Thank You Christopher Hitchens

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I’m sad that Christopher Hitchens has passed away. I’ve never seen the man in person. I’ve seen him on TV, heard him over the radio, and most importantly read him. I will miss never again reading him or listening to him on events that are still to happen.

We all hopefully have role models – people who we look up to and hope we can emulate in some small way. I do not mean in a fantasize sort of way – as in “I hope I can sing like Sanjay Subramaniam.” I know I never can – I don’t sing. But in a much more real sense – in a, “Given what I do, I hope I can do it more at the standards she has done it sort of way.” I think I am in the same professional ball park as Hitchens was – peddling ideas. He was just so much better at it. Note, not just more successful, not just better paid, not just better known, just better.

His brilliance can be wrapped up in three words – thoughtful, courageous, and eloquent. Seldom does the world see this combination.

It was clear that he thought and wrote in a way that was a tribute to logic and clarity. No babble where you had to wonder what he thought. Pascal is attributed as having said, “There are times the heart knows reason that reason will never know.” Keeping figures like Hitchens in mind I have stood that quote on its head to say, “There are times the head knows compassion that the heart will never know.”

He feared nobody and wrote scathingly of people as beloved or powerful as Mother Teresa and Henry Kissingner (no points for figuring out who the beloved is there, or who the powerful), or as fictional in his perspective as God. It seems like he took positions that made it hard to put him into a box. Given the American political lexicon, he was a flaming liberal on social issues, and a neo-conservative when it came to the Iraq war and the ‘war on terror’. While he didn’t fit convenient political and social pigeon holes, he most certainly was in the box which read, ‘Courageous and Says It As He Sees It’.

There are some people who think well and write badly – many an academic journal will give you examples of this – though be warned most of what you will find there is ‘thought badly and written badly’ pieces. Some people think badly and write beautifully – V.S. Naipaul and Arundhati Roy fall into this category in my book. And then there are the few gems who think brilliantly and write eloquently – and Hitchens was one of them.

I’ll end this tribute to Hitchens with a personal note. Last week one of my students walked into my office hours and our conversation on population and poverty led to a discussion of women’s rights and abortion. My student was clear that his to be wife will never have an abortion and he will see to that. The reason was simple – his God dictated that. I offered to get the student my copy of Hitchens’ ‘God in Not Great’ as part of his winter break readings. (I also suggested he read Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’) and then have a conversation about God on our return to campus. Unfortunately I couldn’t find my copy of ‘God is Not Great’ – I’ve lent it to someone else, and I don’t know who. Given this turn of events I’ll probably get the student a copy of the book. Thinking about it, a good collection of Christopher Hitchens’ books is as good a Christmas gift as any other for many a person. If interested here is a link to Amazon’s Christopher Hitchens page.

Note, I haven’t mentioned the religion of the student above. Something tells me Hitchens would not have been so politically correct.