December 18, 2011 at 8:03 am | #

        Steiner is saying that the humanities do not improve us, but, rather, they degrade us, or at least give us cover for self-degradation. How you don’t read that as a condemnation of the arts, I don’t know. I am of the opinion that pleasure is an important part of life, and that insisting that it serve “a greater good” in every case is foolish and joy-killing.

        Personally, I’d prefer to understand what Steiner observed as caused by human fallibility. Certainly, that same cowardice and slavishness he describes occurs in people allegedly dedicated to human betterment, whether they’re religious or secular.

        And, yes, there is a sort whom a friend of mine, who leans left (as I do), has described aptly as a “leftist martyr douche.” The type who is Better Than You because they have foresworn anything in life that is not strictly necessary. The “straight edge” movement, most vegans, some environmentalists. They are identical in many ways to extreme right-wingers who deny themselves and would deny everybody else if they had a chance.

        You may think “a circle, not a line” is an empty cliche; given the number of people who do not understand how indistinguishable the far extremes are from one another, I do not agree.

      • Seth Edenbaum December 18, 2011 at 11:53 am | #

        Until just now I hadn’t read the quote from Steiner; I’d dropped by earlier to make a general comment on Hitchens, then I got dragged in.

        Anon is right about the Steiner; the vulgarity is shocking, but it begins with Corey Robin’s introduction: “Many seem to view Hitchens’s undeniable talent as a writer as a mitigating factor in their assessment of his legacy.”

        That just blew me away. Robin means to refer to Hitchens not as a writer but as a ‘stylist’: not the same thing. Here are two examples of Hitchens as a writer.

        Yes, the arts humanize: they bring things near, but intimate relations or their facsimile result in loyalty. You love what is near you also because it is near, and that can shut out what is still distant. Hitchens as I said above was a Modernist. He had ideals that by association with the people he knew and the ideas he respected and then again with himself, over time turned inward. His hopes turned into fantasies. He looked in the mirror and thought he saw the world. It’s a risk we all face. Robin and Steiner represent a softer but no less ideological variant of Hitchen’s fatal flaw as a thinker: they have more sympathy for ideas than for people, and are so arrogant that they allow their ideas replace the world in their imaginations. That’s the end of openness and curiosity. I’ll repeat a comment after my discovery of that godawful rag, Jacobin: In 100 years a group of earnest right-thinking bourgeois left-liberals will start a journal and title it “Hamas”.

        It’s hard to engage fully with the present. It’s morally necessary and necessarily morally dangerous. There’s a risk for all of us of fantasies becoming not reality but ‘our’ reality. And that’s not real. Hitchens’ end was tragic in every sense.

      • richsw December 19, 2011 at 3:41 am | #

        Anon – well, now I see. The animus is against people who want things to be better, not necessarily what Steiner is saying (or, at least, what Corey quotes him as saying here)? If you forget all that, though, you might see that Steiner is pointing out that the Humanities are no defence against barbarism – to ignore what he’s saying, about the presence of barbarism, and replace it with your pleasure principle seems a tad problematic. He goes on (Steiner, in the quote, that is – not me, I didn’t raise it…) to say there’s more to it – ‘the betraying link’, etc – and, you’re right, this does constitute an attack on the arts. But, instead of teasing out what Steiner (and I have no brief for him, apart from being fair to what he actually says) means, you take solace in another cliche – the fallibility of humans. No possibility that when he raises ‘the cry in the street’ he’s on to something – that when one cries in the street it is not entirely unconnected with the other, crying over the text? Anon, the possibility is there, but you’re looking too hard at the quote to see it.

      • richsw December 19, 2011 at 6:59 am | #

        Seth – thanks for bothering to reply. I’ll leave aside ‘Anon is right about Steiner’ – he isn’t, but there’s no point in saying so. What really struck me is your later comments:

        ‘Robin and Steiner represent a softer but no less ideological variant of Hitchen’s fatal flaw as a thinker: they have more sympathy for ideas than for people’.

        This seems to assume that your own ideas aren’t ideological? What are they, then? I could just as well accuse you of ignoring the cries in the street, but don’t, because it’s not explicitly there in what you write?

        I suppose if I knew what this meant:

        ‘Yes, the arts humanize: they bring things near, but intimate relations or their facsimile result in loyalty’

        I’d understand more of your take on ideology?

      • Seth Edenbaum December 19, 2011 at 2:24 pm | #


        Do you love your family and friends? If so, why? Are they any more deserving of love than others?

        You love what you love because it’s near to you, the familial is the familiar. If you read a report about a man run over by a truck in Ouagadougou, the only thing that makes you “feel” a response to one man’s death is the ability of the author to bring you close to the event and return that man to life in your imagination. The author’s skill creates imagined proximity and you may feel moved, when otherwise you might have been indifferent. After all, people die every day. The author’s skill is called “art”.

        The experience of European Jewry is close to us, the experience of Palestinian expulsion is not. I know people who will not sit or stand beside anyone who might call themselves a Zionist. They’re Palestinians and their anger is that strong. Is it unjustified? If so, why? As I said in a comment on the follow-up post, the word “Nakba” does not appear on this page. Why not? 3/4 of a million people cleansed from their land.

        Read the second one. I got it from Nir Rosen. His response: “F-ing Brilliant!”

        I’m not a moralist; moralism is a lie. My father’s family are Zionists and on occasion I stand next to them in public. Am I wrong? Take away the bloodthirsty rhetoric and Hitchens was a moralist, and especially late in his life a thoroughly corrupt one. Cory Robin is only a moralist but that’s not a good start.

      • richsw December 19, 2011 at 3:24 pm | #


        I can see you like to lecture, and, even though I don’t like being lectured at, I’ll have a go.

        My love of my family and my feelings about the man from Ouagadougou aren’t connected, are of a different order, etc, so moving from one to the other via an ‘author’, is bogus. In any case, my picture of the man is not generated by a single ‘author’, but a whole series of understandings (and gaps), including one you mention (my imagination), and one you don’t (material realities). Your edifice of knowing (which you strangely call nearness) is flawed, even leaving aside the vast difference between the man and ‘Palestinians’. Who was driving the truck? Was it suicide? Or murder? Is he just a very poor example to cover the inadequacies of your view of the arts, which may (among much, much else) draw us near to an other but are, as Steiner says, no bulwark against barbarism.

        That’s the nub of this part of the thread, and nothing you say about moralism makes the least sense of giving equivalence to Hitchens and Corey Robin in the way you do. The reality is that Hitchens put himself at the beck of our masters; you don’t seem to have a problem with seeing this, except as a reality.

      • Seth Edenbaum December 19, 2011 at 4:46 pm | #

        “My love of my family and my feelings about the man from Ouagadougou aren’t connected, are of a different order”

        And the political implications of that fact are deeply problematic.
        Here’s Harry Brighouse on “legitimate parental partiality”. It’s the title of a paper linked in the post:
        I read the paper and thought it perverse in a way that only a kind of intellectualist liberalism could produce: a sort of schoolmarmish authoritarianism.

        The arts are dangerous. That’s why Plato was scared of them. But the politics of Platonism has always ended in barbarism.

    • BM Weber December 18, 2011 at 12:21 pm | #

      In the spirit of Corey Robin, let us let George Steiner speak for himself:

      There is nothing “joyless” about Steiner, and he certainly does not “disdain” “aesthetic pleasures.”

      Yours is either an inept reading or willful misreading of what Steiner wrote.

      • redscott December 18, 2011 at 8:24 pm | #

        I agree with BM Weber. It’s a pretty hopelessly shrill over-reading of Steiner, but one whose OTT polemical quality Hitchens might have admired.

      • redscott December 18, 2011 at 8:33 pm | #

        I also like that Robin can be accused of having more sympathy for ideas than for people when the point of this post was to hold accountable Hitchens for the deaths and human ruin wrought by his endless pro-war cheerleading. What crass moral inversion!

  27. redscott December 18, 2011 at 12:01 pm | #

    I think anon may be reading more into the Steiner quote than is actually there. He’s not claiming that the humanities degrade us, just (1) not believing that they necessarily elevate us and (2) wondering whether people who invest too much emotion in fiction will tend to identify less with real people. The second claim is heavily caveatted with lots of “may,” “can be,” and “at least conceivable.” I don’t think he’s committed the error of swinging to the opposite extreme of those who naively believe that studying the humanities will make us better people.

  28. BillC December 18, 2011 at 12:20 pm | #

    Meanwhile, the man who wrote one of the more insightful exposes of Hitchens’s contrarian schtick almost 10 years ago, just as he was doing the most damage with his dazzling prose to impressionable minds on the issue of war on Iraq, is now enjoying life as an unemployable academic in his late-50s. Despite his Ivy League PhD and authorship of books that have been translated into more than 15 languages he gets to while away the day at amusement park boardwalks near his apartment having to ignore any niggling pain or early warning sign of a medical condition:

    I’m unemployed and one of those 40 million Americans who has no health insurance, so I know all about insurance that I can’t afford.

    Nice example of the Politics of Fear to be held up to others in the Academy who might be considering tackling the more “controversial” issues from the real world. Hitchens, even though he was diagnosed with a particularly untreatable form of cancer, gets to spend his last days at a world class medical center which caters to dozens of Presidents, Prime Ministers, Royalty, CEOs, and others who can afford the air ambulance that shuttles them directly from Bush airport to rooftops of the specialty centers at the downtown-sized complex.

    • BillC December 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm | #

      Oops, the right expose link is here. And while Hitchens gets acres of print column coverage, the man who wrote about him is “erased” from history, even of the very issue he more than any other scholar helped unearth.

  29. Bill Stouffer December 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm | #

    In line with the idea of letting Hitchens speak for himself, PZ Myers — who is very sympathetic to Hitchens on many levels — gives a riveting account of how Hitchens’ devolution into genocidal rhetoric shocked and appalled an initially very sympathetic audience at a Freedom from Religion Convention.

  30. Kristen McFarland December 18, 2011 at 2:18 pm | #

    I have attempted to get the flavor of what the left and the right feel about Christopher Hitchens in the past few days since his death; and to tell you the truth, it comes as a not only a shock but a surprise that the right and conservatives are far more forgiving of the man than those I have seen on this site and this posting from the left. Christopher Hitchens was above all else a man who understood his adoptive homeland, America with far better perspicacity than anyone who decries him for his so-called bloodthirsty inclinations..he knew the basic goodness that emanates from the United States and its citizens; we should never hesitate to defend and protect a country that has been attacked from without by a group of fanatic terrorists who want to destroy us. Christopher Hitchens understood this well; and his comments and essays demonstrated this fact. Those who malign and impugn him at this time and at his death are far from the caring and compassionate, non-judgmental types you choose to present yourself. It remains unbelievable to me, you could portray yourself as anything even close to compassionate when you speak ill of someone who has recently departed the scene. As far as not being Christian, that isn’t even human.

  31. Corey Robin December 18, 2011 at 3:04 pm | #

    If any of you are interested, I’ve written a follow-up post to this one, in which I engage some of the arguments I’ve read here and elsewhere.

  32. Brahmsky December 18, 2011 at 6:16 pm | #

    That’s not fair, Cay. My comments have been mild compared to a lot of others and even CR’s. You’re just intolerant of those who disagree with you. And you’re humorless and tone deaf.

    • Chris January 3, 2012 at 9:18 am | #

      Bravo, bravo for the original post. It’s a good thing people are speaking up against the tsunami of undeserved praise for this sham, cruel “public intellectual.”

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  34. Mr. Raven February 26, 2015 at 11:49 pm | #

    Attacking people after the day they die, that is low. But I suppose sadly typical for someone attacking rational atheism, and defending Islam which consistently mass murders gay people, artists, and writers, and which peddles literal neo-Nazi anti Semitism.

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