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Looking back over the deaths of the year that has passed, I look at Christopher Hitchens. In the midst of the justifiable tributes and condemnations of him, I noticed those several days back one descriptive word seemed lacking: “teacher”. Yet he was that in the best sense of the word. In his interviews and his writing, it was hard to not become engaged with the intensity of a student. Even if Hitchens was sloshed, and his premises flawed, one was still drawn in by fresh accurate facts and arguments that made you think, rethink, wonder anew, and even spontaneously research some new or forgotten aspect of a subject.
The one occasion I personally interacted with him was in a pre-internet era phone call to his office at The Nation magazine to track down an Irish public figure he had written about (today I’d just google it). He not only patiently gave precise useful off the cuff information, he indulged a speculative thought of mine with a cascade of dead-on commentary and (suitably for him) a name-dropping anecdote I still remember vividly. Good teachers leave such impressions -- even as they may be in their broader existence cads, pompous jerks, chain smokers, drunks, and dead wrong on central beliefs and advocacy. As indeed was Hitchens. His truest talent, however good or evil its political/philosophical effects, was pedagogic -- an eager and effective drive to inform and to compel others to think and think better.
So far I have not read online or elsewhere any reflections by students in those intermittent cases where he had been a bona fide academic teacher (the New School for Social Research, and the University of Pittsburgh). It seems he would have been a natural, he already was a teacher in his vocation and prodigious written output, so I do wonder if he carried out his calling in the literal job of teacher.
Hitchens was unique also in being such a nest of paradoxes, and perhaps hypocrisies. He was a drunk who was eloquently coherent, a boor who was the inverse of dull, a lefty who lavished praised on the activity of G.W.Bush, a proud imperial American who remained identifiably Euro-British. He was insultingly acerbic yet almost gracious in generosity. He seemed both petulant yet earnestly patient. He was Islamophobic and anti-Zionist, an incessant talker and careful listener, an original writer yet not an idea originator.
His greatest failure may be that he failed to be like his idol, George Orwell, who had progressively deshackled himself of petty orthodoxies. That openness inspired immortal insight on the part of Orwell, but Hitchens went the opposite way, and embraced at least two interrelated foolish trends -- simplistic Angry Atheism and primitive Islamophobia (saluting Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Come on!).
These fixations caused Hitchens to descend a bit -- but not wholly -- from honest critic to hackish apologist of power, bigotry, and ignorance, not unlike his original Trotskyism but more American user-friendly. (Incidentally, his lefty critics are skewering him somewhat rightly for his cheerleading of the insane Iraq war, yet few call him to task for the intellectual and moral failing of being a flippin'Marxist/Trostskyist for much of his life.)
In the end, for me anyway, much is forgiven based on Hitchens' teaching character and, frankly, his personal and gracious indulgence of myself on one occasion. It all reverts to the shallow but warmly human logic of Tevye in Fiddler, who approved the radical goyish suitor of his daughter by no reasoning morally greater than the simple: "I like him." Now transform that sentiment into the past tense, because that is all that is left of Hitchens in this world -- and eventually all of us, atheist, believer, and agnostic.
Except perhaps, for what we have left in teaching others.