Christopher Hitchens: An Un-Hagiographic Roundup

So, I have now made my way through much of the hundreds of thousands of words that have been written about Christopher Hitchens in the 10 days since he died of esophageal cancer at age 62, and I have a couple of thoughts. One, much if not most of what has been written about him since his death is uncritical hagiography. I am not speaking here of the brief items written immediately after the news of his death broke, many of which (mine included) followed the “I disagreed with him, but he was a great writer” template. I do believe it’s only decent to wait at least a day after someone dies (especially in the terrible, painful way that Hitchens did) before saying that he was a drunk, a bully, a misogynist, and a warmonger — and although certainly an accomplished, talented essayist, probably much more brilliant in his own opinion than he objectively deserved.

But as I said, it’s been 10 days since he died, and it’s time to be fully honest. To that end, my second thought about the Hitchens commentary I’ve read is that Hitchens’ sharp right turn with regard to U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast gets far more attention than another striking aspect of his moral character: his misogyny. Christopher Hitchens did NOT respect women, or even like them much, in any way other than as a source of relief for his sexual needs.

Katha Pollitt is one of the few writers (at least that I have come across) who discusses this at all. In her Nation piece, “Regarding Christopher,” she observes:

So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan. It all came off the top of his head, or the depths of his id. Women aren’t funny. Women shouldn’t need to/want to/get to have a job. The Dixie Chicks were “fucking fat slags” (not “sluts,” as he misremembered later). And then of course there was his1989 column in which he attacked legal abortion and his cartoon version of feminism as “possessive individualism.” I don’t suppose I ever really forgave Christopher for that.

It wasn’t just the position itself, it was his lordly condescending assumption that he could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in 1,000 words that probably took him twenty minutes to write. “Anyone who has ever seen a sonogram or has spent even an hour with a textbook on embryology knows” that pro-life women are on to something when they recoil at the idea of the “disposable fetus.” Hmmmm… that must be why most OB-GYNs are pro-choice and why most women who have abortions are mothers. Those doctors just need to spend an hour with a medical textbook; those mothers must never have seen a sonogram. Interestingly, although he promised to address the counterarguments made by the many women who wrote in to the magazine, including those on the staff, he never did. For a man with a reputation for courage, it certainly failed him then. (Years later, when he took up the question of abortion again in Vanity Fair, he said basically the exact same things, using the same straw-women arguments. Time taught him nothing, because he didn’t want to learn.)

Pollitt alludes to one notorious public example of Hitchens’ misogyny, above, in her reference, “women aren’t funny.” Although not much mentioned now, Hitchens caused a minor uproar back in 2007 with a piece he wrote for Vanity Fair, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” The article started out like this:

Be your gender what it may, you will certainly have heard the following from a female friend who is enumerating the charms of a new (male) squeeze: “He’s really quite cute, and he’s kind to my friends, and he knows all kinds of stuff, and he’s so funny … ” (If you yourself are a guy, and you know the man in question, you will often have said to yourself, “Funny? He wouldn’t know a joke if it came served on a bed of lettuce with sauce béarnaise.“) However, there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: “She’s a real honey, has a life of her own … [interlude for attributes that are none of your business] … and, man, does she ever make ’em laugh.”

Now, why is this? Why is it the case?, I mean. Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.

And it remained just as awful through to the end.

Echidne wrote scathingly of Hitchens’ contempt for women:

During the last week I have read many accolades to Christopher Hitchens, of his elegant writing, of his courage and his genius, of how he picked his enemies and how he used his formidable debating talents in attacking them. And all through this I can nod my head and accept that he was a brilliant man, a man of even flawed genius, someone who filled a useful role in the public debates about politics and religion and war.

And yet however hard I try, I cannot get over the fact that he was not writing to me, I cannot get to the point where I could feel comfortable and relaxed writing about his other points, agreeing with them or disagreeing with them.

Because I had learned that I was a baby factory to him, someone who could never be funny, someone whose job it was to fellate brilliant and eloquent men, whose whole existence was defined as the ancillary sexual and reproductive role he had decreed for women. He mythologized women and placed them where he felt they were of use to him in that mythology. And there is no escape from that.

This is something an aware female reader must face. So God Is Not Great? Well, you think women aren’t great, either, except when sucking you. Get over that hump before you can join in the general repartee. Get over that point or you will be attacked for not getting the brilliance of the writer. It’s like a one-winged bird trying to soar.

And then there is the way Hitchens handled the end of his first marriage. He fell in love with another woman and abruptly left his wife when she was pregnant with their second child. Marc Tracy briefly refers to it in his lengthy Tablet piece about Hitchens, “The Tenth Man“:

Later in 1989, Hitchens met Carol Blue, the woman who became his second wife. He promptly told his wife, Meleagrou, who was the mother of his son and was then pregnant with his daughter, that he and Blue were in love. He split up and remarried: In a sense, his daughter’s birth’s baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table.

It could be argued that this is more an example of the often cruel and cold-hearted way Hitchens treated people in general, when he disagreed with them or when they criticized him or his ideas. He certainly did not reserve his rudeness and insensitivity for women alone — as Dave Zirin’s experience with Hitchens shows:

I met Christopher Hitchens once and once only in October of 2005. I had just written my first article for The Nation, Hitchens’s former employer. Its subject was the death of NFL player turned army ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. This was before anyone knew anything about the lies or cover-up following Pat’s death. My piece was more a lament that Pat Tillman—described by friends as a complex, iconoclastic, human being—was already being exploited by the Pentagon in a way he would have despised. I was also at the time a regular marcher and agitator against Bush’s wars, having helped start a group called DAWN (the DC Anti-War Network). I found myself drinking in a New York City downtown bar, and there, sidling up next to me, was Christopher Hitchens.

With a couple Jamesons in me, I couldn’t resist. I turned to him and said, “Hello, Mr. Hitchens.” He faced me with a glass of brown liquor in each hand and an unlit cigarette in his mouth. Hitchens had been drinking, and about to join a table of 20-somethings who peered up at him like they were tweens at a Bieber concert. I said to him, “Sir, I write about politics and sports for your former employers at The Nation magazine.”

Before I could speak another word, Hitchens interrupted. Cigarette fastened in the corner of his mouth, he said, “Did you write this week’s piece on Pat Tillman?” I was taken aback, a little shocked, and frankly flattered. I stammered a “yes” and Hitchens, out of kindness or sensing weakness said, “That was the finest piece of anti-war polemics I’ve seen since combat began.” Now I was practically blushing. Praise from Caesar.

Then he said four words that soured the discussion dramatically. He said, turning away from me, “You used Tillman brilliantly.” I couldn’t tell if he was still buttering me up or sticking the stiletto between my ribs, but after speaking to people who loved Pat all week, it was more than I could stand.

Before he could walk away, I called out, “Well, he was a great human being. And if it wasn’t for your war he’d still be alive.” There was now a pause and Hitchens turned back around like he was “Wild Bill” Hickok in the Polemicists Saloon. He responded, “I see you bought the Nation magazine lies about there being no weapons of mass destruction though.”

I said, “Come on. Not even Dick Cheney argues that there were WMDs in Iraq. You can do better than that.”

Hitchens then looked me up and down and spit his unlit cigarette against my chest. As my mouth dropped wide, he turned one last time and walked to his table. …

Since a lot of others have written, some quite extensively, on Hitchens’ transformation into a right-wing war hawk and anti-Islamic polemicist, I will not attempt to top their efforts — but I will list here some of the best I’ve seen. All of these are well-worth your time to read:

Several people have linked to collections, or archives, of Hitchens’ writing:

Trial of the Will” — about his final struggle with illness and his own mortality — was the last article that Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair. And finally, I highly recommend reading this essay about Christopher Hitchens from the one person who truly has the right to be hagiographic, and actually is not: Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s younger (by two years) brother. In their personalities and their politics, they could not have been more different — which makes his remembrance all the more affecting.

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1 Comment

Filed under Politics, Religion, Society

One response to “Christopher Hitchens: An Un-Hagiographic Roundup

  1. I rarely comment, but i did a few searching and wound up here Christopher Hitchens: An
    Un-Hagiographic Roundup | Left-Handed Nib.
    And I do have a couple of questions for you if you usually do not mind.
    Could it be simply me or does it look as if like some of the remarks come across like they are left by brain dead folks?
    😛 And, if you are writing on other sites, I’d like to follow anything new
    you have to post. Could you make a list of all of your public pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook
    page or twitter feed?

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