Taking On “What Would Hitchens Have Thought?”

by Tom Casesa

Simply raising this question invites controversy. It’s said that we can’t know what a departed person would be thinking, and we shouldn’t even be asking, because there is no way to know. The question however, is very tempting. We want to know what George Washington would think of the current state of the U.S., or what John Lennon would think of Paul’s recent albums. It’s hard not to ask. We are curious mammals.

I am not one of those who say we shouldn’t speculate. I think there are two good ways to go about specualtion about Christopher Hichens. The first is to talk to people who knew him well.  They have first hand experience, and as Christopher was not one to hide his opinions, he likely discussed and debated issues in great depth with these good friends. During the course of researching and writing this blog I met with people in Christopher’s life including a New York restaraunter, a photographer who shot several cover portraits, his brother Peter in London, and some of his editors at Vanity Fair, who gave me their valuable perspecitves.

The second way to determine what a person might have thought is to study the person’s work. In Christopher’s case we are fortunate that he was such a prolific writer, speaker, and debator. There is plenty of material to evaluate. Christopher himeslef has advocated for this approach. When discussing whether historical people such as Jesus or Socrates existed, he contended that it doesn’t matter. With or without Socrates for instance, we can make evaluations by knowing his teachings and methods of thinking. In a 2009 interview pubished in Portland Monthly,Hitchens says

“If you want a good mythical story it would be the life of Socrates. We have no proof, as with Jesus, that he ever existed. We only know from witnesses to his life that he did. Like Jesus, he never wrote anything down. It doesn’t matter to me whether he did or not exist because we have his teachings, his method of thinking, and his extreme intellectual and moral courage.”

In one way, like circumstantial evidence, this method is even more reliable than speaking to his friends and acquaintances who may have personal biases. To answer the questioin “What would he think about the current environemnt?”  we can follow his advice, and examine his written and spoken words. In a 2005 talk at the Commonwealth Club on his book Why Orwell Matters, he states that he can say with certainty that Orwell would have opposed the Vietnam War. He says you can do this with a historic figure if you have knowledge of his writing. This is the same point he made about Socrates.

As I continue to learn about Christopher, it’s apparent to me that his biggest issues of concern from a 10,000-foot perspective, were opposition to totalitarianism in all its forms including religion, the pursuit of truth, and solidarity amongst friends. He looked at the U.S. as being the closest to an ideal secular society, designed by its founders to have free speech, the separation of church and state, and a society where people were brought together by ideas, not tribes.

So here are my speculations:

He would see the Trump administration as one moving toward totalitarianism where:

    • Lies are told more often than the truth
    • Divison between groups of people are encouraged
    • American citizens are considered foreigners (his claim that a Mexican American judge can’t be fair for instance because he is Mexican)
    • Propaganda is spread, such as conspiracy theories
    • Truths, like Russian interference in our elections, are called hoaxes
    • The press is labeled the enemy of the people
    • The wall between state and church is being weakened
    • Subordinates that work for the U.S. (Attorney General, FBI officials) are pressured to be loyal to Trump personally, above the citizens of the U.S.
    • Trump has told supporters not to believe what they hear or read, but to rely only on him
    • He would condemn the silent bystanders such as the Republican leaders who complain in private but are like scared rabbits in public where by their silence, they condone his actions
    • He would dissaprove of the restrictions on free speech imposed not just by the right, but by the often-illiberal left where there is high probability of someone being offended.
    • He would have even lower respect now than he did during his lifetime for a weak media that is driven more by ratings than by finding the truth.

In this current environment where there are few strong courageous vioices speaking out with great wit and clarity, in favor of democracy, science, secularism and the oppressed, his voice is dearly missed.