I've just finished Christopher Hitchens' short biography of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, and being reminded thereby of how well he wrote thought I'd devote some time and thought and space, here, to express some admiration for him and his work. I tend to think a little less of Jefferson than he did. In fact, I think of Jefferson as being in many respects something of a self-righteous hypocrite, but there's no doubting his significance. But with Hitchens its possible to read and enjoy even when his subject matter is disagreeable.
I haven't read the books by which I assume he is, or perhaps even will be, remembered--his denunciations of religion and defense of atheism. I know well enough his views on these topics, I think, from reading those shorter denunciations which would appear now and then online or in certain magazines, and his work on Thomas Paine. I'm familiar enough with the arguments and the examples, at least as familiar as I want to be. I think he was a bit extreme in some of his comments on these and other issues and people; he didn't understate, ever, though of course he could be ironic.
I admire his style and am sympathetic with many, but not all, of his opinions. I sometimes wonder why I am so impressed by those who can write well. Perhaps it comes from being a lawyer. Legal writing is seldom eloquent and almost never witty, though it generally manages to be clear. My admiration of style in writing leads me to forgive or at least tolerate those with whom I disagree who can write well. Gore Vidal, who once considered Hitchens a kind of successor, wrote very well I think, but would express opinions now and then I thought absurd. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading him almost always.
Those that pass for intellectuals in these sad times often seem incapable of writing admirably, though they are more than capable of writing extensively, even relentlessly. Most of our commentators seem to have adopted a declamatory style which I find tiresome. Those that comment verbally are either boorish or pedantic. This in combination with the fact that they are ubiquitous leads me to despair now and then, but also now and then I encounter someone capable of writing well, and feel a kind of tranquility. Encountering someone who can think well and write well is an increasingly rare joy.
I find it interesting that what we call 9/11 resulted in a change in his status among the intelligentsia. His railings against Islamic fundamentalism seem to make perfect sense given his views on religion generally, so the fact that his former comrades on the Left turned against him because of his support for actions against that fundamentalism is somewhat surprising. This can be explained in part if their disagreement was with his support for certain actions, like the war in Iraq, but it seems broader-based. He also burned bridges by his contempt for Bill Clinton and other liberal icons.
It strikes me that he was, for the most part, consistent in his thought and writing--based on what I've read, in any case. He was a self-described contrarian who was just that. Individuals are becoming scarce, though many claim to be individuals. Self-styled individuals lurking in their bunkers awaiting government agents are merely deluded, however. Anger doesn't make an individual, though it can make trouble for others.
Those who have wit and style, those that can write well, seem to be less objectionable than others, at least to me. Even when they support acts or state views I oppose, I find them interesting and worthy of respect. When I respect someone, I don't take them for granted, I don't treat them lightly. It's impossible to feel contempt for those you respect or to disregard them. One has to take them into account.
That's why respect is important, far more important than love, I think, because love is always reserved to a few. The key to tolerance of others, the only thing that might save us yet, is respect. Self-respect may even do the trick, as self-respect assumes the existence of thoughts, emotions and conduct which are unworthy.
I think we must add Hitchens to Mencken and Beirce as fierce, witty, eloquent critics of our society, culture and times, and mourn his passing as we mourn their absence.