As a suburban teenager of the 1980s, my discovery of Christopher Hitchens in the yellowed pages of an American magazine carried the sort of thrill that earlier explorers must have felt landing on an unexplored continent: Here, in his weekly donnybrook with Alexander Cockburn in The Nation, was an awakening – an entirely new way of conducting an argument, a form of written conversation that had never really existed before. The Hitchens style arrived fully formed, with its lush overgrowth of self-reference, literary engagement and hyperbole, and its surprises: Here was a writer wholeheartedly positioned on the left who would veer from excoriation of Ronald Reagan into anti-abortion polemic or praise for P.G. Wodehouse: You weren’t meant to agree or disagree, just marvel at the pyrotechnics.
It offered me an indelible lesson in rhetoric and debate. In his world, the victors are not those who win every sentence and every paragraph, but those who find the unoccupied seats around the table of argument, and occupy them with passion.
Later, living in Los Angeles in 2000, I spent an afternoon with Mr. Hitchens in Pasadena over gin and vermouth in something of a live version of this show, sparring over Canadian politics and Bill Clinton’s ethics. He was far more enjoyable when you disagreed with him.
This was shortly before he erupted into the public eye with his support of the Iraq war. It became almost a sport to argue over whether he’d become an outright conservative, or was merely presenting the progressive case for something that wasn’t usually the left’s terrain. I think he had given up on such distinctions by this point. He was certainly dead to the left, but the Republicans continued to disdain him for his atheism, his moderation on the Middle East.
But his lasting legacy, transcending his ideological barn dance, was his important work on religion: Here, in his excoriation of Mother Teresa and the evangelists, was a man not trying to score points, but merely clearing a space, free from superstition, where real debate could take place.