The recent death of Christopher Hitchens, like all deaths of semi-famous people these days, prompted a wave of tweets, posts, and social networking eulogies ensuring that for one day we all paid more attention to Hitch in death than we ever did in life. While that dynamic is strange on its own, what puzzles me more is the way that so many people spoke fondly of him for his willingness to say unpopular things and his general reluctance to give any shits about offending people. That's worth a closer look.
There is little doubt that Hitchens was a talented writer. At his best he was a skillful, provocative raconteur who found great joy in taking shots at the powerful. His takedown of Mother Theresa was classic Good Hitchens; I mean, who takes shots at Mother Theresa?? Well as it turned out, he made quite the argument that perhaps she was not the living saint she was made out to be. This is good writing. He was also the rare media loudmouth who was willing to stand behind his opinions. When the editor of Vanity Fair challenged Hitchens, who had spoken dismissively of claims that waterboarding amounted to torture, to receive a waterboarding, he did it (and concluded, obviously, that it's hard to imagine what is torture if waterboarding isn't). The bottom line is, anyone who reacts to the death of Jesse Helms by penning a column entitled "Farewell to a Provincial Redneck" is doing something right.
At his worst, Hitchens was little more than an unusually eloquent drunk, a misogynist, xenophobe, and warmonger who seemed to take leave of his critical thinking skills when the question of scary brown foreigners reared its head. He described his pro-Western worldview as a matter of "defending civilization", but in practice it looked a lot more like garden variety Islamophobia (arguing that the Iraq War death toll was "not high enough") and neocon foreign policy frames. He argued that women are not funny in a manner that he considered unbiased, rational, and unemotional, but the end result was a rant worthy of any drunk in a bar ranting about his ex-wife. He painted Michelle Obama as a race-baiting militant out for Whitey on the basis of a paper she wrote in college suggesting that black students feel alienated on campuses that are almost entirely white. These are not the attitudes of a critical thinker – they are the knee jerk reactions of an old man quite comfortable with the social hierarchy that places white Anglo-Saxon men firmly at the top. We'd expect to hear such arguments from Glenn Beck, and we often do.
Hitch fans have always been eager to excuse away these outbursts as ideas with which we don't agree, but for which we still tip out hat to the author for continuing to champion unpopular viewpoints. He is one of the most frequent recipients of the "Well I didn't agree with everything he said, but blah blah blah" type of praise one reserves for people we antiseptically call "controversial." The problem is that there is no inherent value in saying unpopular things. Some of these unpopular viewpoints Hitchens put forth are unpopular because they are stupid, without intellectual merit, or simply offensive. The Westboro Baptist Church has unpopular views. So does Michele Bachmann. So does Thomas Frank. Do all three deserve our praise?
Hitchens is probably compared to HL Mencken more than any writer in the past half century, and for good reason. They were the leading dyspeptic commentators of their day, using pens filled with bile to write scathing obituaries of the powerful and aggressive criticisms of the popular. But Mencken was also a racist, a reactionary in his own right (though he detested that quality in others) whose ideal world saw women in the kitchen, the colored folk in Their Place, the world subservient to American interests, and people like himself exalted. There is nothing courageous or laudable about that. Does it mean that nothing Mencken, Hitchens, or any other flawed personality may have written is without value? No. But the tendency to praise them for their willingness to say controversial things is a strange one. The popularity of a viewpoint plays no role in determining its merit. To applaud him for bravely writing sexist, racist, or culturally hegemonic ideas suggests that we are glad that someone said such things. I for one am not.