I’ve recieved the accusation before that I am inspired by the literary style of the late Anglo-American journalist Christopher Hitchens. It’s possible to take this both as a great compliment and a sly insult. People (often Americans) can mean it as a way of saying ‘you write very well’. Others (often English) use it less kindly to mean ‘you aren’t original’, or ‘you’re a copycat’.
Either way, they are close to the mark but a little off. The greatest prose stylist in modern English letters is Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens’ best friend. Whenever I’m looking to sharpen up my own style, I read a random book review written by Amis to remind myself of what perfection on a page looks like. I imagine Hitchens himself was greatly inspired by his lesser known friend and may have been subject to the occasional stylistic over-ruling by him.
But Amis will never be a big a name as his late comrade. That’s for sure. Hitchens, who just days before 9/11 was a charming but marginal leftist known only to the most geekish political observer, ended his life with a full page obituary in the New York Times and a headline announcement on BBC news.
The reasons why have a lot to do with style and a little to do with substance.
Hitchens was an undoubtedly brilliant author. His essays must have inspired a million bloggers and his opinions have changed a million minds. He was not the greatest stylist ever. In fact from an English perspective, he wasn’t even unusually poetic, but it’s easy to understand how he came across as exotic in the staid environment of American politics; a fact of course that was amplified many times over by his ability to speak as well as he wrote.
I do not speak as easily as I write. In debates I rise too quickly to anger. I’m ok with everyday conversations, but otherwise emotion overtakes me, especially when I talk about politics.
Compare this to Hitchens, who seemed able to make his emotions dance perfectly to the tune of his intellect. He never got angry when it didn’t serve his point to do so. He never laughed out of time, or shook, or retreated. A suicidal masculinity oozed from his deep voice and steady eyes, turning his opponents into furniture.
It’s conventional to say that the legacy of Hitchens will be dominated by two things – Anti-Christianity and Iraq. I’m not so certain. He will of course be remembered by many as the man who held on to the pro-Iraq war viewpoint like a rottweiler with a bone. And for others, his contempt for Evangelical Christianity will remain his largest contribution.
But for me, his impact was greatest upon the specific issue of Islam and its relationship with the Western Left.
Despite devoting very little in his ‘God is not Great’ volume to Islam, it was easy to tell that it was the faith most contemptible to him. The launch of his most prolific period (during which he became familiar to all) was shortly after the Islamist attacks of 9/11 when he posted some commonsensical articles about the attack in the distinctly un-commonsensical magazine The Nation.
But let’s not make this a biography. What do we, in the Counter-Jihad tendency owe Hitchens?
Well firstly and most obviously, it is a lot easier to speak about Muslim extremism now than it would have been had Hitchens never existed.
Few take time to recall what it was actually like during those few hot months after the attacks. The Islamist onslaught had the precisely opposite effect to the one rationally expected. People turned on America in their millions. Sympathy broke out in Western capitals for the new, glamourous savages. ‘They had it coming” was the popular refrain from the Left. Criticism of Islam itself was deemed completely out of line.
Nowadays, the wall of political correctness around Islamism has collapsed. If it weren’t for Hitchens and his popularisation of the anti-Islamist position, this might not have been the case.
And ‘popularisation’ is entirely the right word. Hitchens was a pop-culture intellectual. He was appealing even to those who hate the intellectual. This allowed the anti-Islamist argument to penetrate into the parliament of youth, an arena usually dominated by Leftists like Michael Moore. And once it was inside the door, people began more and more to open up to it.
Secondly Hitchens, whether intentionally or not, inflicted massive damage on the conventional Left. Leftists still hate him for what he did during a period that would otherwise have been a bumper harvest for them. Michael Moore was discredited at the peak of his career, and many people fondly remember Hitchens showing the finger to the liberals in the audience of Bill Maher’s show. He made Leftism look soppy, sorry for itself, hippyish and outdated.
Thirdly and lastly, Hitchens elevated the quality of writing in American journalism to an English standard. I’m sorry if that sounds offensive to America. I adore America, but I also adore the English language and the way it is used by the English.
I can’t foresee a time soon when Hitchens will be forgotten. A new book called ‘Unhitched’ attempts the same type of character assassination on Hitchens that he himself became famous for. Even if the criticisms are valid (and there are many that could be made), Hitchens is more than a cult figure now. He has achieved the same kind of status-invincibility as the boxer who has never lost a bout achieves when he retires early. It doesn’t matter how well you can hype up your retrospective chances of defeating him, you’ll never get the chance. One may as well invite Genghis Khan outside for a fist-fight. It means nothing. He’s gone. And when he was here, no-one could match him.