When Christopher Hitchens passed away last December, the world lost one of its most eloquent, outrageous, and courageous public intellectuals. Whether he was writing about religion, politics, or Johnnie Walker, Hitchens never suffered from a shortage of opinions—or an arsenal of words with which to express them. To be sure, I didn’t always agree with him. But then again, who could? I suspect even dear ol’ Hitch disagreed with himself from time to time. Such are the hazards of being a contrarian.
Hitchens the man may have left us, but thankfully his works remain, and will continue to be read long after his passing. Of that I’m sure. That said, in the age of Facebook and the constant need to be “likeable,” I suspect there’s a great deal that we (and writers/bloggers in particular) could learn from Hitchens’s contrarian example, lest we all turn into polite, vacuous, inauthentic zombies in the quest to amass as many “friends” as possible.
1. Don’t be boring. You could accuse Hitchens of many things—but being boring wasn’t one of them. Gifted with a flair for the dramatic, Hitchens turned intellectual discourse into performance art. His style was often a cross between George Orwell and Oscar Wilde, and while the results were sometimes offensive, they were rarely dull: “The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals” (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). Dull? I think not.
2. Don’t be afraid to pick a fight. From Bill Clinton to God, Hitchens sure picked his share of fights. He employed words as a form of combat, a civil means through which truth could be vindicated and hypocrisy exposed. Here’s what he once wrote about Mother Theresa: “She was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction” (The Missionary Position). For Hitchens, writing—writing that matters—requires courage. And if you aren’t willing to go up against some heavyweights (and the occasional Catholic saint) every now and then, you might as well stay out of the ring.
3. Don’t be afraid to be “unlikeable.” When you write with courage and conviction, don’t expect everybody to like you. Hitchens in particular made it difficult for political partisans to embrace him. Conservatives loved him when he defended the Iraq War, but steered clear of him when he excoriated religion. Liberals praised him when he skewered Henry Kissinger, but were less than enthused when he skewered Bill Clinton. Hitchens’s only intellectual loyalties were to the truth and his own conscience. Though we may not all want to go to the extremes Hitchens did, it’s good to be reminded that following your conscience won’t always make you popular—but it’s the only way to make a difference.
4. Don’t be afraid to wrestle with an idea.So much of the content on the web these days is about solving our problems. And I’ll admit, much of this material is extremely useful. But while it’s great to find “how to” articles about virtually any topic, there are some things in life that don’t have a ready-made, ten-steps-to-done solution. There are some things in life you just have to wrestle with—and Hitchens was an intellectual wrestler if ever there was one. In an essay on Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, he wrote: “The search for nirvana, like the search for utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous one. It involves, if it does not necessitate, the sleep of reason. There is no escape from anxiety and struggle” (Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays). Some things have no easy answer. Some things necessitate struggle. Removing a wine stain is one type of problem; the pursuit of happiness is quite another. Don’t confuse the two. Know when to offer a solution… and when to wrestle.
5. Have a sense of humor. For all his passionate intensity when it came to certain matters, Hitchens had a robust sense of humor—both about himself and others. He understood that humor is a powerful tool for disarming readers and making them more receptive to your ideas. Moreover, as a fan of literary shock and awe, he took the epigram to perversely hilarious heights (or depths, depending on your point of view). Here’s one example: “The four most overrated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics.” But for Hitchens, humor wasn’t simply an antidote to seriousness; it was an essential ingredient to political freedom. A society—or any group for that mater—that takes itself too seriously is more likely than not a repressive one: “The people who must never have power are the humorless. To impossible certainties of rectitude they ally tedium and uniformity” (Arguably: Essays). Humor allows us to laugh at our flaws and pretensions, and softens the edge in controversial debates that could otherwise spill into violence. In short: if more people could laugh at themselves, or convince others to laugh at themselves, the world would be a better, saner place. (North Korea, please take note.)
6. Be passionate in your enthusiasms. What Hitchens hated he loathed, but what he loved he loved in extremis, and he often championed the people and things he cared passionately about. He wrote books about three of his favorite intellectual heroes: Orwell, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. He ardently praised people (from political leaders to everyday citizens) who risked their lives in the name of justice and liberty. And he consistently extolled the virtues of friendship, laughter, great literature, and good scotch. Here’s Hitchens on the subject of alcohol: “Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing… Visiting today’s Iran, I was delighted to find that citizens made a point of defying the clerical ban on booze, keeping it in their homes for visitors even if they didn’t particularly take to it themselves, and bootlegging it with great brio and ingenuity. These small revolutions affirm the human” (Hitch-22). The lesson here: if you care about something, convey to us just how much you care about it. Make us feel it. Don’t be bashful, don’t be politically correct. Seek to make your enthusiasms ours as well. (You may not succeed, but at least you’ll keep us interested.)
7. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. If you take a stand about anything—whether it’s a serious political issue or something trivial—accept the possibility that not only will people disagree with you, but that occasionally you might actually be wrong. That future evidence will later undermine your assertions. But don’t let that possibility scare you into silence. From Hitchens’s voluminous output, it’s clear he didn’t suffer much from this fear. If he had, he might never have put a single word into print. To be sure, people may disagree about which issues Hitchens got wrong (personally, I think religion is far more complicated than he makes it out to be, and that women can be quite funny). But that’s the risk of expressing your opinions. Standing up for something is never error-proof.
8. Questions clichés (even good ones). Shortly before Hitchens’s death, Vanity Fair published one of his last pieces, “Trial of the Will.” In the piece, Hitchens takes umbrage with Nietzsche’s famous line, “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Hitchens, who wrote the piece while undergoing intensive chemotherapy, suspected that the line smacked more of trite optimism than actual wisdom, an inspiring cliché unthinkingly adopted by popular culture. (Indeed, thanks to legions of self-help gurus, not to mention Kanye West, the quote has become fairly ubiquitous.) Hitchens didn’t believe that chemotherapy and its crippling side-effects were making him any stronger, and suggests that not everything we successfully endure has an upside. At the conclusion of the piece, he writes: “So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.” In other words, don’t take clichés at face value, even if they come from as venerable a source as Nietzsche. (For another angle on this idea, see point #2.)
9. Take pride in being an “unacknowledged legislator.” The poet Percy Shelley once wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” It was an idea that deeply appealed to Hitchens (he in fact titled one of his books Unacknowledged Legislation). Hitchens never held political office, but he was firmly of the belief that writers, intellectuals, and artists (not just poets) are responsible for creating unacknowledged legislation—laws and ideas that society might not recognize, but that we recognize in our hearts. This type of legislation typically precedes the formal legislation enacted by politicians, and in some ways is more important. (Think of Henry David Thoreau’s writings on non-conformity, Orwell’s novels and essays, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches on civil rights, not to mention Hitchens’s own work.) Whether you’re trying to influence someone’s political opinions, or their spiritual outlook, or their taste in music or books or running apparel, realize that your words have the potential not only to change people’s minds, but to change the world. We should embrace that fact—and, following Hitchens’s example, embrace it responsibly and with gusto.
10. “Live, live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” This quote, from Henry James’s The Ambassadors, was the epigraph Hitchens used at the beginning of his last collection of essays. And from all accounts, he embodied it till the day he died. In a loving article he wrote about Hitchens just after his death, novelist Ian McEwan paints a portrait of a man who refused to go quietly into the night, who read and wrote and debated and laughed with family and friends until the very end. Devout atheist that he was, Hitchens didn’t believe in an afterlife. For him, this was it. And he would either use the short time he had left wisely—or lose it entirely. While not everyone may share Hitchens’s views about religion or the afterlife, one could do worse than adopt Hitchens’s noble example of living life bravely, vigorously, and urgently—right down to the last moment.
Hitchens was more than just a journalist or intellectual provocateur. He was committed to nothing less than teaching people how to live—more passionately, sanely, intelligently, and with less human-inflicted suffering. It’s a goal worth striving for, and one that writers should, indeed must, remain committed to. Our prescriptions to life’s problems may differ, and, like Hitchens, we may occasionally be wrong. But we should never lose sight that more life—a fuller, richer, better life—is what most people, online and off, are truly searching for. And perhaps the best answer we can give them (and ourselves) isn’t the one we can formulate into words, but the one that we exemplify with our lives.
So in sum: don’t be boring, pick fights, be unlikeable on occasion, wrestle, laugh, love, dare to be wrong, question clichés, live all you can, and do your best to change the world. These tactics might not win you any popularity contests on Facebook, but they’re the best ways to keep Hitch’s legacy alive—and the only afterlife he might actually approve of.