Saturday, December 17, 2011

The death of an atheist and a true-believer

I thought it was a supreme irony that Christopher Hitchens should have died this week at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston just as the Iraqi war was ending. This, after all, was the war that he had championed and supported all through the last nine years and right up until his death. He had written endless justifications for that stupid and totally unnecessary war. He had been a cheerleader for the deaths of innocent Iraqis in the service of what he saw as a higher good - the West's battle against what he called "Islamofascism." As far as I know, he never acknowledged the fact that Iraq was not an Islamic state under Saddam Hussein. For ill or good, it was a secular state, and no, it didn't have weapons of mass destruction as Hitchens and the other chickenhawk neo-conservatives claimed.

Since Hitchens' death, there have been countless fawning and glowing remembrances of him. He was, it cannot be denied, a brilliant man with a love of and impressive gift for the English language. He also, it is clear, must have had a great gift for friendship. He was loyal to his friends (unless they crossed him) and they to him. One of the most thoughtful essays I have read about his death was written by his friend Ian McEwan in The New York Times today.

In the last years of his life, he worked for online Slate magazine, which, since his death, has devoted much of its space to memoirs of him, nearly all of them affectionate, as well as what they bill as "Hitchens' greatest hits," several of the columns he wrote for the magazine.

I did not know Christopher Hitchens. He was not a friend of mine. I simply observed him from afar and marveled over the fact that, although he had had a reputation as a Marxist and a defender of liberalism, he strongly and loudly and often rudely supported an unjust war which made us all less safe rather than safer. He was, of course, also an avowed atheist, and a few years ago, I read his best-selling book on the subject of religion vs. atheism, God is not Great. Although I was not really unsympathetic to his argument, I found him shrill and dismissive toward those who believe in a god, and generally rather mean-spirited in his arguments. I could not love the book any more than I could applaud his political beliefs.

With all of that in mind, I'm pleased to see that some have not forgotten the whole man since his death and they write about him in the context of his entire personality and belief system - warts and all. Glenn Greenwald's piece in today's Salon.com falls in that category.

When a public figure dies - well, when anyone dies really - the human tendency is to gloss over the ugly parts and remember only the good. It is an understandable reaction, but I think we do the dead, as well as ourselves, a disservice when we do that. Best to face reality unblinkered and remember things and people as they truly were. No false pedestals for Christopher Hitchens. He was brilliant and he made many contributions in life. He was also human and made many mistakes and the most egregious of these was probably his drum-beating for the war that never should have been. That shouldn't be forgotten or forgiven.  Indeed, he never asked for forgiveness. He continued to maintain his support for the war to the end of his life. Which came the day the war ended.

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