Hitchens was witty and clever, but he was no secular saint

Independent on Sunday, 18 December 2011

There is a kind of man – witty, dashing, raffishly handsome – who is attractive to both men and women. Lord Byron was one such, and so was the writer Christopher Hitchens, who died on Thursday at the cruelly early age of 62. Appreciations have focused on his ferocious intellect and contempt for cant (another trait he shared with Byron). I admired his disdain for religion, which he maintained to the end, and latterly I enjoyed his forensic demolition of the death-loving cult of jihad.

Hitchens belonged to a circle of writers – Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie – who were fiercely protective of “the Hitch”. He grew up in the austere years that followed the Second World War, and his ideas were shaped by the intellectual upheavals of the Sixties. “I was a 1968er”, Hitchens once said, and his politics reflected the unthinkingly male outlook of his generation.

Later, after the 9/11 attacks, his support for the war in Iraq led to bitter accusations that he had betrayed his principles. I was on a platform with him in London when he declared he was no longer a socialist, but my difficulty with his politics pre-dated that change of heart. The problem wasn’t particular to him: Hitchens was typical of a group of intellectuals who relished challenging traditional power structures, but their
radicalism stopped at the bedroom door. He argued with feminists over abortion, and even though he later supported a woman’s right to choose, he never stopped describing the foetus as an “unborn child”.

It’s not unusual for revolutions to propose a redistribution of power among a limited group, and the shortcomings of Sixties radicals were striking in the matter of gender. In his memoir, published just before he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, Hitchens barely mentions the women in his life. At some points in the book, he seems to regard women as another species, artlessly quoting Amis and the poet Craig Raine who believed “that there is a design flaw in the female form and that the breasts and
the buttocks really ought to be on the same side”.

Hitchens recalled hearing the feminist slogan “the personal is political” for the first time, and said it filled him with a “deep, immediate sense of impending doom”. He dismissed it as escapist and narcissistic, appearing to place one of the great ideologies of the 20th century in the same category as what he called “New Age gunk”. I don’t think he hated women, but he appeared to regard them as having limited usefulness.

Hitchens admired the ideas of the Enlightenment, but had little self-knowledge. One of his friends, the CNN commentator Barbara Olson, died in the plane that smashed into the Pentagon on 9/11, and I sometimes thought that might account for his intemperate rage towards people who opposed the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His second wife, Carol Blue, described him perceptively as one of “those men who had never really been in battle and wished they had been”.

His premature death is a sad loss, but he is no more a secular saint than George Orwell, another radical who had strange ideas about women. Hitchens once said women aren’t funny, which is nonsense, but it’s also revealing about the way in which he formed his opinions. Like many clever men, he believed he inhabited the rarefied world of the intellect, but he couldn’t always distinguish between a thought and a feeling.


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