Michael Lind wonders about all of the praise lavished on the late Christopher Hitchens:
But though he played one on TV, Hitchens was not an intellectual, if the word has any meaning anymore. Those known by the somewhat awkward term “public intellectuals” can be based in the professoriate, the nonprofit sector, or journalism. They can even be politicians, like the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But genuine intellectuals, as distinct from mere commentators or TV talking heads, need to meet two tests.
First, intellectuals need to produce some substantial works of scholarship, literature or rigorous reporting, distinct from the public affairs commentary for which they may be best known to a broad public. If you do nothing but review other people’s work or write brief columns or blog posts, it is easy to appear to be much smarter and erudite than you really are.
Second, genuine intellectuals base their interventions in public debate on the basis of some coherent view of the world. A dedication to rigorous and systematic reasoning, wherever it may lead, is what distinguishes intellectuals from lobbyists or partisan spin doctors who change their views according to the demands of a special interest or a party. It also distinguishes them from mere “contrarians” — the term Hitchens used to describe himself — who attract publicity by taking controversial stands according to their whims.
Hitchens left behind no substantial scholarly or literary work, and if he had any core principles or values they are hard to discern. He denounced the Gulf War and backed the Iraq War; he supported Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz while continuing to insist that Henry Kissinger was a war criminal.
If he was not really an intellectual, then what was Christopher Hitchens? A decade ago, a British diplomat told me that he was astonished at the reputation Hitchens had attained in the U.S.: “In Britain we think of him as a gossip columnist.”
It’s funny: I’ve been reading various memorials to the man published over the past few weeks, and even those from his admirers also reveal the slapdash, drunken, and very unserious manner by which he pursued the “life of the mind.” (For example, see this very odd and I think unflattering remembrance by David Corn.) Most feminists have never had any use for Hitchens, whose one “coherent view of the world” was simply male supremacy in all things, but in arts, letters, and comedy in particular. Me, I dispensed with him years ago on this blog when I reviewed his utterly comical psychologizing of Michelle Obama on the basis of her senior college thesis.
I’ve been dismayed (but unsurprised) to see lefty-types embrace Hitchens for his aggressive atheism, forgetting his stupendous lack of judgment (or perhaps his tremendous cynicism) in going all in for the nonexistent WMDs and the war in Iraq a decade ago. But, as many people besides Lind have noted before, none of those numb-nuts pseudomacho armchair warriors has paid a price–in fact, they were most of them richly rewarded. But, whatever. I’m sorry Hitchens died a painful death, but I am glad that Lind has pointed out the obvious:
[Hitchens] had more in common with Walter Winchell than with Walter Lippmann. A gossip columnist of genius, Hitchens escaped from the ghetto of little-known leftist writers when he discovered that he could become a celebrity by denouncing bigger celebrities. That strategy for self-promotion, in my opinion, explains his over-the-top attacks on Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana and Bill Clinton (Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga were spared the Hitchens treatment). When Princess Di and Mother Teresa died within a week of each other in 1997, I remarked to a friend, “I wonder what celebrity Hitchens will make a career out of denouncing now?” We soon found out: Bill Clinton and the biggest celebrity of all, God.
(I have another theory which might help explain Hitchens’ success in the U.S.: Americans are still suckers for plummy English accents, and we don’t care if they were acquired at university. People with those accents get taken seriously in the U.S. for saying things which, if said in a rather flat Kansan dialect or a Texas twang, wouldn’t seem all that smart or insightful. I’m kind of amazed that this is true of American academics, who like to think of themselves as cosmopolitans, but I’ve seen American academics give something said in an English accent credit for being at least 30% more intelligent than something said in an ordinary American accent.)
Michael Lind’s column is much funnier and more condemnatory of Hitchens than these brief excerpts suggest, so go read the whole thing.
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