I hesitate to join the already Mormon Tabernacle-scale chorus of tributes to Christopher Hitchens. For one thing, to my great regret, I never knew him, although we had many mutual friends. (One of whom sent me, a couple of years ago, shortly before I was to visit Washington, D.C., an e-mail saying that Hitchens had expressed the desire to meet me; alas, I somehow didn't notice the e-mail until after I'd returned home.) But while I didn't know Hitchens, he was too important a part of the landscape of my life for me not to say a few words about him now that he is gone. And in this time of sadness I want to focus on one thing that cheers me – namely, the knowledge that there were more than a few young people who felt his influence.
For this influence there is ample evidence. On You Tube, you can see videos of his talks and debates at institutions of higher education ranging from Oxford and UCLA to the University of Waterloo and the College of New Jersey. Seeing such videos always gave me a good feeling, as did the occasional glimpse of a young person reading one of his books. It was encouraging to know that students were being exposed to him. And since his death I've been pleasantly surprised to see how many young people have gone to the trouble of uploading You Tube tributes to him. He did indeed have an impact on the young.
And that's a good thing – for many reasons. First of all, he was a fearless champion of individual liberty and human dignity – a man who, in the wake of 9/11, saw through the moral vacancy and hypocrisy of the left and broke with his sometime leftist comrades to stand up for freedom and against totalitarian tyranny. In a time when when American teenagers borrow exorbitant sums of money (or bankrupt their parents) to attend colleges and universities where they're taught contempt for everything their country stands for, Hitchens offered a salutary model of rebellion against leftist orthodoxy, of having a mind of one's own and insisting on using it.
For such young people, “educated” by faculty-lounge foot soldiers who offer up bold-sounding battle cries but who are always desperately, timidly careful about toeing the lines of academic orthodoxy, Hitchens provided an admirable example of intellectual honesty, integrity, and courage, a first-rate lesson in independently observing the world, reflecting upon it, and developing and presenting arguments about it, orthodoxies be damned. You didn't have to agree with everything he said – who did? – to admire his constant readiness to say it as he saw it. No lesson could be more important to a generation of students instructed by the spineless careerists and lockstep lemmings of the academy, whose mind-numbing, reality-immune ideological claptrap is enough to crush the intellectual ambitions of even the most gifted students – enough to make them cynical about the very idea of ideas. (Either that, or enough to turn them into so many little copies of their teachers, churning out papers, essays, and eventually books saying the approved things about the approved topics in the approved kind of prose.)
Against the baleful backdrop of the postmodern professoriate, Christopher Hitchens stood as the personification of true intellectual seriousness – of what used to be called the life of the mind. He was the “man of ideas” par excellence, a thinker and writer who made intellectual disputation seem like the very breath of life. He was living proof that reading, learning, critical reflection, and the vigorous exchange of opinions could be a source of joy – that one could, indeed, build a life around these things, and make a very full and rich life of it indeed. For students who may have grown up worshiping athletes, he demonstrated that quickness of mind could be as exciting to witness as fleetness of foot; for students who made idols of pop singers, he showed that urgent, vigorous prose could be as energizing as the last Billboard chart-topper. And for young people alienated by the vapid, pretentious, obscurantist jargon that is de rigueur in the sundry identity- and grievance-based “studies” that make up so much of the modern humanities curricula – and by the insistence of professors that such writing is the hallmark of seriousness and professionalism – Hitchens, a student of Orwell and a critic and journalist in the very best English tradition, served as a reminder that the most important and complex thoughts can be expressed in direct, lucid, and graceful prose.
Not least, for students deadened by the cosmic humorlessness of the politically correct professoriate, Hitchens showed that higher seriousness is not inconsistent with humor – that, on the contrary, humor is a vital tool in any serious writer's armamentarium. No one in our time more effectively repudiated the humorlessness of political correctness, and the deadness of the academic, than Hitchens did. It is hard to believe that such a force of life – such a force for life – is gone. Let us hope that his influence on the young will help breed, in spite of every effort by the academy, a generation of original thinkers who stand up as bravely as he did for human freedom and dignity.
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