Christopher Hitchens: 1949-2011

We were saddened here to learn today that the pugnacious columnist and literary icon Christopher Hitchens has passed away. For the rememberances of the colleagues who knew him best, head over to our sister site Slate where Hitchens wrote the weekly "Fighting Words" column until just a few weeks ago, despite his ongoing fight with ...

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

We were saddened here to learn today that the pugnacious columnist and literary icon Christopher Hitchens has passed away. For the rememberances of the colleagues who knew him best, head over to our sister site Slate where Hitchens wrote the weekly "Fighting Words" column until just a few weeks ago, despite his ongoing fight with cancer. 

Not surprisingly, given his wide-ranging interests in international affairs, Hitchens was a periodic contributor to Foreign Policy. 

In 2004, he penned his withering assessment of Colin Powell’s tenure as secretary of State:

From William Jennings Bryan to Cyrus Vance, history used to suggest a remedy for secretaries of state who became demoralized or disillusioned with the policies pursued by their presidents: resignation. More than just quitting, resignation also at least implies an acceptance of responsibility (as it did, for example, when Lord Carrington resigned as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s foreign secretary over the Falklands imbroglio). But with Powell, one has never been entirely sure whether he considers collective responsibility to be a part of his cabinet rank. Instead, he offers a grudging willingness to stay on, for a little bit at least, if invited — no, make that pressed — to do so. This attitude is normally associated either with insufferable guests, or with people who appear to believe that they are performing the thankless task of holding up the sky.

In a 2007 contribution on how the next U.S. president could transform U.S. foreign policy, he wrote this broadside against U.S. drug policy

The largest single change for the better in U.S. foreign policy, and one that could be accomplished simply by an act of political will, would be the abandonment of the so-called War on Drugs. This last relic of the Nixon era has long been a laughingstock within the borders of the United States itself (where narcotics are freely available to anybody who wants them and where the only guarantee is that all the money goes straight into criminal hands). But the same diminishing returns are now having a deplorable effect on America’s international efforts.[…]

Decriminalization of drugs could also mean fewer lethal impurities (the result of gangsters "cutting" the stuff) and a decline in the glamour associated with prohibition. The opportunities for the corruption of officialdom, both overseas and in the United States, would decline also, as would the deadly turf wars that inflate the crime rate. One does not have to be an apostle of Milton Friedman’s to realize that any attempt to prohibit a commodity with such huge demand and ease of supply is doomed. It has no place in the policy of a great nation.

Finally, in 2008, Hitchens contributed the intro for FP‘s public intellectuals list, later renamed the global thinkers’ list. Hitchens, of course, was a perennial member of the top 100 and his thoughts  on what makes a public intellectual are invaluable in looking back at his own career in the public eye: 

Because I am able to appear on television, give a speech at short notice, and write at high speed, I very often find myself invited, and also tempted, to offer instant responses and to weigh in on diverse matters. Doing so is sometimes enjoyable and sometimes, too, a sort of revenge for the number of times one has had to mouth curses at the screen or throw the newspaper up into the air with sheer exasperation. Nonetheless, I do my very best to say "no" to at least a few of these invitations, lest I become too much of an all-purpose hack. (I am well aware that this last sentence of mine exposes me to e-mail traffic that I can, thank you, already anticipate.)

To the problem of the self-appointed guide and sage, one must also append the thorny question of self-appointed public opinion. Unrepresentative groups of people — like those who take part in electronic referendums on their AOL screens to determine such questions as whether Eliot Spitzer should be prosecuted — have become used to thinking "that’s me" when they read "this is what you decided." The fact that there is a distinction between "You" (as in You the People) and "You" (as in You who overvisits YouTube) is very often blurred in the interests of populism or, to phrase it another way, in the interests of flattering the consumer. The idea of an intellectual standard is unlikely to thrive in such an environment, which, furthermore, is already sufficiently poll-driven.

What one might call the "selectorate," even in these august pages, is a self-selectorate that can be activated by the Web site of a person with a fan base. (Posner’s criteria for inclusion on his list were a combination of the number of media mentions, Web hits, and scholarly citations.) I was recently made aware of a poll on Charlie Rose’s Web site ranking the popularity of his recent interviews. I was delighted, in a way, to find his interview with me at the top (1,059 votes), surpassing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (505 votes) and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush (344 and 494 votes, respectively). I was thunderstruck to find myself ahead of Angelina Jolie (252 votes, in tandem with Mariane Pearl), Jay-Z (331 votes), and Warren Buffett (392 votes). But, as you will readily see from a hasty scrutiny of the figures, a world in which a measurable electorate decides these rankings does not actually exist outside the Charlie Rose Web site. Such a world, if it did exist, would be incapable of putting me on almost the same footing as Vaclav Havel, at numbers five and four, respectively, an absurd event, but one that did actually occur three years ago under the aegis of FP and Prospect‘s reader poll. The last time that I had such a vertiginous sensation was when the Washington Post Style section did its New Year’s roundup of "In" and "Out," declaring that I was "out" in some journalistic category, whereas Tucker Carlson was the one "in." Fair enough, I recall muttering to myself, except that I could never remember having been certified as "in" in the first place.

Indeed, one might do worse than to say that an intellectual is someone who does not, or at least does not knowingly and obviously, attempt to soar on the thermals of public opinion. There ought to be a word for those men and women who do their own thinking; who are willing to stand the accusation of "elitism" (or at least to prefer it to the idea of populism); who care for language above all and guess its subtle relationship to truth; and who will be willing and able to nail a lie. If such a person should also have a sense of irony and a feeling for history, then, as the French say, "tant mieux." An intellectual need not be one who, in a well-known but essentially meaningless phrase, "speaks truth to power." (Chomsky has dryly reminded us that power often knows the truth well enough.) However, the attitude toward authority should probably be skeptical, as should the attitude toward utopia, let alone to heaven or hell. Other aims should include the ability to survey the present through the optic of a historian, the past with the perspective of the living, and the culture and language of others with the equipment of an internationalist. In other words, the higher one comes in any "approval" rating of this calling, the more uneasily one must doubt one’s claim to the title in the first place.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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