I took my early writing lessons from Bertrand Russell and H.L. Mencken, the former having mastered the understated, and latter the overstated, culturally-indispensable duty of iconoclasm. Until finding Hitchens it seemed the rising tides of U.S. conformism and fundamentalism had erased the last vestiges of journalistic criticism. Like Mencken, we witnessed Hitchens cross the line occasionally even with his colleagues. But like Mencken, we understood his impatience was informed by the sufferings he witnessed, the duplicities he discovered, and his zeal for vigorous, rational, evidence-based debate. In both writers, polemic may guide but bombast is only a deliberately obvious last resort …
“If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then, you had better be well-equipped with points of argument and combativity, because if you are not then the “center” will be occupied and defined without your having helped to decide it, or determine what and where that is.”
… while attending to our evolutionary reliance upon dialectic:
“It is idiotic to believe that consensus is the highest good… In life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation.”
“Again, it is a matter of how one thinks and not of what one thinks.”
Pondering my sympathies for these three models, I yesterday found myself saying something ridiculous: “Damn. Now that Christopher is dead someone has to fill his shoes.” Merely that he might enjoy the utter audacity of such a remark sustained my laughter. Today the appropriate rejoinder emerges obvious: the obligation enures to each of us, in fact, as (even before his illness was reported) he concluded Letters to a Young Contrarian:
“Beware the irrational, however seductive.
Shun the “transcendent” and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself.
Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others.
Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish.
Picture all experts as if they were mammals.
Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.
Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.
Suspect your own motives, and all excuses.
Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”
Journalists hoping to best Hitchens’ legacy must realize they will never be able to blog their way there. They must courageously test these principles in the back alleys and on the front lines of world conflict, mirroring as doggedly and lucidly to us as did he all the wrongs traceable to national or personal irresponsiblity or crippled thinking, that can indeed be uncovered by informed and determined individuals.
Like Mencken and perhaps Russell, Hitchens successfully modeled the transmutation of his personal quirks and failings into widespread respect—largely through his own self-acceptance. Finally, in the tradition of the peripatetic Hemingway, Hitch’s exemplary endurance and prolific output leaves lessons indispensable for the budding, future contrarian; for whom we must also wish his character to heed tolls loudly.