Culture

The Last Interview: Revisiting Christopher Hitchens in 2017

Christopher Hitchens/Photo © Christian Witkin

If taking in intense political debates and reading heated observations on the state of all things societal are things that cause you relative delight, 2017 appears to have been a banner year. Coverage of the 2016 Presidential election revealed new fissures and new players in right-wing political discourse, and, more recently, there’s been an expansion in the range of perspectives within media on the left side of the political spectrum,from the “dirtbag left” to the rise of Crooked Media, an organization whose founders spent time working in the Obama White House.

It’s a time when both nuanced opinions and clashes within broader ideologies are in the spotlight–and depending on your own politics, it’s possible that you’re either feeling energized, informed, or exhausted by all of this–possibly all three.

The political moment also calls to mind the rhetorical voice of Christopher Hitchens, the public intellectual, critic, and professional contrarian who died in late 2011. In his introduction to Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview, Stephen Fry writes that the absence of Hitchens “is felt so keenly today by all who value intelligent, informed, passionate public discourse.” He’s not incorrect: with the rise of neo-fascist movements, the increased interest in populism on both the political right and left alike, and the way the current sociopolitical climate seems to shift from terrifying to more terrifying, the lack of Hitchens’s own brand of commentary is deeply felt.

The earliest of the eight interviews contained in this new volume dates from 1987; the latest was published around the time of his death. Taken together, they cover an abundance of his career as a polemicist: his analysis of global politics in the late 20th and early 21st century, with abundant critiques of the Thatcher and Reagan governments; his atheism and disdain for the abuses of organized religion; and his abundantly contrarian nature, which led him to clash with many of his colleagues on the left when he supported the war in Iraq (and, subsequently, to clash with many right-wing supporters of said war when he criticized the war’s handling).

Trying to pin down Hitchens’s politics to a single word or term is nearly impossible; the survey of his opinions chronicled in this book helps confirm that this elusiveness was not something that began when he began making the case for war in Iraq.

This is not necessarily to say, though, that a Christopher Hitchens writing in 2017 would have an abundance of fervent new admirers. In a 1997 interview in The Progressive, Hitchens makes a passing reference to the case against NAFTA, which he seems dubious of. “They believe they can build a politics of populism against this,” he says. “I’m not going to help them. They just will find out they can’t build a politics against this.” A 2005 interview with Jon Stewart from “The Daily Show” ostensibly focuses on Hitchens’s recent book on Thomas Jefferson, but soon finds interviewer and interviewee amicably sparring over questions of the need for war.

These interviews serve as a reminder that one of the pleasures of reading Hitchens can be the ways in which his contrarianism and ideological positions help to clarify one’s own. On most matters, Hitchens’s positions resist easy categorization–which, in turn, can be useful when considering one’s thoughts on those same issues. In one interview, Hitchens discusses his own intellectual and ideological roots, including being the son of a naval officer, an interest in socialism, and early friendships with a host of notable writers of fiction–prompting him to venture towards nonfiction for his own work. It’s a fascinating set of beginnings, but it’s also incredibly specific.

Hitchens’s influence on culture remains. A recent Lindy West essay for the New York Times was titled “Why Men Aren’t Funny”–a headline in direct response to Hitchens’s unfortunate 2007 Vanity Fair article “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” And Thomas Mallon’s 2015 novel Finale featured a fictionalized version of Hitchens as one of its central characters. Interviewed about it, Mallon a personal friend of Hitchens’s) discussed the surrealism of “Christopher, not long dead at all, going into the novel and going in under his own name.”

This new collection of Hitchens interviews works both as a good summary of the his breadth of interests and as a reminder of the difficulties of classifying his work–which may well be why much of it continues to be compelling reading.