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British writer Christopher Hitchens, photographed in Toronto in November 2010. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
British writer Christopher Hitchens, photographed in Toronto in November 2010. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)


Contrarian writer Christopher Hitchens dies at 62 Add to ...

Even as a child, Mr. Hitchens knew that he didn’t have the true “stuff” to write fiction or poetry. His talent was very concentrated as a commentator about the written word, the contemporary world, and above all politics. He quickly developed a reputation as an avid leftist and aggressive foe of Henry Kissinger, the Vietnam War, the Roman Catholic Church and totalitarian regimes in Chile, Argentina and eastern Europe.

He emigrated to the United States in 1981, settling in Washington, D.C. ostensibly to write for The Nation, where he wrote polemical dispatches against presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and their foreign policy initiatives in Central and South America. But he also embraced America because his heroes, among them W.H. Auden, Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse and Jessica Mitford, had done so earlier.

Even more intuitively, in terms of the allure of America, was a recurring dream he had while a student at Oxford. Invariably, he found himself floating somewhere in Mid-town Manhattan, gazing up at skyscrapers and feeling profoundly happy and free while the soundtrack of The Mamas and the Papas hit song, “Go Where You Wanna Go” played in the deeper recesses of his REM sleep.

Mr. Hitchens continued to write freelance pieces for publications on both sides of the Atlantic and to deliver lectures and appear on talk shows and panels whenever he was asked. In 1992 he became a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, writing ten columns a year. By then he was also producing short polemical books. Over the years he wrote about his causes–freedom of expression, the Elgin Marbles and The Palestinians–his heroes–George Orwell, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine–and often viciously about his enemies, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton and Mother Theresa.

E.M. Forster’s quote “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” seemed pre-ordained for Mr. Hitchens, a man for whom politics had always been personal. They became visceral after the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against Salman Rushdie in the controversial wake of the publication of his satirical novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1988.

Even before Mr. Hitchens met Mr. Rushdie in the mid-1980s, he admired him as a writer who both represented and recorded all of the ambivalences of the postcolonial. In his view, Mr. Rushdie “had come via Rugby School and Cambridge [the apotheosis of British upper class education] to remind the British that they had betrayed the very people they had claimed to be schooling for nationhood: tossed away the ‘jewel in their crown’ like some cheap piece of paste.”

The Fatwa was a watershed between everything Mr. Hitchens hated–”dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation”–and everything he loved–”literature, irony, humour, the individual, and the defense of free expression.” He committed himself fully to the support of his friend, speaking out against censorship, condemning those on the Right as well as the Left who felt that Mr. Rushdie had brought the death threats upon himself and was somehow implicated in the murder of his Japanese translator, the stabbing of his Italian one, and the shooting of his Norwegian publisher. The only time Mr. Hitchens, the ultra moralist, faltered in his support was when Mr. Rushdie succumbed to what Mr. Hitchens called blackmail and wrote a short grovelling article, “Why I have Embraced Islam” in an attempt to appease the fanatics.

He wasn’t so loyal to another friend, Sidney Blumenthal, a journalist who had accepted a senior job in the Bill Clinton White House. Blumenthal’s switch from one side of the journalism divide to the other was probably akin to treason for Mr. Hitchens, a man who tended to absolutist moral standards. Moreover, he loathed Mr. Clinton and believed he should have been impeached. When Mr. Blumenthal testified before a Senate committee investigating the president’s behaviour with his former aide Monica Lewinsky, and swore that he had had no part in the media smear campaign that had depicted Ms. Lewinsky as a stalker and a sexual predator, Mr. Hitchens was outraged. He and his wife, Carol Blue, swore out an affidavit accusing Mr. Blumenthal of perjury, detonating a 15 year friendship.

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