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The art of arguing: why we all should read and hear Christopher Hitchens

By Kees Bakhuijzen - posted Thursday, 27 October 2011

On November 9 Christopher Hitchens will be in conversation with Stephen Fry in the Royal Festival Hall, London. Let's hope his health will allow him to show his eloquence, knowledge and wit. In the Introduction to his new collection of essays, the bulky and very aptly titled Arguably, Hitchens – who suffers from cancer – says, "about a year ago, I was informed by a doctor that I might have as little as another year to live. In consequence, some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last." The Introduction is dated June 26, 2011.

His rating as one of the world's leading intellectuals may have dropped - in the prestigious 'Top 100 Public Intellectuals' Poll conducted by Prospect Magazine, he tumbled from fifth in 2005 to 27th position in 2008 - but Hitchens can still stir a heated discussion - see the publication of his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in 2007. No surprise then that his staunch atheism is one of the themes discussed in the very diverse range of articles in Arguably.

One of the things that struck me is the sheer range of issues and topics that Hitchens tackles, matching or even surpassing the scope of his previous collection of essays, Love, Poverty & War (2004). From reviews on the most recent two volume-biography of Abraham Lincoln and books on Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, via essays on Dickens, Bellow, Nabokov and many other writers to the demise of the Euro, a scathing and most disturbing piece on the after effects of the use of Agent Orange by the U.S. military during the Vietnam war, essays on Afghanistan, Tunisia and Germany, to name just a few, to a final series of short pieces on our use of the English vernacular.


It is not just the sheer range of topics, but it is also the depth, the eloquence and the perfect insight that deserves admiration. No matter if he writes on the Algerian war of independence, the novels of Evelyn Waugh, the poetry of Philip Larkin, or the history of the Baader Meinhoff Complex, Hitchens' knowledge makes him the perfect scholar on whatever topic he embarks upon.

Just like in one of his best-known works The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001), Hitchens doesn't make the slightest attempt to hide his loathing of the man in the aforementioned article on the use of Agent Orange. "Out of a population of perhaps 84 million Vietnamese, itself reduced by several million during the war, there are as many as one million cases of Agent Orange affliction still in the books. Of these, the hardest to look at are the monstrous births. But we agree to forgive ourselves for this, and to watch real monsters as Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, who calmly gave the orders and the instructions, as they posture on chat shows and cash in with their 'memoirs."' This is Hitchens in top form.

Those who still think that since Iraq, he goes 'all the way with the USA' should also read his pieces on the global downturn in 'America the Banana Republic' and his stance against the use of waterboarding in 'Believe me, It's Torture' (both written in 2008). "I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture."

Many intellectuals were appalled by his stance on the Iraq invasion, but Christopher Hitchens knows where he stands and how to defend it. For a more insightful look at his arguments, I refer the reader to Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq and the Left, a collection of pieces by Hitchens and several of his opponents, focused on the Iraq war (2008, ed. Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman). Those who have taken the effort to read about his motives for backing the Iraq invasion know that his support for Iraqi Kurdistan was a very important reason and just like the Kurdish people themselves, he was disappointed in the left for no longer supporting the Kurds' anti-Saddam stance.

Hitchens reiterates his motives in the Introduction to this volume: "I took the side of the Kurdish forces in Iraq who had helped write 'finis' to the Caligula regime of Saddam Hussein, while also beginning the work of autonomy for the region's largest and most oppressed minority." In 'Holiday in Iraq' (2007), he further illustrates how Iraqi Kurdistan has been able to bloom thanks to the coalition efforts led by the Americans. "Everybody knows how to snigger when you mention Jeffersonian democracy and Iraq in the same breath; try sniggering when you meet someone who is trying to express these ideas in an atmosphere that only a few years ago was heavy with miasmic decay and the reek of poison gas."

As someone who detests platitudes and clichés, he is without doubt abhorred by those who simply denounce him as a 'Murdoch crony' without even trying to find out what made him support the overthrow of the monstrous Saddam regime in the first place.


In light of the above, it's interesting to read in 'Iran's waiting game' (2005) how young Iranians are hoping for a US-led intervention. "Cynicism about the clergy is universal, but it is especially among the young that one encounters it. It's also among the young that one most often hears calls for American troops to arrive and bring goodies with them." Even though this essay was written in 2005 and in spite of the aftermath of the 2009 elections, this piece gives me the confidence that change must come to Iran at some stage.

Hitchens is to be applauded for his brave stance on the Danish cartoons issue 'Stand up for Denmark!' (2006). "The incredible thing about the ongoing Kristallnacht against Denmark (and in some places, against the embassies and citizens of any Scandinavian or even European Union nation) is that it has resulted in, not opprobrium for the religion that perpetrates and excuses it, but increased respectability!" This is a prime example of his main motive for writing his articles in the past decade, as mentioned in the Introduction, where he refers to 'organisations that find and train men like [Mohammed] Atta' when he says: "Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating those hateful, nihilistic propositions, as well as those among us who try to explain them away."

He further explains this strange twist in liberal thinking when he says, in 'Don't mince words' (2007): "Liberal reluctance to confront this sheer horror is the result, I think, of a deep reticence about some furtive concept of "race." It is subconsciously assumed that a critique of political Islam is an attack on people with brown skins." It is noteworthy that this article is on the intended slaughter of many civilians at both Glasgow's airport and London's nightlife by some religious zealots in 2007, a case that in Australia was completely taken over by the now infamous Haneef case, with the second cousin of one of the intended perpetrators as its main protagonist.

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About the Author

Kees Bakhuijzen is a Sydney-based freelance business and creative writer, translator, editor and proofreader. His articles have appeared in The Weekend Australian and several Dutch broadsheets. You can contact him by email:

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