The Hitchens Prize is an award established last year to honor the late journalist. Christopher Hitchens was a brilliant writer, a very intelligent and knowledgeable autodidact. He could be very charming and funny and was an excellent public speaker. This man who disliked awards certainly deserves to have an award in his honor.
But the qualifications for the award have little to do with Hitchens or how he comported himself. The official blurb states in part, “The prize seeks to advance what he was dedicated to throughout his life: vigorous, honest, and open public debate and discussion, with no tolerance of orthodoxy, no reverence for authority, and a belief in reasoned dialogue as the best path to the truth.”
The ‘no tolerance for orthodoxy’ and ‘no reverence for authority’ sounds like Hitchens, but “a belief in reasoned dialogue”? Videos of Hitchens debating are readily available for viewing on the video sites. Certainly when debating a former Prime Minister he behaved himself, demonstrating that he was capable of a give and take debate, but most of his debates were arguments, yelling, interrupting, hurling invective. He interrupts his opponent to prevent them from speaking, he screams over top of their voices to prevent them being heard, if a strong point is made against him he angrily shouts something he said earlier, though it has nothing to do with the point made against him. A believer in reasoned dialogue he was not.
The blurb further lists as Hitchens values “including freedom of speech and inquiry, and the importance to society of civil, if passionate, discourse and debate.” The first part is reasonable but insisting Hitchens desired or practiced civil discourse and debate is absurd. Passionate yes, if anger and yelling and sometimes insults are what are meant. He made some retorts to opponents that were hilarious, but civil (as in polite) debates they are not. It was actually entertaining to see Hitchens debate someone who was happy to yell and interrupt along with him, such as John Stewart on The Daily Show. When the energy had been exhausted, Hitchens would sit looking red-faced from exertion and very unhappy, while Stewart would be grinning.
But Hitchens was a great writer who deserves to be remembered. No one is perfect, why can’t we remember someone for their virtues whilst acknowledging their flaws? . It does him and his true accomplishments no favors to accuse him of believing something he did not. There seems to be an effort in some circles to rehabilitate Hitchens’ persona, unnecessarily in my view. Hitchens best friends tell of how Hitchens enjoyed being rude to taxi drivers and waiters. Hitchens himself said during a question and answer session at the Hay Festival, that while he may look humble and meek, “when tried too high, I have a mean streak a mile wide.”
So why this attempt to rewrite Hichens? We should remember him for his virtues and his faults, and establish an award based on the excellent writer that he was. As a political journalist he was intense and apparently well researched and could make even dubious ideas sound plausible, as a writer of lifestyle articles he could be amusing and off-beat, as a reviewer of fiction and non-fiction he was one of the best I have read.
If Hitchens is remembered, and he should be, it will not be for the nasty debates or the books attacking public figures or religion. Regarding religion, there were anti-religion books long before Hitchens’s own, and already there are more appearing after his death. They tend to blend together and pass into forgetfulness very quickly, replaced by still more that repeat the same arguments. Anti-religion is an industry, just as pro-religion is an industry to many.
What Hitchens will likely be remembered for is the best of his political commentary, where he supplies important historical and social context for the events he is discussing, and also for his book reviews, for the depth and breadth of knowledge and thought that he put into them, and for some of his non-fiction work, like his biography of Thomas Paine, and finally for his wit and eloquence as a public speaker, as in his public lectures supporting his Paine biography, and some of his talks at the Hay festival, for which examples of each can be found on the video sites.