'Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence.' And having lived true to what he said for sixty-two years, Christopher Eric Hitchens remained anything but a silent spectator. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that a voice as strong and as polemic as that of Hitchens has not shown itself to the world since his death in 2011. Thirteenth of April marks the 70th birth anniversary of this celebrated essayist and critic of our time – Hitch, as he was fondly referred to.
The vivacious combination of incredulity and integrity, of rationality and prose, and of knowledge and strength in the written word that Hitch possessed is a rare occurrence in the arenas of political and cultural criticism today.
Hitch was a self-proclaimed antitheist – not simply someone who did not believe in God, but also who was in opposition to such a totalitarian concept. A crusader for rationality with Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russel, Democritus, Omar Khayyam, and Lucretius as his heroes, Hitch’s work contributed to the ancient legacy of disbelief and scepticism – reaching its zenith with his book ‘God is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything’.
An active member of the International Socialists since his student days at Oxford - a time which he, while describing his young self calls “notorious”, Hitchens remained a life-long Marxist. His detachment with the Left organisations began in the nineties after he fiercely criticised the Left for its stand against Salman Rushdie during the ‘Satanic Verses’ controversy.
He opposed the doctrine of Islam unapologetically – calling it “violent and vicious” and categorising it as one of the most dangerous threats to the twenty-first century since it makes large and exclusionary claims for itself like being the last and the only true religion, rejects pluralism, and is intolerant to any criticism or satire. He opined that while a devout Muslim has every right to rigorously adhere to the doctrine, his claim of right to make others adhere “offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent”.
While he opposed radical Islam for terrorism, he also stood for the rights of Bosnian Muslims during one of the worst genocides of the community in human history. The principle, for Hitch, was supreme, and he taught us that it was possible to believe in an ideology without adhering to the political binaries of Left and Right.
As historically and philosophically referenced his writing was, Hitch was equally unforgiving and ruthless in his criticism. For Hitch, criticism of the superstitious did not demand any respectful veil to it. Out of the countless attacks on the theocracy, his debate against the motion ‘Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’, stands out.
From reminding the Church of its genocide in Rwanda to bluntly raising questions about Cardinal Bernard Francis Law – the Archbishop of Boston responsible for shielding child rapists, Hitchens in his supreme wit, claimed that the Catholic Church leaves no stone unturned to prove themselves rooted to their motto of “leave no child’s behind” and that the kids “have already had the ‘priestly care’” and must now be kept away from the Church. Wrapped in tragedy and consequently in dark humour, such provocation that strips the opposition of all respect and liberates the critic from any apologia, is missing from our discourse today.
Such a liberated critic, however, is also often a lone comrade. Hitchens was probably the most despised after he wrote ‘The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice’. The book, as witty as it was with its title, was equally brutal with its criticism of, as Hitchens put it, “probably the least criticised human being ever”.
He went on to serve as Advocatus Diaboli (Devil’s Advocate) and testify against the canonisation of Mother Teresa at the Vatican. Other public figures that came within the crosshairs of his criticism include George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Bal Thackeray, and the much- celebrated English Princess Diana. Hitch’s attacks on these public figures epitomise a culture of refuting personality cults, and resist the creation of newer ones – something that the present day world gravely needs. Hitch wrote not to be liked or loved, but to provoke and criticise, and to shake and question.
Hitch reported through some of the most important moments of the twentieth century history. Be it the fall of the Romanian dictator Nicolae CeauÈÂÂÂÂÂÂescu, or the Velvet Revolution of Prague, or, the rise of Bhagwan Rajneesh in Pune, Hitch was present and writing about these events from the site itself – among the revolutionaries in Romania, with the underground rebels in Prague, and disguised as a member of the Ashram in Pune. Writing for Vanity Fair from Amritsar in August 1997, Hitch called the televised razing of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya “a crowning disgrace”. He pointed out to the rising threat of the “quasi fascist” and “semi-criminal” movement of Hindu Nationalism in India. With experience so organic and horizons so wide, he could quote references, as he did, beginning with just the letter ‘B’ from across the world - from Beirut to Bombay to Belfast to Belarus.
In an era of political criticism, when the swearing of allegiances to a particular political ideology, group, or a party – a disgrace that reduces a critic to a mouthpiece of achievements and an apologist of wrongdoings was and is still commonplace and quite mainstream and accepted, Hitch remained rooted to the cause – standing across the dais from friends, family, and fraternities. He stood for the liberation of Palestine with the same intensity as he did against anti-Semitism. He accused the USA of war crimes with the same disgust and dismal as he treated the Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Hitchens stood for the independence of Kurds as he stood for the rights of the North Indians during the xenophobic assaults on them in Bombay.
Hitchens matters because allegiance is anathema to criticism, and political criticism needs abandonment of allegiances. He matters because superstition needs to be shunned and human rights need to be impenitently advocated for, perpetrators need to be brought to justice and personality cults have to be desecrated. In the voice of Hitchens, one finds the true spirit of a contrarian – a prolific writer, and a voracious public speaker, ever invested in the pursuit of truth and justice.
In the contemporary world of Trumps and Bolsonaros (Jair Messias Bolsonaro, President of Brazil), and the rampant Hindu Nationalism closer to home here, in India, a voice like his is sorely missed. Refuting his own self about being silent in the grave, Hitchens emerges as a voice of resistance that echoes through the twenty first century.
It matters today because totalitarianism has created precedence in world politics, and newer totalitarian ideas are on the rise. The onslaught on human rights, the steep decline in the values of political discourse, the plaguing of the critical sphere of writing with apologia towards minorities, and disintegration of secularist principles demand an unrelenting voice. Hitchens matters because his work epitomises the Latin saying FÄ«at jÅ«stitia ruat cælum "Let justice be done though the heavens fall."
(Fahad Zuberi is an Architect currently pursuing advanced studies in History, Theory, and Criticism at Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad.)
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