Jan 5 • 1HR 46M

Podcast: What Happened to Christopher Hitchens?

Doug Bell on how 9/11 transformed the one-time anti-imperialist

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Christopher Hitchens in 2005 (Photo by Peter Power/Getty Images)

In the days after September 11, 2001, Christopher Hitchens became unmoored. His politics had been in flux for a few years prior, but the terrorist attacks, to which Hitchens initially reacted with wariness and uncertainty, transformed his worldview. Before 9/11 Hitchens had been very broadly an anti-imperialist, albeit one who became in the 1990s increasingly open to military interventions (such as the Bosnian War, which  could be justified on liberal humanitarian grounds). But after 9/11, Hitchens became something more than a critical supporter of a few military interventions. He turned into nothing less than a pro bono mouthpiece for the Paul Wolfowitz wing of the American foreign policy elite, a tireless advocate for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of an all encompassing global war on terror.

Hitchens’s political shift marked not just a divide in his life but also his readership. His old left-wing fans, many of who read him in publications like The Nation and Dissent, were dismayed by his turn. Conversely, Hitchens won a newer and wider readership, many of them attracted not just to his pro-war position but also his outspoken atheism. Over the course of his public life, Hitchens went from being a radical to being a reactionary contrarian. 

Part of the dilemma of evaluating his work is that during his radical period Hitchens had penned some strikingly eloquent denunciations of the positions his future self would take. The young Hitchens thought that reflexive contrarianism was usually a marketing technique of rebranding tired ideas as if they were rebellious. So it’s dismaying that Hitchens later adopted, perhaps most notoriously in his essay arguing women can’t be funny, the cheap frat boy posturing that he once mocked. 

Hitchens’s life was brutally truncated by esophageal cancer, which led to his death at age 62 on December 15, 2011. The anniversary of his death has occasioned a few attempts by friends and admirers to appraise and shore up his legacy. Graydon Carter, Hitchens’s long time editor at Vanity Fair, published a tribute in The Atlantic, where Hitchens had a been mainstay. Atlantic Books has published A Hitch in Time, a collection of Hitchens’s essays from yet another publication whose pages he haunted, The London Review of Books. Ben Burgis, a left-leaning polemicist, has just published a new book titled, Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.

Perhaps more than most writers who have been dead for more than a decade, Christopher Hitchens remains unfinished business for many readers. Certainly he is someone Doug Bell (a frequent guest on the podcast) and I both continue to grapple with. Doug and I sat down to talk about Hitchens’s legacy, the good, the bad and the ugly. Aside from surveying Hitchens bibliography and public performances as a debater, our discussion also goes into some of the main writers who have tackled Hitchens, including Ben Burgis and Richard Seymour, author of Unhitched: The Trials of Christopher Hitchens.

This podcast is part of series dealing with writers who have made surprising reactionary turns. Previous podcasts in the Right Turns series include What Happened to Naomi Wolf? and What Happened to Glenn Greenwald?

(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)

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