I loved and revered Christopher Hitchens. And don't start in with that stuff about Iraq either: I loved him in large part because of his various idiocies, not in spite of them.
Beyond the politics there is also, perhaps, this reason for not loving him: he was aggressively middle-brow. He was wrapped up in the daily news cycle, but was careful to pepper his copy with just enough discussion of timeless literature, to appear on television with just the right sort of timeless Britishness, to drop in just the right number of foreignisms to appear classically learned (mot juste, nil nisi bonum, etc.), to come across as something more than a journalist.
But who am I kidding? That's exactly my level! Or at least it is a good deal of the time. I've often thought of Christopher Hitchens and Perry Anderson as representing the only two models of engaging with the world that are at all attractive to me: the one hot and pugnacious and in the thick of it, the other icy and above-it-all and somehow omniscient; the one more full of shit than the other but for that reason also more human; each occupying his own clearly marked-out spot on the social brow. I'm sure Anderson thinks Hitchens was a boob, and will say nothing good, or nothing at all, about him now. Both are staunch enemies of the nil nisi bonum rule for speaking of the dead.
For several years the rhythm of my week was structured by Hitchens's Monday column in Slate. I was patient with the more aggressively neo-con pieces (though even here I think I've understood, if not approved, the internal logic of the path from Trotsky to Wolfowitz). His stuff on religion never interested me that much, other than for the insult comedy it afforded him. He seemed to me, here, simply blind to the value of the imaginative, anthropological perspective on belief, but this is by no means his shortcoming alone. I treasured the excoriations of Hillary Clinton, Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanan, and other professional fools, and often found myself reading them two or three times in the hope of reliving the pleasure of the first.
Things changed when he got sick. As if afraid of contagion, I stopped reading him. I wrote him off as already dead. I realize now this was a way of managing, however immaturely, the anticipated emotional blow of his death, the loss of that week-structuring dose of whatever it was he had to say. Occasionally I would stumble inadvertently on the articles chronicling his protracted demise, which he was now writing for Vanity Fair. I read these in pained awe. If he was only a journalist, he nonetheless managed to make journalism do what Socrates and Montaigne claimed philosophy, at its most excellent, does: he made it a preparation for death.
This morning I received a group e-mail from my friend Abbas Raza, whose website, 3 Quarks Daily, allows me regularly to dump many of my extra words. 3QD has often seemed to me a sort of electronic shrine to Christopher Hitchens, or to the ideal he represents. The site comes strongly endorsed by Richard Dawkins and the like, yet it has long been clear, I think, that a blurb from Hitchens would have been the real holy grail.
The subject of the e-mail was: 'Hitch, 3qd'. I imagined for a second that Abbas had succeeded in roping the dying man into some project or other: judging some contest, being at the center of some multi-author forum, or something. I am a fan of almost no one but for that second I felt something a bit like I imagine baseball fans do when they catch the home-run balls hit by their idols, or whatever: I thought I was going to come into some sort of contact with the only person to whom, in my adult life, I have written adulatory messages, 'fan letters', some might call them (two, no reply).
Abbas was of course asking for 3QD contributors to memorialize Hitchens, not to interact with him. I don't know, though. What is there to say? Would 'death not be not proud' serve as a mot juste here, as it did for him in his own tribute to Susan Sontag? I could also go on and on rehashing favorite bits from the oeuvre, but one in particular stands out right now. It was about some Virginia Tech administrator whom Hitchens had deemed dim, and who had declared some days after the 2007 massacre on that campus something like: It's OK to be happy again; it's a beautiful day and the birds are singing. The birds were singing during the shooting, too, Hitchens responded. So, anyway, the birds are singing.
Joe Bageant died yesterday. He was my father's very close friend over the past several years, and was an encouraging presence for me as well. This clip from the 2010 documentary, The Kingdom of Survival, shows him, I think, at his defiant best:
I was first introduced to Joe, through my father's mediation, right around the time I was giving up on overtly progressive-cause-based writing, and moving into the role of the apolitical curiosus in which I still find myself (and for which I hope to provide an adequate defense soon). I had taken to using the biggest words I could find, and affecting a know-it-all tone on whatever obscure topic captured my interest. But Joe's straight, lucid language provided for me a counter-model of articulacy: he says what he thinks so clearly in this clip, there can be no doubt as to what he represents and why he feels the need to speak and to write about it.
What he says is also, among other things, an indictment of most of us: the coastal 'liberals', the white Americans with social and economic advantages that in turn cause us to believe that to be white is to be privileged by definition, and that to be liberal is to want to help people, but only on the implicit assumption that it is one's natural place in the order of things to reach downwards in helping others. This does not count for him as 'brotherhood'.
I don't know if I ever quite cut it as a coastal liberal, but Joe made me ashamed of having so much as tried.
When I was in Australia in 2009, Joe insisted on putting me in touch with his Melbourne-based editor. It was an awkward conversation. I told him I already have a good career going in academic writing, but I have this whole other side-business in Montaignean essays, Borgesian metafiction, things like that, and I wouldn't mind cultivating a wider Australian audience. As I recall the editor told me to get back to him when I had some concrete ideas. Joe's contrarian redneck take on US politics went over well in the international market; what I had to offer seemed a bit harder to package.
But I bring this all up simply because I was touched at the time, and am touched upon recollection, at Joe's eagerness to help. In spite of our very different forms of expression, and in spite of the apparent us-vs.-them mentality he projects in the documentary, Joe in fact had a very broad sense of who, as he put it on the phone to me, is "on the side of truth and beauty," and this included a far wider variety of people than the working-class Appalachians for whom he sought to speak, when no one else would.