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The cult of Christopher Hitchens He would be unimpressed by the fawning of his fans

Public intellectuals are often like clerics (John Donegan/Getty Images)


December 15, 2021   5 mins

The most distinctive thing about Christopher Hitchens was his voice. Not his written voice in the LRB, the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate and the other publications he wrote for, but his spoken voice. Hitchens was distinguished by his slightly tousled hair, the rings beneath his eyes, the hirsute chest, and his expressive hand gestures, but most of all by this voice: a beautifully-plummy baritone which seemed just as resolute and knowing in intimate interviews as on the large public stage.

He eventually became a YouTube Bruh: that genre of male intellectual celebrity, like Jordan Peterson and Douglas Murray, “destroying” idiots in bite-sized video clips. But the appeal of Hitchens, to me at least, wasn’t just polemical; he possessed a suavity that impressed me powerfully. He was just as likely to riff on Anthony Powell’s twelve-novel sequence on twentieth-century British upper-class life as to publicly humiliate a religious crank.

I was 13 when I first discovered him. He had a similar appeal to me as James Bond: the willingness to engage in combat, the charm and sophistication of a worldly bruiser, even the booze. In a 2000 documentary called Hitch Hike, made by Channel 4 and tracking Hitchens’s book tour of his polemic against Bill Clinton, he said, “Jimmy Cameron was the reason I wanted to become a journalist”. He added that Cameron, who was a foreign correspondent, wrote a piece in 1966 outlining all the things he had accomplished as a journalist. Here is Hitchens ventriloquising Cameron: “I’ve sat with Ho Chi Minh, and I was deported from South Africa, and I was there listening to Nehru at midnight when India became a free country. I’ve also swum in all the five oceans and fucked on all five continents”. Hitchens himself made the world of the hack seem glamorous.

Or, perhaps, not the glamour of Bond or a foreign correspondent, but another form: the monied public intellectual. As Ian Parker puts it in his excellent 2006 New Yorker profile of Hitchens: “Hitchens has the life that a spirited thirteen-year-old boy might hope adulthood to be: he wakes up when he likes, works from home, is married to someone who wears leopard-skin high heels, and conducts heady, serious discussions late into the night.”

On the topic of glamour, there was something also Francophile about him, and not just his fondness for exposing part of his chest in interviews and debates. He was an eighteenth-century style iconoclast, a public school Voltaire, who took down sacred cows: Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, and God. This tendency toward confrontation was instilled by his education in Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, the heretics of Communism. One must never stick rigidly to the party line. Individual responsibility and moral conscience were essential.

Nevertheless, there was also a coarseness beneath his oratorical sheen: when he tried, for instance, to divorce the civil rights movement from its religious influence, emphasising the secularism of A. Philip Randolph over the religious fervour of Martin Luther King. This was sophistry. Arguing, as he also did, that religion poisons everything, was intellectually juvenile and inconsistent with his deep appreciation of John Donne.

When he said, moreover, “there is an unusually high and consistent correlation between the stupidity of a given person and that person’s propensity to be impressed by the measurement of IQ”, this was a brilliant epigram. H.L. Mencken would be proud of its rhetorical force, but it’s also nonsense: IQ is one of the most stable findings in psychology and social science.

Related to this coarseness was his deep appreciation for vulgarity and obscenity. Substantial passages of his memoir Hitch-22 are dedicated to explaining the games he used to play with Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Clive James and others: the boomer version of Dr Johnson’s Club. He called the gathering “the Bloomsbury kebab joint”. One of their games consisted of substituting the word “heart” for “dick” in well-known titles, or the word “love” for “fuck”, or “love” for “hysterical sex”. So they got, among many other confected titles, “The Dick of the Matter”, “The Man Who Fucked Women”, and “Hysterical Sex in a Cold Climate”.

He once said to an audience who were distracted by a heckler, “leave him alone 
 I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire”. On the question of Mother Teresa’s virginity, he wrote: “Who can say what happened with the dashing boulevardiers of Skopje when Agnes Bojaxhiu was but a pouting and trusting lass? (The whole problem with missionaries is that one never quite knows their position.)”.

This bawdiness was at times entertaining and at times embarrassing. But what we value in intellectuals is not often the particular arguments they make but their personality. As Edward Said wrote, in an essay about public intellectuals, “when I read Jean-Paul Sartre or Bertrand Russell it is their specific, individual voice and presence that makes an impression on me over and above their arguments because they are speaking out for their beliefs. They cannot be mistaken for an anonymous functionary or careful bureaucrat”.

The voice of Hitchens worked less well in print. As Martin Amis once wrote of his good friend: “He thinks like a child; he writes like a distinguished author; and he speaks like a genius”. Martin’s father Kingsley was more brutal: he described Hitchens as “the one who can talk but can’t write”. This was in the Seventies, during Hitchens’s New Statesman days, when his prose was more functional and didactic. According to Amis fils, however, Hitchens’s writing improved after 1989. But there were still some odd tics in his style after this, such as his tendency towards using brackets for a needless digression on some point, and puncturing that digression with a showy italicised word or phrase. I can endlessly listen to him speak in interviews and discussion panels; but reading him can be a bumpy experience.

When Amis said Hitchens thought like a child, he was getting at something. Although Hitchens’s moral convictions seemed admirably clear, they also strayed into simple-mindedness: some of his criticism of the “anti-imperialist” Left and religious extremism is still valuable, but his zealous support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan looks even more disastrous now.

Although Hitchens spent much of his career going after sacred cows, many of his fans now treat him in a hagiographical fashion. After the Spectator journalist Angus Colwell wrote a piece criticising Hitchens’s gung-ho support for the war in Afghanistan in August, many people described Colwell as possessing “sour grapes” and argued that Hitchens was “living rent-free” in his mind. These responses speak to the cultishness that surrounds some of Hitchens’s fan base; it is like someone is attacking their dad.

But if there is one thing worth taking from the writings and life of Christopher Hitchens, it is the importance of thinking critically and independently. Turning a blind eye to his faults out of a sense of sentimental loyalty seems profoundly un-Hitchian. It’s a shame that many of his supporters do this. But then again, as the title to Julien Benda’s book about intellectuals suggests, La Trahison des Clercs, public intellectuals are often like clerics. We should be able to admire Hitchens’s voice without taking it as holy writ.


Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which is out in paperback in May.

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Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Another great piece by Tomiwa Owolade.
I found it compelling, and I’m not even very interested in Christopher Hitchens.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I could never really like Christopher, too worldly, too atheist and too Communist. To me these three things show a lack of soul or at least a repressed one.

Peter Hitchens, his brother, I really like, he radiates this burden where he seems to have to carry the suffering and misery of society on him, a great soul.

The Nov 14 youtube where he tells of how he has had to just give up, he is worn by things – I have had this feel where I just have seen too much and it has worn me down till I have lost the wish to keep going and seeing more, but because I do not really do anything of any use, so I do not give up, because I have nothing to give up – – and that is why it is such a poignant interview, because he does so much, and has been worn to the point of giving up
‘Peter Hitchens | “I Have Given Up” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSgK_DHPBfU

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I agree, and sympathise with you and Peter, sometimes I feel the same.. However, (trigger warning – something very feminine coming up), I knit, and am still struck after all my years of knitting that a garment is made up of hundreds if not thousands of tiny individual stitches. It may be that your contribution and Peter’s, and perhaps mine, equals just one stitch, but when it is joined with all the others it creates something good which we cannot imagine or envisage. For me humility is key to not feeling too defeated.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Hi Clair
edited as it was rambling

Last edited 2 years ago by Galeti Tavas
Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The debate (still on Youtube) between Peter and Christopher on the subject of religious belief is well worth watching, and shows the different qualities and strengths of each of them. Christopher comes off much the worse in my opinion.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Thank you for that link.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Sailing is good though you maybe far from the grounding bosom of the sea….

Andy Griffiths
Andy Griffiths
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I think this must be the most moved I’ve been by one of your comments Galeti. Thank you.

Davy Humerme
Davy Humerme
2 years ago

Well done Tomiwa. One of the best short critiques of Hitchens and his contradictions I have read. Like many new left types, he was thoroughly privileged and also entitled but he could articulate ideas with verve and bite. He could also be massively poignant as in the book about his own demise to cancer. A real one off. I have a guilty pleasure for a lefty of respect for his brother Peter counterrevolutionary to his counterculture, but now right on so many big issues.

Ed Cameron
Ed Cameron
2 years ago

Yes, great stuff.
I suspect Hitchens spoke when sober(ish) and wrote when pissed.
I miss his conviction. To appropriate Ian McEwan from the cover of HITCH-22: As Hitchens no longer exists, we need to invent him.

Lord Rochester
Lord Rochester
2 years ago

In Hitch 22 he presciently spoke of his concerns on the rise of identity politics. He’d been concerned by this since the 80s. Whilst we have voices these days saying the same, there are none which come to mind from the space Hitchens occupied on the political left. I don’t just think this vacuum is a shame, I think it is dangerous.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

He was a professional controversialist. With him, it was always the argument for the argument’s own sake. That is something which is often said of his brother, Peter, but that’s unfair and ironic. I’ve never got the impression that Peter was anything other than 100% sincere in anything he ever wrote or said, even where I violently disagree with him, such as over Israel. I’ve never got the impression that Christopher ever gave a curse what he wrote or said so long as everyone was paying him attention.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago

I always felt Hitchens’s defence of the Afghan war was connected in his mind to a broader defence of
Western values against the threat of Islamism. I could never quite see how flying an army into Afghanistan was going to counter that threat though.
As for his coarseness I think that has more to do with his Englishness than anything else; I think we’re quite a ribald sort of people generally – after all, who doesn’t love a good nob gag?

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago

A well pitched article that captures Christopher when I knew him in college in 1968. People do not change. Larger than life, quick with an opinion, given with conviction. He organised his thoughts but I was never convinced that he listened.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

I think it’s a bit of a stretch to call Hitchens’ admirers a cult or ‘fawning’. He had great oratory and intellectual powers that were WORTHY of admiration. The lifelong Trotskyist was brave enough to go against his comrades and
1. Stick up for Salman Rushdie, at no small risk to himself
2. Stand up to Islamist attempts to usher in de facto blasphemy laws, again, at no small risk to himself
3. Defend western enlightenment values
4. Skewer ‘sacred cows’ like Mother Theresa.
5. Go against the liberal order and support the deposing of Saddam Hussein. Far from being a cult figure with slavish followers that last one particularly caused a great deal of debate amongst his fans.

I miss his fearlessness and beautiful wordsmithery. That doesn’t make me a cult follower i just lament that so few can fill the hole he left. Douglas Murray is the only one carrying the torch at all.

John Williams
John Williams
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

I agree with you about Douglas Murray, he’s another brave person like Hitchens. I’d give a vote to Melanie Phillips in the bravery olympics too. She’s totally up there with the bravest of the brave.

Andy Griffiths
Andy Griffiths
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Yes, I would have to agree you from what I have read of Douglas Murray so far. I haven’t read The Strange Death of Europe yet but recently finished The Madness of Crowds and thought it excellent. In fact in interviews and debate he bests Hitch for me by seeming a bit more courteous and able to, at least, give the impression of listening.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

“Skewer sacred cows like Mother Theresa”. Hitchens’ blind hatred of God rendered him incapable of appreciating goodness and holiness in others.

William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

Whether you agreed with him or not, he was always interesting to listen to.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Yes – agreed. I shared his viewpoint sometimes, other times not, but I wasn’t bored by his work.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
2 years ago

l could never listen to Christopher Hitchens without remembering 6th. Form debates, particularly in regard to Christianity. Hitchens seemed to be stuck in that groove as he pontificated about something he knew little about. His criticisms were often shallow based on wild generalisations and lack of theological knowledge.
Furthermore he and his fellow atheists should have learnt that trying to persuade believers there is no God is like trying to persuade sailors there is no sea. Faith although involving the intellect goes beyond it to the experiential, spiritual and mystical. Something Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett etc. could never grasp unless they exercised humility and openness of spirit before God.

Dave Lowery
Dave Lowery
2 years ago

An example of where he “pontificated about something he knew little about” would be interesting. You didn’t just project your confirmation bias, did you?

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave Lowery

I don’t think so. The statements Hitchens made about God showed a lack of theological and biblical knowledge which was not impressive in someone who wanted to be taken seriously as a public intellectual. Andy Griffiths is right to comment that when debating with a theologian he was “out of his depth”.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

Well put sir

Andy Griffiths
Andy Griffiths
2 years ago

I’ve by no means seen all of the Hitch debates there are out there, but I do recall he mainly seem to outgun his brother by just pissing him off and avoiding questions. Against the American guy, Lane Craig, he didn’t impress me much at all and if anything seemed a bit out of his depth (which surprised me). Others’ mileage may vary.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
2 years ago
Reply to  Andy Griffiths

I agree. Please see my reply to Dave Lowery.

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
2 years ago

This is spot on and really well written!
Hitchens’ writing could indeed be “bumpy,” but he could be so good with words. Remarking on Martin Amis’s heavy-liddedness, he said “Martin looks like a falcon peering through Venetian blinds.”
And when he and Martin were having an afternoon drink(s) at a rather posh bar, which was filling up with toffs quite quickly in a way that threatened their privacy, and the leader of the gang wandered over of a mind to commandeer their table and said “You are going to hate us, but …”, and Hitchens replied “We are not going to hate you; we hate you already.”

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago

I find you grow out of Christopher Hitchens, although his books on Kissinger and the Clintons are still essential reading.

John Williams
John Williams
2 years ago

CH was a great speaker no doubt, I went to listen to him several times at the Hay Festival where he was a regular. I went off him though when I saw what a bully he was. He trashed the wonderful Shirley Williams on Question Time a few years ago completely unnecessarily. I also heard him on Mathew Pariss’s Great Lives radio programme when he’d nominated Trotsky as his Great Life. So, great intellectual he might have been but he had some serious blind spots to think Trotsky, who was a brutal tyrant of a kind with Stalin, had a Great Life. I’ve listened to lots of Great Lives by Parris and I’ve never heard any guest be so rude to him as Hitchens was. I also read Martin Amis’s recent memoir Inside Story and they had a strange relationship. Hitchens called Amis – Little Keith,so I suspect he was constantly putting him down, so no surprises then that Amis reveals that after the death of his life long friend he felt mysteriously happy! Martin Amis’s book reveals a lot about Hitchens, including the fact that in no time at all after he’d breathed his last in the hospital his wife said ‘ Let’s get out of here, that ( pointing to the corpse) is just a pile of rubbish now” Then having a meal with the widow shortly after the funeral Amis reveals that Mrs Hitchins and he are both mysteriously happy! I don’t think it takes a great intellectual to work that out. How heartbreaking for Hitchens if he’d heard what his wife and best friend said about him just after he’d passed away. Perhaps a great intellectual but I suspect a sad life.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  John Williams

Personally I thought Shirley Williams got what she deserved that ought. The mealy mouthed apologism for Islam and its attempts to force de facto blasphemy laws in the West made me sick then and it does now.

John Williams
John Williams
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

I just stepped back in history and watched the Question Time bit with CH and SW again and I agree with you. Hitchens was his brilliant self and his defence of Salman Rushdie and the Knighthood he received was superb. At the time I thought he was a bit rough on SW but no – your take on that exchange was better than mine. I’d forgotten that Boris Johnson was on that QT and played the clown more than the serious commentator. Peter Hitchens was stoutly alongside his brother too and impressive.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  John Williams

Boris is actually a great writer and not unlike Hitch in some ways. He has a big brain and a narcissistic streak that loves a rapt audience. His book on the History of London is a really entertaining read. He’s almost wasted as PM, I think he’d be better as a Classics lecturer holding court in Oxford pubs and inappropriately flirtatious.

Andy Griffiths
Andy Griffiths
2 years ago
Reply to  John Williams

I don’t recall the QT with Shirley Williams but I also remember thinking he was a bully at times. The thing is that in this era of the goldfish attention span, he was adept at the art of the scalding put-down, and most people probably don’t actually listen beyond that. Landing a few zingers isn’t quite the same as a fully developed argument. But he was certainly compelling to listen to when he got into his stride, even if you disagreed with him.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andy Griffiths
John Williams
John Williams
2 years ago
Reply to  Andy Griffiths

If you put Question Time Christopher Hitchens Shirley Williams in YouTube – you can watch it. Hitchens at his scathing best. When I saw him in Hay once he recalled a tale of putting someone down very effectively, then said – So the lesson from this? Dont’ f**k with the Hitch!

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Good and enjoyable enough short essay on the man (even though I’ve never read anything by him). But what is the difference between support for a war and “gung-ho support for” or “zealous support of” a war? When it involves a writer? A public intellectual? I wish an illustration of that was added to the article. Was the 1999 Kosovo conflict/intervention gung-ho? A zealous enterprise? I recall the anti-war demonstrations against that one. The success of that mission must have influenced the decision to invade Afghanistan two years later. Was the enthusiasm for war in 1914 gung-ho or zealous? When the mind-set for conflict was still cavalry charges, perhaps enthusiasm was a better term at that point than gung-ho. But to do the right thing, or what is right, does involve a little enthusiasm. Every now and then.

Christopher Gelber
Christopher Gelber
2 years ago

I agree. Hitchens C was (is) the finest orator I have ever seen, charismatic and captivating. His writing was, in contrast, rather clunky and at times awkward. I disagree with him on a great deal, not least his thrilling to the strings of Marxism until the end, his straw men on religion, particularly Christianity, which he never understood, his offhand disdain for CS Lewis, and his clear assumption that his erudition and critical faculties are traits capable of wide extrapolation and not, as they are, limited to a very narrow range of cultural and educational experiences and interests. But I love to watch him and always will.

Last edited 2 years ago by Christopher Gelber
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

Hitchens is proof, in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king. He lacked Orwell’ classical knowledge and that of seven languages, vast and varied experience and the ability to accept the other side’d arguments. He spoke slowly in a languid public school accent and his greatest asset was that he invariably debated with people less well read and less capable of debate than himself. The problem Hitchens had was he was born into a very comfortable upper middle class life and never ventured out of it; like some authors in the period of 1870 to 1914 and 1918 to 1929.
Malcom Muggeridge, Robert Graves, also public intellectuals were far better educated and and had far wider experiences and therefore had had far greater insights. Graves fougth in WW1 and taught in Egypt, while Muggeridge witnessed the Ukrainian Famine and the rise of Hitler post 1933.
P Leigh Fermour in his travel books about Europe between 1933, where he witnesses the decline of the German speaking aristocracy and WW2( winning the DSO as an SOE Officer ) and then afterwards, has far greater insights into western civilisastion.
What Hitchens does demonstrate is that compared to many public intellectuals of today he was a giant; which is rather worrying.

William Murphy
William Murphy
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Peter Hitchens might disagree on their family’s “very comfortable upper middle class life”. Peter recalls a childhood of life in unappealing naval bases, as the family followed the moves of his father’s naval career. Though both brothers did go to private schools, which might have been a mixed blessing, given Peter’s description of one such example.

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
2 years ago

You either loved him or you hated him! He’s very much missed especially now by presenting a voice of reason and standing up against the hysterias that so dominates the world today! RIP

Last edited 2 years ago by Raymond Inauen
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Raymond Inauen

You might be right. I don’t hate him as I don’t know him, but his writings and interviews have never impressed me; I find him coarse and his “wit” to be juvenile. He might have impressed a 13-year old boy but he did not this (somewhat older) woman.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Raymond Inauen

I often wonder what he’d have made of Clinton V Trump, Brexit and Trump winning against the odds, the media, the wokery at uni campuses etc etc. I’ve always suspected he’d have come down on the side of free speech first and foremost. Seeing him chat with people like Jordan Peterson would have been very interesting indeed.

Andy Griffiths
Andy Griffiths
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Yes, I’d have liked to have seen Hitch and Peterson converse too.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago

Like his diminutive pal Martin Amis, Hitchens was a preening narcissist. Wonderful voice, though.

Norm Haug
Norm Haug
2 years ago

Reading these comments makes me want to go back and rewatch some of Christopher Hitchen’s debates. Most of those commenting here are quite critical of his intellect. My memory of those debates is that he rarely, if ever lost a debate. What some see as bullying, I saw as a razor sharp mind, putting his adversaries back on their heels. His encyclopedic knowledge of history and his ability to tap that information instantly, put his opponents at a disadvantage. His facts usually were enough to trump the opinions of less talented debaters. He didn’t suffer fools easily and this may have seemed mean to some who were witnessing the humiliation of the side they were supporting.

Julia Sands
Julia Sands
2 years ago

I might be the rare one who likes reading Hitchens (I read it in bits and pieces, I find it’s better that way which might prove the author’s point) and enjoy listening to him. His vulgar side has never appealed to me at all and I have never been interested in his work on atheism. That has always seemed an utterly intellectually senseless battle for someone of Hitchens clear talent. I do wonder if he had he lived longer, if he would have softened some of his views- not given them up, just softened. Who knows.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
2 years ago

One day I hope we fill the churches again and undo the damage he did.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

i am not sure we need the churches ….just genuine enquiry from a rarther more humble perspective now that we must realize that human wisdom is a primitive thing indeed !

Andy Griffiths
Andy Griffiths
2 years ago

Do you really think he did that much damage? The churches were shrinking long before “god is not Great” came out. I don’t give him much if any credit or debit for that, much as I found him compelling to listen to at times, even though I disagreed with many of his stances.

Dave Lowery
Dave Lowery
2 years ago

What a shame we have no record of you debating Hitchens. That would have been interesting.