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February 16, 2017

An ode to Christopher Hitchens

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One of my greatest regrets is that I only truly came to know of the late Christopher Hitchens once he had died. In around one week we will reach the first anniversary of his death, which occurred on the Dec. 15, 2011. In the eyes of many, he was not merely a journalist but an activist and a prominent speaker, and a competent one at that. A complete contrarian, he held solidly backed up, sometimes controversial but rarely anodyne views, arguments for which were fodder for us self-styled rationalists. That his life came to a shuddering halt is a big blow as he, along with his works, was a bastion of free-speech, anti-totalitarianism and religion and its concomitant exploitation of mainly the weak and the illiterate.

Often I hear Hitchens pejoratively described. There seems to be a strong correlation between those who dislike the man (who quite literally knew everything he needed to know in the fields he was concerned with) and those who disagree with him. That this happens relatively often is quite possibly a result of some of Hitchens’ greatest traits: an absolute command over debating and an acerbic wit. Throughout his career, he applied said traits to mount a defense to his most firm convictions. Some of such things dear to Hitchens’ heart lie in the realms of religion and of civil liberties. Those convictions shape what people think of him, his status as a visionary and the future of the aforementioned realms.

On religion, Hitchens described himself as an ‘anti-theist.’ Need one say more? Raised religious, he shed the reins of his upbringing and sought to understand the effects of widespread and exploitative religion on the masses as opposed to the rationalism of unbelief. He strongly believed that the assertion of Stephen Jay Gould (a biologist) that science and religion formed ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ was false and not in touch with reality. That is, more often than not, theism succeeds in impeding social and scientific progress in a somewhat implicit bid to hark back to eras long gone. Unafraid to offend the overly sensitive and never one to pander, Hitchens often inspired the meek to attempt to criticize religious oppression in countries like Pakistan, Ireland and the United States and routinely vilified despicable groups such as the Taliban. His stances can be said to be derived from a deep-seated dislike for totalitarianism, a love for liberty and a want for the extension of equality from other spheres of life into religion. In addition, it seemed one of his goals to eradicate this persistent but exceedingly annoying idea that morality can only be extrapolated from religion. Moreover, personalities like Hitchens encouraged people to think rationally about such topics and to that end, societies require free speech and a categorical denial of a vague ‘right’ to be free from offense, an idea that dovetails quite nicely with the next important theme.

Stemming from his nigh visceral contempt for anything reeking of totalitarianism, which ‘Hitch’ was anathema to, as you must know by now, was his love for the freedom of expression. As he correctly said, the right of people and institutions to freely express ideas, however controversial and investigate other institutions, however powerful is integral to a functioning democracy. Controls over such rights that chill free speech are not conducive to a well-adjusted society and skew the quite clichéd ‘marketplace of ideas’ and squash dissent. Such rights are important and are extremely relevant given the fact that they are slowly being violated in many countries across the globe. A free speech enthusiast’s favorite scapegoat is the Chinese Communist Party, which does its utmost to stifle dissent, influence children through textbooks and mislead the public. When The New York Times ran an article exposing the massive wealth linked to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Prime Minister, the article was blocked in China. In Russia, dissenters are arrested under the pretext of ‘inciting religious hatred’ when, in reality, their only offense was to rail against the Kremlin. In Greece, investigative reporters are being tried in court; while in England, the press is being weakened, leaving the investigating to be carried out by no one in particular, which one may suspect is the very point. This columnist hopes that at least now, the previously unconvinced have had their minds swayed to some extent.

If this column began as a sort of pseudo-encomium, it has proceeded on a tangent that describes Hitchens’ ideals and the importance of said ideals. However, it does seem verily fitting to end this in a different manner. Two of Hitchens’ most powerful attributes were his plenary command over the English language and his intolerance for silly casuistry while debating. For better or worse, these usually led observers to label him ‘arrogant.’ All that can be said is this: as T.V.’s Dr. Gregory House once put it, “arrogance must be earned.” My goodness, did Hitchens earn it.

Nikhil Rao is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at nrao@student.umass.edu.

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