Christopher Hitchens, Flexible Intellect

by on October 14th, 2010
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COMMENTARY | Christopher Hitchens swore that he would not convert to any religion on his deathbed. He wanted this much to be quite clear: he was not the sort of atheist to turn Christian at the drop of a white blood cell count.

As far as anyone can tell, Christopher Hitchens lived up to that promise.

He began his intellectual life as a Marxist, squaring off against the Right through the ’60s and ’70s. In recent years, he’s moved from erstwhile neoconservative to vehement opponent of organized religion. From fellow-traveling Trotksyite to chipper chickenhawk to globe-trotting atheist, his work as a journalist and a public intellectual has met with enough varied hostility that I guarantee you — I guarantee you — you have disagreed with at least something he has said. And he’s disagreed with himself, too.

That’s refreshing, isn’t it?

We live in a paradoxical era: a time of seemingly demagogic thinkers confronting an audience they cannot afford to offend. Guided by focus groups, our leaders are forced to stake out a position at one ideological extreme while simultaneously maintaining some foothold in “centrism.” Presidential candidates like Mitt Romney epitomize this phenomenon. So what if he’s contradicted his previous positions on health care? Mitt Romney should be willing and able to clarify his new thoughts, willing and able to say what, exactly, went into the process of changing his position. We all rethink our original positions — if we don’t, then we stay toddlers.

It’s not that he was politically incorrect, and it’s not that he was willing to challenge some cultural oppression or something. Christopher Hitchens was willing to speak his mind. What his mind told him, well, that may have varied from time to time, but at least he was willing to admit that he had either made some mistake or changed his mind.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).” So wrote Walt Whitman over a century ago. If more thinkers were brave enough to acknowledge the truth of Walt Whitman’s thought, our culture would be more intellectually vibrant. If we gain anything from the example provided by Hitchens, I hope that is it.


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