A Good Man, Slighted: Christopher Hitchens deserved a knighthood this year. He didn't get it.By James G. Wiles
"I couldn't find your name on the Queen's Birthday Honors List," I tootled a college friend of mine last night. "What could they be thinking back there?"
My professor friend (B.A. Georgetown '74; M.A. Yale '75; Ph.D. Cambridge '84) didn't answer. No surprise there.
Bill's a fine scholar, father and husband and a dedicated teacher. He began life as a Boston Irishman -- which is what he was when I first met him in 1973. Today, Bill's "Mid-Atlantic" accent predominates. He's long since stopped pahking his cah in Hahvahd Yard.
But, as a birthright American, my friend Bill also had no right to expect a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. So it's actually no surprise his name was omitted from the Honors List.
The same excuse isn't available in the case of Christopher Hitchens. A native-born Englishman, Hitchens deserved a gong last week and he didn't get it. Shame on the House of Windsor (and the Conservative-Lib Dem British government).
Although now a U.S. citizen, Christopher Hitchens -- like Canadian Peter Jennings, Hitchens took American citizenship after 9/11 -- is one of the distinguished Englishmen of his generation. A writer, a thinker and a polemicist, Hitchens has deployed all his formidable talents in support of the War with Jihad. He did the same thing against Bill Clinton during the impeachment crisis. His book, No One Left to Lie To, is a classic of that time.
Not least, Christopher Hitchens is a fine essayist perhaps the finest since George Orwell, about whom Hitchens authored an appreciation, Why Orwell Matters (2002). No surprise then, that Hitchens edited The Best American Essays 2010. It was also Hitchens who drew attention to the fact that the fiction of Rudyard Kipling and George McDonald Fraser (creator of Flashman) offers the best guide to Afghanistan and to Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.
Hitchens' most recent book, Hitch-22: a Memoir, was an intellectual (and sexual) autobiography, published in 2010. It was, in fact, while he was on the book tour last year that Hitchens was diagnosed with stage four esophagal cancer. As Hitchens, characteristically (the remark speaks for the man), said at the time: "there is no stage five."
The same disease killed Hitchens' father, a career Royal Navy officer and a veteran of World War Two.
Suffice to say Christopher Hitchens is soldiering on. Every Monday, there's his weekly column, "Fighting Words," in Slate. And every month -- except when the chemo has flattened him -- there Hitchens is in Vanity Fair. That's where I first began to be acquainted with his work.
With his speaking voice gone, Hitchens has recently dropped off appearing as a regular guest on Hugh Hewitt's radio program. He's also passed on public appearances -- most recently giving a commencement address via pre-recorded video.
Like any good polemicist -- his hero and biographical subject, Thomas Paine, is an example, Christopher Hitchens' work can enrage. In fact, it runs in the family: Hitchens' brother, Peter, is a best-selling conservative columnist, blogger and author in London. Christopher Hitchens' attacks on Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II still make my Irish Catholic blood boil.
But, as his best-selling 2007 book, God Is Not Great, made clear, Hitchens hates all religion. He also hates dictatorships -- what the late Michael Kelly called "the boot on the neck." Specifically, while he began political life as a Trotskyite at Oxford, Hitchens moved seamlessly from hatred of Spanish, Portuguese and Greek fascism to hatred of Saddam Hassam. After a while, he noticed that his friends on the Left didn't make that transition with him.
A thinking man, Christopher Hitchens paused to analyze that lacuna. Then he moved on; and soon Hitchens' name no longer graced the pages of the Nation. But bookshelves groan under the weight of his other production.
Perhaps most enviably, while creating this oeuvre, doing journalism and column-writing and being one of the English-speaking world's most visible -- and quotable- - public intellectuals, Christopher Hitchens has managed to have a great of fun. In Hitch-22, he describes his lifestyle as "bohemian." Fair enough.
Suffice to say that, along the way, Hitchens has smoked, wrote, drank, wrote, loved women, wrote, sired and raised children, wrote, launched puns and cracked bon mots, taken part in the public controversies of his time via print, cable and network TV, as well as talk radio...and keeps writing today. In the shadow of death, Hitchen's output -- always prolific -- has not stopped.
I only agree with him about half the time; but I read him all the time.
Da Capo Press has just published The Quotable Hitchens - from Alcohol to Zionism: the Very Best of Christopher Hitchens. It's a stimulant to the mind and a tonic to the spirit. Anthony Weiner should read it -- and Hitchens' most recent column -- while in rehab.
In April, Hitchens' close friend, the novelist and essayist Martin Amis, issued a public tribute in which he urged Hitchens to abandon atheism and take up agnosticism. Conservative Christians are praying for his conversion. A public day of prayer was held for Hitchens in September -- to which, of course, Christopher Hitchens made a point of not showing up.
The truth is that Hitchens' slighting by the Crown is no surprise. It may even be deserved. He's a long-standing opponent of the Monarchy -- and most recently blasted the recent Royal Wedding (but not the royal bride).
Yet it seems to me petty for the Brits to slight one of their leading men of letters. Like marrying Kate Middleton, an association with Christopher Hitchens would reflect well on the House of Windsor.
God knows they need it.
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