Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christopher Hitchens

There are certain things that one knows to be true, and certain things that one has internalized to be true. For example, everyone knows that you should look both ways before crossing the street, and that a pan on a stove is hot. But, it isn't until you get clipped by a car or burn your hand that these lessons become internalized, something you couldn't forget or ignore even if you wanted to. You'll always examine the street and the pot extra carefully from then on out. Christopher Hitchens taught me this lesson, although probably not in the way he would have preferred.

For a significant portion of my being an atheist, there was a dearth of leadership and guidance. I suppose before 2006, the only atheist "leader" I was aware of was Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whom I never really liked for various reasons. "Coming out" as an atheist is a tricky thing in and of itself, and it's much harder when there's nobody to look to as an example. It's especially worse when you don't even know of any public atheists, and the feeling of being alone just multiplies.

Without any guidance, I'm sure I said some dumb things in this period when attempting to argue my position. Or, maybe I didn't even argue at all. Both are equally likely.

As I got older, my atheism got a little bolder, perhaps even to the point of being obnoxious (remember the lack of guidance thing). It wasn't until I was out of college that I was introduced to people like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (and later, many others). Seeing atheists in public was amazing to me, and it provided a framework for how to think about atheism and how to behave in a proper way to represent atheists. They were the leaders that I was waiting for during my adolescence. But, that's not the point of this story.

I came to know Hitchens through his atheism first, and from that, came to admire him. To this day, I consider him to be a superb writer and even more skilled debater. However, the more I learned about him, the more I came to disagree with his politics. Specifically, his stance on the Iraq War.

Remember what I said earlier about knowing things and internalizing them? Well, everybody knows that people you admire aren't perfect, they make mistakes, and they can be right about one thing and completely wrong about another. However, it's one thing to know this, and other thing entirely to have experienced. Challenge yourself right now: Can you name a famous public figure who has at least one stance you can completely agree with and at least one stance that you find morally indefensible?

Hitchens, in nearly one fell swoop, provided a leader for me at the time when I needed one, and then immediately taught me how to scrutinize my leaders. I learned how to distrust those that I admire, and not follow them blindly or deify them. Again, this is a lesson that everyone knows, but rarely experiences. It's a lesson that I can't forget, and one that I'm grateful to apply all the time.

So, farewell Hitch. Thank you so much for teaching me. You were incredibly smart, uncommonly talented and superhumanly industrious, but not great.
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