Saturday, February 15, 2014

CRAIG EDWARD KELSO, Christopher Hitchens

Englishmen very often come across to Americans as either enormous cunts, pathetically effeminate, or sage-like.

Why this might be the case, as opposed to taking an Anglo male in the same way one would the general distribution of persons, can be embodied in the man of Christopher Hitchens.

In what seems like another life, I interviewed Christopher Hitchens long before his assent to cataclysmic celebrity and infamy.

The ‘zine revolution, with review communities like Factsheet Five in the Pacific Northwest, saw a burgeoning emphasis on the Do It Yourself (DIY) ethic. Do it your fucking self, dude. Become the media. Marshall McLuhan explained the medium is the message, and he was born-out with the ubiquity of vanity press. ‘Zines were home-spun, cut-and-paste, mostly fan oriented. Those who dug genres of music not given enough attention would take to the ‘zine, interviewing, writing columns, and generally using technological innovations such as word processing.

Whole distribution channels opened.

The average person could command an audience. And audience potential was the world itself, pushing to the reaches of postal services (I had readers in Ireland and Argentina, for example).

I’d become an avid reader of The Nation, then a progressive weekly providing a nice antidote to typical mainstream American press. A columnist stood out, and I recognized his name from the glossy, Vanity Fair. Christopher Hitchens. He was very much a man of the Left at the time. But his opinions weren’t doctrinaire, however. He was able to keep a skeptical eye upon polarizing issues like abortion. He had the nerve to say things one wasn’t supposed to say.

It was about this time Verso published controversial monographs. One was written by Hitchens, The Missionary Position, taking the iconic Mother Teresa and body-slamming her legacy against rocks of pissy logic. It was indeed a pissy little essay in the vain Hitchens would become known, but it was also full of angry moralism. Hitchens found Teresa wanting, and wanting in great detail morally. She rubbed elbows with Haitian dictators, wrote letters of recommendations for corporate criminals, and inserted herself into socio-political life arguing against divorce laws.

I read it on impulse, and I immediately loved Hitchens’ brave cutting down of a sacred figure.

I made some calls, using social engineering techniques to bypass secretaries and other gatekeepers. Before the general ease of cell phones, I explained I was on deadline and I would need Mr. Hitchens’ home phone number, please. 

I even referred to him as “Hitch” for effect.

She gave me the number!  


He answered in the smoke filled voice he’d later become well known. He sounded a little tired, and I could hear familiarly sounding familial clutter: a kid, a wife. Hitchens told me he was just about to leave for his son’s hockey game.



I got him to laugh.

Okay, he chuckled. But I want you to do it correctly, and so you need to devote a solid block of time, young man.


I was hoping for a couple of minutes. Hitchens would generously give me over an hour.

When I called back, he was, he said, all alone in his Washington, D.C. flat. 

We began our conversation with agreed hatred of William Jefferson Clinton. 

I think I might have known him, Hitchens quipped. Or, at least we had mutual acquaintances in college

I told Hitchens I thought Clinton was a douche for not defending his paramour. If you’re going to bed a young honey, and you get caught, you might as well defend HER honor. Hitchens let out another hardy smoke-filled laugh, and I think it was then he decided to get comfortable and speak openly with me.

At the time, little was known about Hitchens’ atheism, an atheism that would eventually become renowned and help to define the theological position for millions. I wanted to know more about his views in this regard. He wasn’t afraid to use the fucking word, atheist. So many beat around the subject, calling themselves agnostics or freethinkers. Fine. Be whatever you’d like, but you’re atheistic. Hitchens kept the word, and he allowed it to be associated with him.

He talked about his upbringing in England, explaining his mother hid her Jewry in order to make he and his brother into English gentlemen.  

You can be the judge, Hitchens said wryly, of how successful she was. He and his brother never really got along, and so at the time they hadn’t spoken for years. In fact, his brother became something of an English celebrity on the conservative side of things. Hitchens just demurred on the topic, skipping to another.

He’d explained he’d joined religious organizations for mostly tribal reasons, especially as they related to marriage. I think he said he was married once in a Greek Orthodox Church, and at the time he had been divorced twice. But he was with someone now, and he’d rather keep that private. No problem.

And then we got into Teresa, Mother Teresa. 

Oh, man. 

He was brutal. He said an alternate title to Missionary Position, an entendre we both snickered at nearly every time he mentioned it, was Sacred Cow. I lost it, and I started laughing even harder. He wanted to be careful, he suddenly said in a rather serious tone, because in England there was real discrimination against Catholics. He didn’t want to be lumped into hating Catholics per se, but he did consider himself an enemy of the Church, certainly.

This was classic Hitchens: careful to make distinctions others might not, and splitting ever so slight philosophical hairs. I was impressed. He’d traveled all over the world, and he’d met and advocated for oppressed peoples of every kind. He knew when to make these distinctions. But just because X group wasn’t well received or treated did NOT mean X group’s members got a pass. Oh, no. Where anyone was hurt or put down, Hitchens would defend their basic human rights, … even when he found their ideology distasteful. His life was full of such tightrope walking.

The interview ran for something like 10 pages, and it was well received. The subject matter and the way Hitchens treated it were fascinating for my readers. Most were stunned anyone had a bad thing to say about Mother Teresa. They were almost equally stunned I got an interview with the dude.

We never spoke again.

I watched Hitchens’ career carefully, feeling as though I had a small role in its promotion. He was always an engaging speaker, be it when he argued against the death penalty or for better treatment of Palestinians. When he took the religious bull by the horns, in God is Not Great, I read it with keen interest. I mostly wondered how it would be received. A book like it could not be published in as short as a decade earlier, but now it took off, and Hitchens was everywhere.

I liked God is Not Great alright.

No real new ground there. Hitchens’ value was in bravery at the presentation, and in the way in which it was marketed. He set about the United States in the most religious parts of the country, debating pastors and ministers and theists of all kinds. These were informative and interesting debates. Hitchens doesn’t always come off well, but he doesn’t ever leave the dais without giving a listener an a-ha moment. You’ll always learn something.

Where Hitch and I parted ways was over his disastrous backing of the W. Bush administration and their wars on terror. Hitchens rushed to the defense of preemptive strikes, retaliation, and the removal of foreign dictators like Saddam Hussein by the ever-emboldened USA World Police. Ugh.

It really should not be all that surprising. Atheists often let alone something they call religion and opt for state worship, the bigger the better. Witness the 20th Century and the overtly atheistic governments spawned. Historians are still stacking bodies. The idea of atheists needing something to exalt, something bigger than themselves, is one I never really understood personally. But I heard the warning, a lot.

Hitchens landed in that camp, and he proved them right.

He became a hideous war monger. No strike was too terrible. No atrocity was not worth the ends he wished. Hitchens’ arguments were again nuanced and couched in the altruism he was so formerly famous, but they frequently ended with the murder of people who never caused anyone harm.

It is the saddest aspect of my life, I’ll admit.

I’ve watched so many otherwise brave and wise persons give-in to statism, to mass-murder. What is war, exactly? It is mass-murder. Don’t give me that shit about patriotism and freedom. Garbage. NO ONE has the right to murder another. NO ONE. I don’t care how sweet sounding or intellectual they come across, murder is murder. Remove the government costumes. Remove the sloganeering. What are you left with? A murderer. Plain. Simple. Logical. Occam.

The hardest thing for a public intellectual to do in her lifetime is to oppose the wars of her country. It separates friends. It ends careers. It ends relationships. And, what’s more: IT SHOULD. The truth is worth effort, and peace requires steely courage.

Hitchens’ life is another one worth careful study.

It is one of glory and triumph. It is one of bravery and kindness. It is, also, one of cowardice in the face of murderous tides.

Perhaps the greatest honor to Hitchens’ memory is to call him on his shit.       

And I mean it.  

Hitchens, God is Not Great
Hitchens, Arguably 
Hitchens, Hitch 22



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