For someone who reveled in Schadenfreude, used utter malice in attacking his enemies and was overall a pretty obnoxious guy, it's interesting how little schadenfreude I've actually detected over the death of Christopher Hitchens.
Of course, death of anyone is always horrible. But Hitchens felt few qualms at joking about Princess Diana's horrific death (young, attractive woman who didn't call for any nation to be bombed and accuse those who didn't of being 'soft').
I'd say there are three main reasons for this:
-Firstly, he died a darling of the modern right. A bizarre ideology that's as emotionally incontinent as it's ethically and philosophically incoherent. For them he was a secularist and lover of freedom. Because he supported the causes they did. He spoke in their favourite paradigms which often overlapped with those of the mainstream 'humanist' movement. This meant two of the most aggressive mainstream ideologies were happy to be respectful.
-Secondly, he was partially right about the modern left and I think this is as evident in some of the fiercest obituaries of his that I've read as it is in the general lack of interest. It makes me feel a bit uneasy that one of the major charges I've seen against him in left obituaries is a pro-life piece Hitchens wrote over two decades ago, as if it is unthinkable that any sane human being should think that an unborn child should be respected on any level at all, far less be regarded as possessing human life. Simultaneously I think it is ironic that many of the same obituaries accuse him of Islamophobia. Hitchens was not Islamophobic, nor was he secular. He pronounced liberal platitudes about the Muslim fanatics in Bosnia and Kosovo when it was fashionable to do so, and which resulted in secular Serbia being bombed and destroyed. He pronounced liberal platitudes about the Islamic fanatics in Chechenya when it was fashionable to do so, and when they were blowing up children. He pronounced liberal platitudes about how the Islamic world was ready for a revolution when it was fashionable to do so, and this led to the war in Iraq.
This was to counter 'Fascism with an Islamist face' as personified by Saddam. 'Fascism with a Islamic face' is a very stupid expression. Fascism was a pyramidical power structure based on nation state and a leader. In as much as it resembles anything, Islamic fanaticism resembled anarchism. Sure, Islamists use horrific and oppressive states when they can (including Kosovo, Bosnia and Algeria), but these metastasize out of popular movements which can themselves outlast states. Just look at how Osama Bin Laden continued to call for bloodshed from Pakistan, protected by numerous sympathisers. The phrase 'Fascism with an Islamic face' (and his wars against this supposed entity) are far from being Islamo-phobic and actually based on far-left extreme liberal ideas of internationalism.
The fact that he was so wrong don't lesson the significance of his pointing out this tension in the left. Even if he did not clarify it.
Lastly, as David Lindsay pointed out, Hitchens left no real political heirs. OK, so there's Nick Cohen (who can't be much younger), who still holds the 'decent' corner with such wisdom as: 'the "leftist" in question was George Galloway, who saluted the "courage" of the secular fascist Saddam Hussein, went on to apologise for the regimes and movements of Sunni and Shia clerical fascism, and – lest we forget – led millions in demonstrations against the war to overthrow Iraqi Ba'athism without the supposedly moderate and respectable voices of liberal England uttering a word of protest against his presence.'
Cohen adds 'In conversation he was the most intellectually generous man I have ever met. More writers than readers like to imagine are fretful and suspicious. They bite their tongues and hide their thoughts in case rival authors "steal their ideas". Hitchens was too much of an enthusiast for life and debate to waste time being pinched and cautious; too engaged in the battle of ideas to worry about others taking his.' Yeah? Maybe that's because he realised anyone who tried parotting his ideas without his gift of the gab would sound a bit of a dick.
Hitchens' lack of intellectual heirs is perhaps reflected in how the fights he fought were lost on the ground. Aggressive secularism is growing in Britain, though this is in itself more akin to the consumerism that itself feeds secularism. Whilst few people disputed Hitchens' position as a 'secularist', he was only so in the narrow sense of being rude to Christians in a secular society. He showed little fraternity to the overwhelmingly secular Russians and Serbs (and never took back his support for Algerian terrorism against the French), and was happy to praise Islamic fundamentalism when aimed at people who don't speak English. Maybe Hitchens would have had a quasi-heir in Johann Hari, had Hari not taken his hero's sloppy and illogical style a bit too far. Yet Hari had pretty much perfected the 'secular' editorial: mention something Muslims have done, attribute it to 'the religious', finish with a pretty platitude about how Islam is sure to turn into the CofE thanks to heroes like, cough cough, us.
Perhaps in the end Hitchens was a figure more to be pitied than hated. I didn't come to this view so much because of his cancer, but because of one of his more balanced articles: a review of Mark Steyn's 'America Alone'. I thought there was something oddly wistful in his telling Steyn: 'He need not pose as if he were the only one with the courage to think in this way', when later on Hitchens supports: 'Unconditional solidarity, backed with force and the relevant UN resolutions, with an independent and multi-confessional Lebanon'. Those who noticed his deafening silence in 2006 might find something excruciating about the dissonance between his ideals and his actions. I suspect he felt this most of all.
Whilst Hitchens comes up with a pompous 10 point plan to fight Islamism, it is mainly based on the feeblest of platitudes. If there is any optimism for Europe, then it must come from the high birth rate of the German and French Catholics and Russia's growing demographic recovery. Far from supporting this, Hitchens warned the faithful:
'How else were we going to reply to the rising menace of Islamic jihad? How were we going to have, for example, to deal with the emergence of probably the most reactionary papacy since the mid-19th century? A very reactionary eastern Orthodox church if it comes to that, as well the eastern Catholic forces now ranged behind the dark and sinister figure of Vladimir Putin? Then one mustn't exempt of course the millennial settlers in Palestine who believe that by bringing in as many fanatics of Jewish origin as they can and forcing out as many Palestinian Arabs as they can they may bring on the Messiah and indeed the apocalypse, and look forward to the destruction of our species with relish.At this present moment I have to say that I feel very envious of someone who is young and active and starting out in this argument.'
I find it astounding just how ignorant Hitchens is, and how little he expects of his audience. Who are these 'eastern catholic forces now ranged behind the dark and sinister figure of Vladimir Putin'? And who does he expect to fight them and how? How is my church 'very reactionary'? And why should we care what someone thinks who didn't have the moral courage to condemn the use of white phosphorus on civilians?
In truth I think Hitchens and the politically correct left that he maligned were two sides of the same coin. They might have hated him for 'Islamophobia', but that was only because he essentially agreed with them that the Muslim world was very similar to that of the west.
If anything I think that his death could mark a turning point for the European left: that it will be divided between a neo-liberal left and a left that in nations such as France may have to make common causes with social conservatives. It will be interesting to see what happens, but it is unlikely that it will inherit much wisdom from the life and writings of Mr Hitchens.