British-born, US-naturalised polemicist was a fervent critic of Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton, writes Padraic Coffey
Published 18/12/2011 | 05:00
IT IS more than a little bittersweet that author and journalist Christopher Hitchens should lose his 18-month battle with oeso-phageal cancer on December 15, 2011, the very day the United States formally ended its involvement in the Iraqi war.
It was a conflict of which there was no more articulate or persuasive a defender than Hitchens, though his impassioned orations and eloquent prose lost him many friends on the Left, where he had ideologically resided for decades. Not that the British-born, American-naturalised polemicist regarding preserving his popularity as sufficient reason to compromise his principles. Like one of his strongest literary influences, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Hitchens defended the stances he held throughout his life with equal fervour, despite the accusations of inconsistency levelled at him by former allies.
Born in Portsmouth, England, to parents who had both served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, Hitchens displayed a command of language from an early age, beginning not with a first word but a first sentence, "let's all go and have a drink at the club" (apt, given his prodigious tolerance for alcohol as an adult).
Despite a far-from affluent background, Hitchens attended boarding school in Cambridge on the insistence of his mother, who demanded "if there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it". There he flourished in debate, and devoured literature, being particularly enamoured by the works of George Orwell, about whom he would write the book Why Orwell Matters, published in Europe as Orwell's Victory.
Encountering Conor Cruise O'Brien was another crucial moment: "I can still remember the excitement with which I discovered a copy of Writers and Politics ... nobody who tries to write about either of those subjects ... can disown a debt to the Cruiser."
Studying politics, philosophy and economics in Oxford, Hitchens unwittingly shared a campus with Bill Clinton, for whom he would unleash an ire in future writing matched only perhaps by his condemnation of Henry Kissinger. After university, he began working for the left-wing British magazine The New Statesman, where he befriended future literary heavyweights Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.
Though his mother may have wished him to contribute to the upper class in Britain, he himself possessed an innate desire to move to the United States, a country founded on secularism and freedom of speech, two subjects he would continually return to in his writing. Contributing a weekly column to liberal newspaper The Nation, Hitchens was an outspoken critic of American foreign policy, in particular Ronald Reagan's excursions in South and Central America, and the Vietnam War, which he demonstrated against while a student in Oxford.
An avowed Trotskyist in college, Hitchens began to alter his socialist and leftist tendencies in the Nineties. Witnessing liberal America's embrace of Bill Clinton, Hitchens devoted hundreds of column inches to lambasting the President for the accusations of rape levelled at him by three separate women, his execution of a mentally retarded black convict and his missile attack on a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan. This led to the 1999 book No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton.
Another figure whom Hitchens went against-the-grain in criticising was Mother Teresa, deeming her a "thieving Albanian dwarf" for her channelling of money from embezzler Charles Keating to the Vatican bank, and her public praising of Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier. Hitchens was called to the Vatican during Mother Teresa's beatifica-tion process, to argue the case against her appointment to sainthood. His critiques were collected in 1995's mischievously titled The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practise.
No event in the last decade of his life was more crucial than the attacks of September 11, 2001, which Hitchens guiltily admitted he found "exhilarating" for bringing to the West an awareness of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism not seen since the Fatwah issued against Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran in 1989.
Hitchens became a vocal supporter of American and British intervention in the Middle East, in particular the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Many of those Hitchens had previously been seen as contemporaries of, or heirs to -- Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Gore Vidal -- took an opposing stance to the 2003 invasion. This culminated in his departure from The Nation in 2002, after more than 20 years of writing.
Hitchens remained adamant that his own position was the correct one. In 2007, in a debate with his brother Peter, himself a conservative columnist for The Mail on Sunday, Hitchens said, "The liberation of Iraq -- in other words, the decision that we had to move the Iraqi people and the region into a post-Saddam era -- will stand, I'm convinced, as one of the greatest decisions of American statecraft, as one of the things that American soldiers, male and female, the politicians who voted for it, those who've defended it, will be proudest of in the future of any decision we've ever made."
Among the 19 books of which he was the sole author, God is not Great, an atheist polemic published in 2007, saw Hitchens paired with the likes of Richard Dawkins in the so-called 'New Atheist' movement. His affirmed atheism (or antitheism, his preferred term) dovetailed with his interventionist policy towards the Middle-East, stating, "It's us plus the 82nd Airborne and the 101st who are the real fighters for secularism at the moment."
Hitchens resided in Washington, DC, and became a full American citizen in 2007, on the day of his 58th birthday. He died at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston on Thursday, aged 62. He is survived by first wife, Eleni Meleagro, second wife Carol Blue and three children, Alexander, Sophia and Antonia.