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The Happy Warrior

My memories of Christopher Hitchens

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Christopher Hitchens.(Gaspar Tringale/VF)

In February 2009, I attended a Hezbollah rally in Beirut with Christopher Hitchens. You could not have had better company with whom to witness the martial pieties of Lebanon’s “Party of God.” The “Shiite Muslim mega-Church,” as Christopher would later describe it, had been divided in two, men separate from women, the latter shrouded in black. At the back of the hall, a giant poster depicted a nuclear mushroom cloud composed of Arabic letters, helpfully translated on the side as reading, “Oh Zionists, if you want this type of war, SO BE IT.” Playing before us on a giant movie screen were alternating images of guerilla fighters with rocket launchers and their intended target, Tel Aviv, in flames. Throughout the evening, the only three words we non-Arabic speakers understood were shahid (martyr), yahud (Jew), and jihad (jihad).

It was at this point that Christopher leaned in to me and said, faintly above a whisper, “You’re looking especially Jewish this evening.”

Thus was my introduction to staring down violent religious fanaticism. Counterintelligence and military readiness are of course necessary components to any defensive strategy, but wit is a requirement as well, and no one better exemplified the happy warrior attitude than Christopher, who died Thursday night at the age of 62. He was living evidence of the need for strong doses of courage and humor in the face of authoritarianism, which, in whatever guise, whether religious or secular, is always drab and oppressive. A few days earlier, literally hours after we had stepped off the plane at Rafik Hariri International Airport, Christopher got into a violent scuffle while attempting to write “Fuck Off” on a sign belonging to a fascist, Syrian-backed political faction. Halfway through completing his graffito, a gang of men emerged and began to rough him up. Had Christopher not been with two other journalists, who helped him manage an artful escape, he might have starred in a beheading video.

At the hotel later that evening, I encountered Christopher at—where else?—the lobby bar. He was limping and bore some visible scratches on his face. “What possessed you to deface a political sign in Beirut, of all cities?” I asked, incredulously. “I have a rule regarding fascist insignia, my dear boy,” he replied. “It must be taken down.”

Christopher is largely being commemorated for the things he hated—religion, Saddam Hussein, Bill Clinton—and he was certainly the best takedown artist in the business. But I will most remember him for being uproariously funny. Last year, I interviewed him for a gay magazine about two same-sex trysts he claimed to have had as an Oxford student with future ministers in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. “I guess I should say that screwing the Tories is an across-the-board thing with me,” he said. Aside from nasty limericks, literally dozens, if not hundreds of which he had managed to store in his memory, Christopher specialized in long, drawn-out jokes. Sometimes, he would build up with 20 minutes of exposition before delivering the gag. No subject was too sacred. I don’t recall ever laughing harder than after Christopher delivered the unprintable punchline to a yarn about Robert Kennedy’s last words on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel.

A friendship with Christopher was not just a friendship. It was an education. Whenever I met with him, I would always end up whipping out a notebook to record his observations, book recommendations, or obscure articles that had been published decades ago. As a writer, there was no better mentor. He was exacting to a fault, aesthetically and morally. When I once concluded an article with the phrase “anytime soon,” he scolded me for what, unbeknownst to me, was a cliché (“At least you read to the end of the piece,” I responded. And it’s true: Christopher read everything). Similarly, he had no time for language or talk that obscured a subject’s true nature, particularly if the subject was deserving of a strong word like “evil,” “faker,” or “zealot,” which Christopher used generously (but never inappropriately). Milquetoast language would simply not do. You always knew, he told me, that something idiotic was going to follow forth from a sentence that began with “Saddam was a bad guy, but … .”

I would occasionally have to pinch myself as a reminder that I was in the presence of the Orwell of our age, and that he was voluntarily spending his time to banter with a twenty-something journalist. But his friendship was never a favor; if Christopher ever got bored with someone, you knew it, and as the countless obituaries published since his death attest, his friendships were wide and deep. Perhaps Christopher’s greatest trait was his social egalitarianism; he was generally interested in what “regular” people, many of them much younger, and all of them less knowledgeable and experienced than he, had to say. Christopher could have, if he chose, spent every waking hour with the circle of literary luminaries who shared his level of fame and erudition—Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie—or with the celebrities like Sean Penn who also called him a friend. But it was not unusual to spend an evening at Christopher’s house with any one of these grand figures, along with a congressional aide, an undiscovered author, and a human rights activist to boot.

In the spring of 2010, Christopher had received a terminal diagnosis, and while his outliving the year period in which the vast majority of esophageal cancer sufferers die brought his friends some hope, we knew the end was close. The full impact of Christopher’s passing will hit me soon, and then repeatedly thereafter and forever, the next and every time some bloviating cleric, anti-American radical, or apologist for tyranny opens their maw.

James Kirchick is a contributing editor for The New Republic and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Related: On Chaps and Their Cocks [Out]
The Swastika and the Cedar [VF]

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ben Dish says:

The man was an absolute star. He pulled the pants down many a lefty because he knew them intimately. He knew about hypocrisy and their perceptual narrowing. Watching him debate is like watching an Aikido Master take down his opponents.
Thank fucking G-D for Christopher Hitchens, he enriched us all.

ben Dish says:

…oh, and Jules,
Hitchens would not have given you the time of day, you internet troll.

http://www.salon.com/2011/12/17/christohper_hitchens_and_the_protocol_for_public_figure_deaths/

How tragic…yes how quaint…troll this…critical thinking a plus, uncritical always a bust.

In writing for a Jewish publication, I’m surprised that you didn’t mention how anti-Israel he was.

Al Sheeber says:

You wrote in the soporific lefty Haaretz:

http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/despite-criticism-of-israel-hitchens-was-ardent-foe-of-anti-semitism-1.402015

Despite criticism of Israel, Hitchens was ardent foe of anti-Semitism
In the past decade, Israel became less of an issue for the late Christopher Hitchens as a result of the increasing threat he perceived in radical Islam, which he recognized as having hijacked the Palestinian cause.

Your article attempts to put the best face on the deceased paragon of the Left. Some Israelis can also recall that in his mid 30′s he landed in Israel with his buddy, the prolific novelist Martin Amis, to meet professor Israel Shahak, a scientist , who survived WW2 in Poland and rose to a high level of classified research.Like many in Israel , during the 70′s he disapproved of the Israeli presence in the West Bank and became very strident, noticed by the Shin Beth, as a security risk and an agitator inspiring the agitated lefties overseas.. In none of Hitchens poisoned pen diatribes he reminds his readers for example that the first batch of settlements were approved by a Socialist government, with many heavy duty Mapamniks (deniers of Stalin’s Gulags all the way to the 60′s). He arrived with an agenda, got validated by an inspiring figure and ran with the story for many years, dissing Israel up to the point when he brings his last wife to his grandmother, telling her, she is Jewish, at which point, for the first time in his life, he is told, your mama was also Jewish! With this revelation and 911, he began to make a U Turn. getting badly roughed up by several islamist in Afghanistan, may have pursuaded him that he may have been sidetracked from the real important issues. ironically, it was at daniel pearl’s home, in Pakistand, where he recovered. Suddenly the high volume invectives against Israel were lowered and the many anti – American topics disappeared. For the sake of intellectual integrity and decency, he could have

As usual Jules quotes from a pro Iranian website.

Does he work for the Iranian government?

Surellin says:

Last line – singular- HIS maw. Yeah, I’m a pedant.

matthew49 says:

Oh, c’mon, tell us the story, with punchline, about Bobby Kennedy’s last words. I’m sure Hitch would have wanted you to.

Fallon Prock says:

Getting into a scuffle while writing “Fuck Off” on a sign? The man certainly had a way with words.

Obviously one of Christopher Hitchens greatest gifts was the gift of friendship. (For many.) As Don Corleone reminded us, “Arm yourself with friends.”

Am I the only one to note that almost every recognition of Hitchens includes a huge amount of of self-glorification? At dinner. Drinking. Talking. And so on. Are there any encomiums which speak about the man without discussing the writer’s own personal relationship with Hitchens?

Lynne T says:

Jules is a childish idiot, who seeks to establish his bona fides as a holier-than-thou MOT not by religious observance, but by identifying with “the righteous oppressed”.

David Sucher: try James Fallows’ piece over at The Atlantic:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/the-complexities-of-christopher-hitchens/250212/

2000

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My memories of Christopher Hitchens

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