Politics Magazine

Christopher Hitchens is Dead; Ross Douthat Comments

Posted on the 23 December 2011 by Erictheblue

Christopher Hitchens is dead and every journalist who ever had a drink with him wants us to know it.  Ross Douthat, for example.  I wish this column wasn't a representative specimen of the work product of a regular New York Times op-ed columnist.  Let us take a look at some more or less randomly chosen passages and see whether it is possible to extract sense from the wheedling tone, the wordy self-regard.

  • "Intellectually minded Christians, in particular, had a habit of talking about Hitchens as though he were one of them already--a convert in the making, whose furious broadsides against God were just the prelude to an inevitable reconciliation."  The wordiness starts with the first three words.  Why not "Christian intellectuals"?  Possible explanation: somehow the more dissolute expression is less apt to cause the reader to demand of the remote author, "Name one."  The gambit here is the cousin of that editorial cliche, "Thoughtful people believe. . . ."  It's as if the author, sensing the lameness of his argument, is obliged to make it impressive by invoking deep-thinking phantoms.  When Douthat says "Intellectually minded Christians," he means: I, Ross Douthat, smart Christian.  He's the intellectually minded one who, overcome by the force of Hitchens's arguments, simply says, x = y: really, deep-down, he's one of us.  (No, he isn't.)
  • "American Christian intellectual life is sustained today, to a large extent, by the work of writers very much like Hitchens--by essayists and journalists and novelists and poets, from G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis to W.H. Auden and Eveyln Waugh, who shared his English roots, his gift for argument and his abiding humanism."  Why not Bertrand Russell and David Hume, a couple of Brits "with a gift for argument" whom Hitchens was in general agreement with on the topic under discussion?  Also, does the author realize that it is not an advertisement for the vibrancy of American Christian intellectual life to allow that nowadays it is sustained, "to a large extent," by a handful of dead Englishmen? 
  • "When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin's poem 'Aubade'--that 'death is no different whined at than withstood.'"  Oh, spare us.  Is it Douthat's point that there is a God, because he'd be depressed if there weren't?  Or that he majored in English? 
  • "Officially, Hitchens's creed was one with Larkin's.  But everything else about his life suggests that he intuited that his fellow Englishman was completely wrong to give in to despair."  What exactly is meant by "giving in to despair"?  It's not as if Larkin committed suicide, and the aforementioned Russell and Hume were somewhat ruddier than, say, Kierkegaard.  But so what?  The question is about what's true, not who's cheerful. 
  • "My hope--for Hitchens, and for all of us, the living and the dead--is that now he finally knows why [it's wrong to give in to despair]."  Only the rhetorical flourishes of unbelievers earn the epithet "happy talk." 

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