I hesitate to join the already Mormon Tabernacle-scale chorus of tributes to Christopher Hitchens. For one thing, to my great regret, I never knew him, although we had many mutual friends. (One of whom sent me, a couple of years ago, shortly before I was to visit Washington, D.C., an e-mail saying that Hitchens had expressed the desire to meet me; alas, I somehow didn’t notice the e-mail until after I’d returned home.) But while I didn’t know Hitchens, he was too important a part of the landscape of my life for me not to say a few words about him now that he is gone. And in this time of sadness I want to focus on one thing that cheers me – namely, the knowledge that there were more than a few young people who felt his influence.
For this influence there is ample evidence. On You Tube, you can see videos of his talks and debates at institutions of higher education ranging from Oxford and UCLA to the University of Waterloo and the College of New Jersey. Seeing such videos always gave me a good feeling, as did the occasional glimpse of a young person reading one of his books. It was encouraging to know that students were being exposed to him. And since his death I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how many young people have gone to the trouble of uploading You Tube tributes to him. He did indeed have an impact on the young.
And that’s a good thing – for many reasons. First of all, he was a fearless champion of individual liberty and human dignity – a man who, in the wake of 9/11, saw through the moral vacancy and hypocrisy of the left and broke with his sometime leftist comrades to stand up for freedom and against totalitarian tyranny. In a time when when American teenagers borrow exorbitant sums of money (or bankrupt their parents) to attend colleges and universities where they’re taught contempt for everything their country stands for, Hitchens offered a salutary model of rebellion against leftist orthodoxy, of having a mind of one’s own and insisting on using it.
For such young people, “educated” by faculty-lounge foot soldiers who offer up bold-sounding battle cries but who are always desperately, timidly careful about toeing the lines of academic orthodoxy, Hitchens provided an admirable example of intellectual honesty, integrity, and courage, a first-rate lesson in independently observing the world, reflecting upon it, and developing and presenting arguments about it, orthodoxies be damned. You didn’t have to agree with everything he said – who did? – to admire his constant readiness to say it as he saw it. No lesson could be more important to a generation of students instructed by the spineless careerists and lockstep lemmings of the academy, whose mind-numbing, reality-immune ideological claptrap is enough to crush the intellectual ambitions of even the most gifted students – enough to make them cynical about the very idea of ideas. (Either that, or enough to turn them into so many little copies of their teachers, churning out papers, essays, and eventually books saying the approved things about the approved topics in the approved kind of prose.)
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