Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson

Christopher Hitchens: Almost a Hero

It’s remarkable how we can develop a deep fascination, sometimes to the point of fixation, toward people we despise.

This is not particularly healthy: we gain much more by studying those who are worthy of our admiration and reverence, both as models for the refinement of our own behavior and as sources of inspiration that demonstrate the heights to which human nobility can soar.

But human nature produces an incessant magnetism toward the negative, no matter how much we may know better.  So I couldn’t resist clicking on Daniel Oppenheimer’s recent retrospective* on Christopher Hitchens, one of my least favorite intellectuals.

I’m glad I did.

I’ve never been able to grasp how a thinker so passionately devoted to the ideas and insights of George Orwell could wage such an irrational and relentless campaign for militant atheism.  Admittedly, much violence and injustice have been inflicted on the world in the name of God and religion.  But Orwell’s dystopian vision of a Godless society should make any student of his writings think twice and then twice more before putting too much faith in secular humanism.

Ultimately, it makes no sense whatsoever to condemn all religion for the excesses of religious fanatics.  One might just as reasonably condemn the ideal of social responsibility for the degeneracy of secular progressives, or the ideal of personal responsibility for the brutality of right-wing extremists.

Consequently, I’ve had little patience for the contradiction that was Christopher Hitchens.  But the man, it seems, was more than just a contradiction.

Somewhat grudgingly, I found myself warming to the late Mr. Hitchens.  Here was an avowed leftist who turned against Bill Clinton for his failure to intervene against the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda or against the genocide in Kosovo, who turned against his friend Sidney Blumenthal for alleged perjury, and who turned against the entire liberal establishment in his support for the Iraq war (even though he later castigated the Bush administration — justifiably — for its gross incompetence after the initial military victory).

In the words of Albus Dumbledore:  It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.

In the end, Christopher Hitchens ended up abandoned by both the right and the left, the inevitable fate awaiting any man of conscience in this era of polarization, ideology, and groupthink.  But now I have a little more respect for a man whose commitment to the truth as he saw it transcended the convenience of political labels and political alliances; and I have considerable sympathy for a man who struggled against the contradictions of conflicting moral values in an effort to speak out for what is just and what is right.

And yet, at the same time, I marvel how a man of such apparent intelligence and conviction could so vehemently deny the growing sea of empirical evidence that points to the existence of a Creator — or, at the very least, that exposes the incapacity of science to refute the rational possibility of the Divine.

Even the most ardent seeker of truth, it seems, can be blinded by his own predispositions.  And that is a lesson that every one of us can take to heart.

*Excerpted from his new book, Exit Right

About the Author
Rabbi Yonason Goldson's new book is Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages, a collection of practical insights from the Book of Proverbs and the Mona Lisa, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Louis where he teaches, writes, and lectures.
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